The Winds of Change

On a recent episode of Marching Roundtable, the hosts spoke with George Hopkins, director of the Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps, about a controversial idea that would change the very core of drum corps as we know it: Adding woodwinds.

I'm going to lay all of my biases on the table up front: I tend to be a relatively staunch traditionalist when it comes to drum corps, despite not having the longevity as a fan to hearken back to said traditions. When electronics entered the activity, I remained pro acoustic instrumentation. I would welcome a return to high knees, marching timpani, and G bugles. As such, it should stand to no surprise that I'm no fan of the concept of woodwinds in drum corps. That said, it was my intent to listen to Hopkins' proposal with as open a mind as possible.

I'll also note that Hopkins has at times been vilified as everything that is wrong with the activity currently, largely unfairly, because he is willing to think outside the box and challenge the status quo. I'll admit I have at times been the voice of the vilification, but still it was not my intent to devalue the potential message because of its messenger.

I will start out by saying that I was pleasantly surprised, through the course of the podcast to find that Hopkins and I agreed on far more than we disagreed. He brought up many salient points about where the activity stands now and the need for change to the status quo and some of the economics driving that need. It is instantly evident that he is truly passionate about drum corps and wants to ensure its survival, and he believes that the addition of woodwinds is a change that would make the product more viable. Hopkins proposes to add 56 (a busload) woodwind players to corps, which would increase corps limits to 206. He also notes that 63% of band members are woodwinds and that we exclude a significant portion of the population by limiting the activity to brass, percussion, and guard.

A key part of Hopkins' argument is that drum corps needs to be intimately tied in with music education and showing that we truly care, not just say we care, about music education, is key to drum corps' sustenance. He also pointed out that drum corps are non-profits not because they are drum corps, but because they help kids. Host Tim Hinton suggested that it was possible to care without marching woodwinds; one area where I rolled my eyes a bit was "what would you tell that 63% of students in the band why they can't be in your organization?" I think that framing this as an access issue rings hollow, especially when there are some pretty solid access issues--financial being among the largest--in drum corps. To answer the question of what I would tell the students, I'd say pick up a horn, drum, flag, rifle, or sabre and seek to join an organization, or enjoy from the stands. I fall short of believing participation in a top-flight World Class corps is a right; many lack the skill or resources to participate on that level. He did point out that there aren't any opportunities for woodwind players to participate at such a high level. He's right, of course, but that doesn't make the case that drum corps needs to become that venue. I would love to see professional/high level marching bands come into being, but not at the expense of drum corps. It's also worth noting that an excellent opportunity for "going pro" on such instruments exists in the armed forces.

The 63% of musicians who are woodwinds players was also used to point out that this is a potential growth area, but that suggests that woodwinds players are not currently attending shows. It has been my experience that when high school bands attend drum corps shows, they come as a band, not simply as brass, percussion, and guard units. The appropriate analogy, then, isn't that woodwind players will now be at shows, but that drum corps, which will become marching band as most know it, will begin to draw crowds like marching band as we know it. Last I checked, this is comparable to, if not less than, what drum corps currently draws. What's further, Hopkins acknowledges that we will alienate a portion of drum corps fans by making such a bold change. Are we sure that that which we will attract is worth that which we will lose?

While examining the multiculturalism aspect, Hopkins went into the fact that drum corps aren't necessarily playing the music that folks want to hear, citing specifically hip hop before drawing references to music that he played when marching. Again, this isn't a flaw with the absence of woodwinds, but with the manner in which cprps program shows. I believe that the marching arts should borrow from one another, and DCI would do well to take a page from HBCU and other college marching bands in this respect. After all, music is to thrill an audience.

The next thing I say isn't going to make a whole lot of drum corps fans happy, but deep down, each one knows it to be true. A drum corps is a marching band. Sure we don't call it that. It's too common. A drum corps is a highly specialized marching unit made of brass, percussion, guard, unicorns, and lightning! No, while the makeup is different than what we consider typical, and at least that which we know as DCI considers itself "Marching Music's Major League," the fact remains that a drum corps is a type of marching band. I say that to say this: Hopkins postulates that drum corps are missing out on potential sponsorship opportunities because while "marching band" is a common concept to which potential benefactors can related, "drum corps" doesn't have the same name recognition. There is nothing preventing someone making a presentation, elevator speech, or otherwise selling the drum corps experience from using the term "marching band". It isn't a lie, or even misleading. It's calling a spade a spade.

Finally, and perhaps this should have been first: Making drum corps and scholastic bands homogenous would lead to the extinction of drum corps as we know it. This may sound like hyperbole, but consider that as it stands, drum corps is a unique art form. To make it identical to a related form would mean the death or near death of the construct of drum and bugle corps. I, frankly, am not ready to see that happen.

So while I enjoyed the podcast and appreciated George Hopkins bringing forth a plan that he knows is perhaps the hottest button in drum corps, I didn't feel he made a compelling case for why woodwinds must be added. What do you think?


Tim Hinton said…
This is a very thoughtful and interesting follow-up to our podcast on the Marching Roundtable. We started our podcast to "get people talking" and hopefully bring some of those "back alley" conversations into the light. You're definitely helping with that as well, and I appreciate your thoughtful response. I love that everyone is talking, and maybe some solutions to DCI's issues will come forth.
Curtis said…
It certainly did get people talking! Thank you and your co-hosts for being willing to have the tough conversations, and I appreciate George Hopkins for being willing to come on and lay it on the line. We can't hope for the art form to advance if we're not willing to talk about it candidly.