When Drum Corps International launched its SoundSport® and DrumLine Battle™ initiatives in 2013, one of the goals was to encourage more people to get involved in musical competition, regardless of instrument, style, age, location, or budget.

And if the growth of both activities is any indication, that goal is being met—and then some.

Before the DCI World Championships in Indianapolis this past summer, 32 ensembles—and more than 1,000 performers—took part in the pre-Finals SoundSport and DrumLine Battle showdown. Combined, 47 groups (and more than 1,500 people) performed in at least one SoundSport or DrumLine Battle event. That’s a 50 percent increase over 2014, and the number is expected to grow with several additional units already announcing plans to join in 2016.

RELATED: 2016 SoundSport event registration now open—Here's how to get involved!

What’s behind the growth?

“SoundSport is a fun and easy way to start the competitive process while building a program, and it’s a motivational tool for young kids as well,” says Bob Thwaites of the Diplomats, a SoundSport group based in Windsor, Ontario. “Rules and guidelines are easy and flexible and instrumentation is open to any and all. From novice to pros, SoundSport offers a slot for any group.”

Thwaites, a veteran of Canadian drum corps, says he formed the Diplomats because he wanted to pass on the enjoyment he got from marching while growing up. Only one of the group’s 31 members knew how to play an instrument before joining; the others learned from scratch from Diplomats staff. Yet they were able to participate in both competitions in 2015 (SoundSport for the second time; DrumLine Battle for the first).

“Every member, no matter their age, has an important role to play,” he says. “We have kids who are too small to carry a drum, so they play cymbals or perform on stationary equipment until they grow strong enough to march. We’ve got two trumpet players, ages six and eight, who can already play close to two octaves, and we have a 14-year-old snare drummer who accepted my challenge to perform at the DCI Performers Showcase.”

Mixing It Up

Only one of Ontario-based Diplomats' members knew how to play an instrument before joining SoundSport.

While they’re a great entrée for newcomers, both formats are also attracting experienced marching performers. Among the competitors at Indy’s 2015 DrumLine Battle were several ensembles connected to DCI corps and a contingent from the Calgary Stampede Showband—an ensemble that has performed exhibitions at a number of high-profile marching music events in the past. “The members found it exciting to go head-to-head with other ensembles from Canada, then compete with groups from DCI corps,” says assistant director Ryan Hancock. “[DCI groups] are the corps that our members look up to and aspire to be a part of one day.”

According to Le Ron J. Carlton, assistant director of the Columbus (Ohio) Saints Drum & Bugle Corps, such aspirations can be a powerful motivator, especially for younger performers. He describes one 11-year-old Saints member who only began playing last fall, but was so inspired by SoundSport that he began taking after-school lessons with Saints staff at the local Boys & Girls Club. He says that taking part in SoundSport is helping his organization “provide low cost music education and an affordable experience that’s accessible to anyone who wants to work hard.”

One of those hard-working members is Kim White, a 21-year-old baritone player and a student at Ohio State University. “The best thing about SoundSport is its accessibility,” she says. “You don’t have to be within a narrow age window and you don’t need a lot of money backing your group.”

“It’s an activity that will welcome you with open arms,” adds 26-year-old Saints guard member Cayse Stepp, who appreciates the ability to train and perform while working at her regular job. “If someone claims they don’t have time to be involved, they are just making excuses!”

Fitting the Schedule

7th Regiment
Members of the 7th Regiment drum corps perform in downtown Indianapolis as part of DrumLine Battle.

Teams that enter SoundSport and DrumLine Battle competition don’t have to commit for an entire summer. They can appear regionally as their budget allows. The Scorpions—a 37-member outfit from Desert Edge High School in Goodyear, Arizona—performed in their home state and California. At some events, the Scorpions shared the field with several of the top drum corps in DCI, an experience 17-year-old marimbist Lily Whitler describes as “surreal.” When their season ended in June, Whitler and four fellow Scorpions were able to jump right into the DCI Tour by joining the Open Class corps Blue Saints. “Because SoundSport is open to all ages and all instruments, it gives anyone the chance to join,” she says. “No matter what the group is, SoundSport is an incredible marching arts experience.”

And while the formats have brought new groups into the arena, it’s also giving established DCI organizations some additional performance options. Colt Cadets have participated in DrumLine Battle events (including the one in Indy) since it started in 2013. “We enjoy DrumLine Battle because it is a break from the regimented and strictly adjudicated activity we’ve done all summer,” says director Matt Mulvanny. “It’s an opportunity to loosen the reins and just have some fun with the groups we’re in competition with. At the end of the Battle, win or lose, everybody has a big smile on their face and embraces their competitors as brothers and sisters—or as best friends would do after a neighborhood game of touch football.”

Perhaps that’s because both SoundSport and DrumLine Battle focus as much on entertaining fans as they do on scoring with judges. “It creates a unique performance opportunity,” Mulvanny says. “The audience is so close you can practically reach out and touch them—something we don’t get on the football field.”

“Playing to a crowd that is only a few short feet from us—and having them get involved with our performance—is both intimidating and exhilarating,” adds Saints’ 20-year-old baritone player Adam Martini. “I loved every second of it.”

And if you’re thinking of joining an existing group or forming one of your own, Saints’ director Carlton has some advice: Just do it. “It’s designed to be low impact and scalable, meaning you can go on the field with 10 people and perform a standstill show of popular music, or you can be an alumni powerhouse like Star United. You can be an up-and-coming Open Class corps like Guardians, or you can use SoundSport to reclaim lost history, like Southwind.”

The key, Carlton says, is to embrace the creative freedom. “SoundSport is what you make it. Some may have difficulty with the concept due to its open format, to which I respond, ‘Take off the reins, create your own experience, and entertain the crowd.’”

Get Involved

Solaris, a SoundSport team based out of Florida, competed at the Atlanta Georgia Dome in July of 2015.

Whether you’re interested in the face-to-face percussion competition of DrumLine Battle or the “anything goes” (as far as instruments) approach of SoundSport, there are plenty of ways to get involved at year-round scheduled events or online in virtual competitions. Learn more at SoundSport.com and DrumLineBattle.com.

Republished from the Fall, 2015 edition of Drum Corps International Magazine.