My student wants to do Drum Corps…now what?—The benefits, downsides, and hazards of drum corps for the aspiring brass player (and how to deal with them)
by Stacey Garcia
Brass teachers seem to either embrace or dread drum corps—there aren’t many that are on the fence about it. As a former euphonium performance major, drum corps member, high school teacher, and current drum corps brass instructor pursuing a Master’s degree in music education (with a focus on euphonium and trombone performance), I have seen all sides of the activity and have a unique perspective on the benefits, downsides, and hazards associated.
Regardless of your feelings towards drum corps, the reality is that as a brass teacher, you may have students that will relentlessly pursue the activity. In a recent poll given by DCI (Drum Corps International), they found that “59.6% of the college students in the activity are currently pursuing music education degrees, and 65% of the high school students involved intend to major in music education.” Because of the large number of students that are involved in drum corps, it is important for us as educators to find ways to utilize the benefits while minimizing the hazards of the activity. This article attempts to bridge the gap and give brass teachers some perspective on how to utilize the potential benefits while helping students combat the potential hazards during their drum corps experience.
What is drum corps?
Drum corps is an extremely competitive activity in the marching arts including performers on brass, percussion, auxiliary equipment and dance. Drum corps of Drum Corps International (DCI) generally consist of between 30–150 members from ages 14–21. Members audition for drum corps in late November or December and participate in weekend camps once or twice a month until the summer. After summer begins, members will rehearse and train for 8–12 hours per day, sleep on gym floors at night, and travel in busses across the country to compete with other drum corps. During the rehearsal process, members learn marching fundamentals, drill, playing fundamentals, show music, and encore/parade music. The culmination of the drum corps season is in mid-August and currently takes place in Indianapolis.
Though the activity has been around many years, it has been through monumental changes in show design, style, and pedagogy. One of the most important changes is in the brass pedagogy—great classical musicians have begun to take an interest in the activity and have worked with many groups in the past 10 years. Some notable names that have worked with drum corps recently are Sam Pilafian, Patrick Sheridan, J. D. Shaw, Michael Martin, and Al Cheznovich, among others. Another big change is the switch from G bugles to B-flat marching instruments (with the exception of the mellophone, which is keyed in F). Changes in scoring have also placed more emphasis on brass technique and sound quality, a big change from the “tic” system that only marked off for mistakes in uniformity. Because of these three things, there has been a big shift in the culture of drum corps towards brass playing. For more information about Drum Corps International, check out www.dci.org.
Benefits of drum corps
There can be quite a few benefits for your students doing drum corps if the students take a good approach. Here are some common potential benefits of drum corps:
- Playing time and chop strength—members play their instruments for 4–8 hours per day on average and can gain incredible strength and endurance over the summer.
- Fundamental training—most groups have technique programs that fit within the pedagogy of classical musicians. Common fundamentals taught at drum corps include:
- Breathing techniques
- Singing and ear training
- Lip Slurs
- Dynamic training
- Finger Dexterity
- Networking—there are great musicians who teach in the drum corps world, and getting to learn from these teachers for the entire summer is a fantastic opportunity.
- Life skills
- Teamwork—members learn to work well with a variety of personality types in stressful situations.
- Dedication and Work Ethic—members are completely dedicated to specific performance skills for extended period of time and work hard despite negative factors that might be occurring around them.
- Self-Confidence—performing as frequently as they do in this type of ensemble generally builds up confidence through the experience.
- Performance opportunities—each corps performs in around 10–35 shows per year, in addition to parades, fundraisers, and other community events.
- Competitive drive—the activity is competition based and members strive to work harder and become more detail-oriented because of this.
- Brain training and memorization—members are required to quickly learn and retain new information daily.
Downsides of drum corps
Here is what I believe to be the biggest downsides of drum corps—these are things that sometimes occur regardless of the approach that the student takes over the summer.
- Loss of range—some members lose their range over the summer. The general tendency is for tubas or lower part players to lose their high range and for lead players to lose their low range.
- Lack of opportunities for other activities over the summer—there are a variety of camps and lesson opportunities that occur over the summer that can’t be attended during drum corps.
- Lack of variety in practice—members will rehearse the same music, fundamentals, and show for 3 months.
- Technicians, not musicians—members may become very detail oriented over the summer, but seldom have to make musical choices of their own. This can sometimes cause the “musical” side of the student to retrograde.
- Lack of time on a concert horn—members will be playing on a marching horn and except for rare occasions are not able to bring concert instruments. Although marching instruments are improving, they are just not the same as concert instruments (regardless of the quality of the instrument).
- Loss of music reading/sight reading skills—members will not have much opportunity to read music, once they have memorized their show and technique program.
- Mouthpiece changes—some drum corps require the section to all use the same mouthpiece for blending and tuning purposes.
Hazards of drum corps
Hazards of drum corps are things that I believe can be avoided with some careful research and guidance for your student. These are things that can occur if your student goes to a drum corps with poor pedagogical ideas that trains your student poorly, or if your student joins a group less concerned about health and safety.
- Bad habits
- Over blowing
- Too much mouthpiece pressure
- Tension in sound
- Excess abdominal/body effort to create sound
- Strange articulation techniques
- Loss of “center” in sound
- Loss of soft dynamic range
- Face injuries—poor marching training can lead to collisions between members and occasionally can cause instruments to bruise lips
- Hand/forearm injuries—some groups use wrist weights effectively as a means to help them gain strength to hold up their instruments, but overuse of these can cause muscle injuries.
- Cracked lips/cold sores, etc—being in the sun all day without enough hydration can cause lip injuries.
- Various physical injuries—lack of stretching, training, or poor diet before rehearsal can cause physical injuries (such as back problems, sickness, pulled muscles) that can affect the brass players approach to breathing and playing.
Obviously drum corps can have some dangerous effects on brass players. The good news is that these HAZARDS can be mostly avoided with a little help from you, the teacher.
Check the approach: Picking the right corps and applying a classical approach to drum corps fundamentals
A key to avoiding the hazards of drum corps is picking a corps that that cares about the safety of your student and teaches the “right” fundamentals. Your student should look for drum corps that stress safety in various climates, give frequent water breaks, stretching opportunities, and have allotted sufficient time sleeping on the floor (not on the bus!) in their tour schedule—at least 4 hours in a gym per night is typical floor time. This is something you can have your student research and present to you when they are trying to choose a drum corps.
In terms of playing, here are some good ways that you can help your student choose the group that will work the best for them:
- Look at the audition packet—this will be a good indicator of the level of music the group plays as well as the types of fundamentals they will focus on over the summer.
- Contact the brass caption head—most brass caption heads will be happy to answer questions you have about their brass fundamentals and technique program.
- Listen to the finals performance from the year before to hear the kind of music the corps plays (and how they perform it)
- Watch videos of the brass warm ups—these are frequently posted by fans on www.youtube.com and sometimes posted by DCI on their website dci.org as part of their fan network. These videos can give you a glimpse of the teaching methods as well as the performance standards the corps is held to.
After your student has chosen their drum corps, auditioned, and become a member, it is important to continue monitoring their approach to the activity. A good way to do this is to have them demonstrate parts of their brass technique program from the drum corps in their lessons. The brass technique book is the group of exercises that they will be using for the entire summer, usually including long tones, lip slurs, finger dexterity, articulation, etc. By having your student play through these exercises for you for even just a few minutes in a lesson or two, you can have input on what they will be working on over the summer beyond what their drum corps staff will give them.
Drum corps is an activity of repetition striving towards excellence—over the summer, your student will reinforce habits (good or bad). By checking the student’s approach to the brass fundamental technique book before the summer begins, you can help ensure that they will approach the fundamentals in a way that will be helpful to their playing, both in drum corps and on their concert instrument.
In order to combat any downsides or hazards that you think may be a big problem for your student, feel free to assign them things to work on over the summer. Although there is a fairly strict schedule and a very busy life on the road, it is possible to find a little bit of time to work on other music during meals, snack time, after shows, or during laundry days. Members also usually have the opportunity to participate in DCI’s Individual and Ensemble competition in which they can compete with solos on either concert or marching instrument. Assigning listening is always a great idea—have your student fill their listening devices with great classical music or soloists of their instrument for them to listen to on long bus rides to keep great sounds in their head while they travel the country.
The dreaded return from drum corps: Making the transfer
If all has gone well over the summer, your student will come back a stronger player who is inspired to play after an exhilarating experience of competition and performance. Regardless of their experience, however, there is going to be a transition period back into concert season (take note of the downsides and hazards listed above). For students who are able to avoid the hazards of drum corps, getting back into their concert instrument usually takes only a few weeks.
The playing downsides to drum corps can be easily addressed in the first few weeks with old solutions for common problems. Here are a few suggestions for things to assign the first few weeks that will address multiple downsides/hazards at once to expedite the transition back:
- Lyrical etudes for work on soft dynamic range, for requiring them to make musical choices, for note reading, and for sound quality
- Low range work for lead players and high range work for non-lead players
- Mirror work will address most posture and physical tension issues immediately. For extreme cases, work with them on relaxation techniques, breathing, etc. Standing or sitting in front of a mirror with their horn is always helpful.
- Listening to great soloists and classical music for their instrument to help them to redevelop their sound quality expectations for their concert instrument
- Long tones (of course!) to reestablish their sound quality and center on their concert horn
Every student is different, and should look at the benefits, downsides, and hazards of drum corps before making a decision about whether drum corps will work for them. I hope that the information in this article will help some students interested in drum corps to make informed decisions, and will help identify ways to create the best MUSICAL experience for students that decide to pursue both concert brass playing and drum corps performance.
From my experience, performing with a drum corps can work for aspiring brass players without being detrimental (and it might even improve their playing). Although you may not ever push for your students do drum corps, if you do have a student that wants to do it, realize that it’s not necessarily the end of their brass playing. Drum corps can be an effective tool in keeping students motivated and inspired to play their instruments over the summer – and it certainly can be more helpful than not playing at all. It teaches great things on a variety of levels if approached correctly, and the downsides are minimal in comparison to the benefits (and can be quickly rectified once your student returns to school.) Fundamental skills of brass playing that are learned and reinforced over the summer are easily transferred to concert playing, and more importantly, the work ethic and dedication to music and performing that drum corps tends to instill in young musicians can forever be part of your student’s approach.
Stacey Garcia is currently pursuing the degree of Master of Music in Music Education from the University of Arizona with a focus on euphonium and trombone performance. She received her bachelor degree in Music Education and Euphonium Performance from the University of Arizona in 2007. Stacey performed with the Academy Drum and Bugle corps from 2002-2007, finished a season with the Santa Clara Vanguard in 2004, and has taught brass technique to the Oregon Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps from 2009-present.
Note from the Author: I’d like to give a brief description of my experience with being an aspiring brass player who performed in drum corps for 6 years (before, during, and after my college experience.) I believe that being a member of drum corps greatly enhanced my experience as a music education and euphonium performance major. I was very fortunate to march with a group that was taught in part by master tuba performers and teachers Sam Pilafian, Patrick Sheridan, and Christian Carichner, along with other talented brass staff and a fantastic corps director, Mark Richardson. These brass instructors took a very musical approach to drum corps (an approach that is becoming increasingly popular in the drum corps world). I was also very fortunate to be studying euphonium with Dr. Kelly Thomas, who not only allowed me to do drum corps but worked with me to apply and transfer my drum corps experience and passion into my classical playing.
Throughout my 9 years of being involved in the activity as member, volunteer, and brass staff, I have had the opportunity to network with a hundreds of great musicians and teachers. As a teacher on the brass staff, I now am able to influence aspiring musicians and music educators across the country, applying the brass pedagogy from classical playing to the drum corps setting. It’s an invaluable opportunity as a music educator and as a brass player to teach students who are absolutely dedicated and willing to work hard to achieve excellence.
Drum corps changed my perspective and my approach to practicing, playing, excellence, and competitiveness. It required me to give all of my energy to performance, regardless of physical or mental barriers that were encountered. It also forced me to work on fundamental playing for long periods of time every day with an amount of detail that I would never have approached practicing on my own at that point in my musical career. After returning from drum corps each summer, I was more inspired to practice, I was better at brass fundamentals, I breathed better, I was more in shape, I was more confident, and I was more and more dedicated each year to becoming a better musician. Drum corps is not for everyone, but for myself – I know that I would not be the performer or musician I am today had I not done drum corps.