Inside the Arc
“Vocals, Narration, and the Trouble with Amps”
To begin with, full disclosure: some of this is my fault.
In 1977, Rich DeCola and I heard Joel Kaye’s New York Neophonic Orchestra (a kind of Kenton-meets-Maynard group) perform “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, the signature ballad from Jesus Christ Superstar. It rocked, and seemed a natural for Garfield’s book as we sought to elevate the corps’ musical style to a hipper place.
Kaye’s version ends with the entire band singing a full-out plagal cadence “A-men”. This made perfect sense to us, and we tagged it to the finale, debuting this at a contest in upstate New York before a panel that included two of the most progressive and open-minded judges, Jerry Kelsey and Shirlee Whitcomb. Their reactions, and that of the audience, were overwhelmingly positive, bordering on the chaotic. Those adjudication tapes are among my most cherished possessions. We were all ecstatic and quite full of ourselves for being so very clever and cutting edge. And then the trouble began.
The rules clearly forbade “singing and chanting” on the field, but also stipulated that no penalties were to be assessed “after the gun”1 , except for overtime, sideline or flag code2 violations. The stage was now set for the drum corps version of David and Goliath, War and Peace and The Mouse That Roared, or in this case, sang.
What a fine tempest-in-a-teapot this turned out to be: shouting, cheering, booing, penalties, disqualification threats …and a priceless (to me) Timing and Penalty sheet signed by the Solomon-like Chief Judge Dr. Bernard Baggs that read, “No penalty for singing ‘Amen’ on a Sunday afternoon at the CYO Nationals in the presence of the Cardinal.”
Had anyone told me then that 30 years later we’d still be arguing over vocals in drum corps, I’d have referred that individual for immediate psych evaluation. It was only 2 notes, (for pity sake) and yet, here we are.
Why do some otherwise quite reasonable people become livid at the mere mention of “vocalizing” in drum corps? For them it’s the End Times, the Anti-Christ, Armageddon and the cancellation of “Seinfeld” all in one. Drum corps is kaput, finished, game over. It’s an affront to all the forefathers and foremothers of this once great activity, they’ll never buy another corps T-shirt…etc.
I hasten to say they have a perfect right to that opinion. Perhaps they are correct in their dire predictions, but history often makes fools of us all. Consider the accompanying photo.
The Frankford Post Drum Corps
Photo from the private collection of Dr. Ray Osheroff, as published in Vol. 1 of “The History of Drum and Bugle Corps”,
Courtesy of Steve Vickers. Used with permission.
The Frankford corps was legendary and featured one of the greatest buglers of all time, the incomparable Howard C. Nobel, whose signature model horns were rolled out by the hundreds by Slingerland in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Yet here they are in full WWI regalia at the Legion Nationals parade…singing! Despite this, drum corps as a pastime has managed somehow to struggle on even to the present day, the end postponed indefinitely, like United departures from O’Hare. Other catastrophic events have likewise failed to put an end to its forward progress: the valve, the slip-slide, the contra bass, the pit, and most recently, the dreaded key of Bb. (Civil War buglers played these, but I digress.)
As an arranger, musician and adjudicator, I do however have some issues with “the vocal thing”. By and large, it’s just done so badly. And amplification standards in marching music are for the most part positively dismal, when they’re not absent altogether.
Like it or not, this genie is out of the lamp and won’t be going back in any time soon. I’ll pass over the rather sad fact that drum corps is the single most intense acoustic experience one is likely to have on this planet. Why in the name of Bill Ludwig would anyone want to clutter it up with cheesy amplification? The answer seems to be. “because they can”, and since they’re going to anyway, I should like to point out that there are objective professional standards for sound reinforcement, just as there are for brass playing, drumming and movement.
In drum corps, the latter 3 have reached a level that fairly approximates professional accomplishment; not so for audio mixing. If you played your mellophone the way some use their amps, someone would call the cops.
To those who choose to use amplification, I say this: Look, it’s part of your sound, and audience and judge alike should not be expected to tolerate “amateur night at the mixer” when (supposed) top bands and corps perform.
Most of the problems can be traced to 2 factors: lack of even the most rudimentary training, and the absurdly unrealistic restrictions placed on the use of the gear.
Perform a show with a 2-minute sound check? Suicide. This is the audio equivalent of going on without ever having heard the music in the actual drill set: a satisfactory result may be possible, but it will be an accident.
And the musical justification is flat-out bogus to begin with. “We can’t hear the pit instruments over the brass and battery without amps.” Rubbish. That’s what acoustic balance is all about. Real musicians achieve it on a regular basis. Here’s a radical idea: Try arranging the music better and playing it with a semblance of relative dynamics. If you wish something to be clarified, get the other stuff out of the way. I really think you’ll hear those 9 marimbas when you tacet the hornline and battery. And having that up-front army playing constantly throughout the show, filling every possible 16th note space, is just poor ensemble scoring. There are too many players in the pit, the parts are often grossly over-written, we position them downstage from everybody else, and then we amplify them. It’s bad music…but played with such incredible skill.
Part II will feature some suggestions for bringing a degree of order to this chaos, without tossing out the baby with the bathwater (maybe).
Editor Update: Link to Inside the Arc – Issue 7, Part 2
1 The starter pistol, fired at the beginning and end of judging “back in the day”.
2 Corps were required to carry the US flag and observe the military flag code regarding its display.
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 Xtremebrass.com. The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.
Posted by Frank Dorritie on Thursday, December 6th, 2007. Filed under Inside the Arc.