Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Swagger

If you’ve been near a television in the past two weeks, you may have noticed an athletic competition happening. We’ve seen many examples of extraordinary physical and mental achievements – fast running, heavy lifting, graceful spinning; teams of people scoring more points than other teams of people, folks hitting heights that most of us will never attain.

After a 100-meter dash, the winning runner will often look up into the sea of spectator faces and smile or shout; chests will be thumped, fists will be raised. At the Olympics, it’s a special sort of demonstration. In professional sports leagues, it happens also; sometimes I react well but other times I wonder if the accomplishment was quite so cataclysmic as to warrant all that strutting.

Usually a baseball player has an idea how far he’s just a hit a ball, and when the ball ends up 500 feet away from home plate, well, how many people can do that? A little strut might be called for. (Sometimes, as the hitter admires his work, I’m righteously amused when the ball merely scrapes the outfield wall and the home run trot turns into a desperate scrambling bid not to be thrown out at second base. That may be just hubristic, but not fatal, miscalculation of scale.) Occasionally, on the other hand, a hitter may take what seems like an hour and a half to approach the plate, execute his preparation routine, and stare down the pitcher and the world – only to swing wildly at consecutive three pitches and head back to the dugout. And often, on the way back to the dugout, the hitter stares defiantly at the world anyway. I was just called up from the minors. That should be enough for you all. The Pinch Hitter Rises.

So, a couple of examples of swagger. The first is earned. The second is unearned.

In music, for me, earned swagger is the conductor of a major symphony orchestra striding to the podium and leading the ensemble through a masterful performance of a challenging work. Afterward, the audience stands and applauds and at least subconsciously muses, “Gotta hand it to her: she knows that piece inside and out, and she’s got that outfit hitting on all cylinders.”

Unearned swagger, conversely, looks like the garage band guitarist who muscles his way to the edge of the stage, looking like he thinks he’s the second coming of Pete Townsend … and after he takes his solo, educated listeners have no doubt that he’s not. And he yields the spotlight to the lead singer, still looking like he thinks he’s the second coming of Pete Townsend.

More concisely: earned swagger looks like Chuck Barris hosting “The Gong Show”. Unearned swagger is a good number of “Gong Show” contestants.

So. Which people in the world, performers or not, have I been briefly tempted not to give the time of day? The ones who strut down the street or the school hallway, preening and barking like the unearned-swagger-laden pop culture icons we’re all constantly exposed to, daring the world to question their cool. I am Da Bomb, y’all.

Last night, I made my annual pilgrimage to a movie theater showing the live satellite feed of the national quarterfinal competition of drum and bugle corps. I was in time to see the last eight groups, and therefore saw the pinnacle of ability and achievement in American marching music. There are great college bands out there, who prepare fine musical and visual shows in between bursts of academic work. The United States military contains ensembles that, as you might expect, do what they do very well. But in the summer drum corps activity, organizations take many fall and winter months to design a musical and visual program, prepare that program on many weekends in the winter and spring, and rehearse and perform the program nearly constantly, for many hours a day, every day, late June to mid-August – such that when it’s time for Quarterfinals At The Movies (or, as Drum Corps International calls it, “Big Loud and Live”), the envelope has been pushed hard, and the very skilled performers are hugely polished.

So. There’s this drum corps called the Blue Devils. They’re a perennial favorite and winner of 14 of the 39 DCI titles handed out so far (this year’s competition will be decided tomorrow night). For a considerable chunk of their history, they’ve played mostly jazz, and have only once in 39 years finished lower than fourth place (fifth, one single time), in an activity that begins its final tournament week with a field of 25 corps. For the past several years, though, they’ve presented programs that have caused some audiences (myself included) to appreciate their talents but to question how effectively their performances have connected with their audience from an entertainment (“general effect”) perspective.

Drum corps is evaluated on seemingly shifting sands: corps “A” can play music of, say, the Beatles, perform very well, light up the crowd, and place in the lower half of the finals-night top-12. And then corps “B” can play music of, say, Bela Bartok … strike an audience as impressive but not wildly “jump-out-of-your-seat-and-dance-and-clap-along”-grade entertainment … perform at a higher technical level than corps “A” … and win the night.

(Collectively, the various corps perform such different styles of music that it isn’t fair to judge on content, except to note whether a particular style or repertoire is either too ambitious or not challenging enough for a corps’ talent level. A judge shouldn’t score a Phantom Regiment classical music show higher than a Madison Scouts show full of the music of Gershwin just because s/he likes classical music better.

(So, in spite of recent DCI attempts to increase the effect of “general effect” scores on the overall results, and thus give a nod to its fan base – paying customers – drum corps get judged largely not on what they do, but how well they do it. Seems fair.)

Lately, the Blue Devils have been corps “B”. When you can’t think of any more drum corps tricks to invent, you have to start pushing the envelope of program design. The general perceived average fan response to the Devils’ envelope-pushing (excluding, of course, lifelong Blue Devil fans and alumni, who have the perfect right to love their corps unconditionally) seems to have been a collective head-scratch. Three years ago, the Devils’ show title was “Constantly Risking Absurdity”, which may give you an idea of the direction they’ve taken. But they’ve gone through the vast majority of the last few years undefeated. As in, next to nobody can score higher than they do on any given night. The level at which they play is such that any corps that wants to beat them has to be at the absolute top of its game, in design and execution. Last year they placed second, and it took a Herculean effort by a little group called the Cadets to make that happen.

This year their show was a musical examination of the “Dada” philosophy. Huh? On a football field? Dada, the philosophy described as having rejected reason and logic, and prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition? That Dada? Well … okay. We’ll give it a try, I guess. (Or, for drum corps fans: did the Velvet Knights corner that market decades ago?)

To be fair, there were some genuinely entertaining Blue Devil moments last night. The opening music, from the movie “Apollo 13”, would have been utterly grand if it hadn’t been accompanied by a pre-recorded Frenchman describing Dadaism. And for about 45 seconds midway through their show, they planted themselves in the middle of the field and laid down a big-band-orchestrated set of Charlie Parker-esque licks that made me think, “that’s the Blue Devils I miss so much.”

I admit it. I was rooting hard for the corps that placed second last night. If any group had a chance to slip past the Blue Devils, Carolina Crown was it; but they couldn’t quite. And through all that rooting, I had to concede: the Devils do what they do – whatever the hell it is – very, very, very well. But I couldn’t quite articulate it until the announcer of the show used one very apt, relatively simple word.

Confidence.

The Devils take the field, and perform their show, with an air of confidence. Not that other corps don’t go out there and do their thing with authority … but the Devils silently say “we are going to play, and dance, and throw, and maneuver, some challenging stuff, and you may not grasp all of it, and you may well be entertained by some of it, but no matter what, we got this.” I bet they do that at their very first performance of the season, when the show is new and the bugs are still being worked out. It’s swagger. And I guess if you’ve won 14 times out of 39, that winning percentage earns you a bit of swagger.

As I left the theater, I thought, “whether I like their show or not, it’s going to take more than a mere mortal drum corps to beat them this year.” And then it hit me. With all respect to many of the excellent corps out there (and the friends and colleagues of mine who labor on their behalf), of course …

The Devils may well be the X-Men of drum corps.

They look like the rest of us. They have instruments like the rest of ours. They perform on the same football field as the rest of us. They … well, they used to wear uniforms that looked like the rest of ours. (This year they started out wearing some very, well, Dada outfits, let’s just say that.) But for whatever reason, they perform at an almost supernaturally high level.

Maybe it’s their organization’s philosophy, or design strategies, or rehearsal tactics, or recruiting standards, or the way they simultaneously push (hard) and value (greatly) their members; maybe their long and storied and successful history plays into all this. (And I know nothing of the specifics of any of these, nor do I say this to downplay the operating principles of any other successful corps.)

Last night, a technical problem with the satellite feed caused theater audiences to miss two of the earlier performing corps, so their shows were replayed after the Devils performed. It was a make-good for the paying customers, but it turned out to reveal a stark contrast. The two “make-up” performances were terrific, well executed and well planned, enjoyable to watch, with many entertaining moments. Even seven or eight years ago, they would have been title-winners. In the game of drum corps, they were performing at a high level.

It’s just that the Devils may be playing a slightly different game nowadays.

There’s an air of quiet confidence that the X-Men series’ character “Magneto” exudes when he walks into a room and knows, knows, that no one in the room can stop him from succeeding. This analogy falters a bit because the Blue Devils aren’t an evil supervillain here, but perhaps you see where I’m going …

The Devils move with confidence. With earned swagger. We got this.

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August 10, 2012 - Posted by | arts, drum corps, entertainment, marching band, music, science fiction, sports | , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Rob-love this post.

    Having gone head-to-head with the Blue Devils, albeit 30 years ago (whoa…I’m getting old), I can tell you that their confidence is well-earned and established from the moment their membership makes their first dues payment. Both SCV and BD had an “air” about them that can only be best described as you put it above. Could be a California thing…

    However, I can tell you that as much as we respected and admired them, they returned the favor. Among those that participate, there is a healthy respect and a sheer sense of wonderment and awe in the tricks that drill designers can pull-off on the field, and those young adults that make such a vision the realty. I remember many warm-ups and competitions where we openly applauded for, and were applauded by, other corps. Respect and good sportsmanship abounds, and makes victory taste much sweeter.

    I miss those days.

    Comment by Eric | August 10, 2012 | Reply

  2. Perhaps another movie character analogy works too, from Pulp Fiction. “Hello ma’am. I’m Winston Wolf. I fix problems.”

    When I was in drum corps (also 30+ years ago, getting old too!), someone told me the secret to a great performance is to make the hard things looks easy, and make the easy things look hard. That’s not as simple as it sounds, of course, but it strikes me as right in line with what you’ve said here, and I think I actually have a better understanding of it having read your post.

    Comment by Steve Robinson | August 14, 2012 | Reply


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