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Some design thoughts after the 1st quarter

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As the ever-shorter season ramps up here’s a collection of thoughts more focused on design side factors.

First up, a few general comments…

·       With that shorter season it seems like corps present their shows at season openers and wait for that first batch of judges scores in a similar way to how the producers of a new  theater production must feel prior to those opening night reviews.

After several weeks of move-in rehearsals there’s too much time invested to make wholesale changes, and the season is now too concise to allow for much in the way of 2nd half surges. Corps know that these days they must start strong and with momentum!

·       We seem to have  now moved into the ‘matured’ phase of prop usage, where there’s a dwindling of new prop-usage ideas and arguably some shows that could be just as effective without any props. I wonder how long it will be until that circle completes? Do staffs now seem props as a mandatory element where they won’t be able to tick all the required evaluation boxes without them? We can only speculate!

·       If we’ve moved past peak-prop then we may be in the age of peak-‘dance-inspire-movements’? (for lack of  a better term!)

The ongoing quest of designers looking to stuff their programs with as much demand and variety that can be achieved has now manifested itself fully in utilizing dance and movement for the musicians more than ever before.  For many years in brass and drums it required mastering only the occasional bend or lean to supplement uber-important marching skills. Now members need many  more movement skills in their toolboxes… and youngsters today will see all this movement as a completely natural and organic part of a drum corps show. Older fans are maybe less enthused in some quarters!

In future, through luck or targeted recruiting, we might witness a small brass ensemble all with accomplished ballet skills, or maybe a tenor section comprised of champion break dancers, but in 2023 we seem to be close to the apex of what is achievable with large groups of young people that, in the main, have not had formal dance training. IMO the pervasion of non-marching movement does come with some trade-offs. More on that later…



After a great 2022, could the Colts follow-up it up in 2023. The signs are promising. This is a fun and accessible show that still has a lot of meat for the performers to get to grips with. The Where the Heart is concept is brought up with some audio samples that can be filed under simple but effective. Minuano is currently the standout portion of the show. I’d say it could be the best rendition ever of a Metheny chart in DCI? The use of  instrumentation techniques and electronics really bring the Metheny vibe to life particularly in the quieter sections. My only criticism is that it might benefit from some further editing. Towards the end the piece builds nicely through the audio and visual and looks set to power through to a conclusion only to drop the intensity down again with a percussion interlude and the intensity doesn’t quite get back there again.

Across the show red costuming off the musicians is offset with a contrasting but complimentary colur pallet in the silks and some challenging marching and playing with a non-stop feel to this show. After returning to finals last year Colts will be wondering how high they can climb this year.



For Troopers, the obvious place to start is with the prop, which, linked to the concept is the epitome of simple but effective. While moving east to west across the field , the premise of capturing the sun is a recurring feature throughout the show. Could this make Troopers too much of a one-trick pony? Potentially yes, but the visual gimmick sits astride a corps that have been given music and visual packages that are a step up from 2022 (which itself was great), and the corps generally moves and plays well.

The corps starts around the perimeter of the field and good field coverage and constant motion is a feature.  Later, a small detail is where the horns drop to their knees then step out of that position all while playing…it’s definitely a move for the young!

This is a show that is easily identifiable as a troopers show, as are the costumes. It’s a show I look forward to seeing develop across the season. The corps has a lot to clean and a lot of potential with it.



The Sinnerman show is refreshingly different to the rest of the field. I don’t really like it but I wonder if that is the point? The religious smocks worn by the brass in the opener are horrendous from a marching silhouette perspective and later the Smile piece is ambiguous in mood and purpose.  But the performers are working well to sell the package and I think…it works. The whole show fosters a sense of off kilter elements from the combination of costumes to the matching of visual and audio. Even the disrobing is chaotic, borrowing from the BD 22 approach of remove and throw! The contrast of the red and white costumed performers allows for some neat Angels and Demons style effects. Later, the revolving props bring memories of Duran Duran’s Wild Boys music video! The ending is rather stationary and lacking in excitement to match the music but will surely be enhanced as the season progresses.


Blue Stars

In Absinthia is another concept realization that is uniquely Blue Stars in its presentation. At it’s simplest the intoxication from Absinth is represented through the infiltration of the color green across the field. It provides a simple but easy to follow progression to the show. However, it is also an effect with diminishing returns, so I wonder if there is scope to keep surprising the audience with how those uniform changes are revealed.

The sugar cube props are simple but work well in conjunction with the spoon slides, and to a less extent, the straws. The sugar cubes as well as screening the costume changes also offer some significant height for performers, and it allows for some interesting visual collages. This corps has a knack for using and moving props well and this year is no different. I like this show and it seems like all the constituent parts are in place to give the performers a vehicle to max out. I expect GE will be a strength for them.

 This year again there are some high-quality soloists and the brass have a nice, full, ensemble sound, even if the music itself is not as memorable as some of the corps around them.

There seems to be more quality in the middle of the pack this year than preceding years that I can think off. Blue Stars can match last year’s placement no doubt!




I was keen to see what the returning staff names would bring to the table in this anniversary year. And the show gets off to an intriguing start.

There are some nice classic-Cavalier inspired visual moments in the opener and a larger colur guard than last year helps with the overall look. Sticking with the visual, there are clearly some early season readability options due to execution but also some construction issues. In fact as the show progresses, I found I’m thinking back to all the years of fantastic Cavaliers visual productions and it’s a shame there isn’t more of that in this show. Some of the drill could be described as generic, certainly a long way from the levels and uniqueness of the 90’s and 00’s visual packages.

This show, perhaps more than any other, has props that seem superfluous. Do designer’s feel props are now a must-have? Dispensing with props might be deemed as impractical as dispensing with electronics, but if one show could have managed without, it would be this one.

Musically the corps are rougher round the edges than the corps around them, but even with the shorter season there is time grow.

When we reach the closer, construction wise the step over seems to take a long time in the build-up. It might be intentional, but I’m not sure teasing out the delay is working. Also, while the step over itself carries with it a lot of tradition, the actual effect provided in a 2020’s production is arguable. The closing moments with some call backs to shows of year’s past is a goldmine from which they are only scratching the surface currently. Cavies, perhaps more than any other corps, have a wealth of audio and visual snippets that could be combined to have the audience going crazy for the end of this show (some Gavorkna Fanfare anyone?) so hopefully there is more to come in this respect.

I think Cavies can have a strong season but will be challenged by other corps who are clearly on upwards trajectories.


Phantom Regiment

Early impressions are of nice musical books and improved visual elements for 2023.  The props create and interesting opening collage and the tarp  works well to convey the idea of pods travelling down through the atmosphere. Beyond the opener however,  I’m not sure they add a great deal of value.

The musical  sounds phantom-esque and fits well with the concept. At times there is a Holst vibe evident, but the musical book is a departure in terms of source material, but it works.  

There are several positive signs around this show. My main doubt currently is that the Exogenesis concept does not have obvious theatrical hooks for a drum corps show, and Phantom appear not to be leaning too hard into telling a story or any obvious signposting of thematic development. I can’t help but wonder if they picked the optimal concept to build around what is  a solid set of music arrangement,  and  an entertaining musical and visual package.

One rough edge in the closer is where they set out a neat climatic set piece with the wedge that expands in stages, only to then stop and pause. The music then restarts only to resolve quite quickly into the actual ending. Hopefully something they’ll iron out.

Concept doubt aside, I think they’ve put together an exiting product and would be surprised if they’ve not in and around the 5-6 placements come August.



Coming off the ’22 season, many it seems had high hopes for Cadets this year and the release of the concept and musical repertoire seemed only to fuel this. I may have been an outlier then in having a doubt around the Atlas Rising concept. The courage-in-the-face of adversity concept seemed a little nebulous and I was, and remain, interested to see how far this concept can go in enabling the show to develop.

What’s not perhaps in any doubt, is that a concept that emphasizes athleticism is a great fit for this corps, even if some of the choreo seems to have been better suited to NYC commuters than athletes in training. There is a cool opening set with the horn line in a connected push-up position.  From there Cadets are one of several corps that open up the show with a percussion led intro, together with lots of thematic body movement from the brass.  It’s about 70 seconds to the first brass entry and it feels a little long and lacking in a sustained build of tension. On rewatching,  I found myself thinking back to the 2000 edition of Cadets and the Millennium Celebration show with the clock effects, back field marching and playing leading into the opening hit. In contrast, a percussion only with brass role play doesn’t come close when comparing the tension and release effect (Cadets have traditionally set a high bar for programming so it’s ok to compare, right?)

That said, the brass opening statement itself is a great moment from them, with perhaps the best crowd response in the show just now.

Another aspect that stands out is the unusual pacing of this show. I’m far from the first person to observe this. The brass open up part 2 with some effective technical passages and the piece goes along at a nice lick for a while before handing over to the battery again. From there, it moves into a slow piece, and it feels a little premature. The brass have not played so much to this point and it doesn’t feel like the audience are reading for the lower intensity so soon.

The show utilises several props that are painted to match the guard costumes. The overall color palette helps readily identify the corps.  Unfortunately the props remind me of Phantom’s props from last season, they seem quite conspicuous when moved around the field and offer little in the way of support for innovative effects.

For Cadets and others with similar props, I’m intrigued to know if raising a feature performer less than two feet of the ground is actually rewarded?

In terms of the visual design there’s noticeably less of the standout drill synonymous with the Sylvester and Sacktig years, and I miss been able to spot a Cadets show from the visual alone. For a show based around athleticism there seems to be a lot of faster movement where the brass are not playing, a reliance on four person gates, and too little of the marching AND  playing at break-neck pace that we had become accustomed to with Cadets. 

Overall, I think Cadets will do well to match their 2022 placement, with a better executing set of performers offsetting a less evocative concept.




Boston in ’23 continue to explore classical literature-based shows but have they come up with a package to match the likely talent level in this year’s corps? White Whale certainly raised the bar in terms of show announcement production values (does that really matter!) But how about the production values of the show itself?

First impressions first. Like many, I suspect, I have a vague understanding of the story that doesn’t go far beyond Captain Ahab chasing a whale. That might be why I was doubtful how well this story would translate to a 12-minute drum corps show, in an idiom that tends to require sprinkling of drama and showmanship, and there is a limited set of effect tropes to choose from.

The show is stacked with visual and musical elements that we can now say have become modern-Boston’s style. The corps move and play very well, a contra motion wave move in the brass towards the end of the opener is well handled, and with the continuation of the outstanding guard there are several moments of high exposure.

The props  lend themselves to the nautical theme, although I find the crows nest and platforms reminiscent of SCV’s Babylon scaffolding props, and less literal and of-the-time of the source material.

The guard are costumed in theme, but I’m not a fan of the musician’s costumes. I guess they are representing the ocean, but they don’t really work for me, and I don’t think they have the same ‘cool’ factor as some others, such as Crown.

Pacing wise, the show has an extended percussion feature in the 2nd quarter which I’m not convinced is optimal for the flow of the show or in moving the narrative forward. The sea shanty section is fun, and I hope there is more to come from this.

The whale sound effects and visual motifs are an obvious addition but effective nonetheless. Right now, I find the show is not quite hitting the mark in terms of storytelling, lacking intrigue or a clear narrative arc. And color guard aside, the brass percussion and visual lack any truly memorable moments to get the audience off their feet. Audience reaction just now seems strongly appreciative of the quality of the performers and all round level of excellence, but some way short of mid-show standing O’s that the very best shows deliver. Mind you some might argue this is a criticism that has been leveled at Blue Devils across may seasons past?



The 2023 edition seems to be an obvious next step from the Beatles shows and last year’s show, incorporating elements from both. The Garden of Love perhaps has more scope for how the show can evolve than Riffs and Revelations, but doesn’t yet have any of the big unique moments of that show. That said, this is an engaging production with  high quality  and vivid props, evident talent across all sections, and some slick marching, playing, and staging.

Strip away the electronics, and the music could be described as typical drum corps fare, closer perhaps to Bluecoats' 2016 in feel than any other of their shows since?

There is a neat change in color pallette in the second half of the show along with some interesting headless costumes in the guard, and I think we are set for a surprise later in the season when the main prop is turned for a second time towards the end of the show.

I like this show, and think it can go a long way, but strangely I don’t have much commentary to offer. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the shiny new ideas from recent editions, whereas the 2023 Bluecoats are more about honing existing ideas into a finely crafted package.



Carolina Crown

This time last year, I had a sneaking suspicion Crown could have a package to win. It didn’t turn out that way, but I’d wager that Crown’s staff took a lot away in terms of what worked well and not so well from the array of effects deployed. This year’s concept could be regarded as a safe choice in comparison…medieval themes have been well used,  with one or two examples that live long in the memory. At the same time it could be a challenge to do something seen as fresh. But I think Crown manage it.

The show opens with the featured performer being carried a loft on a throne prop to the round table positioned center field. Echoes of Spartacus anyone?  …and I do hope they’ve got their measurements right to fully cover the center field marking at LOS!

The brass play a lot but I’d concur with many comments on here that one extended passage aside, it never feels like notes for the sake of it. They march and play as much and as well as anyone, and there’s both excellent field coverage and great cohesiveness to the visual package along with a lot of exposed tosses in the guard that get us layperson guard fans excited. 

The round table splits in two with a movement that’s well integrated into the program revealing some interesting knight graphics that flip to show complimentary imagery when the battle section of the show is reached. There’s the plunging of a sword into a featured character as we might expect, and the ending is functional just now with surely more to come.

Based on these early season viewings, I think this is an excellent package for Crown. It’s doesn’t carry the same bleeding edge risk as last year’s show, and the Round Table concept has plenty of room for nuance and growth.  I think the difference between 1st and 4th this year for Crown will depend on how much story telling emotion and effect they can eke out of this production. Time till tell.




Blue Devils

Can the Devils be anything other than pre-season favorites to this season? Many people will be wondering if the three-peat is on? Based on early season, I’m not so sure…but it would be foolish to count them out.

 If nothing else, an edition of the Blue Devils with the same staff and more vets than last year, could possibly out execute the competition across all elements on their way to first place.

So what of this show? Well to cut to the chase first…after a few viewings I find I’m thinking about Cadets 06 after 05, and Crown 14 after 13…where a very successful template is added to, and super-sized, but somehow comes out as less.  There are some obvious parallels that can be drawn from last year’s Tempus Blue production and years before in terms of structured and pacing.

The main difference this year is visible from the outset. The ‘cut-outs’ concept is represented with lots of cut out props of varying shapes and colors. While it may be authentic to Matisse, for me it creates a cluttered appearance that is detracting from the visual elements of the performers. Perhaps it improves with a higher vantage point but at this point the overall collage on the field seems distinctly un-Concord like -  lacking the overall finesse and inventiveness of props from recent years. I do wonder if there will be further refinement of these props as the season progresses including the final positioning of the cut-out pieces into the final collage.

As the show begins there is a neat segue from the samples into the first horn solo. The opening statement really cooks, as does the JoJo  piece. The first third of this show is perhaps the strongest on the field this year, and the 2nd two thirds struggle to match

The Both Sides Now piece is one I was keen to hear develop.  Pride of Cincinnati’s guard show from yesteryear is still one of my favorites.  At this juncture however it’s not connecting in the same way as Moon River from 22, in particular the brightness in the arrangements doesn’t seem to gel with the source material.  I feel that with this arranging treatment and the outstanding performers, any number of well-known ballads could have been chosen, and perhaps this one wasn't the best. 

Visually the musicians uniforms work well again this season – the yellow gloved right arm emphases the quality and consistency of the brass marching technique when on the move.

All the components of a Blue Devils show are present and counted, and it’s noticeable that they, along with others, have responded to the bar being raised by Boston’s guard, in the level of exposure and volume of work.

They might just out-tweak, out-clean, and out-perform the field but it’s by no means a done deal!



In summary, I don’t see a standout show this year where we will be talking about a winner in the same way as 2013, 14, 16, and 18 (to pick out a few). But hopefully this can be offset by a top 4 that are nip-and-tuck right through to finals night! Although history tells us the field usually tapers down to 1 or 2 at the top as the judging community’s opinions coalesce.

Comparing shows from last year to this, for me there are more corps that are down a notch in design than those up a notch….and as a common thread I find I’m missing exciting marching with full ensemble playing. It seems to have been relegated to feature moments rather than being the most substantial part of a show. Others will no doubt disagree!

Lastly, while it might be easy to sit behind a keyboard and offer observations and critique, it perhaps goes to show how difficult and imprecise a process it is to design a drum corps show,  and how it’s even harder still to bring new ideas to the table. Staffs that contain the very best designers, and some teams that have been together for years, work through the winter to craft products that they hope both fans and judges will love, but they are rarely sure they’ve nailed it until the judges scores come through. It’s this uncertainty as the season ramps up that creates a lot of the excitement for us fans!


Predictions for finals? I’m happy to admit that the evaluation guidelines are too complex and captions too tightly contested to make predictions by one person anything but a projection of preferences… so I won’t go there!  😊


Thanks for reading.

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having seen all the current top 10 recently live.... and basic summary of prediction in the "Predictions" chat.

1 Blue Devils can't be beat this year... and probably sweep captions

2 Bluecoats will pass up Boston due to their higher GE

3 Boston beats Crown.. because Crown's show is dated and is not visually stimulating.

4 Crown...

5 Mandarins beat Phantom on GE and Visual

6 Phantom sound incredible... there is no visual difficulty

7-8 Cavaliers & Cadets... either way.  Cadets made some mistakes in design and I don't think it can be fixed.   What is up with the guard staging and guard execution.  Cavaliers... working hard and you see the improvements

9 Colts   The is more to this show to be excited about than Bstars

10-11  Blue Stars or Trooper

12 Blue Knights or Pacific Crest


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