Inside the Arc
“Remember the Orbits”

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Once upon a time they were ubiquitous, those neighborhood corps: the Carter Cadets, Smithtown Freelancers, Blue Max, Seaford Golden Hawks, Page Park Cadets…. Any kid off the street could join, learn to march, to play, spin a flag, and get some valuable lessons about teamwork, commitment, loyalty, and life itself in the bargain. They practiced twice a week at the Legion, firehouse, VFW, church basement or that big shopping mall parking lot. They played songs you could recognize. They respected the flag. Those were the days. Then DCI came along and killed them off, right?

Well, no, not really. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Who were these kids, anyway? Why do we remember them at all? And why does their fate engender such fierce debate?

To begin with, they were us, a musical sub-set of that huge population eruption a/k/a the post-war Baby Boom. There were a gazillion of us. We were overfed and under foot, and something needed to be done with us. The Greatest Generation decided to mobilize us into little musical armies and march us all over the country, tooting and banging away at countless parades and delicatessen openings. This was not art. It was musical Day Care or, depending on the neighborhood, a kind of mobile juvenile detention center in the key of G.

We remember these corps fondly, not just for the nostalgia, but for the results they achieved, and for their noteworthy graduates, like Chick Corea (St. Rose Scarlet Lancers), Wayne Downey (Commack Chiefs), and Mel Torme (Shakespeare Elementary School D&B Corps). And there were thousands of others who went on to become scientists, film makers, doctors, police officers and every kind of productive citizen a viable society requires.

The demise of these local corps creates a palpable sense of loss. Surely today’s “DCI Corps” do not serve the same population. This is undeniable. If Chick showed up at age 12 to a Cadets audition camp without solid previous playing experience it’s unlikely he’d be handed a baritone and given a spot, as he was at St. Rose’s. So who takes care of a kid like that, such that he gets encouragement, not rejection, and eventually becomes a musical dynamo whose compositions will be performed world-wide, even (ironically) at DCI Finals?

The answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind of the secondary school music programs all over the country. True, the little parade corps don’t exist (with some notable exceptions) but their place has been taken by the school programs which have blossomed over the past 30 or so years, as the local corps declined. When we bugle boomers were young, we wouldn’t be caught dead in the HS band. By and large, and especially in the big cities, they were atrocious at best, laughable at worst. Corps had the mojo then. They also had the support of our parents who financed and volunteered themselves into a frenzy for us. The veteran’s organizations and the churches (bless ’em) served great supporting roles.

Our generation had fewer children, and seems to have less time for the ones we have. “There’s too many other things for kids to do these days,” goes the mantra. What a wolf ticket! You want a neighborhood drum corps? Start one up, Bunky. That’s what our parents did. And do it for the young ones, the 9-12 year-olds. Some folks are doing this, in Bridgeport, Brooklyn, Oakland, Stockton, and even South Africa. You’d like to help? Good. Look them up. They’re not hiding. Perhaps someone can convince “the Church” that it can use a little positive public relations right about now to counteract some of those costly scandals. (Drum corps are way cheaper.) One of the most influential corps of all time got started in Bayonne by an enlightened priest, and that story was repeated all over this country. He was even smart enough to hire a certain returning vet named Petrone to get things rolling. There should be a few of those available soon, hopefully.

And for Pete Emmons’ sake, let’s stop blaming “DCI.” There is no “DCI,” no Byzantine, monolithic structure comprised of Machiavellian Magogs wielding authoritarian power over all the little guys. It’s just a loose confederacy made up of the directors of the top corps. Their job is to take care of their own kids. It always was. It’s folly to believe that the only meaningful reason to participate in drum corps is to win DCI Nationals. If that were the case we’d only need 4 or 5 corps.

We all know there’s much more to it than that. There’s a former lead soprano player in St. Augustine, a doctor who specializes in the early detection of cancer. Her name is Janice. She was my student in the Vianney Knights from Merrick, Long Island, and I couldn’t be prouder of her. Every day, she saves someone’s life. That’s what a local drum corps can do – save lives.


About the Author:
Frank Dorritie is one of the legends of the activity .... a performer, instructor, arranger, adjudicator, and observer over the past 5 decades. Frank has been playing the bugle and trumpet since the 1960s, and has performed with artists like Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson. He has instructed and/or arranged for the Blue Devils, Cadets, Santa Clara Vanguard, Cavaliers, Chesterton and Tenri High Schools, the Bushwackers, Bridgemen and a host of others. His audio production honors include 9 Grammy Nominations, 2 Grammy Awards and membership in both the World Drum Corps and Buglers Halls of Fame. He is active internationally as a clinician and adjudicator, holds the DCA Soprano/Trumpet/Tenor Individual titles for 2003, 2005 and 2006. Frank also chairs the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College. His popular brass method book, “Power and Endurance”, is available from The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.

Posted by on Wednesday, April 4th, 2007. Filed under Inside the Arc.