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DCI: The Basics

Article by The Black Page // February 02 2008
DCI: The Basics

As a percussionist, you may have heard about drum corps, but what exactly is DCI? And how can it help you as a drummer? For those of you between the ages of 13-22, marching with a corps is a chance for you to greatly increase the number of talented musicians you know, learn a completely different style of percussion than drum set, all the while working in a strong and supportive group environment.

The basics of DCI (Drum Corps International) are simple. Each group (or Corps) is a privately run organization that recruits musicians (percussion and brass) and performers (guard members and weapons performers) from all over (usually a specific geographic region, but not always) the world. These young adults come together during the spring, prepare a high quality, fast paced, very intense show and spend a summer on the road touring and competing against other groups who have been working on their own shows. The groups travel all over the United States performing at different venues, constantly tweaking their show to make it the best possible. At the end of the summer, the corps all gather for the world championships—competing for the highest title, DCI World Champions. The point spread between the top three (and even top five) corps is very small so every member’s performance truly counts.

DCI is broken down into two categories of competing groups: World Class (formerly Division I) and Open Class (formerly Divisions II/III, now combined to one category). Many of the Open Class groups are like farm teams in baseball. If a member’s skills aren’t quite ready for the demands of the World Class competitive level, then they might spend a season in Open Class where the season is a bit shorter and doesn't require the same full summer commitment that the World Class competitors have. That is not to say the competition to get on the Open Class corps isn’t difficult, because it is just as intense as the World Class groups! 

Also, I should mention, if you are an international student of music, there’s no reason to feel left out! DCI also has an International Class, open to corps from different countries that choose to follow the rules of Drum Corps International. 

How many people are on the field at a time? Whereas large high school or college bands might number 300 members, both classes in DCI can have a maximum of up to 150 on the field (definitely a case of quality over quantity). How the program directors choose to break down how many of each instrument (or performers) is on the field at the same time is up to them, but most percussion sections follow fairly standard numbers. Therefore, you will not see one group with twelve snares players and one bass drummer.   

As a percussionist, there is a great amount of variety within the drum line for you to be a part of. There is drumming that requires marching and playing at the same time (i.e. the Battery), and there is also the stationary mallet and auxiliary equipment, known as the Front Line or "Pit." Both parts make up a drum line and bring a special quality to the show. Each of the sections also breaks down further—the Battery has snare drums, tenor drums, and bass drums (and sometimes cymbals), and the mallet players shift instruments almost constantly. Depending on what type of player you are and where your skills are, there is definitely something to interest you. Audition requirements will vary depending on each instrument, however, having solid chops, a good grasp of rudiments, and being in overall decent physical shape is always a good place to start!

A short amount of online research will turn up a number of different corps (some of which could be in your backyard!), their homepages, contact details, and what they are looking for specifically. If you are looking for further research on your own, I suggest starting at www.dci.org. The website has links to all of the active corps, as well as videos and pictures of what a season looks like. For the highly competitive groups, auditions have most likely already taken place for the season, with the members, if possible, meeting up occasionally to practice and keep their chops in shape over the off season. That’s not to say that there might not be a spot for you. Maybe this summer will find you out on the field in marching music’s major league.

If you do find yourself auditioning, try to keep in mind that there are a number of important qualities a corps is looking for in a player. I don’t think it would hurt to consider this excellent advice from Jason Smith, a Corps veteran: “Most corps' staff are looking for a few things: rate of improvement, general attitude, and grace under pressure. Choosing a member, whether a rookie or a vet, is an investmen of time and energy into that person. Each individual a huge potential to contribute to—or detract from—the entire corps' summer experience and ultimate performance. Staff members want someone who can survive the long haul-and raise the bar through every day of it. Showing up with a well prepared audition is obviously the best way to make a good first impression, but if you show no further improvement or respond poorly to new ideas or instructions, you do not represent a good investment for your corps. You need to demonstrate the ability to make improvements through every moment of the audition, whether it is a one-weekend affair or a month-long process.”

If you don’t go into the audition with those facts in mind, well, perhaps your experience might be a little more like Jacob Brunsman’s, a percussionist. He spoke honestly of his audition for the Glassmen: “It felt really awesome to be with forty other people who shared your passion. I was pretty nervous because I felt like I blew it, but I eventually didn't care just because it was awesome to be with other devoted musicians. The actual audition was pretty nuts. I was in a room in front of the percussion caption head with a snare drum, and he just told me to play certain exercises (which I stumbled horribly through) and it was over. I got a pretty bad rating, but it was an excellent experience so I will know how to prepare myself this year.”

Need other reasons to join? DCI truly can say they have the best of the best in the programs.  Each year, more than eight thousand students audition for fewer than thirty five hundred positions. Also, over sixty percent of those involved with DCI are either currently pursuing music education degrees or plan to do so after graduating high school.  Marching with any of the corps puts you in position with future colleagues and music industry professionals. 

Finally, if you want to do further reading on the subject, there are two books available for details on true life brass and percussion experiences with DCI: Not for the Faint of Heart by Jeremy Van Wert (a tenor player), and On the Field: The Blue Knights! by Gregory M. Kuzma (a brass player).




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