Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Who Am I To Judge?

We have arrived at the time of year wherein we pass judgment upon the drum and bugle corps activity, since they’ve all arrived in Indianapolis to duke it out amongst themselves, all the while being marketed as the state-of-the-art in marching music. Last night they put it “Big Loud and Live” on cinema screens across the US … and if you do that sort of thing, you have to expect to hear opinions. So here I go … because I can.

(Also because this year, I’m kinda invested in a group or two, thanks to having friends and colleagues amongst their ranks. So remember: opinions are like armpits. Everybody’s got them, and sometimes they stink. Forewarned is forearmed.)


As the movie-house version of the big drum corps show began, early last night, a thought occurred: the top six or seven corps have gotten flat-out ridiculous in terms of talent pool and performance output, but this hasn’t diluted the product from corps #8 and below. Twelfth-place corps performances from 25 years ago contain definite musical deficiencies. I bet this year’s #15 show would place in the top 6 easily, if it traveled back in time to, say, 1985.

Corps #15 (as ranked going into the evening’s activity): Pacific Crest. First time I’d ever seen them. Solid sound, solid look. This is fifteenth place? A good evening ahead, I thought.

Corps #14: Troopers. Love ’em. Entertaining all the way. They were proof that you all you need is a cowboy tune, the Battle Hymn, and a sunburst, and you have a crowd favorite.

Corps #13: Crossmen. With “Protest”, a deeper thematic concept than the Troopers’, and that’s okay for each group. Lots of fun when the Crossmen horns decide to lay it out there. How ironic is it that one of those moments was “The Sound of Silence”?

Corps #12: Blue Stars. First the Houdini show, now a “voodoo” show. All right; they like the creepy. I wish they’d made a bigger deal out of “I Put a Spell On You”, as long as it was on the set list. And I wonder if they were just a little miffed that they ended up a point-plus behind…

Corps #11: Spirit of Atlanta. Was it tempting fate to run video of the legendary 1980 Atlanta “Sweet Georgia Brown” before the current corps took the field and tried it? I think if you’re going to “reclaim your history”, you need to reclaim more than 15 seconds of it at the end of a show. (Side note: the bass drum heads featured someone peering through a speakeasy door-slot. Problem: every time they showed the bass drum line, it looked like the drummers were hitting that face right between the eyes. Whoops.)

Corps #10: Blue Knights. Good thing they reportedly added lots more of Pat Metheny’s “First Circle” to their closing statement – it was great, and it moved the corps out of the world of odd performance art, just in time. But the BK show this year is exactly, exactly the kind of swirly, mysterious, modern-dance, interpret-it-how-you-like show that causes the 70-something drum corps vets in the audience to mutter about the good old days. Some nights, I’m not sure I blame them.

Corps #9: Boston Crusaders. I went from “what in the world is this?” with the corps running and stumbling out of the tunnel covered in faux explosion debris, looking for all the world (and frankly a little bit too much) like we were right back in the middle of 9/11 again, to “I need to see that show again”. Great nod to “Conquest” in the final three chords. Loved the moment when the corps’ historical-but-glum grey jackets came off and oh! there was all the Crusader red fabric that had gone missing! (Was I the only person in the room who didn’t see that coming? Yeah, probably.)

Corps #8: Madison Scouts. Three years ago I remember thinking, “and this is a young corps. Just wait till they mature a little bit; they’ll be something to deal with.” Well: the future is now. There’s no hesitation in the sound or the movement. The most resonant moment: of course, the General-Effect-point-guaranteeing finish. Yes, I know – all the corps have their corps songs. And yes, I know they all are meaningful to corps members and alumni. But when the Scouts fire up “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and the Scouts alums in the crowd instantly stand and sing, and one of the Scouts’ drum majors pointedly turns around and gets the rest of the audience singing … UMass band people, back me up on this one, if you agree: “YNWA” might qualify as the only such song in all of DCI that has the same effect on the ensemble membership, alumni and the general public as UMass’ “My Way” has.

Corps #7: Cavaliers. I will cheerfully suggest that, considering what they looked like in late June, the Cavs have a lock on Most Improved Corps. Interesting to hear their show designer admit that during his pre-show interview. Now, if only some of the visual elements of the “secret society” theme, both seen on the field and mentioned by that show designer and mentioned by the drum major in the post-show interview, didn’t feel so strongly like (and didn’t seem to glorify), to me, rituals we’ve come to recognize as bullying and hazing.

[ An aside: this may sound somewhere between odd and a opportunity for a criminal background check. But: the Scouts and Cavaliers were the first corps after the intermission. As Corps #6 entered the field, I realized with a lurch that for about half an hour of show, I had really missed – not even really the sight – but the sense of women being on the field playing horns and drums and tossing equipment around, moving just as fast and working just as hard as their male counterparts. Maybe it was a bit of time travel back to the early- or mid-20th century, when women in the activity were far less prevalent. Nice to be back in these modern times. ]

Corps #6: Phantom Regiment. They just keep plugging away every year, tossing out those trumpet section runs … and that super-expressive guard … and that chevron drill set … and those quotes from classical literature that are more than just quotes, they’re actual selections with length … and they rarely miss the target, in my book. Also, PR felt like the first corps since Atlanta that didn’t seem like all angry brow-furrowing music all the time. I want to see this show again, because it struck me as just very sweet.

Corps #5: Bluecoats. Interesting to watch. But, pre-show, the show designer described the show’s theme as being an allegory about people wanting to come to America and fit in – an immigration show? If so, it was a harsh tale. So the color guard represented people who wanted in, while the brass and percussion were mean to them and tried to shut them out, until the end? It was a nasty moment when a little guard girl holding a balloon looked inquiringly at a quad player, and the quad player flung a flam-a-ca-bubble-GAK at her and strutted away – “no, you can’t join our reindeer games”.

Corps #4: Santa Clara Vanguard. Unfair of the announcers to suggest that SCV 2013’s “Les Miserables” had a chance to make people forget SCV 1989’s Phantom of the Opera show. “Phantom” was a chip-on-the-shoulder show for the ages, borne of a dogged need to win with this show, a show that had been beaten in a photo-finish the year before, so damn it we’ll put it back out there and show ’em all. “Les Miz” was well done, with some nice effects musically and visually … and, mercifully, it was a show full of tunes we know. But considering all the corps that were playing angry music in the same discontented way … here, ironically, was one that I thought needed to be playing angry and wasn’t. Even the sad songs seemed like celebrations. (Friends, there’s a reason why the name of the book, play and movie was “The Miserable Ones”.)

Corps #3: Cadets. I like them best when they’re playing challenging American music – Bernstein, Copland, and this year’s Samuel Barber repertoire. Odd to think that the Cadets were the first group in TWENTY YEARS to go after Medea’s Dance Of A Tenuous Grip On Sanity. Such an achievement was Star of Indiana’s 1993 “Medea” production that the Cadets might be the only people I’d want to see try it. So we now have proof that Star was at least 15 years ahead of its time in all phases of the game.

Also odd to think that the Cadets, of all people, might have been the one group that played an “old school” corps show. Creative drill that was still uncluttered … a minimum of extra electronic special effects … and music (especially the bookend treatments of “Adagio for Strings”) that on multiple occasions was allowed to have its moment as a beautiful thing, without being rushed offstage in favor of the latest Stupid Drum Corps Trick. Irony: as much of a reputation as the Cadets’ director has for advocating electronics and all kinds of other tradition-busting rules changes … his corps did a lot last night to anchor the activity in its honorable past.


Corps #2: Carolina Crown. I want to be wrong about this: Crown’s 2013 show could end up as the finest second-place show ever. What a vast number of people are saying (and I have the privilege of knowing the guy who wrote the brass score, which might reveal me as biased, and I am, so sue me) is this: Oh, My Lord, That Horn Line. The music they are playing, the way they are playing it – wildly difficult brass music being played together across ridiculous field spreads and with actual musical expression – caused me to think to myself throughout the show: Holy. Screaming. Jehosephat.

An aside: Let’s not confuse brass quality and depth with volume, even if the two can occur together. To paraphrase a recent candidate for public office in New York City: the Drum Corps Is Too Damn Loud. If I played tuba or bass drum, I would hope to be forgiven for thinking maybe I was just out there for show. With a gigantic subwoofer on either side of the pit, every time most of the corps set up for any kind of mid-major impact, somebody in the pit basically rammed the low end of the sound electronically down my throat with the sonic force of an 3.6 earthquake. By the time I got to Corps #4 last night, my head hurt. Not metaphorically – actually.

So I was pleased that when Crown made a brass statement, the statement sounded chiefly like acoustic brass. And Crown made statements all over the field. Any corps that can take the music of Philip Glass, for heaven’s sake, and make you want more of it when they’re done, can make you root for guard kids portraying two lovers sitting on a park bench, even without an overt boy-meets-and-loses-and-wins-again-girl story, can make you care … deserves to be richly rewarded. Crown are a very attractive group.

And yet …

Corps #1: Blue Devils. I am steeling myself for the likelihood that that the Devils may lift the trophy again this year. Doggedly, they’ve pulled even with Crown, and climbed ahead of them in the last few contests – after Crown had exploded out of the gate in June.

The Devils have put together their usual 21st-century presentation. Whether people understand their show or not, whether they like their show or not, they cannot deny that this corps executes at a level that few performing groups can achieve, and makes it look effortless. While I acknowledge this … and they’re probably fine human beings … their “Rewrite of Spring” show, to me, came off as soul-less.

Lookit what we can do. Listen to this. Check this out.” … Yes, impressive from a technical standpoint.

But to what end?

Throughout their show, I kept waiting for that warm fuzzy feeling somewhere between my heart and my throat that I get when a corps goes beyond technical merit and gets to artistic merit – from “oh, that’s cool” to “oh, that means something to me”. No luck. I wondered if I was looking at the the difference between executing and performing.

The Blue Devils didn’t make me care about Stravinsky a toot.


So, I guess … a question for the judging community. We’ve invented a point system that reaches down into hundredths of points, to guard against those accursed ties. Someone has to win. Someone has to be judged to be better. And last night, the Blue Devils topped Crown tonight by fifteen one-hundredths of a point. If you like it in digits, that’s 0.15. Out of a hundred points, take one of them, chop it up into ten little bits; grab one of those bits, plus half of another. Set up your electron microscope, and let’s get to work.

What’s the difference between a 97.20 corps and a 97.05 corps? Especially if they’re not playing the same exact score, doing the same exact visual work, marching the same exact drill?

As we do with Olympic figure skating, and diving, and gymnastics, we’re trying to quantify the unquantifiable. We’re asking human judges – who are irrevocably stuck inside their own heads, with their own individual and subjective understandings – to measure the level of execution and the degree of general-effectiveness by using numbers. Can mere numbers reflect a concept as fleeting, as undefinable, as unscientifically measureable as that warm fuzzy feeling of “…yes.” …? Should they be expected to?

I only stuck around for the scores because, again, I have friends and colleagues in a couple of corps and I wanted to see how they did. I admit it: I wanted to see if they won.

And then after I got home, I read the online commentary from lots and lots of friends of mine, who were also rooting for one particular group … and even though the group we were pulling for missed first place by 0.15 points … clearly they’d won a whole lot of people over.

So which would you rather be? The name on the trophy? Or “second-place but first-place in our hearts”?

In this time and place, that’s a hard question.


August 9, 2013 - Posted by | arts, drum corps, entertainment, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Rob-as always, your analysis is insightful and on point, and often makes me go “hmmmm…”, but I dare suggest that although the 27th Lancers no longer exist on the competition field, “Danny Boy” was YNWA and still gives me goosebumps, especially the 1981 edition.

    I miss the old-school style…this is not the drum corps activity I knew and loved…

    Comment by Eric | August 9, 2013 | Reply

    • I’ll the first to admit that my knowledge of pre-DCI drum corps is paltry at best, so I can always use a little help from my friends. Sad, since the Lancers are right in my backyard, comparatively speaking, and I ought to have recalled at least that one “Danny Boy” example, having been in Foxboro in ’94. Even from my seat, two steps outside the goal line!, it was a heck of a moment.

      Comment by rhammerton1 | August 9, 2013 | Reply

  2. […] corps. [The specific details of the battle at the top of that leaderboard are contained in my blog post from last week.] We knew people who were on the field marching; we knew people who were their […]

    Pingback by Invisible Togetherness « Editorial License | August 12, 2013 | Reply

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