Drum and bugle corps (modern)

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A modern drum and bugle corps (or drum corps) is a musical performing unit consisting of only brass, percussion, and color guard. The majority of drum corps are independently operated non-profit groups; very few are run by high schools or universities. Competitions occur on football fields and are scored by circuit-approved judges based upon musical performance and effect as well as the performance and effect of the movement of the elements of the corps. The movement is a combination of military-style marching and dance, intended to provide a smooth movement to allow ease of performance, and includes substantial input from the color guard which is predominately an expressive component, whose equipment traditionally includes flags, rifles, and sabres. Corps are colorfully and distinctively uniformed, although guard members typically wear more theatrical costumes that are largely predicated on the theme of the corps' musical presentation, which usually changes from year to year.

The modern drum corps movement stems from a rich history. The first drum and bugle corps were signaling units within the military during the Civil War, and continued to exist through World War I. With the advent of the radio, the military found easier ways to communicate and found itself with a surplus of bugles and drums. These were sold or donated to various American Legion or Veterans of Foreign War posts to create civilian drum and bugle corps. They played mainly the same signals used in battle, but over time, as the instruments evolved and competitions were created, regular music was added to their repertoire. Today, American drum and bugle corps are divided into two types, junior and senior, and have advanced far beyond the rudimentary days of their beginnings.

The primary purpose of modern drum corps is to provide a musical and life educational experience for its members. To this end, drum corps create a show, instruct their members in it, and take it on the road to various locations to compete with other corps. Competitions take place in a circuit, with many local and national circuits worldwide having been established. Corps also appear in a wide variety of other performances, such as parades, festivals, and other civic and private events throughout the summer. Musical repertoires vary widely between corps, including classical, jazz, big band, contemporary, Broadway, Latin, etc. Many corps are known for featuring a particular genre. The length of each corps' performance varies with circuit, but is usually between 10 and 12 minutes.

Drum corps vary significantly in size worldwide. The largest tend to be found in North America, where the premier corps are limited to 135 members and often attain this number. European and Asian corps tend to be smaller: in Europe, a corps of 60 members would now be considered large.

About half of each corps' members are horn players, a quarter are percussionists, and a quarter are guard members. There are also a small number (usually one or two) of drum majors.


Musical program



One of the defining musical elements of drum corps is the exclusive use of bell-front brass instrumentation. Throughout the years, hornlines have evolved from true, valveless bugles to modern multi-valved brass instruments. These changes have effectively eliminated bugles from the activity, since the current approved instruments are properly of a much wider class than the restrictive term bugle. Competitive drum and bugle corps have not used true bugles for several decades. Traditionally, corps use horns in the key of G, but horns in other keys are also allowed. From highest pitched to lowest they are: sopranos, mellophones, baritones and euphoniums, and contra basses.

All these instruments can appear in either G or Bb; the name is not dependent on the key. Sopranos are essentially trumpets, but tend to have a narrower bell flare and larger bore than the trumpets used in other venues, a characteristic found in most of these horns but most obviously in the soprano. Mellophones are only one of many midrange or alto-voice horns that have been experimented with, but they have become the most widely used because of ease of consistent playability and tone quality compared to the alternatives, which include marching French horns, alto horns, and flugelhorns. A contra-bass is essentially a tuba configured so that it can be carried over the shoulder with the bell facing forward.

Until 2000, American drum and bugle corps hornlines were required to be pitched in the key of G. That year, the DCI rules congress passed a proposal to allow any key of bell-front brass instruments on the field. DCA followed suit in 2004. This allows music to be arranged truer to its original form and gives corps access to more affordable and higher-quality horns, along with a much wider resale market for used instruments. Hornlines, if not in G, are most commonly pitched in Bb, with mellophones usually pitched in F.


The percussion section consists of the "pit" or "frontline" ensemble, and the "battery" or "drumline". Because of the large and extensive instrumentation, the frontline remains in a stationary area, typically at the front of the field. Members play on orchestral percussion instruments, including marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, timpani, drums, cymbals, gongs and various other percussive instruments. The size of the frontline can vary considerably among corps; anywhere between 8-15 members is not uncommon.

Recently, DCI started allowing electronic amplification so delicate percussive instruments can be heard in a stadium setting. However, amplification has also been used for the more controversial purposes of talking or singing. So-called "mechanical amplification", as used for marimbas and vibraphones, has long been permitted outside of DCI.

The battery members march around on the field along with the horn and guard members, playing snares, tenors, bass drums, and cymbals. For example, a corps with 135 members (such as a "maxed out" DCI Division I corps) generally has 7-9 snares, 3-5 tenors, and 5 basses. The number of marching cymbal players varies—some corps have have 4-5, others have none. In additon to providing numerous musical effects, cymbal lines add a degree of visual flare to the program not found in the rest of the battery. Some corps however prefer to allow the pit to handle the cymbal voicing. These numbers scale down for smaller corps, such as those in lower DCI divisions and other international circuits.

Technique and repertoire

Visual program


The guard is a crucial part of a corps' visual program. The athletic and theatrical abilities of guard members are above and beyond any similar activity. In addition to uniforms that are custom-made for each season, members use flags, rifles, and sabers to create visual effects that enhance the show, as well as dance to great effect. The Santa Clara Vanguard (http://www.drumcorpswiki.com/index.php/Santa_Clara_Vanguard) was a pioneering force in bringing dance and other theatrical effects to the guard, with the use of items such as hula hoops, maypoles, and their performance of the "Bottle Dance" from Fiddler on the Roof.

Marching technique

There are a variety of marching styles used in the drum corps world. Since high-speed drill was pioneered by the Cadets (http://www.drumcorpswiki.com/index.php/The_Cadets) in 1983, marching styles have been focused on smooth motion by performers regardless of tempo. The two most generic forms of marching, straight-leg and bent-knee, are characterized by the Cadets and the Cavaliers (http://www.drumcorpswiki.com/index.php/The_Cavaliers) respectively, although almost every corps has its own unique style somewhat in the realm of one of those two categories. Traditional high-step marching has faded almost completely from drum corps, due to the visual speed and smoothness requirements, as well as desire for a uniform and consistent sound as unaffected by the lower torso's movement as possible. Backwards movement or marching, as well as sideways marching, has also evolved. Turning in the direction of movement is rare in present day performances. The prevailing form today for backwards marching is up on the toes, with the heels off the ground (exceptions include The Cadets, who at slow tempos opt to roll back on the heel and lift the toe on the backwards march). Sideways movement is usually done the same style as forwards or backwards moves, incorporating a torso twist to keep the horn facing the front sideline.

Marching percussion deserve special mention in marching style, especially sideways maneuvers. Since the harness and equipment percussionists must carry makes it impossible for them to turn shoulders as the rest of the corps, drum lines have developed a "crab-step", with the one leg moving out sideways and then the other crossing before or behind it slightly, subject to corps style. This enables the marching percussion to move with relative ease while maintaining a front-facing position. Horn lines of drum corps have occasionally emulated the crab-step in their drill.

Drill formations and maneuvers

The drill performed today on fields across the country is a far cry from the drill styles thirty years ago. At the start of the DCI era, drill programs typically began with the corps set up on the back sideline, from which they would take the field. Drill was almost entirely symmetrical, and over the course of the past thirty years has moved from symmetry to rotation, then to asymmetric and fast-paced drill that dominates the field today.

Perhaps the most driving force in drill design and evolution was George Zingali, a drill writer who worked with the 27th Lancers, Blue Knights, Garfield Cadets, and Star of Indiana. Zingali left a legacy in creating bold new forms of marching, with the first signs of his desire to change the rules in 1980, the year the 27th Lancers user a program with standard symmetrical drill that was rotated and translated, bending the status quo for the era. That same year, the Santa Clara Vanguard attempted a show composed entirely of asymmetric drill with difficulty; the corps placed seventh that year, dropping from a first place title in 1978, and returning to reclaim it again in 1981.

In 1983, what is arguably Zingali’s most important legacy was introduced with the Garfield Cadets: the Z-Pull. Beginning with a form in the shape of a Z or S, the Z-Pull proceeds to stretch the form and eventually turn it into a line, giving the impression that the shape is being pulled at each end. This maneuver, remembered as the technical pinnacle of the first championship title for the Cadets, proved that asymmetric drill could be part of a winning program.

Technical drill structure can be broken down into several categories: linear forms, static forms, shape driven forms, and movement-centered forms.

Forms using lines and curves have long been used to create drill that is simple, yet powerful. The speed of the drill can vary to create a slow and flowing form or a series of quickly spinning bars or changing curves to the viewer. Variations on follow-the-leader forms are the standard for many asymmetric lines. Perhaps the most famous maneuver using a line is the company front, with the corps in a line stretching across the field, usually parallel to the sideline, and moving in unison in the same direction.

Standing still might seem the simplest of drill moves, but for a drum corps even "standing still" is usually not completely stationary. In what is referred to as a "park and play", or sometimes "park and blow", "park and bark", or "park and wail", the corps holds position but members typically add their own leans, small steps, horn movements and pops, and other colorful flourishes. For the longest and loudest chords, the most technically demanding sections of music, and for the endings of most shows, corps usually remain stationary to make a dramatic impact.

Shapes and symbols have also been used to great effect by many drum corps, with the most basic being geometric figures such as squares or blocks, triangles, circles, and other regular or irregular figures. The translation and rotation of these figures, especially at speed, creates interesting and exciting drill. A long legacy of exciting and innovating forms highlights this category of drill, such as cross formations fairly flying across the field (Star of Indiana, 1991), "rotating" double helixes (Cavaliers, 1995), individually spinning boxes within a larger diamond square (Cavaliers, 2000), and inclusions of symbols such as the Fleur-de-lis (corps symbol of the Madison Scouts, used in many shows including 2003 and 2004), with a heartily enthusiastic response from fans in the audience.

Forms that center around chaotic and rapid movement are the most difficult to describe in detail, as they can be both of infinite structures and a difficult nature to interpret easily. “Scatter drill” would fall into this category, a seemingly random transition from one form to another so as to keep viewers in suspense until the last possible second, as would other high-speed and difficult segues.

The season

While performances and competitions only occur during the summer, preparation for the next season starts as soon as the last one ends. Corps activity of some sort goes on year-round. Months in advance of next season's first camp, corps begin assembling their staffs, choosing their musical repertoires, writing drill, etc.


For junior corps, the season is a very intense process. Most corps begin having camps on or around Thanksgiving Day weekend and continue having monthly weekend camps throughout the winter. Potential members travel far and wide—literally from around the world—to attend the camps of their favorite corps. Membership in the top corps is highly competitive and is generally determined during the first few camps. By spring, the members have been chosen and camps are held more frequently as the beginning of the next summer season approaches.

Most junior corps require their members to move to the corps' hometown (or wherever their pre-season rehearsals are being held) around Memorial Day weekend. For most of May and into June (as college and high school classes end), full-day rehearsals are held virtually every day so members can finish learning the music and marching drill of the show. This pre-season "spring training" is usually around 3-4 weeks long. It is not uncommon for members to learn and rehearse 10-14 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week through out the entire pre-season. In mid to late June, corps leave to begin the summer tour.

For senior corps the process is not quite as grueling. Since most members are working adults and have lives outside of drum corps, senior corps rehearse on some weekends and occasionally on evenings. Rather than extensive tours, senior corps usually take weekend trips to perform in shows, and make longer trips to regional championships and DCA finals.

Tour and competition

While on tour, junior corps travel mainly at night after leaving the performance venue. Members sleep on the busses and in sleeping bags on gym floors when the next housing destination is reached. Housing for the entire tour is ideally secured well in advance through local schools, churches, or other adequately-sized community facilities. Corps practice their shows for as long as possible each day before getting ready to leave for that night's competition, if scheduled. Not every day is a performance day; many days on tour are spent simply traveling to a distant location or entirely on the practice field.

A full-sized, adequately-funded junior corps will have a fleet of vehicles, including three or more coach buses for members and staff, a truck or van to carry souvenirs that are sold at shows, and two semi trucks, one for show equipment and one that serves as a kitchen on wheels. Most meals for all members and staff are provided by the cook truck, but occasionally corps have scheduled free days where there are no rehearsals or performances and the members are free to see some local sights and procure their own meals.

Competitions are not the only performances that corps partake in while on tour. Most corps also participate in several parades throughout the summer for exposure and to supplement their budget with performance fees. On the Fourth of July weekend, corps often locate themselves in large metro areas so they can participate in more than one parade.

The summer touring schedule is usually divided into two smaller tours. The first tour consists of more local or regional shows and the corps return to their home bases often for easy housing and practice facilities. The first tour ends in mid-July with a regional championship, followed by a few days off where members are free to do as they wish. Corps then reconvene at their home bases and begin the second tour, which usually involves more extensive national touring before culminating at DCI finals.

Competitions are usually held at college or high school football stadiums or similar venues, and are scored by circuit-approved judges. Because of the intense and superior competition between corps, the judging system is somewhat complex to allow for precise scoring and avoidance of ties. Most circuits follow the three-caption system of General Effect (GE), Visual, and Music, with GE being the most important factor. A typical scoring system as employed on a drum corps circuit might look like this:

Total possible score: 100
General Effect 40 Visual 30 Music 30
Visual 20 Performance 10 Music Ensemble 10
Music 20 Ensemble 10 Brass Performance 10
Auxiliary (Guard) 10 Percussion Performance 10

The timing and organization of contests varies significantly from circuit to circuit. Only DCI Division I and some Division II/III corps have the funding and time commitment from members to participate in DCI's touring circuit, where corps spend the majority of the summer traveling around the continent performing at different local and regional contests. In other circuits, and for smaller DCI corps, competitions are usually scheduled to allow corps to travel, perform, and return home within a weekend. For this reason, and to boost audience attendance, competitions are more frequently scheduled on weekends (even for touring corps).

A typical regular-season contest generally consists of fewer than 10 corps, with corps from one or more classes competing together but scored separately. In North America, DCI and DCA corps occasionally perform at the same shows. DCI also schedules larger contests, "major events," interspersed throughout the latter half of its season. These are restricted to corps in specific classes, and feature many (if not all) of the corps within those classes. European circuits, such as DCUK, operate on a "minimum performance and lot" system: appearance at the first two shows of the year is determined by lot, and then the corps must appear in a minimum number of shows before the circuit's championships. In such a system, the championships are often the only time all corps in a class compete together.

Some circuits also organize optional individual and ensemble (I&E) competitions for individuals or groups from corps to showcase members' skills outside of the field performance environment. These are usually held only once or twice per season at championships or a major regional contest; members practice their routine(s) in their scant free time throughout the season.

Divisions or classes

Many circuits split their competing corps into divisions or classes depending on size, age of members, and how much of the circuit the corps wishes to be involved in.

Drum corps circuits worldwide generally split into two or three classes of the following general form:

  • Open Class: representing the elite corps within the circuit. Traditionally, the Open Class was for G-only instrumentation and provided full membership to the circuit, along with possible voting rights or other input into the operation of the circuit.
  • 'A' Class or Associate Class: representing other corps with membership of a similar age group as the corps in Open Class or the local equivalent. In tour-centric circuits such as DCI, 'A' Class corps follow a significantly reduced tour in order to reduce funding requirements, but the vast majority still attend the circuit's championships. In the formative days of the class divide, 'Associate' Class corps were those who had recently joined the circuit, possibly from other "non-drum corps" circuits, and so were permitted to use non-G instrumentation. This would yield only 'associate' membership of the circuit, until such time as the corps switched entirely to G horns and could then enter Open Class. However, the reality was that distinct differences in levels of corps became apparent—purely due to available resources—and hence the class became known as 'A' Class, with increased input into the operation of the circuit. Despite these differences, 'A' Class competition is still intense and the quality of performance still impressive.
  • Cadet Class: representing corps with particularly young members. Mainly found in Europe, where members as young as 10 have marched in Cadet corps. Some DCI corps also operate cadet corps as feeders for their main programs.

DCI classes previously known by the first two names above have been renamed. Open Class is now Division I, where corps may have up to 135 members and voting rights; A Class is now Division II, where corps may also have up to 135 members, but have not attained voting rights; and what was known as A-60 Class is now Division III, where corps may have up to 60 members and do not have voting rights.

Corps organization

Most corps are typically operated as or by dedicated non-profit organizations; very few are associated with schools or for-profit entities. Some corps are even parts of larger non-profit performance arts organizations, which might also include theater groups, winter guards, winter drumlines, and other various musical or visual activities. In Europe, many are also registered charities, assisting with their fundraising aims.


Despite their non-profit status, a well-run corps is just like a well-run business. It requires many bright and dedicated people to handle the fiscal and operational responsibilities. There are three levels of staff operating a drum corps: Executive, Instructional, and Volunteer. Each plays an essential role in creating a well-run corps.

The executive staff includes the operational and tour director(s) of the corps and the corps' board of directors. Often these people are unpaid volunteers. This group is almost always long-standing in successful corps; it is their experience, dedication, and commitment that keeps the corps running smoothly. They are the people who create the long-term vision and strategy for the organization. They handle the financial, operational, and organizational issues to keep the corps running. They are usually answerable to a board of directors, who hire the executive director and other related positions directly.

The instructional staff actually puts the show on the field. They create the concept of the show, choose and arrange the music, write the drill, and instruct the members on how to play, march, execute, and exude the image of the corps on the field. The instructional staff usually consists of music teachers and alumni of the corps or other corps. A well funded Division-1 corps usually has between 15-20 full time instructors. These teachers travel with the members on the day to day basis and provide instruction all summer long.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many corps. Parents, alumni, friends, and just fans of the corps make the corps work on a day-to-day basis—driving buses and trucks, care for the corps' uniforms, and countless other peripheral duties. Corps on touring circuits particularly rely on volunteers due to the extra necessities which come with the tour: cooking and cleaning, providing mechanical maintenance, health and medical needs—all of which essential to getting the corps down the road to the next show.

Dues and fundraising

Every corps requires some amount of dues from its members to help defray the cost of operations, or touring should the circuit so require. Dues vary from circuit to circuit and corps to corps, but generally range from the local equivalent of several hundred to well over a thousand dollars per member. Most corps provide ways to help offset the cost of membership, often through personal sponsorships that the member must procure. Corps do everything they can to help potential members pay their dues.

But the membership dues only pay for a fraction of the total cost of keeping a corps alive. It costs $100,000-$500,000 or more to run a corps for a single season. Uniforms, equipment and vehicles must be bought and maintained, food and fuel are spent, and for touring circuits, the instructional staff usually require a stipend.

Other sources of income are required. Many organizations run bingo halls as a major source of income. Some American corps run a fleet of charter buses, which is a natural extension of the corps' touring needs. All corps solicit sponsorships and endorsements at the corporate level and individual contributions from alumni and fans.


See also the Drum and bugle corps (classic) article for more information about modern drum corps' roots.

Drum corps organizations

The drum corps activity is controlled by a handful of umbrella organizations run by the very corps they govern. They exist to help guide and support the drum corps activity in their country or region, in addition to their very visible role of sanctioning competitive circuits.

Drum Corps International (DCI) governs "junior" corps in North America. Formed in 1972.

Drum Corps Associates (DCA) governs "senior" or "all-age" corps in North America. Formed in 1965.

Other countries also have active drum corps organizations, derived from the original American concept. The longest-lived of these are Drum Corps United Kingdom (DCUK), formed in 1979, and Drum Corps Europe (formerly Drum Corps Nederland), the Dutch drum corps organization. Drum corps has also taken hold in Japan, and several corps have formed there. For years, Japanese and European youth have come to the U.S. to join American corps, but the activity is also continuing to grow in their homelands. It is becoming more and more common to see corps from Europe and especially from Japan traveling to the U.S. to compete in all or a latter portion of the DCI season.

Professional Activities

Commandant's Own

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The USMC "Commandant's Own" play at the 2002 DCI World Championships awards ceremony
The United States Marine Corps (USMC) Commandant's Own Drum and Bugle Corps (http://www.drumcorps.mbw.usmc.mil/) is a professional senior drum and bugle corps which represents the United States Marine Corps and the drum and bugle corps activity. The Commandant's Own was conceived in 1934; it is a modern drum and bugle corps which has evolved out of the traditional Marine Band. The Corps of more than 80 Marine musicians, dressed in ceremonial red and white uniforms, travel in excess of 50,000 miles annually to perform in more than 400 ceremonies throughout the United States and abroad. During the summer months, the Drum and Bugle Corps takes part in both the Friday Evening Parades and the Sunset Parades held at the Marine Corps War Memorial every Tuesday.

Some text taken from http://www.drumcorps.mbw.usmc.mil/, a public domain source

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