Drum and bugle corps hit a sour note

  • Updated: June 16, 2008 - 5:02 PM

A growing use of electronics in their marching field shows has created some discord among fans.

Usually in this space, technology is shown to be fun or useful. You know -- video games, DVDs, Internet. But not everyone is playing a happy tune these days: The march of technology is causing dissension in the ranks of competitive drum and bugle corps.

When the elite music-and-marching units bring their field shows to several Minnesota and regional competitions starting Sunday, it might be the last time fans see the brass and percussion of their favorite corps playing without -- drum roll, please -- electronic instruments as accompaniment.

Starting in 2009, the activity's governing organization, Drum Corps International (DCI), will allow not only electronic instruments such as keyboards to augment the marching performances, but it also will let more performers be amplified by microphones. Brass soloists and ensembles may be miked beginning next year, in addition to the vocalists (narrators and singers) and sideline percussionists who can already be amplified.

The changes have led to heated debates in online forums such as Drum Corps Planet among those who see the expansion of electronics as a necessary and inevitable change in modern drum corps and those who long for the tradition of "the glory days."

"I liked drum corps a lot more in the mid-'70s to the 1980s than I do now," said David Eckberg, who organizes the annual Drum Beauty show, which has been held in the Stillwater area for more than 50 years. "Back then, it was very normal to come out with a show with tremendous emotion, being moved to goose bumps and tears, and I don't know if we're seeing that anymore."

But Bill Soucha, band director at Irondale High School in New Brighton, said adding electronics is just another step in the evolution of drum corps. Besides leading one of the state's top high-school marching bands, he has been director of the Blue Stars of La Crosse, Wis., the closest DCI World Class corps to the Twin Cities -- and a group that used amplified narration in its 2006 program.

Corps are steeped in tradition

Drum and bugle corps have a rich history that began with the military in the early 20th century and then became a rank-and-file fixture of civic groups such as the Boy Scouts and VFW posts. They underwent a dramatic change when DCI entered the scene in the early 1970s. Eventually, their marching formations became asymmetrical, the color guard started dancing and many of the percussionists parked less-portable instruments on the sideline.

Corps also stopped using bugles, even though many fans still call them "drum and bugle corps." They now use regular trumpets and three-valved marching versions of French horns, baritones and tubas. In fact, some drum corps vets, such as Patrick Byrne, 54, of Minneapolis see the desire to amplify the brass instruments as a way to make up for the volume that was lost when bugles were abandoned.

And next year, they can add electronic instruments and more amplification.

"With electronics, you're just adding more to the mix," Soucha said. "You're allowing the shows to be more complex, more complete, well-balanced, connected -- it just allows so many more things."

That's no different than what happened with amplification in the theater world many years ago, said Brent Turner, who heads the Youth in Music Marching Band Championships at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and has been involved with the DCI World Class corps the Madison Scouts of Wisconsin.

"Theaters were built a certain way to help the acoustics with singers, operas and Broadway shows and all that kind of stuff, and yet electronics have allowed them to do certain things that they were never able to do before," Turner said.

That's an apt analogy, said Paul H. Kuehn, 45, of Apple Valley, who marched with the St. Croix Rivermen from 1978 to 1982.

"Today's drum corps is much closer to Broadway than anything else, with the only main difference being it's on a football field rather than inside the Ordway," he said.

But that's not tradition, said Brian Tolzmann of Forest Lake, who has followed the activity for more than 38 years as the founder of the Drum Corps Information Archives.

"I don't see electronics in drum corps as a necessary component, but rather an intrusion on a formerly acoustic activity," he said.

Some technical difficulties

Besides flouting tradition, there is a practical downside to using electronics in drum corps. Matthew Kilanowski, 28, of Hopkins -- who has been involved with the activity since joining the Minneapolis corps Chops Inc. in 2001 -- said electronics aren't accounted for by judges, especially when equipment malfunctions.

"A corps last year had reportedly gone through an entire performance with hissing and crackling being the predominant sound coming from their speakers, and they still won first place at that show," he said.

Irondale's Soucha admits that electronics have caused technical difficulties in his shows.

"It is a love-hate relationship because your show might not come off the way as planned if something goes wrong," he said. "But when it all works, it's wonderful."

Then there's the expense. Nonprofit touring corps already face financial challenges, especially with rising gas prices.

"Electronic equipment is expensive," said Andy Yaroch, 22, of Cottage Grove, who has marched with Chops Inc. since 2004. "While it's not officially required, corps apparently feel they need it to be competitive. ... The added expense of electronics may be one reason why so many groups are going inactive."

Todd Tanji, 47, who is on the board of directors of the Blue Devils, a DCI World Class corps from Concord, Calif., said electronics eventually will be a boon to drum corps after the 2009 expansion.

"There will be a period of experimental bleeps and blunders," he said. "But after the dust settles, corps will know how to use electronics in an aesthetically satisfying way."

Drum Beauty's Eckberg remains wary: "I'm hoping we look at this a few years from now as a good change, not as a fork in the road that they shouldn't have taken."

Will there ever be harmony over the use of technology in drum corps?

"I think the jury is still out on that one," Kuehn said. "But those of us who have marched drum corps and those who will march after us will be no less passionate about it."

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542

  • DRUM CORPS SHOWS

    Drum Beauty: 6 p.m. Sun., Stillwater Area High School stadium, Stillwater; $5-$28; 651-430-2306 or www.lumberjackdays.com.

    Thunder of Drums: 6:45 p.m. Mon., Blakeslee Field, Mankato, Minn.; $10-$20; 1-507-385-9129 or www.thunderofdrums.org.

    DCI Madison: 4:30 p.m. June 28, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.; $30-$50; 1-317-275-1212, ext. 3, or www.dci.org.

    Drums Along the Rapids: 5 p.m. June 29, Coon Rapids High School stadium, Coon Rapids; $15-$25; 1-888-547-6478 or www.chopsinc.com/show.

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