Inside the Arc
“Judging the Judges”

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On a Sunday afternoon in mid summer 1968 it’s oppressively hot and humid in Jersey City. We wear uniforms made of wool blend, and don’t care. The “breeze” feels like one of those moments in mom’s kitchen when you open the oven to see if the roast is done. It matters not. We have to go on first. That too is inconsequential. It’s the premier show of the season, the National Dream Contest. Ten of the finest drum corps in the country are here. There’s no where else to be.

Sweat pours down from the shakos as we begin the “concert”, the stand still piece that’s the linchpin of the show. Gershwin: “American in Paris”. It’s a stretch for bugles with one valve, perhaps the most difficult piece we’ve ever done. The Field Brass judge stands directly in front of us, clip board poised to tic any and all transgressions of timing, balance and even intonation.

As much as we try to keep focused on the task at hand, the conductor, the music…et al, it’s impossible not to monitor the judge. He’s right there, right in front, pencil poised. We play the entire piece. He never goes to the pad, and when we’re through, he slides it under his left arm, executes a little pirouette, and applauds. The crowd goes ballistic, and that moment is seared into our collective memory for all time.

Seven years later, at Bluegrass Nationals in KY, a naïve instructor struggles to ask the right questions of a drum corps icon at critique. “A tad less tongue, and a tad more air”, says the guru who has national champion brass lines in his CV.

A season or so beyond that, and a brilliant educator advises that “Tone is everything, and you’re getting there.” When an arranger claims his charts are more difficult than those of another, a wise mentor replies (kindly), “Anyone can attempt difficult music and miss the mark. The idea is to achieve a good sound, consistently.”

“A few of us are going to the Symphony to hear Mahler’s 8th. You should come. It will do you good.”

“Hey man, it’s Jazz. Just lay back.”

“Now you’re talking!” (dodging a flying drum line at Class A prelims, with the grace of a ballerina.)

Sometimes we are tempted to think of adjudicators as cold and analytical. We blame them for unpopular repertoire and controversial outcomes, and undervalue their own experience as instructors and mentors. But there have been plenty of them like those above (in order of appearance: Donald Angelica, Truman Crawford, Sandra Opie, Dr. Bernard Baggs, Jim Unrath, Rich DeCola, Charlie Poole) whose impact and influence have shaped our art and added immeasurably to the quality of the experiences of every performer and instructor whose work they have evaluated.

Surely, some judges are better than others and there is the occasional misstep, but the best of them have been (and are) worth their weight in gold. They hold us to a standard and remind us that great performance is much more than just the absence of mistakes.

As the activity moves forward, let’s remember to bring the mentors and their vision and high standards along. We should thank, celebrate and salute them. They enrich us and always will.

Photo of DCI percussion judge Alan Kristensen from “Judging 101” by Michael Boo,

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 Monday, June 14th, 2010. Filed under Inside the Arc.