The Intellectual vs. the Common fan: How drum corps is caught in the middle

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I wanted to dig deeper into the how and why design and general effect are developed and how they come together in the modern age of the pageantry arts. Ultimately, I wanted to help create a better way to define and understand GE. We talk about when designs fail and we talk about when designs succeed and break new barriers. What we don’t often discuss is when a design does or doesn’t find a connection to its audience.

In many ways, drum corps parallels the real-life drama being played out in our present environment. This is far beyond the Democrats vs. Republicans and the Conservative vs. Liberal. I am referring to the division between the intellectual and what some might refer to as the common man.

“Intellectuals tell us things we need to know: how nature and society work, what happened in our past, how to analyze concepts, how to appreciate art and literature. They also keep us in conversation with the great minds of our past. This conversation may not, as some hope, tap into a source of enduring wisdom, but it at least provides a critical standpoint for assessing the limits of our current cultural assumptions.” ~ Gary Gutting. NY Times, 2011

Those who do not exist within the intellectual sphere view intellectuals as snobs and the common man feels that they are being looked down upon and viewed as less cultured, less intelligent and less open-minded. More importantly, they do not want to be told how to think or what they even should be thinking about. They do not want their ideals challenged and in some cases, their minds opened to new possibilities. They mostly resist the idea of change altogether.

The great divide

This raises a question: Is there a growing divide in the pageantry arts, particularly with drum corps, between the intellectual, in many cases the designers, and the common or generational fan, who just wants to be entertained?

Over the last decade, in particular, designers have increasingly created programs with a more intellectual spirit. These are individuals who exist and even thrive in the intellectual sphere. Their livelihoods exist because of it. They continue to create a product that attempts to educate, open minds and push the boundaries of how we perceive and define the marching arts – both indoor and out.

The evolution of the marching arts into its modern form isn’t something that kicked into high gear over the past decade. It started in the late ’80’s and has slowly progressed to its present form ever since. Drum corps has more recently begun to tackle deeper, more intellectual themes such as psychology, math, science, literature, the philosophical debate of life, death and the after-life. We have seen corps present an exploration of cultures, environmentalism and even dabbled with politics. Now we can add into the mix a challenge to what society perceives as “normal.”

The subject matter itself isn’t as much of the issue as it is with how the message or idea is being delivered. Fans of the pageantry arts are, in my opinion and generally speaking, more accepting, more progressive and more open-minded than society as a whole. However, at times, the design and the audience fail to find a connection. The need for the audience to be wowed and entertained isn’t being satisfied and the sense is that some fans spend more time trying to interpret and understand the whole point of what a corps is trying to accomplish rather than deciding if they were entertained. They are, at times, left asking themselves “What the fuck did I just watch?” or “What the fuck was that even about?”

How does intellectualism fit into drum corps?

The word intellectual is important for this discussion, because it factors into how general effect is judged. According to Drum Corps International, “the GE judges are doing the romantic job, they’re feeling what the show is offering and responding to what the show is. There are three parts to GE, the intellectual, the aesthetic, and the emotional.”

The designers and instructional staff in modern day drum corps have taken those three words in particular to heart. These are the three factors they set out to achieve each year.

Last season, The Cavaliers, an all-male corps who has historically produced robust and super masculine programs challenged social norms by ending their show with “Oh what a world” by Rufus Wainright. In that portion of the show, the color guard adorned large colorful skirts while the corps proper sang the following lyrics:

“Men reading fashion magazines
Oh, what a world it seems we live in
Straight men
Oh what a world we live in”

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To some, that is quite a challenge to what we conceive a man is or should be. Yet, that very theme is playing out in everyday society. What we perceive an individual should be isn’t necessarily who that individual is.

Over the last few seasons, the Blue Knights have consistently presented highly intellectual programs including “That one second,” “Because,” “The Great Event” and this seasons with “…I remember everything.” These shows challenged the typical fan. These are heavy, if not difficult, themes and cause the audience to think deeper about their meaning, ask questions and find their own answers.

Designers see what is playing out in the real world and like most artists they want to create their own way to express that in their design. That makes a lot of individuals uncomfortable because generations of drum corps fans go into a show with the expectation of having their face blown off, wanting to tap their foot to a recognizable tune and be astounded by striking visuals. There are some who feel the intellectual and more artistic direction the activity is heading is driving the audience away from drum corps. They don’t want to think, they just want to be entertained.

I happen to think both are possible.

Finding common ground

There is a middle ground between presenting intellectual ideas and satisfying the audiences need to be entertained. Corps have shown the capacity to throw a bone and satisfy the need of the designer to express themselves artistically and try new ideas and concepts while also giving the fan something to whistle to and be dazzled by.

Carolina Crown found their own way to portray intellectual arguments with “e=mc2” and in 2019 with “Beneath the surface.” Who would have ever thought that a show with a heavy dose of mathematics could ever work in drum corps much less be entertaining? Yet, Crown did just that – twice now. One of them led to their first championship and the other already has them in contention for another. Who says mathematics cannot also be entertaining? They found a way.

Then we have the Bluecoats, who took inspiration from a contemporary dance company and created a program in 2016 that I not only consider one of my all-time favorites but one of the most innovative shows ever. There is no doubt that “Downside Up” changed the activity forever. Fans loved it. The Bluecoats entertained while finding their own path to intellectualism through a different way to present artistry.

Last season, Santa Clara Vanguard “discussed” the idea of how we communicate as a society. They connected with the audience with exciting and rich musical selections, a horn snap and probably one of the most exceptional performances to even adorn a football field. The corps pushed the limits and again redefined how we perceive drum corps and fans were on their feet a minute before their finals performance was even finished. They entertained in an artistic and intellectual fashion.

There really isn’t, nor has to be, that much of a divide as we want to believe there is perceived to be. Corps are doing better at letting their staff have their cake while the fans eat it too. There is a reason they are producing social media posts explaining the method behind the madness of their designs. There is a reason they are choosing more mainstream and familiar music to the drum corps scene. It is all about finding and maintaining a connection.

Designers are still and will continue to infuse artistry and intellectualism, but that doesn’t mean it cannot also be enjoyable. Fans should be more open to drum corps evolution because the entertainment value is also there and we cannot forget that the designers in the activity today – grew up and are still fans themselves.

Change is inevitable and that is the only expectation we as fans should have.

Photo by Clever Visuals on Unsplash

The Top 5 2019 Drum Corps Repertoires

There are three specific moments in the drum corps season that I live for the most. They include seeing each show for the first time (and ultimately their interpretation and design) and DCI Finals but my favorite time of the season? The preseason – when show announcements start rolling out. My imagination kicks into overdrive thinking through how a corps might interpret a theme or use the announced repertoire. You already know what a design nerd I am, so this really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

One thing I do seemingly every year is to listen to the music they announced. I listen for their potential. Their potential musicality and how it might apply to visual design. I have started a ranking of the corps repertoires based on that potential. As we approach the DCI premier, these rankings can certainly change as we await announcements from Santa Clara Vanguard, The Cavaliers, Bluecoats and the Blue Knights.

I have certainly been pleasantly surprised by what a corps can do once they put their mind to it (looking at you Bluecoats). So arrangements, talent and how they interpret their musical selections visually obviously all matter. So this ranking shouldn’t be construed as a prediction for how I see corps placing at the end of the summer. This is only based on what the potential the musical selections can provide. Also, I clearly don’t have a way to review or analyze something I have never heard. A lot of corps have some original music they are rolling out or they didn’t announce exactly what song they were using by an artist or composer. So those were left out of this ranking as well.

With that said, here are my preseason rankings of the repertoires and individual songs (announced so far) with the most potential to create great visual design and, of course, General Effect.

Top 5 Repertoires of the Preseason(as of 6/7/19)

1. Carolina Crown
2. Blue Stars
3. Spirit of Atlanta
4. The Cadets
5. The Academy

Top 5 Songs of the Preseason (as of 6/7/19)

1. Dark Clouds / Christopher Tin – Carolina Crown
2. Concerto No. 4 in F minor / Antonio Vivaldi – Blue Stars
3. Attraction / Emmanuel Sejourne – Spirit of Atlanta
4. Blueprint / Caroline Shaw – The Cadets
5. Dance I, First movement / Oliver Davis – The Academy

Drum Corps Fantasy Draft – Final pick

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With the final pick of the Drum Corps Fantasy Draft, General F. Fect Drum Corps selects…

Sean Vega – Percussion Caption Head

Confused? Surprised? I can hear it now.

“He’s not currently a caption head for any drum corps.”

You are absolutely correct. I only said I could not pull from a drum corps I have already drafted a staff member from. I never said I wouldn’t venture outside of drum corps.

During the 2018 WGI Finals, Michael Gaines tweeted out that we should be paying more attention to the innovations happening within WGI Percussion. There should be no doubt of the impact WGI is having on drum corps. Michael Gaines would likely relish the idea of having someone on staff with that sort of background and that is exactly why I went this direction.

Vega is the Program Coordinator and Battery Arranger for RCC Percussion. RCC is the reigning WGI Percussion World Champion with 5 other gold medals and who has never placed any lower than fourth in the activity. This isn’t to say he lacks any drum corps experience. Vega marched with the Blue Devils tenor line from 1994 till 1997 and joined their staff the following year through 2010. During his time with the Blue Devils, they won six world championships and four DCI High Percussion Awards.

I spent a few hours watching several indoor percussion groups to find a guy that I thought would be the best fit and bring another dimension to the design team. I wanted someone who could bring that element from the indoor activity, but someone who can be counted on to develop a technical clinic with the percussion section and has also had a taste of the overall design process.

Sean Vega fills both needs. Look at the shows RCC has produced while Vega has been on staff. He brings that unique element I want to see how he influences the design process and rounds out this rock star staff.

Drum Corps Fantasy Draft
First pick – Michael Gaines – Artistic Director/Program Coordinator
Second pick – Matt Harloff – Brass Caption Head
Third pick – Lindsey Vento – Visual Caption Head
Fourth pick – Michael Townsend

Drum Corps Fantasy Draft – Fourth Pick

With the fourth pick in the drum corps fantasy draft, General F. Fect Drum Corps selects…

Michael Townsend – Color Guard Caption Head

For those who know me personally, they would have probably thought that this was the most difficult decision. There are so many incredibly talented people who are worthy of this selection, however, to me this was a no-brainer.

As color guard caption head, Townsend has led two separate color guards to capture the George Zingali award for best color guard, including Boston Crusaders first ever caption award. BAC’s guard was transformed overnight in Wicked games under his tutelage. They performed more confidently and with a lot more authority and that trend continued the following year in S.O.S.

Remember when The Academy made finals for the first time with Drum Corpse Bride? Townsend was their program coordinator and is also the program coordinator for 2018 Bands of America Grand National Champion Carmel High School. Oh and he is doing all of this while working with the color guards for Avon High School, Center Grove High School and Northview High School. All of which have had a strong showing at both Bands of America Grand Nationals and in Winter Guard International. Those programs combine over 16 WGI Scholastic World Class medals while Townsend was also on staff for two Independent World Class championships with Pride of Cincinnati and now six BOA Grand National Championships including the aforementioned 2018 Grand Champions Carmel High School.

Excellence follows Townsend whose pedigree is impeccable which should be no surprise as he has performed for and worked with some of the best designers in the activity including Michael Gaines, Keith Potter, Andy Toth and Adam Sage. His color guards are notoriously professional, technically sound and his innovative and fresh approach to color guard is second to few. Just watch a few of Carmel’s guards. They perform way above the average high school guard.

That makes him the perfect choice to lead the color guard on this staff.

The final pick for caption head comes your way on Monday. I think may be a bit of a surprise.

Drum Corps Fantasy Draft
First pick – Michael Gaines – Artistic Director/Program Coordinator
Second pick – Matt Harloff – Brass Caption Head
Third pick – Lindsey Vento – Visual Caption Head

Drum Corps Fantasy Draft – Third pick

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With the third pick in the draft… General F. Fect Drum Corps selects…

Lindsey Vento – Visual Caption Head

This selection was, perhaps, the most difficult decision of all because there is a vast amount people who easily qualify for this role.

Lindsey Vento serves as the Artistic Director and Program Coordinator for The Academy. She has been involved with music education and the pageantry arts for almost 20 years as an instructor, designer and artistic director in WGI, BOA, including 2018 Grand National Finalist Blue Springs High School, and, of course, DCI with The Academy. If you missed their show, Blue Springs High School was quite something to behold. Vento helped create an creating, yet daring and energetic

One of the reasons I chose Vento was because she also has a theater background with the Lyric Opera of Kansas. Why is that important? One of the little-known facts about Michael Gaines is that he also has experience working in theater. There are some similarities between what Gaines helped design for Babylon and what Vento did with Academic. Both provided unique staging in their shows but also found an effective way to incorporate the use of props to enhance the design.

Vento is someone who I think design junkies like myself should keep an eye on and I would be very curious to see what sort of design elements she, Gaines and my next pick could dream up…

Speaking of… the next pick is coming your way Friday!

Drum Corps Fantasy Draft
First pick Michael Gaines – Artistic Director/Program Coordinator

Second pick – Matt Harloff – Brass Caption Head

Drum Corps Fantasy Draft – Second Pick

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With the second pick in the Drum Corps Fantasy Draft General F. Fect Drum Corps selects…

Matt Harloff
Brass Caption Head

Harloff, a Yamaha Performing Artist and member of the DCI Hall of Fame, has been the brass caption head for Carolina Crown since 2003 and an Assistant Band Director for Avon High School, a perennial contender in Bands of America and Grand National Champions in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

During his time as caption head, Crown’s brass received the Jim Ott Memorial Award or Excellence in Brass five times between 2009 and 2016. Harloff was a member of the Star of Indiana from 1989 through 1995 including as drum major in 1993, the corps final year of competition with Drum Corps International.

I am no brass expert (though I did play percussion, tuba and baritone), but it doesn’t take much to tell that the Crown brass has been a well oiled machine under Harloff’s leadership. Jim Ott award(s) aside, all you have to do is listen to the Crown brass to know how dominant that section has become. My feelings for Beast are well known, but even I have to tip my cap to the quality, balance, boldness, and power of their sound no doubt has had the same impact at Avon High School.

While I do feel he is a fantastic choice to lead the brass section, I would not want the brass arranger to follow. Yes, the arranger has certainly helped in building one of the best brass sections in the entire activity, but… well… there are better and I would want Harloff to seek them out as he builds his brass staff.

There are plenty of fantastic candidates that could have been drafted for this position, but Harloff has been a major contributor to Crown becoming a powerhouse and a force to be reckoned with. Their rise to prominence is a direct reflection of his work. Those qualities alone give me enough reason to want him taking the reigns of my brass section.

Pick number three coming your way on Wednesday… who will it be?

Drum Corps Fantasy Draft
First pick Michael Gaines – Artistic Director/Program Coordinator

Drum Corps Fantasy Draft – First pick

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With the first pick in the Drum Corps Fantasy Draft General F. Fect Drum Corps selects…

Michael Gaines
Artistic Director/Program Coordinator

The first pick of any draft is meant to set the cornerstone of your program. This person leads the entire staff in the construction and design of the show. The artistic director/program coordinator is ultimately responsible for the final product and there are few that I would trust more with that responsibility than Michael Gaines, an inductee into both the WGI and DCI Hall of Fames.

I know a lot of you who follow me are not one bit surprised by this pick. Nor should it be. I first fell in love with Gaines approach and style back in the early 90’s when he started an independent winter guard named Escapade, a group I continue to admire to this very day.

Need more convincing? Success has followed him where ever you look. DCI. WGI. BOA. You name it. Here is just a sample of his resume:

  • We just witnessed the greatest show that has ever stepped foot on a DCI field with Babylon. I still defy anyone to prove otherwise. It is no accident that it was Gaines first year as Artistic Director and what SCV accomplished in 2018.
  • He was a member of the design staff for all 7 of The Cavaliers World Championship titles. In over a decade writing drill for The Cavaliers, the corps won 5 World Championships and had an average placement of… 2nd.
  • He was also involved with Carmel High School Marching Band who, oh by the way, just won Bands of America – again.
  • He has worked with numerous programs in WGI, particularly with Pride of Cincinnati who has won multiple championships in WGI. If you want a real treat of his work indoor check out Escapade’s The Doors; Hydrogen Jukebox (both some of my all time favorites). Pride of Cincinnati’s Alcatraz, and it would be a total failure not to mention one of the greatest shows to ever grace a WGI floor Everybody Hurts
  • .

  • He has helped create some of the most iconic, innovative and thrilling shows in DCI including shows like Niagara Falls (2000); Four Corners (2001); Frameworks (2002); Machine (2006) and, naturally, Babylon (2018).

Gaines designs are always exploring. They are always pushing the boundaries for what is possible in pageantry. However, they are always balanced and well thought out. He is arguably the best designer in the activity and that is the kinda guy you want leading your program.

The second pick in the draft coming Monday!