That’s it. I’m swearing off marching bands.

All right, I know this is heresy. But I need to get it off my chest.
I’ve followed, performed, taught, adjudicated and written marching shows since 1979 – almost forty years now. I actually wrote my first show in 1981, while I was a junior in high school; my director, Clyde Quick, was wise enough not to use it, but it was a great learning experience for me. (Sign of my age: it was a Barry Manilow salute.)
I’ve driven across the country to see the drum corps world championships five different times. I’ve watched DCI just about every year since ’79, even when it got out of hand in the early-mid 1990s (in the Blue Devils’ “Whn A Man Loves A Woman” strip tease days). I’ve created shows for my own high school band programs from 1991 through my retirement from that phase of my career a few years back, and kept writing shows available through my online store “GPS MUSIC” until just recently. I’ve worked with Dave Wells, George Hopkins, and Py Kolb; I’ve spent time with Pete Emmons and George Zingali. I’ve built marching band programs from the ground up multiple times.
I have some familiarity with the subject of marching ensembles.
I’ve spent a good part of the day tracking down videos of as many of the top open class drum corps’ 2018 shows on YouTube as I can. (Finding a good recording of the Santa Clara Vanguard’s current show, for some reason, is difficult. They’ve won just about every show they’ve entered this summer; I’m hopeful they can carry that on until finals in a few weeks.)
And they all have something in common.

The shows themselves are self-aggrandizing piles of garbage.

I can’t explain the appeal, except that DCI’s judging system must be rewarding this kind of pablum. This isn’t a whine about allowing the electronics in – I was one of the ones who tried to pioneer that here in Idaho high school bands. (I used a synthesizer for the twister in our “Wizard of Oz” show in Kuna back in the nineties.) Nor is it particularly anti-prop: the Bluecoats’ brilliant use of the slides in “Downside UP” two years ago made for one of my favorite shows ever.
No, what I’m seeing are immensely talented performers being given music and guardwork that has as its sole purpose showing off how immensely talented the performers are. There’s no sense of musicality, no hummable themes at any point for the audiences, no theme to grasp onto (musically, that is – the show designers are relying on overdubbed vocal orations to convey whatever they claim the theme of the show is)
The apparent instructions to the music arrangers was something like, “give us as much back sticking and double tonguing as you can between moments of park-and-bark where we can show off our mastery of esoteric chords”.
Similarly, the visual designer has given up on creating marching patterns that impress with originality or cleanliness of flagwork, and simply had the instructors teach the musicians stage dance work to do (while the ever-growing pit of sixteen mallet players plus electronics wizards play half the show on their own) and the auxiliary … well, they do amazing work, but it’s much more suited for the stage rather than the football field. I suppose all of it is, and that may be the point. Star Of Indiana had it right – they left the activity 25 years ago this fall to create what would eventually become “Blast!”, a stage version that they say being in DCI restricted them from doing. Now, DCI is farther along that road than Star ever got – at least “Blast!” stuck to drum corps instrumentation.
The drill designer no longer seeks to create ways to transition formations – they just tell the marchers to act and scrunch their way to the next shape when needed. There’s no coherent thematic story line, nothing for the audience to grab onto. I watched ten shows today, and I couldn’t tell you one “message”, one thread of a show theme beyond what the title of the show told me. The Madison Scouts have a huge heart on the field, and the narrator describes in great detail how the blood flows from chamber to chamber – but nothing in the music or visual says a danged thing about that theme. And none of the other shows I watched were even THAT overt.
When you add on the fact that the cost of going to a show is now so prohibitive that I couldn’t have taken my family to even the small, “cheap” shows that rumbled through our neck of the country in mid-July en route back east – that part hasn’t changed in forty years – and drum corps is dead as far as I can see it now. For old times’ sake, I’d like to hear that Santa Clara won the title – but I have no desire to watch the championships in any way, shape, or form.
And the high school game has merely copied what they see the big boys doing. Over the last couple of years I taught, I used to tease my band students that I was writing a show for them that mirrored what we were seeing from the “best” (not the most interesting; particularly not American Fork) bands we saw in Utah and Washington in particular. I called it “Noises of Zen”, and it was precisely what I’ve been describing: lots of long notes, punctuated by loud, aggressive drumming, occasional pointless fast moving passages for the wind players to memorize and stand still to play, formations that meant nothing, flag work that had nothing to do with any thing, and so forth. My late wife bought me a small zen garden to put on my office desk; my oldest son (who was in high school at the time) cleverly faked the first two pages of a score to this supposed “Noises of Zen” show – ALL WHOLE NOTES FOR EVERYBODY – and “accidentally” left it out for the rest of the band to see and freak out about. (Of course, I wrote them an actual “interesting” show – “Empire and Rebellion”; not completely unlike the amazing “Angels and Demons” show the Cadets won their 2012 title with. Unfortunately, that’s when I got too sick to run a marching band program any more, and we never performed it.)
Foolish me. I should have actually WRITTEN that “Noises of Zen” show and sold it. I’d be rich today.
Drum corps in particular is doing something for which the most appropriate analogy would come from my father’s eloquent mouth and would get me banned on Facebook; the analogy I’ll use is milder. They’re creating shows that please themselves rather than the audience, assuming that if YOU don’t like it, you’re not sophisticated enough to “get it”.
There is another alternative, y’know. We may be too intelligent to sink to your definition of “sophisticated”. The Emperor has no clothes on. Write shows we might give a d*** about, and the audiences may come back. Our activities are dying – and you’re not helping.
But it’ll be too late for me to care. Sorry. Been a nice run. From now on, I’ll stick to Aussie Rules football and the college marching bands that know who writes their checks.

1 thought on “That’s it. I’m swearing off marching bands.”

  1. I think we had this discussion 4 years ago as well. It was my impression of high school marching programs, at least in my areas. Every thing is possessed with a theme now, which includes props, one or more stage costumes, and the (ever growing) pit.

    Honestly, the final year Nighean Gheal dropped out completely. Cannot say that I missed it at all.

    (And cost – even here in our local neck of the woods, they were charging $15-20 a head for Bands Of America Finals (they kicked everyone out after the preliminaries). I enjoy watching my kids participate, but for an active band program that could run $300 or more for a fall activity just for one person to watch,)

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