The Blue Knights, fresh off their fourth Winter Guard International (WGI) percussion championship (1994, 1999, 2000, 2003), are gearing up to field another outstanding drum line this summer, thanks in part to as many as 16 drummers who marched in the winter program participating in the summer corps. "These percussionists are getting great experience all winter, and that helps the corps," says Mark Arnold, Blue Knights corps director. Performing in a drum line is truly a team sport; you can assemble a group of fantastic drummers, but they might not play well together (at least at first) because they have different styles, touches on the instrument and interpretations of parts. So having talented members who have been playing together on a regular basis and are on the same page in terms of interpretation and style is invaluable. That's clearly what the Blue Knights have going into the summer -- and it's a head-start on other lines that have only been playing together once or twice a month since last Thanksgiving. Coming up through the ranks The Blue Knights actually have two winter drum lines, a "world" line (with the most experienced members) and the "open" line (with younger, less experienced members). Many drummers start in the open line, move up to the world line, and then march in the summer corps. Dan Burke, world winter percussion ensemble director, says the winter drum lines adapt the summer drumming style to fit the indoor winter venues, so that will be a summer adjustment. Arnold says the winter ensemble helps other sections of the summer corps, too. "It has helped us recruit brass players for the corps," Arnold says. "And it's a great PR piece that generates a positive image for the Blue Knights. We have members from 40 different area colleges and music programs. The excitement generated by the percussion ensembles has gotten a lot of kids actively involved, and that means there are more kids from the Denver area we're able to serve." Building a strong winter program If you're actively involved in a drum corps, you might be thinking, "How do I help my group develop a successful winter program that feeds into the summer corps?" "The key is to have a great staff and good membership," Burke says. Burke and Arnold agree that a critical element is hiring a staff that is not only talented but also treats the kids with respect. "Being a good instructor really comes down to the quality of their personality, what they have to offer as educators," Burke says. "So it's about putting the right people in front of the kids." The Blue Knights' world winter percussion ensemble is led by Doug Rosener (battery) and Mike Nevin (front ensemble). Together they compose original music for the show, which has been the hallmark of the indoor program. This summer, look for the corps to perform "Prologue," an original piece written by Mike Nevin for the 1999 World Ensemble. "Both Mike and Doug are professional musicians who bring diverse percussive backgrounds as composers and educators. Listening to them talk about scoring music is akin to listening to Plato and Aristotle discuss philosophy. The members certainly learn a great deal about musicianship while learning and performing their charts. They are also good people, who are well-respected within our family, as well as the percussive community," Burke says. Arnold and Burke know that good help is often hard to find, so they build their staffs with age-out members of their own ensembles and corps. While some groups might have a hard time finding talent in their own ranks, the Blue Knights have had an unbelievable amount of amazing players. For example, the two snare soloists in the original Broadway cast of "Blast!", Jeff Queen and Nick Angelis, were Blue Knights alumni. Both won DCI individual solo championships. Queen taught Blue Knights for a few years after he aged out. "The kids certainly do know that history," Burke says. "When Blast! was in town, Nick Angelis came out and did a clinic. During the Percussive Arts Society (PAS) Colorado Day of Percussion, Jeff Queen came and talked to the kids. We try to keep the history in front of the kids. Since our staff members are alumni, that tradition is in your face all the time." Of course, it doesn't hurt when a legend like Ralph Hardimon leaves the
Santa Clara Vanguard to teach your drum line for a few years. Hardimon was instrumental in bringing immediate talent, musicality and respect to the corps' percussion program, helping to fuel a rise for the corps into the top 12. Since then, Hardimon has moved on. This summer Pat Amann will run the show. Winter logistics You might think a winter program would drain the resources of the organization and the members who participate in both. But that's not the case. Kids who march in the Blue Knights' winter and summer programs get a break on dues, and the percussion ensembles hold their own fundraising activities. "The percussion ensembles help to increase our volunteer and parent base," Arnold says. Arnold feels lucky to have people like Dave Killinger, open percussion ensemble director, and Burke. Burke, an alumnus of the corps, finds the time to run the ensembles above and beyond his regular day job. "I'd say running the ensembles is a 20-hour-per-week job," Burke says. "You just figure it out. It has become easier year after year as the program gets established. The continuity of the staff for the last four to five years hasn't changed. That takes a lot of the burden of the show-end off of me, and I handle the rest behind the scenes -- things like fund-raising, uniforms, camps and housing." Burke says he can't imagine not doing it. "The experience marching with the Blue Knights has benefited me in countless ways throughout my life. Every success I have enjoyed I can relate back to being a marching member. Plus, there's my passion for marching percussion. "This program is really family-oriented. It's difficult to let go of because it fulfills you in so many ways. The goal is to give so many guys the same experience you had. Some corps, the members come and go in order to round out their performing experience. For us, it's a family atmosphere. Arnold agrees. "It's why we all do it, it¹s what it¹s all about." Burke marched in the Blue Knights snare line from 1979-1984. "When I started, there were 25 kids in the corps," Burke says. "By my last year, we were full and made the top 20, which was big back then. When you're a part of something that grows like that, you want to give back and make sure it continues." Chances are it will continue with tremendous success this summer, thanks in large part to the winter program.