A drum and bugle corps or drum corps is a musical marching unit (similar to a marching band) consisting of brass instruments, percussion instruments, and color guard. The activity originated in the United States and Canada, but has spread to parts of Europe and Asia. Typically operating as independent non-profit organizations, drum corps perform on-field competitions, parades, festivals and other civic functions. The prime age for participation is 14–22, but the activity extends throughout age groups younger and older.
Competitive corps participate in summer touring circuits. Competitions occur on football fields and are judged based upon general effect, visual performance, and musical performance. Every year, each drum corps prepares a single new show, approximately 8–12 minutes in length, and carefully refines this throughout the entire summer tour. This focus on a singular show takes advantage of the large amount of time needed to hone and refine a modern drum corps program, with a momentum that continues to build up toward the last performance of the season. Musical repertoires can vary widely among various groups, including symphonic, jazz, big band, contemporary, rock, wind band, vocal, Broadway, Latin music and many other genres. Highly competitive corps regularly dedicate 8–10 weeks on tour, practicing and performing their program full-time. Less competitive corps have less demanding schedules, allowing members to participate and still have a little free time outside drum corps. Some corps are not competitive at all, serving as education for youths, as alumni corps for adults, or for other traditional civic functions.
Drum and bugle corps stems from a rich American military history, separate from other marching musical activities. Beginning after World War I through the 1970s, corps and competitions were often sponsored by the VFW and the American Legion. Owing to these groups' roots, corps were traditionally militaristic. By the late 1960s, many corps wanted more creative freedom and better financial compensation than was offered by the sponsors. Some felt the prize-money structures, based on competitive placement, were not fairly compensating all corps for their appearances. Additionally, some felt the current judging rules were stifling musical and theatrical possibilities. At the peak of American drum corps participation (with perhaps a thousand active corps nationwide), several corps decided to band together and form their own organizations, which ultimately led to the formation of Drum Corps Associates in 1965 and Drum Corps International in 1972. By this time, many corps had already lost their church or community sponsors.
For the corps that remained, longer travel times were necessary to attend the shrinking numbers of contests, further adding to the financial and time demands on the organizations and their individual members. At the same time, costs for the increasingly complex field shows mounted, and creative and instructional demands rose, leading many competitive corps to falter and become inactive. By the late 1990s, only a fraction of the corps that existed in the 60s and 70s remained, although several new corps, some of which have become very successful, did start up along the way.
Also, non-competitive classic-style corps (often and sometimes inaccurately known as "alumni corps") saw a renaissance beginning in the mid-1980s, and they continue to organize in the 21st Century; members often remain vigilant about the traditions and virtues of the drum corps activity before the advent of more modern influences.
Freed from the traditional and more-restrictive judging rules of the late 1960s, corps began making innovative changes such as the use of multi-valve horns, wide-ranging tempos, intricate asymmetric drill formations, elaborate guard costumes and props, and the use of stationary orchestral percussion instruments. A common criticism of drum corps is that it has become too similar to marching band, although in truth the two activities have evolved together over the years. The most apparent difference between the activities is the fact that corps use only bell-front brass instrumentation. The competitive season for corps is in the summer rather than fall, with audition and initial ensemble rehearsals actually beginning as early as late October of the previous year. The top-tier competitive drum corps programs are often far more complex and more professional than marching bands, as members in full-time touring corps have no distractions outside of corps during the season and membership is achieved only through highly competitive auditions.
Structurally, shows typically share a few common components: an "opener", a piece designed to grab the audience's attention, a percussion solo or "features" laden throughout the show, a ballad (featuring the hornline and pit percussion), and a "closer", which is often the climax of the performance. Depending on the length of each piece, there may be additional pieces interjected to showcase various musical concepts and elements of the corps. The goal is to have a well-balanced program with a wide variety of dynamics, tempos, and feels to showcase the corps' abilities.
One of the defining musical elements of drum corps is the exclusive use of bell-front brass instrumentation. Throughout the years, the horns used in drum corps have evolved from true, valveless bugles to modern multi-valved brass instruments. These changes have effectively eliminated bugles from the activity, since the current three-valve approved instruments are more akin to band instruments than true bugles. Competitive drum and bugle corps have not used true bugles for several decades. Traditionally, corps use three-valve vertical-piston horns in the key of G, but horns in other keys are also allowed. From highest pitched to lowest they are: sopranos (trumpets), mellophones, baritones and euphoniums, and contra-basses.
All these instruments can appear in any key, with G, Bb, and F being by far the most common; the name of the activity is not dependent on the key of the instruments. Sopranos are essentially trumpets, but tend to have a narrower bell flare and larger bore than the trumpets used in other venues, a characteristic found in most of these horns but most obviously in the soprano. Although many corps have recently started using Bb trumpets instead of sopranos, most purchase trumpets that are specifically designed for outdoor use and resemble sopranos in shape and sound. Mellophones are only one of many midrange or alto-voice horns that have been experimented with, but they have become the most widely used because of their consistent playability and tone quality compared to the alternatives, which include marching French horns, alto horns, and flugelhorns. A contra-bass is essentially a tuba configured so that it can be carried over the shoulder with the bell facing forward.
Until 1999, American drum and bugle corps hornlines were required to be pitched in the key of G. That year, the DCI rules congress passed a proposal to allow any key of bell-front brass instruments on the field (no Trombones-no valves, no French Horns-not bell front, and no Sousaphones-not really a bell-front instrument)(Open Class opted for a two-year moratorium on the proposal. Corps could first use instruments in other keys in 2000). DCA followed suit in 2004. This allows music to be arranged truer to its original form and gives corps access to more affordable and higher-quality horns, along with a much wider resale market for used instruments. Hornlines now are most commonly pitched in Bb, with mellophones usually pitched in F.
Front ensemble members perform on orchestral percussion instruments, including marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, glockenspiel, timpani, various types of drums, cymbals, gongs and many other auxiliary percussion instruments. As the physical nature of these instruments requires them to be stationary, the pit is typically stationed at the 50 yard of the front sideline, closest to the audience. Full-sized corps feature between 8-12 members in their front ensembles. Many corps now make use electronic amplification so that delicate percussive instruments can be heard in the stadium setting. However, amplification has also been used for the more controversial purposes of talking, singing, and "drumspeak" (beat boxing). Prior to 1982, corps did not have a "pit". Some corps (Phantom Regiment and Blue Devils among them) placed a single tympanist on the 50 yard line just inside the sideline. This performer was on the field. Since 1982, there has been a pit in front of the field, and the days of marching keyboard instruments and tympani have disappeared.
The battery consists of percussionists who march on the field along with the hornline and color guard. They commonly play four types of instruments: the marching snare drum, tenor drums (also known as "quads", or "tenors"), marching cymbals, and marching tonal (pitched from high to low) bass drums. In large DCI-related competing corps, the battery typically consists of 7–10 snare drummers, 4–5 tenor drummers, 4–6 cymbal players, and 5–6 bass drummers. Many corps within the last few years have disposed of their cymbal lines in order to utilize the members for additional instrumentation. The cymbal lines that still exist, however, are known for their signature visual effects, as well as contributing various metallic musical effects. Corps that currently use cymbal lines are the Santa Clara Vanguard and the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps
In modern drum corps, the color guard has become a crucial part of each group's visual and thematic program. Standard equipment includes flags, mock rifles, and sabers, but other objects like bare poles, hoops, balls, windsocks, and custom-made props are sometimes used to create visual effects that enhance the show. The primary role of the color guard is to complement the corps' musical program by creating visual interpretations of the music through equipment work and dance. The color guard can also enhance the overall drill design by marching in formations that integrate with the rest of the corps. However, the color guard most often performs as an ensemble that frames the rest of the corps or performs within the drill formations of the corps proper. Like all other sections of the corps, the guard often features solo work.
While the rest of the corps generally wears the same uniform for several consecutive seasons, the guard members more often wear uniforms that are custom-made for each corps' theme for a particular season.
Technical drill structure can be broken down into several categories: linear forms, static forms, shape-driven forms, and movement-centered forms. Forms using lines and curves have long been used to create drill that is simple, yet powerful. The speed of the drill can vary to create a slow and flowing form or a series of quickly spinning bars or changing curves. Variations on follow-the-leader forms are the standard for many asymmetric lines. Shapes and symbols have also been used to great effect by many drum corps, with the most basic being geometric figures such as squares or blocks, triangles, circles, and other regular or irregular figures. The translation and rotation of these figures, especially at speed, creates interesting and exciting drill. A long legacy of exciting and innovating forms highlights this category of drill, such as the "Z-pull" (The Cadets, 1983), moving and disappearing cross formations (Star of Indiana, 1991), "rotating" double helix (The Cavaliers, 1995), the Diamond Cutter, individually spinning boxes within a larger diamond square (Cavaliers, 1999), and inclusion of symbols such as the Maltese Cross for The Crossmen, the signature three-point crown of Carolina Crown, the Fleur-de-lis (the ever-present symbol of the Madison Scouts),or the Sunburst of The Troopers Drum and Bugle Corps (the first curved form on the field), with heartily enthusiastic response from the audience. Forms that center around chaotic and rapid movement are the most difficult to describe in detail, as they can be of indeterminate structure. “Scatter drill” would fall into this category, a seemingly random transition from one form to another so as to keep viewers in suspense until the last possible second.
Standing still might seem the simplest of drill moves, but for a drum corps even "standing still" is usually not completely stationary. This is when choreography for general effect primarily takes place. In what is referred to by various terms such as "park and bark", the corps holds position but members typically add their own leans, small steps, horn movements and pops, and other colorful flourishes. For the longest and loudest chords, the most technically demanding sections of music, and the ending of most shows, corps usually remain stationary to make a dramatic impact.
Until the mid 1990's, Drum corps circuits worldwide generally followed this form:
These divisions were redefined before the 1993 season and again in 2006, and remained in use until 2007:
There was a "grey area" of 70-79 members where the corps had a choice of competing in either Division II or III.
Open Class corps usually compete in fewer shows than World Class corps (around 20, compared to 30-35 for Division I corps). Until the late 1990s, corps from different divisions were frequently allowed to compete directly against one another at certain shows, but today, Open Class corps are strictly segregated from World Class competition. Open Class corps have their own World Championship, usually held at the same location as the World Class championships. Prelims are held all day Tuesday, Semifinals Thursday morning, and Grand Finals on Saturday morning.
Top Open Class corps may decide to join World Class for the following season. Due to the rash of corps having to fold for financial reasons in the 1980s and 1990's, DCI has taken a more active role in the matriculation of a unit to World Class status. The corps must prove that it has the financial stability to tour on the World Class circuit, including a strong fund-raising program (such as bingo, carwashes, etc), and that it has a recruitment base capable of producing a competitive corps.
While on tour, junior corps travel mainly at night after leaving the performance venue. Members sleep on the buses and in sleeping bags on gym floors when the next housing destination is reached. Housing for the entire tour is secured in advance through local schools, churches, or other community facilities. Corps practice their shows for as long as possible each day before getting ready to leave for that night's competition, if scheduled. Not every day is a performance day; many days on tour are spent simply traveling to a distant location or entirely on the practice field.
A full-sized, adequately-funded junior corps will have a fleet of vehicles, including three or more coach buses for members and staff, a truck or van to carry souvenirs that are sold at shows, and two semi trucks, one for show equipment and one that serves as a kitchen on wheels. Most meals for all members and staff are provided by the cook truck, but occasionally corps have scheduled free days where there are no rehearsals or performances and the members are free to see some local sights and procure their own meals.
Competitions are not the only performances that corps partake in while on tour. Most corps also participate in parades and standstill performances throughout the summer to gain further public exposure and to supplement their budget with performance fees. On the Fourth of July weekend, corps often locate themselves in large metro areas so they can participate in more than one parade.
The summer touring schedule is usually divided into two smaller tours. The first tour consists of more local or regional shows and the corps often return to their home bases for easy housing and practice facilities. The first tour ends in mid-July with a regional championship, followed by a few days off where members are free to do as they wish. For many members, this is their only chance all summer to visit home. Corps then reconvene at their home bases and begin the second tour, which usually involves more extensive national touring before culminating at DCI finals.
Competitions are usually held at college or high school football stadiums or similar venues, and are scored by circuit-approved judges. Because there exists an intense competition between corps, the judging system is somewhat complex to allow for precise scoring and avoidance of ties. Most circuits follow the three-caption system of General Effect (GE), Visual, and Music, with GE being the most important factor. This is the scoring system currently used by DCI (others are similar):
However, the Drum Corps in England have a different way of scoring for each division, English Drum Corps are mainly the same otherwise.
The timing and organization of contests varies significantly from circuit to circuit. Only large DCI corps typically have the funding and time commitment from members to participate in DCI's touring circuit, where corps spend the majority of the summer traveling around the continent performing at different local and regional contests. In other circuits, and for smaller DCI corps, competitions are usually scheduled to allow corps to travel, perform, and return home within a weekend. For this reason, and to boost audience attendance, large competitions are more frequently scheduled on weekends.
A typical regular-season contest consists of fewer than 10 corps, with corps from one or more classes competing together but scored separately. In North America, DCI and DCA corps occasionally perform at the same shows. DCI also schedules larger contests interspersed throughout the latter half of its season. These are restricted to corps in specific classes and feature many (if not all) of the corps within each class. European circuits, such as DCUK, operate on a "minimum performance and lot" system: appearance at the first two shows of the year is determined by lot, and then the corps must appear in a minimum number of shows before the circuit's championships. In such a system, the championships are often the only time all corps in a class compete together.
Some circuits also organize optional individual and ensemble (I&E) competitions for individuals or groups from corps to showcase members' skills outside of the field performance environment. These are usually held only once or twice per season at championships or a major regional contest. Members practice their routine(s) in their scant free time throughout the season.
The executive staff includes the operational and tour director(s) and the board of directors. Often these people are unpaid volunteers. This group is almost always long-standing within successful corps. They create the long-term vision and strategy for the organization, handling the financial, operational, and organizational issues to keep the corps running. The board of directors is composed of alumni and other closely-affiliated people. They hire the executive (operational) director and other related positions directly; in turn, the executive and/or tour director(s) usually hire the instructional staff.
The instructional staff actually puts the show on the field. They create the concept of the show, choose and arrange the music, write the drill, and instruct the members on how to play, march, execute, and exude the image of the corps on the field. The staff consists of brass, percussion, guard, and visual (marching) instructors who are most often alumni of the corps or other corps. A well-funded World Class corps usually has 15-20 full-time instructors. Just as members, they attend winter camps and travel with the corps all summer long.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of any corps. Parents, alumni, friends, and fans make the corps work on a day-to-day basis—driving buses and trucks, caring for the corps' uniforms, cooking meals for the corps and staff, and countless other peripheral duties. Corps on touring circuits particularly rely on volunteers due to the extra necessities which come with the tour: cooking and cleaning, providing mechanical maintenance, health and medical needs—all of which are essential to getting the corps down the road to the next show.
Every corps requires some amount of dues from its members to help defray the cost of operations, or touring should the circuit so require. Dues vary from circuit to circuit and corps to corps, but generally range from the local equivalent of several hundred to about two thousand dollars per member for World Class corps. Most corps provide ways to help offset the cost of membership, often through personal sponsorships that the member must procure. Corps do everything they can to help potential members pay their dues. However, membership dues only pay for a fraction of the total cost of keeping a corps alive. It costs US$100,000–$1,000,000 or more to run a corps for a single season. Uniforms, equipment, and vehicles must be bought and maintained, food and fuel are consumed, and the instructional and creative staff members must be paid (although in some corps a staff post is a voluntary post and does come with pay). Other sources of income are required. Many organizations run bingo halls as a major source of income. Some American corps run a fleet of charter buses, which is a natural extension of the corps' touring needs. All corps solicit sponsorships and endorsements at the corporate level and individual contributions from alumni and fans. To find out how to contribute to a corps, visit the corps website.
British Corps mainly hold their own 'Fun Nights' and Discos. Some hold Pre-Season parties, which members can go to for a small donation.