Marching to a Different Drum in Music City, USA

Mike Lawson • Features • September 8, 2017

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My experience as a music student did not include exposure to today’s drum corps performances.

Marching for our school band was done on the field and in parades. I didn’t march at all. I was in jazz band, playing guitar on big band swing tunes. But my bandmates marched, though there were no fabulously-choreographed drills, showmanship, elaborate costumes or props. 

This past July, I attended Drum Corps International’s production of “The Masters of the Summer Music Games,” presented by Jupiter, Mapex, and Majestic. It was an amazing show. The last time I had been in Vanderbilt Stadium was in 1994 for the Pink Floyd concert. That was quite a spectacle – and so was the DCI performance. Around the perimeter of the venue were pop-up shops for each participating drum corps, selling merchandise to promote their programs and fund their activities. In that respect, it wasn’t much different from a rock concert. The stadium was packed, the audience was loudly excited by the show, and I was a bit awestruck by just how elaborate some of the performances were that day. I stopped by the Music City Drum Corps stand to introduce myself and show my support to my hometown team by buying a jersey. There I learned a bit more about them, how they began, and found the story fascinating enough that I wanted to share with SBO readers just what it takes to start a drum corps program in their town. I contacted their founding executive director, Keith Hall, and had this conversation with him.  

Tell me the history of the Music City Drum Corps, how it was founded, and the impetus behind the founding of having a chapter here? 

I had always dreamed of being part of starting a drum corps pretty much ever since I was in one at the age of 21. The first year that Memphis Blues was in existence, I participated, and that was the most fun that I had ever had. So, I know what kind of experience the members can have in a drum corps. In 2008, a few local folks got together, had a meeting at my apartment, and talked about the possibility of starting a drum corps, so we formed a board of directors. 

Jamie Blackburn, who also marched in Memphis Blues, became a resident of Nashville, and she had children that had marched in other drum corps. And one day, when we were driving to a drum corps show, we just decided that we can do this. A year later, we had 47 members and Music City’s first drum corps on the bill and grew to 64 members the following year. 

What size is the program today? 

Music City has had a full-sized corps of 125-150 members each year since. Most drum corps have auditions and can’t accept everyone that wants to participate, especially where the drumline is concerned. We probably had just over 100 people auditioning for snare drum. We carry very few alternates, at least a couple of brass and a color guard alternate or two. 

How did you get affiliated with DCI? 

They have people that visit your initial rehearsals, and they have to invite you to participate. We were very careful and did not spend money we didn’t have. We relied on completely voluntary instructional staff for the first few years. Relied on parents to volunteer to help prepare food. 

How do you manage the financial requirements, from uniforms to instruments and all it takes to launch the startup corps? 

Well, I did found The Band Hall uniform manufacturing company in Nashville 20 years ago, so it was convenient to get uniforms and flags at a very reduced cost. We painted yard lines on the parking lot there at the factory and had our first several rehearsal camps actually there in the office building. We’ve had some awesome parents who volunteered to share their skills to build out a trailer into an equipment truck, and another trailer into a mobile kitchen. There’s no way that we could do what we do without the help of all of the parents that, many of whom seem to enjoy the drum corps almost as much as their kids do. 

What is the average age of performers in the Music City Drum Corps? 

Nineteen, just over 19 is the average age of the drumline, and just under 19 is the average age of the horn line and the color guard, and I think it’s because it’s so much more competitive because so many more percussionists audition for drum corps. We don’t have ten times more tubas auditioning than we have spots for, like we do for the snare line, for example. It’s just more competitive. 

Repertoire selections, auditioning great players, developing marching skills, drill design, choreography, and even props, food, et cetera. How do you put all that together? 

It takes a lot of people to put the show together. All of the drum corps keep raising their game every year and setting the bar higher. Over the past few decades, it truly has become a Broadway production on a football field.

 It must be a lot of pressure as a director to have to come up with the next big thing to take the competition. 

We do have a somewhat unique philosophy regarding competition. I personally prefer to view drum corps as an art form, and not a competitive sport. We focus on just getting as good as we can get and don’t focus on scores or placement. I actually would love for the members to develop the philosophy that if someone else is as successful as we are, or even more successful, then good for them, that it has nothing to do with what we’re trying to create. This was the second year that we made the world-class semi-finals in Indianapolis, and the first year that we made it we were at the mall and had no idea that we were even in the running to make it. It was just a lot of icing on the cake when we found out that we needed to get on the bus, and get back to the school, and get ready to perform in semi-finals. 

How many people does it take to put on a show? 

We have about 50 people on staff. 

How do you recruit? Where do you find those folks? 

Many of them contact us and say, “Hey, here’s my background. Could you use another percussion instructor?” Several of them were veteran members of the drum corps, many of them are local. We do rely on people willing to work for practically peanuts, so many of our staff are only there for three or four weeks in the summer. We have to schedule them so that we have 20 on the average staff members with us on tour at any given time. 

How many volunteers does it take to help put this together? 

Well, over 50. 

That is an army of about 100 folks to run this program! 

They come in at various points to help with uniforms, prepare meals, do construction work, drive. It’s a big operation, no doubt about it. 

Where does Music City Drum Corps pull from in terms of auditions? 

We do have members from 15 states who come to audition for us on the average. As you would imagine, most of our members are from Tennessee, but we have a large number from Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky, as well as a few from other neighboring states. Since we are currently an open-class corps, and hope to become a world-class corps in the near future, we do have some of the more talented local drum corps prospects who audition for world-class corps right out of the gate. So, we don’t see a lot of those people currently. 

Do you think they are influenced in their corps audition choice by a corps previous competition scores? 

There’s always going to be someone scoring a point higher than you, so one could easily never be satisfied, even when you do manage to beat the group that has been beating you by a fraction of a point. And even those groups that win, they can’t win every year. When they come in second by a fraction of a point, they feel like they didn’t win, or that they weren’t successful. So, you know, I’m in the minority, most likely, but I do encourage our staff to emphasize working hard to get better. Let’s have fun by getting better at what we do. And just let any rewards and placements, you know…let that take care of itself. 

What does a year in the life of Music City Drum Corps look like? 

Our audition camp, our weekend-long audition camp, will once again be held the second week in December. We hold monthly rehearsal camps in the winter and spring. We usually start our training camp around Memorial Day. And then the third of fourth week in June we start our tour. Fundraising is nonstop, it’s year-round. 

How is merchandise managed? 

That’s strictly volunteer. We are actually, at this moment, about to hire our very first full-time employee. I am stepping down as executive director, and we’re going to add someone to the team that will be a full-time employee who serves as our executive director. We’ve gotten to be the size organization that we just have to have somebody working full-time, plus an army of volunteers, and as well as several people willing to share their talents for a lot less than they’re actually worth. 

What do you think drives your team to put so much time and effort into this program without financial compensation? 

Well, it’s a ton of fun, first of all. The parents do realize, especially if their child is a veteran member of the corps, how much the members benefit from being a part of an organization that requires such dedication, and hard work, commitment. I’ve had an unbelievable number of parents tell me at the end of the summer how much their child benefitted from participating in the corps and how much more confident they became, and just what a maturing opportunity it was for them. Because for most of them, it’s their first time to be away from their parents for any length of time. So, you know, there’s not a parent to tell them a second time that it’s time to get up. The drum major tells them one time, and so they have no choice but to become more responsible than they may have ever had to be before. 

Drum corps are obviously very demanding physically. These are not the oft-stereotyped non-athletic music students. 

There are the exceptions that don’t realize what a physically grueling activity it is. You know, they love to make music, but they might not have realized what they got themselves into regarding the physical demands. Every year, we lose a couple of students during training camp who just cannot muster the willpower to make it through the long rehearsal days. 

These competitions are in the hotter months, Nashville was kind to the show this year, weather-wise.

 All drum corps love to travel to Wisconsin in the summer. We had the opportunity to make two trips to Wisconsin. 

I saw some corps performing with enormous props. Is that an aspiration and a goal for Music City Drum Corps to use those? Or are you trying to stay more with the choreographed field marching music routines? 

That’s a hard question to answer. We have had some significant props in the past, but as you can imagine, it takes a lot of manpower and money to transport those huge props around the country. So, for that reason alone, I’m not a big fan of that, especially when we’re trying to struggle to just keep higher priorities taken care of, like good equipment, safe buses, quality food, quality instructional staff. But maybe one day we will have our own prop truck to carry around with us. I personally prefer that they leave things as open as possible. 

You do have the limitations of the football field, the instruments you can play, the number of people you can have. And you have that given audience, whatever a drum corps audience is. I like it that groups have the freedom to do whatever they can come up with to get an even more positive reaction out of the audience. The minute they bring a stage, or a platform, or a ladder, or whatever out on the field, and the audience doesn’t applaud, then they’ll stop bringing it out there.  

When do you hope to go from an open corps to a world-class corps within DCI? 

I would say last week. Seriously, we would love to get some good news for 2018, but “DCI” is very particular about making sure that you have a record of good financial management. They’ve seen that we can take a group around the country and then perform impressively, so I think it is currently coming down to having finances audited, and that sort of thing. They want to be confident that you’re not going to be a flash in the pan if they do promote you to world-class. 

How would going to world-class benefit Music City Drum Corps? 

The main thing that we would benefit from is that a lot of the more talented Nashville students would audition for us instead of not really considering us because they are talented enough to make world-class corps. And the main difference is just the venues that you get to perform in. The world-class corps have large shows and venues in San Antonio, and Allentown, Atlanta, which are, you know, it’s really appealing to the young people to get to perform in front of those large audiences. A lot of open-class corps really don’t have any desire to move up to another class. Genesis, from San Antonio, Texas was the most recent addition to world-class, 2017 was their first year in world-class. 

Do you have to be a little crazy to take on all of this? 

You just have to enjoy it a whole lot, and I do enjoy it, as do dozens and dozens of other people who have shared their generosity, and time, and skills with the organization. 

 What would you tell somebody who stopped you and said, “Hey, I’m thinking of doing this?” 

Well, just to find all the help you can possibly get. Know that it’s going to be more expensive than you might imagine, to be very careful regarding finances. It is just extremely difficult to operate a drum corps. There are thousands of people who love drum corps. The fact that there are so few drum corps in existence is evidence of just how hard it is to put one on the field. The new does wear off, so you have to be careful about depending on just a handful of people who might be super passionate about starting a drum corps. It will take the proper culture in a city to support a drum corps into the future. 

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