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Drum and bugle corps (modern)

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Drum and bugle corps (modern)

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The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, a DCI Division I corps from Rosemont, Illinois. The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, a DCI Division I corps from Rosemont, Illinois.

A drum and bugle corps or drum corps (pronounced core in singular and cores in plural) is a musical marching unit, similar to a marching band, consisting of brass instruments, percussion instruments, and a color guard. Drum corps perform in field competitions, parades, and other civic functions operating as Non-profit organizations. Most groups participate in competitive summer touring circuits operated by Drum Corps International (DCI), Drum Corps Associates (DCA), or an overseas derivative such as Drum Corps United Kingdom (DCUK), and Drum Corps Europe (DCE). It is primarily a youth activity (aged 22 and under), although DCA corps allow members of any age. Competitions occur on football fields and are judged based upon general effect, visual performance, and musical performance.

Musical repertoires can vary widely between shows, including classical, jazz, big band, contemporary, Broadway, and Latin music. During summer tours, DCI and DCA sanction competitions across the United States and Canada, while DCUK and others sanction competitions in Europe and Japan. Each drum corps prepares a single show, approximately 10–12 minutes in length, and refines it throughout the entire summer tour. Highly competitive corps spend 8 to 10 weeks on tour full-time, practicing and performing their program until reaching the circuit Championships at the end of the summer, where all corps come together to compete for a title.



Drum 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, AL, and various others. Owing to their veterans-groups roots, corps were highly militaristic in nature. By the late 1960s, some managers, directors and staff wanted more creative freedom in artistic direction and in financial compensation. Some felt the show sponsors' 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 competitive corps active nationwide, several corps decided to band together and form their own organizations, which ultimately led to the formation of DCA in 1965 and DCI in 1972 (the birth of "modern" corps). As more and more corps joined these new organizations, the original veterans-group and other organizational sponsors of the drum corps activity withdrew. Concurrently, as equipment costs for the increasingly-complex competition routines mounted, and as creative and instructional demands rose, nearly all of the older and long-successful competitive corps began to falter and become competitively inactive, or disband. For the corps which remained, longer travel times were necessary to attend the shrinking numbers of remaining contests, further adding to the financial and time demands on corps and individual members. By the 1990s, most of the 1970s corps had dissolved, but some of the surviving corps did briefly benefit by the influx of those newly at-liberty members.

However, 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; and members often remain vigilant about the virtues of the drum corps activity before they believe it was corrupted by the modern-style corps.

Freed from the traditional and more-restrictive judging rules of the late 1960s, modern 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 stationary orchestral percussion instruments. A common criticism of modern drum corps is that they have become too similar to marching bands, but there are important differences. Most obviously, modern competitive corps use only bell-front three-valve brass instrumentation. Corps are independent, non-profit organizations, whereas marching bands are usually associated with schools. The competitive season for modern corps is in the summer rather than fall. (Note: "Golden Age" classic corps competed in winter-season indoor "standstill" contests.) Drum corps shows are generally more complex and more professional than in marching bands, as members in full-time touring corps have no distractions outside of corps during the season, instructional and creative staffs are the best in the activity, and membership is attained through highly competitive auditions.

While generally concentrated in the United States and Canada, the activity has also spread to parts of Europe and Asia.

Musical program


A show normally consists of one genre of music, or sometimes melds separate genres together. Modern corps shows have become increasingly thematic and enveloping, with overarching show concepts rather than loosely-related musical selections. Often, especially with classical selections, a single composer is featured. Corps have played virtually every genre fit for field adaptation, including jazz, new age, classical, and even rock music. It is becoming increasingly common to hear corps performing original music, composed specifically for the corps by their musical staff or consultants.

Structurally, shows have a few common components: an "opener" piece designed to grab the audience's attention, a percussion feature, a ballad (featuring the hornline), and a "closer", which is often the climax of the show. 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 show with a wide variety of dynamics, tempos, and feels to demonstrate the corps' talents.



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, mellophones, baritones and euphoniums, and contra basses.

All these instruments can appear in either G or Bb; the name is not dependent on the key. 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. 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 ease of 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 2000, 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. 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, if not in G, are most commonly pitched in Bb, with mellophones usually pitched in F.


Main article at Marching percussion

The percussion section consists of two distinct but equally important divisions: the "pit" or "front ensemble" and the "battery".

Front ensemble members play orchestral percussion instruments, including marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, timpani, drums, cymbals, gongs and various other percussive instruments. As the nature of these instruments requires them to be stationary, the pit is typically centered on the front sideline, closest to the audience. Full-sized corps have between 8-12 members in their pit. Some corps use electronic amplification so delicate percussive instruments can be heard in a stadium setting. However, amplification has also been used for the more controversial purposes of talking, singing, and "drumspeak" (beat boxing). Prior to the mid-1980s, corps did not have front ensembles. Instead, members would march with glockenspiels, small xylophones, and timpani, carried with harnesses similar to other battery drums.

The battery consists of percussionists who march on the field along with the hornline and color guard. They commonly play four instruments: the marching snare drum, tenor drums (also known as "quads", "quints", or "toms"), marching cymbals, and marching tonal bass drums. In large DCI corps, the battery typically consists of 7–10 snare drummers, 4–5 tenor drummers,4-6 cymbals players, and 5 bass drummers. Cymbal lines are known for providing visual effects on the field, as well as many metallic musical effects.

Visual program

Color guard

In modern drum corps, the color guard is a crucial part of a corps' visual program. The athletic and theatrical abilities of guard members are above and beyond any similar activity, performing interpretive dance as well as handling equipment. Standard equipment includes flags, rifles, and sabers, but other objects like bare poles, hoops, balls, and streamers are sometimes used to create visual effects that enhance the show.

The primary role of the color guard is to enhance the musical program that the corps is playing. The color guard inteprets the music and gives a visual that compliments the music.

While the rest of the corps generally wears the corps' traditional uniform, the guard members wear uniforms that are custom-made for each season's show theme.

For more information, see the color guard and Winter Guard International articles.

Drill formations

Drill formations have become very sophisticated in modern corps. Traditional blocks, company fronts, and symmetrical formations—while still used occasionally for impact—have largely given way to "Jell-O" formations and intricate developments aided by the use of computer-assisted drill writing programs. Drill writing is an art form unto itself, and is very carefully crafted to keep instrumental sections together, to put the featured members at the center of attention and visually reinforce musical phrasing, and of course to create the most interesting and innovative shapes and movements possible.

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), individually spinning boxes within a larger diamond square (Cavaliers, 2000), and inclusion of symbols such as the Maltese Cross for The Crossmen or the Fleur-de-lis (the ever-present symbol of the Madison Scouts), with a heartily enthusiastic response from fans in 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.

Marching technique

In order to facilitate such demanding drill, corps must be diligent with their marching techniques. Every corps has its own unique blend of techniques that are used to differentiate themselves from other corps, such as keeping the leg as straight as possible or bending the knee, or keeping toes straight ahead or naturally angled out. Virtually every corps begins each movement (or "steps off") with the left foot (the one current exception being the Cadets) and relies on the "heel-toe roll" as the basis of their marching technique. Regardless of minor differences in techniques among corps, the goal of all corps is to achieve fluid, consistent movements that allow for precise musical technique at all tempos, step sizes, and directions. This means marching technique must not affect the rigidity of members' upper torsos, which must face toward the audience at all times for maximum aural projection. Horn players may twist their lower bodies in the direction of the move, but percussionists, due to the nature of their equipment, must keep their entire bodies facing forward at all times. This has led to the invention of the "crab step", where the legs cross over one another to facilitate sideways motion. For both drummers and horn players, turning the whole body in the direction of movement is rare, unless done for visual or musical effect. Being purely visual, guard members are not as bound to facing the front sideline and may be facing any direction at any time as choreography dictates. Marching backward is usually executed by staying on the toes (keeping heels off the ground), though some corps reverse the heel-toe roll step (to be toe-heel) during slow tempos. Guard members often "jazz step", which is similar to jogging with the toe hitting the ground before the heel.

The season

While performances and competitions only occur during the summer, preparation for the next season starts as soon as the last one ends. Corps activity of some sort goes on year-round. Months in advance of next season's first camp, corps begin assembling their staffs, choosing their musical repertoires, writing drill, etc.


For junior (DCI) corps, the season is a very intense process. Most corps begin having camps on or around Thanksgiving Day weekend and continue having monthly weekend camps throughout the winter. Potential members travel far and wide—literally from around the world—to attend the camps of their favorite corps. Membership in the top corps is highly competitive and is generally determined during the first few camps. By spring, the members have been chosen and camps are held more frequently as the beginning of the summer touring season approaches. Most junior corps require their non-local members to secure temporary housing (often with local members or a vacant dormitory) near the corps' rehearsals facilities around Memorial Day weekend. For most of May and into June (as college and high school classes end), full-day rehearsals are held virtually every day so members can finish learning the music and marching drill of the show. This pre-season "spring training" is usually 3–4 weeks long. It is not uncommon for members to rehearse 10–14 hours a day, 6–7 days a week through out the entire pre-season. In mid to late June, corps leave to begin their summer tours.

For senior corps the process is not quite as grueling. Since most members are working adults and have lives outside of drum corps, senior corps rehearse on weekends and occasionally on weekday evenings. Rather than extensive tours, senior corps usually take weekend trips to perform in shows, and make longer trips only to regional championships and finals. Many smaller DCI corps and foreign corps have similar itineraries. Non-competitive corps, such as classic-style corps, alumni corps, or newly aspiring corps might not have a defined season at all. They practice and perform as they deem necessary or possible. Occasionally such corps make exhibition appearances at DCI or DCA shows.


Corps are generally divided and compete in two or three divisions or classes depending on size, age of members, and how much touring the corps wishes to be involved in. These divisions have changed over the years in accordance to shifts in trends and rules. Drum corps circuits worldwide generally follow this form:

  • Open Class represents the elite full-sized corps that tour full-time.
  • 'A' Class represents corps with fewer members or a less-demanding tour.
  • Cadet Class represents corps with particularly young members (generally under 14), which may serve as "feeders" for larger corps.

See each circuit's respective article to learn more about their divisions.

Tour and competition

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 several parades throughout the summer for 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 of the intense and superior 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):

Total possible score: 100
General Effect 40 Visual 30 Music 30
Visual 20 Performance 10 Brass 10
Music 20 Ensemble 10 Ensemble 10
    Color guard 10 Percussion 10

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.

Corps organization

Most corps are operated as or by dedicated non-profit organizations; very few are associated with schools or for-profit entities. Some corps are even parts of larger non-profit performance arts organizations, which might also include theater groups, winter guards, winter drumlines, and other various musical or visual activities. In Europe, many are also registered charities, assisting with their fundraising aims.


Despite their non-profit status, a well-run corps is just like a well-run business. It requires many bright and dedicated people to handle the fiscal and operational responsibilities. There are three levels of staff operating a drum corps: Executive, Instructional, and Volunteer. Each plays an essential role in creating a well-run corps.

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 in 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 often alumni of the corps or other corps. A well-funded Division I 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, 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.

Dues and fundraising

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 well over a thousand dollars per member. 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–$500,000 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. 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.

See also

External links

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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