Drum Corps International
Finding the DCI ensemble that?s right for you
Photo by: Drum Corps International

Finding the DCI ensemble that?s right for you

by Lauren Vogel Weiss

Maybe you attended a drum corps show this summer with other members of your high school marching band and fell in love with what you saw: musicians and dancers performing at a level of intensity you didn’t know existed.

Or maybe you’ve happened upon a SoundSport team from your area performing a “pop-up” concert at a community event or amusement park.

Or maybe your college friends just returned from a summer on the road with a group during the Drum Corps International Tour and you were fascinated by tales of their adventures—and impressed by their toned-and-tanned physiques.

It can be a big leap from “band geek” to “drum corps alum,” but the journey to find your DCI family begins with that first step: the audition.

There are countless reasons why someone wants to march in a drum and bugle corps or join a SoundSport ensemble—gaining musical experience, traveling around your region or across the country, making soon-to-be lifelong friends—but where does that journey begin? And how do you decide which group is right for you?

Near and Far

One key factor in making that decision is location—both yours and that of the ensemble. Typically, Open Class corps draw members from within a 200-mile radius of their home base of operations, while World Class corps can be more nationally based, with members traveling an average of 500-plus miles to participate.

Legends, an Open Class corps based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, draws the majority of its members from the Wolverine State. “Another 45 percent come from our neighboring states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois,” says Ibe Sodawalla, Executive Director/CEO and founder of the Legends Performing Arts Association. “I think of our demographics in two-hour, four-hour, six-hour, and eight-hour radiuses. We’re seeing more applicants from that fourth tier, traveling from as far as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.

“One of the philosophies that I’ve instilled since I founded the group,” Sodawalla continues, “is that we want to be as local as possible. We also want to support the live audition experience, so we focus on the traditional format of bringing as many folks as possible to our audition camps. This will be the first year that we’ve offered the flexibility of a video alternative, although a number of other corps already do that.”

Most corps hold audition camps near their hometowns, although more and more offer satellite camps across the country. The Rockford, Illinois-based World Class corps Phantom Regiment, for instance—which draws most of its members from Illinois, followed closely by Indiana and Texas—generally puts on its audition camps in Beloit, Wisconsin. But this year, the corps is also holding auditions in Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

“We know there are talent pools out there that we would like to help draw in,” explains Regiment Program Director Dan Farrell. “Some people, especially in the fall, are not able to travel to the Rockford area, so we thought we’d give this a try and see how it works. These will be full-day sessions where people will get to experience, at least on some level, what it’s like to be in a Phantom Regiment rehearsal and what’s it’s like to interact with the staff.”

“I get e-mails from students asking the best approach to get into the corps,” adds Farrell, a 2016 DCI Hall of Fame inductee. “I tell them the best age group is high school seniors or above. In order to start then, they may want to consider auditioning two years ahead of time. Even though three-quarters of our brass and percussion members are music majors, only 20 percent of them make the corps during their first audition. Many of them return for a second or even third or fourth year.”

If you’d like to get a taste of the drum corps experience but don’t think you’re quite ready for the audition and travel demands, you might want to look into joining, or even starting, one of DCI’s growing number of SoundSport teams. They’re open to all ages, typically stay strictly local, and don’t require as much of a time commitment as an Open or World Class corps. Once you’re on a team, the opportunities for transitioning to another group (should you so choose) are good; a number of Drum Corps International’s newest Open Class corps actually got their start in SoundSport.

An Insider’s Perspective

“When I went to my first DCI show, the Crossmen was the first drum line I saw in the parking lot,” says 18-year-old Bryce Gardner, a freshman music major at the University of North Texas in Denton. “I could definitely see myself doing something like that one day.” As a student at Plano Senior High School, just north of Dallas, he thought the Crossmen’s home in San Antonio was another important factor: “Their location was convenient to get to for auditions.”

Out of 75 snare drummers who auditioned, the then 15-year-old was excited to be called back to the next audition camp but did not make the final cut. Gardner auditioned again in 2015 and was confident he would make the drum line after another callback. “I was pretty sad when I didn’t make it that year,” he recalls. “I was questioning whether or not I should look elsewhere to march or wait another year and try Crossmen again.”

Following advice from his school percussion instructor, Gardner decided to audition for two more corps. “I bought plane tickets to Phoenix and Casper, just in case,” he says. First he attended the Academy’s March, 2015 rehearsal camp in Arizona: “There was one spot left in the snare line and five of us had flown out there to fight for that spot, which I didn’t get.” But that didn’t stop the percussionist from pursuing his marching dreams; the following weekend he traveled to Wyoming and won one of two remaining snare drum spots with the Troopers.

Last year, Gardner, who won the “Best Individual Snare” award at Drum Corps International’s Performers Showcase during the DCI World Championships in Indianapolis, auditioned for Santa Clara Vanguard and received a spot in the corps at the first audition camp. “Because of the Paul Rennick connection (Rennick serves on the staffs of both the Troopers and Vanguard), it was basically the same technique and same style of playing,” he explains. “Plus I had a lot of friends from the University of North Texas who had done Vanguard.”

A personal connection may be another factor in choosing which corps to join. As a sophomore at Romeoville High School, just southwest of Chicago, Steven Vonderohe auditioned for the Cavaliers’ front ensemble percussion section in 2012 after attending several of the corps’ summer camps in the past. “I liked their percussion section a lot and thought it would be sweet to be a part of it. But I wasn’t very good at that time and got cut from the corps right away.”

Vonderohe took the advice of his private lesson teacher, Vern Spevak, whose son Aaron had marched with the Colts. “The Spevaks, as well as other teachers and friends, said great things about the organization and felt I would have a good experience there, so I decided to go for it.”

After attending the corps’ December audition camp, Vonderohe was accepted into the Colts the following month. “The audition process was really straightforward,” he remembers. “We just played all weekend—it was a blast. The Colts had a really accepting, open environment. It was a great experience.”

Following the 2012 season with the Dubuque, Iowa-based corps, Vonderohe (currently a junior music major at Vandercook College of Music in Chicago) decided to audition for the Blue Stars. Why head north to La Crosse, Wisconsin? “Aaron Spevak was going to be a front ensemble staff member at the Blue Stars, part of a whole new percussion team. I went and ended up loving it.”

And after four seasons with the Blue Stars, the 20-year-old Vonderohe, who won the “Best Individual Keyboard” award during the 2016 DCI Performers Showcase, plans to audition for the corps again this fall.
    
Calculate the Cost

Typical of many corps, Legends charges a fee ($125) to attend each audition camp weekend, which covers the cost of food, housing and instruction. They also collect a one-time registration fee for the season from each applicant, although returning veteran members can qualify for discounts on registration and participation fees. Of course, there’s an investment of time as well. “Our rehearsal camps run Friday night through Sunday afternoon about once a month in the off-season,” Ibe Sodawalla says. “But students can still get home late Sunday night.

“As soon as we offer someone a spot in the corps, typically in November or December,” he continues, “he or she no longer pays camp fees. Our membership costs about $3,600, which is all-inclusive of winter camps, spring training, summer tour, and uniform and equipment fees.”

Phantom Regiment also collects $125 for an audition weekend. Although corps dues are not officially published, the amount is around $3,500. However, when looking at the total cost of a summer of drum corps, don’t forget to factor in travel costs to your budget, including trips to winter rehearsal camps and spring training.

Phantom Regiment members often fly to Chicago and take the bus to Rockford, or carpool with other members from school or home locations to cut down on costs.

If this seems like a lot of money, keep in mind what you receive for the price, which typically covers the costs of meals, housing, transportation, and world-class instruction during June, July and August. In comparison, three weeks attending a summer program at the Eastman School of Music can run $3,500 or more. Six weeks of summer camp at the Interlochen Center for the Arts can be close to $9,000.

It’s also worth noting that an alternative is available for those whose budget just won’t stretch enough to cover membership in a touring corps. With SoundSport, DCI offers a lower-cost option for getting involved in the marching music world.

“I definitely got a whole lot out of drum corps that I couldn’t get anywhere else,” Steven Vonderohe says. “I’ve met so many great peers and staff members, great people to know within the world of music. It’s definitely worth it if you can afford to do it.”

Trust Your Feelings

What would Sodawalla, named Open Class Director of the Year in 2009 and 2015, advise someone thinking about auditioning for a corps?

“First, look for where you believe you’re going to feel a sense of family and an environment you feel comfortable in,” he says. “Then, be true to where you want to go, understanding that each corps has different criteria.

“My third piece of advice is to go somewhere and experience it, whether or not you make the corps. For example, a parent mentioned to me that her 16-year-old son really wants to be in Carolina Crown. I told her to make sure that he goes to one of their camps! There are thousands of people who want to march in a drum corps, but only a small percentage of those come to an audition camp. Half the battle is actually showing up to be considered.”

“Don’t be afraid,” Phantom Regiment’s Farrell advises. “Don’t be nervous. Spend more time preparing and less time worrying! If it’s something you really want to do, then you need to give it a shot. It’s as simple as that.”

Best case scenario: You earn a spot in the first corps you audition for. Worst case: You go to several audition camps, learn tons of new skills from some of the best instructors in music education, practice like crazy until next year, and then earn your spot for 2018. But in either case, you grow and learn things about yourself that you might not have thought were possible.

So take that first step toward 2017 ... Your Drum Corps International journey begins here.

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