Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Live-Blogging Adventure -or- Dispassionate Journalism is Overrated

Four years ago this evening, there was a little tiny competition in Indianapolis. It involved about a dozen groups of musicians who tooted and drummed and flagged and danced. Their whole summer had been full of this activity, and as they say, it all came down to this.

As it happened, I knew personally a few of the folks involved with one particular performing group from North Carolina; and was therefore kinda pullin’ for ’em.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet and technology and such, those of us who were not in Indianapolis still got to experience the evening’s festivities, from group #1 to group #12 and then the announcements of who scored how many points.

My own particular version of the Internet, not being the fastest in the world, didn’t allow me to actually see or hear it. Video streaming was just not happening. But I had a devious method or two up my sleeve. So, wishing to put my erstwhile journalism training to work (well… sorta), I set about becoming the “pool reporter” for this event, on behalf of a number of my friends who didn’t have the fastest version of the Internet either.

The plan was to pass along the scores as they were announced. Y’know, dispassionate chronicler of events.

When I was done, I realized I’d actually broken a sweat. I was pulling for that one group pretty hard; and the intensity of the “big reveal” of Drum Corps International Finals scores at the end of the evening was a lot greater than I was expecting.

So, here’s the 21st-century equivalent, I guess, of tuning in to the radio drama and letting your imagination do the heavy lifting: behold … my Facebook post activity (and a few resultant FB Comments) from the evening of August 10, 2013.

 

The various corps presented their shows…

 

R: “So, I’ve got the official DCI Finals live blog scrolling along in one browser window and FB in another. I think this must be what it was like when all you could do was gather around the family radio.”

 

R: “DCI finals live blog commenter, re: [Santa Clara Vanguard]: ‘tempo seems to be up from the last two nights…’ • …up?!”

 

R: “From the DCI live blog, a royal announcement: ‘Live presentation of the scores will be offered FREE on the homepage DCI.org.’ At which time, the website will do its annual crash.”

 

R: “DCI live blog commenter, ‘tween corps: ‘Hearing the Cadets play Medea is so weird, since Star [of Indiana] used that in 1993, and the Cadets beat them that year. Then again, they also played Malaguena, which I am sure galled the Madison [Scouts] fans.’ … By this logic, Madison fans were angry with: every marching band in America. Hm.”

 

A friend of mine from the UMass Alumni Band days, whose niece was in a particular drum corps that night: “Getting so nervous for [Niece]!!!! Switching over to the tunnel. I just saw you, [Niece]!!!”

R: “In for 4 … out for 4 … in for 4 … out for 8 … in for 4 … out for 16 …”

 

R: “DCI live blog commenter, as [Blue Devils] finishes: ‘This is going to be a bloodbath!!!’ • DCI live blog moderator, as [Carolina] Crown enters: “The chant of ‘Let’s go Crown!’ has started in the crowd.’ • All together now: ‘This… place… is… e-…’”

 

R: “Every so often one of my non-drum-corps-watching friends posts here, … and it’s jarring!”

 

R: “[Carolina] Crown horns play, DCI live blog moderator writes: ‘Wow…that horn run back and forth and the impact of the section following it when they lay it all on the line. I can’t write the phrase I want to really use to explain my reaction to that, as I do like my job.’”

 

R: “DCI live blog moderator: ‘The crowd goes nuts! And for good reasons. Regardless of the outcome, THAT was a championship caliber performance.’ @dcihouseguyhedginghisbets”

 

R: “Hey, [Friend-With-A-Niece]… you OK over there? ;)”

FRIEND WITH A NIECE: “I’m breathing….barely.”

 

As the various corps assembled on the field for the awards retreat…

 

R: “Lemme just say this BEFORE any scores get called: I didn’t actually SEE any corps tonight. If everybody took it up a notch from Thursday night at the movies, –whoa. Good luck to everyone. Everyone’s a winner. It’s all about the audience. If you did your best, that’s all we can ask. … … Okay? Good. … … For the next twenty minutes, I am such a card-carrying member of the Sisterhood of the Purple Pants, it hurts. Get ’em Crown.”

 

FRIEND FROM THE BU BAND DAYS: “And the DCI page has crashed!!”

R: “They should have gotten the DoD tech guys involved.)”

BU BAND FRIEND: “I blame Snowden.”

R: “<*spit-take*>

 

R: “As the DCI website has apparently just crashed … *shocker* … I stand ready to reprise my role from last year as the guy with the tin can and string, posting scores from the live blog. My journalism degree, at work.”

DRUM MAJOR ACADEMY STAFF FRIEND: “I’m counting on you Dr. Rob!”

R: “I feel like I need to limber up. Arm circles!”

 

R: “No scores yet, but the Live Blog guys are taking a beating for the connectivity issues. (I know noth-ink!)”

FRIEND FROM THE UMASS ALUMNI BAND DAYS: “Ahhh! SO frustrating! I’m yelling at my computer right now… but it’s not helping!”

R: “My little fingers are hovering over the keys.”

BU BAND FRIEND: “At least the live blog is up.”

R: “I will defend that open browser window with my life.”

FRIEND FROM THE UMASS ALUMNI BAND DAYS #2: “You’re our link to the inside!”

 

Well, scoring these competitions is a complex business. Takes time. …

 

R: “If it makes anyone feel better, the Live Blog guys are blathering on inanely just the same as [DCI broadcast announcers] Rondinaro and DeLucia probably are. … ‘They’re clapping. They’re still clapping. Lots of clapping.’ … ‘Oh look, corps are marching on.’ ‘More clapping.’ … (I paraphrase.)”

 

R: “Stand by. Control-C, Control-V. Control-C, Control-V. Control-C, Control-V. Control-C, Control-V. …”

 

R: “In 13th place: ‘America the Beautiful.’ … Oh. Sorry.”

 

R: “Now [in the stadium] they’re showing a video, apparently. … … They do this on purpose, you know. #frakkers”

 

FRIEND FROM THE UMASS BAND DAYS #1: [re: what the DCI live bloggers are posting links about while the scores aren’t being announced yet] “aardvarks…. … and barn swallows.”

R: “OMG.”

 

And, at long last, here we go… blood pressure gently rising… as scores are announced approximately 30 seconds apart…

 

R: “11th, 86.40 Spirit of Atlanta”

 

R: “10th, 87.75 Blue Knights.”

 

R: “Caption awards: George Zingali Award for Best Color Guard to Blue Devils.”

 

R: “9th, 90.10 Madison Scouts”

 

R: “The top nine are 90+. Whoa.”

 

R: “John Brazale Best Visual Performance to Crown.”

 

R: “8th place, 90.40 Boston Crusaders. … Nearly caught the Cavs.”

 

DMA STAFF FRIEND #2: “Rob Hammerton is about 10 seconds ahead of [the DCI Finals “Entrance Tunnel” YouTube channel] … refresh refresh refresh” (8/10/2013)

 

R: “Jim Ott Award for Best Brass Performance to Carolina Crown. No … kidding.”

 

R: “7th place, 90.50 The Cavaliers.”

 

R: “Best Percussion Performance (Sanford Award) The Cadets”

 

R: “6th place, 93.25 Bluecoats”

 

R: “Don Angelica Best Overall GE Carolina Crown”

 

R: “5th place, 93.35 Bluecoats”

 

R: “4th place, 96.85 SCV … A 3 point spread.”

 

R: “3rd place, 96.95 The Cadets … My God, that only gets them 3rd place.”

FRIEND FROM UMASS ALUMNI BAND DAYS #3: “.1 over SCV? Scoring is crazazazy!”

 

R: “2nd place … … 98.05 Blue Devils”

R: “And Indy LOSES ITS MIND.”

R: “1st place, 98.30 Carolina Crown”

 

R: “Hey, [Friend-With-A-Niece], you can go to bed now.”

FRIEND FROM THE UMASS BAND DAYS #1: “She’s still screaming…”

 

R: “Yay performance. Yay instruction. Yay support. Not to forget, though: not for nothing are Messrs. Michael Klesch and Thom Hannum [Crown’s brass- and percussion-arrangers] in the Hall of Fame.”

 

R: “Okay, here’s a (not-) trivia question for DCI historians: Offhand, can you think of any other team of brass and percussion arrangers who have won world championships together … with two different corps? … in two different decades?”

 

R: “Hey, UMassers – this is what all the fuss was about.” [To this post, I attached My-Friend-With-A-Niece’s photo of Her Niece, who was a percussionist with Carolina Crown, along with a superimposed graphic of her corps’s final score, with a caption: “That’s my niece on the left, crying because she is a DCI WORLD CHAMPION!!!!!!!!!!”]

 

Granted, I didn’t put in the kind of physical and mental effort that any of the actual musicians did, that night … not remotely close … but I did sleep soundly.

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August 10, 2017 Posted by | drum corps, Facebook, Internet, journalism, social media, technology | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Invisible Togetherness

Foolish question: if you can’t attend to a live sporting event, election-night rally, competition, or other similar event where the outcome is in doubt … what’s the most fun other way to witness it? Sitting by yourself watching on TV? Being with a bunch of people watching on TV? Being with a bunch of people you know and love, watching on TV?

Well, obviously.

I remember a TV commercial from awhile ago that featured a man sitting on a couch in front of his living room TV, alone, rooting hard for his favorite football team to win; when the winning touchdown is shown on the TV, he jumps in the air, lets out a whoop, and tosses his snack food in the air. Then looks around awkwardly. His utter lack of companionship in that moment makes him look strange, albeit honest.

On any given election night, great numbers of people gather in a convention hall or an outdoor park somewhere, and wait nervously for election returns to come in. When the election of their candidate is official, people (who either know each other or they don’t!) hug each other and whoop and holler and generally celebrate. And the TV networks will intercut these scenes with scenes from bars and offices and lots of other places around the state or the country, with the same things happening, just on a smaller scale. When images of these smaller venues are shown, viewers are more likely to see people who might have known each other before that evening began.

Pick any World Cup soccer final, ever. No matter what national teams are involved, their fans can always be seen in pubs, on the streets, gathered around TVs or radios, wearing their national colors, waving flags, sometimes hanging out of moving cars while waving flags. And when one team wins … that’s when the show really begins.

Before about eight years ago, though, if you wanted to get together with friends and stress out over a suspenseful game or election (or reality show), you had to conspire to physically meet up with them all. It took work. And people who lived far away were out of luck.

Before social media technology, all we could do was get together in restaurants, or in each other’s living rooms.

Whew. Stone Age.

In January 1986, as a sophomore at Umass-Amherst, I repaired with seven or eight of my friends to one of their dorm rooms to watch the New England Patriots’ first-ever Super Bowl appearance, against the Chicago Bears. We were all very excited. Lots of snack foods and cheering, for the first fifteen minutes or so. When it became clear that the Bears were going to administer a ferocious beating, we sadly drifted into other conversations and the TV became just background noise. But it was fun to hang out together on that first weekend back from break, anyway.

One Saturday night in October 1986, I sat on a high school gym floor and watched, along with 239 of my closest friends, the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox engage in what is now one of the more re-broadcast World Series games in baseball history. The UMass band was on a weekend road trip, and the director had brought along new technology – a projection TV! – so we could watch a wall-sized TV picture of the game from the comfort of our sleeping bags. Every half-inning, a different half of the band was prepared to throw themselves off the nearby bleachers as their favorite team threw away a chance to win. We were probably about 40 percent Mets fans, 40 percent Sox fans, and 20 percent “so very tired wanna do lights-out and get some sleep”. When that fateful ground ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs and Game Six went to the Mets, band people in that gym commiserated, or celebrated (or rolled over, I guess); I wish more photos of the proceedings existed. No question: it was quite a scene.

 

This past Saturday night, I was part of a gathering of a significant subset of my official list of friends – the ones who follow drum and bugle corps. I couldn’t see any of those friends, though.

In order to participate, I parked myself in front of my computer, opened a Web browser window to the Drum Corps International official website, specifically the webpage devoted to a live-blog of the season’s final competition … opened another browser window to my Facebook page … and settled in.

A year beforehand, I had also done this, and experienced an odd but pleasant sense of invisible togetherness. This year, though, the summer’s competitions had been fiercely fought, and there were an awful lot of people who were rooting uncommonly hard for one or two particular 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 instructors; we knew people who had created the musical scores or choreography being performed all summer and that night. Some of us (certainly not me) had marched with those groups, or some drum corps at some time, and had a extra-special understanding of the kind of desperately wonderful stress of Finals.

A couple of my friends were actually on the grounds of the competition, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and were able to do a little genuine journalism (including, in one case, a running tally of the number of standing ovations her favorite group was receiving, as they happened). The niece of a college band alumni friend was a member of the corps that was working doggedly to reclaim first place from another corps which had caught up to them within the last week of the season. That friend was watching in the way any proud aunt would watch – and several people were periodically checking in with her, there on Facebook, to make sure the suspense had not in fact killed her.

I kept the live-blog page open constantly, and not just because it was my only connection to Finals. Last summer, just as the scores for the 12 competing corps were to be announced, the demand on the DCI website was so intense that it crashed the thing. By way of having maintaining that live-blog page’s activity (seemingly, if I’d closed the window, I couldn’t have re-connected), I had inadvertently became a combination of Dan Rather and Paul Revere – trying to help keep my friends, who couldn’t get the website to load, updated. One if by land … two if by sea … in ninth place, with a score of 86-point-something, the Madison Scouts. I posted each score on my Facebook page for people to see, as the official live-blog webpage was revealing it.

All over the country and in some other parts of the world, lots of my friends sat at their computers and filled in the sound of the crowd applauding, inside their own heads. And posted comments and thoughts and reactions, and read everyone else’s. And Liked them. And commented on them. Social media technology plus imagination equalled, well, not quite the same effect as if we’d been at the local watering hole watching the 60-inch TV in the corner, but near enough.

So this year was likely to be a repeat of last summer’s thriller finish, and then some.

It was an electronic version of a 1930s family gathering around the radio in the living room. Especially since the online video-feed package offered by DCI (in exchange for a significant outlay of money) was glitch-filled to start the evening, settled down for most of the rest of it, but took a flying header for good just as scores were about to be announced. Again. Okay, no picture. Unless one could’ve gotten DCI’s audio-only YouTube channel to load, no sound either. So now this wasn’t even radio … it was storytelling. It was the Pony Express, sort of. It was the Greek army’s advance scout, the fellow who ran the first marathon, returning with news of the enemy invasion. It was that series of mountaintop beacons in the last “Lord of the Rings” movie.

Meanwhile, my live-blog page was still … live. And offering details of the competition, thanks to two gentlemen in the Lucas Oil Stadium press box who were pecking away at their laptops, posting observations and remarks and the occasional digital photo of the field.

All right, then … another chance for public service, sorta.

 

No scores yet,” I posted, “but the Live Blog guys are taking a beating [from their online commenters] for the connectivity issues.” Replied a friend, “I’m yelling at my computer right now… but it’s not helping!” Commented another, “At least the live blog is up.” I typed, “I will defend that open browser window with my life.” Almost instantly, little on-screen flags appeared, letting me know that two online friends had liked my comment, almost simultaneously.

Finally, after the kind of pregnant pauses and video montages which impress the DCI Board of Directors and infuriate fans who just wanna know the scores (irked Facebook posts on my screen: “Now they’re showing a video, apparently. … They do this on purpose, you know.” “I just want to go to sleep. Please just get on with it!”) … the live-blog began to post scores just after the stadium announcer had announced them. Feverishly I moused back and forth between my live-blog window and my Facebook page. Control-C … Control-V … hit “return” on the keyboard and post. Rinse, and repeat.

11th, 86.40 Spirit of Atlanta.” Twenty seconds later: “10th, 87.75 Blue Knights.”

8th place, 90.40 Boston Crusaders.” I added a comment beneath that post: “Nearly caught the Cavs.” Which almost made me late for the next announcement – quick! Copy-paste-post: “Jim Ott Award for Best Brass Performance to Carolina Crown. No kidding.” That last sentence fragment was mine, not the DCI live-blog’s … and the bottom of my screen exploded with little Notification flags. People Liked that post. People commented on one of my previous posts. And another. I gave up trying to read the text of the various comments – they were coming in too fast. I don’t say this to make anyone think I was particularly Like-able – it’s just that there were so many of my Friends all watching their News Feeds at once and all reacting to things in the same moment. The equivalent would have been a sports pub full of friends, all making comments and laughing at them and nodding and high-fiving … you know … in person.

No time to consider the lofty philosophical implications. More scores, and now we’re getting closer to the important ones. “5th place, 93.35 Bluecoats.” Copy, paste. “3rd place, 96.95 The Cadets”, I posted; and added a comment expressing amazement that nearly 97 out of 100 didn’t get them win or place, only show. An instant after I posted that, a friend’s comment sprang into view below it: “.1 over SCV? Scoring is crazy!” More flags. More Likes. More comments. No time. Work to do.

And then a longer pause. The announcement of the runner-up reveals, by process of elimination, the identity of the Champion. The moment of truth is actually not the final score announcement. More pause. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Ping. New live-blog post. Copy, paste. Then read. And catch one’s breath:

2nd place, 98.05 Blue Devils.”

The corps that so many of us were pulling for … had not had their name called. Our sentimental favorite … was the actual winner.

In my mind – and, I’d have sworn, outside my mind as well – I heard the stadium crowd in Indianapolis react. I’d seen or heard the crowd reaction to the runner-up announcement when DCI Finals was in nearby Foxboro in 1994. When half an NFL football stadium full of drum corps fans endures long minutes of suspense, and then is allowed to let loose, that sound is like very few others in the world. My imagination filled it in. Quickly I posted something which was not from the DCI live-blog.

And Indy LOSES ITS MIND.”

So did my News Feed.

Ping, ping, ping, like silent firecrackers going off. “Crown!” “#purplepantsband !!!!” “Carolina Crown wins!” “YES!!!” “They did it!” (My drum corps fan friends do have a little perspective. No one posted “I can die happy.” That’s a Red Sox or Cubs kind of thing.)

Copy, paste. Sit back in chair and relax for the first time in a solid half an hour, or half a day, or half a summer.

1st place, 98.30 Carolina Crown.”

I took a moment to post in the direction of my now undoubtedly proud and madly-dancing friend whose niece was, no doubt, also proud and madly dancing. “Hey … you can go to bed now.”

I felt just as cheerily drained as I would have, had I been standing in a tavern – admittedly, the weirdest tavern in America, if it’d chosen to put a drum corps show on the big TV in the corner instead of the Sox game or a Keno scoreboard. There was no one in my house with whom I could trade high-fives or incredulous silly grins. But I watched my News Feed, read the posts, threw a few of my own in, Liked some comments … and gradually, like a sports bar emptying out after the walk-off home run has been hit and the postgame interviews are underway, my Facebook page calmed down. Then I realized … I had broken a sweat. I felt as if I’d done some actual physical heavy lifting.

I was physically alone – but also surrounded by friends, and sharing a moment with them. Even though they were five, ten, fifty, five hundred, three thousand miles away.

It may take a while for me to wrap my head around the aforementioned lofty philosophical implications.

 

I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interactions. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

-Albert Einstein

 

As smart a guy as Prof. Einstein was, and a wise one, too … still, technology is neither good or bad. It’s what you do with it. In this case, we made it work for us, creating a gathering of, by my rough and wholly unscientific estimate, easily more than a couple hundred people. We all experienced an event together, and the technology didn’t surpass our human interactions – it made them feel real enough.

And, not counting the mad jumping around that a lot of us did, virtually and physically, when the Finals results were announced … I didn’t feel at all like I was surrounded by a pack of idiots.

August 12, 2013 Posted by | blogging, drum corps, Facebook, friends, Internet, journalism, media, music, social media, technology, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

August 10, 2012 Posted by | arts, drum corps, entertainment, marching band, music, science fiction, sports | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments