Drum Corps International
The July doldrums, and hypin' the dome

The July doldrums, and hypin' the dome

by Emily Tannert

Part 1 -- The July doldrums Late July is the doldrums of the drum corps year. The competitive season is winding down, and despite the frantic push towards finals, everyone starts to think longingly of real beds, Internet access, and carbonated beverages. No one is really ready to go home, but after spending two months playing and marching more or less the same music and drill, inevitably, boredom sets in. By this point in the season, most corps' shows are finished. All of the big changes have been made, and from here on out it's all about tweaking and polishing. The process involves a lot of definitions: step sizes, dress points, equipment angles, listening responsibilities, dynamics, stick heights, etc. Every rep involves giving attention to many different details, and pretty soon playing becomes a constant checklist of timing, dynamics and balance. Did I line up with the bass drums on that mallet run? Was that chord exactly seven inches? Until finally, somewhere between the clean attack and the three-inch release, you've completely lost the music. Music, of course, is far more than a series of notes. Any machine can emit sound waves at a specified frequency, intensity and duration. It's the human emotion behind those sound waves -- the motivation, to borrow a term from the acting world -- that gives music its meaning, that makes dots of ink on a page transmit such emotions as tragedy and joy, chaos and serenity. Shaping and rhythm are merely tools to help aid in the communication. The difficult part about drum corps is that you have to get about 100 people to agree, first off, on what they're communicating, and second, on how best to communicate it. Neither is an easy feat! Enter the million and one definitions, which ensure that the ensemble achieves a uniform message. (All of this applies to the visual aspect of drum corps as well, since the drill and guard work are as essential to telling the show designer's story as the music is.) One of the most difficult parts of performance is maintaining the passion and emotion behind the music while adhering to an extremely specific set of technical definitions. It's easy to get so wrapped up in the 'how' that you forget the 'why,' and then, of course, is to repeat the technical specifications so many times that they become second nature and you don't need to think about them, freeing your mind to focus on making music rather than playing heights and hitting dots. That's why a drum corps rehearses about 60 hours for each minute of drill and music it executes ... and why it's natural to be a little bored by late July. But just as music without passion is just notes, a corps show with out performance is just sound with movement -- flash with out substance. And right after July comes August, and that's when things really get interesting. So call me crazy, but I'd rather be bored in July than boring in August any day. Part 2 -- Hypin' the Dome We like to hype here in the Glassmen pit. It helps to keep us motivated and focused during the daily grind of unload, warm up, move, rehearse, move, load. We have a saying: If you don't hype during the day, it's not worth hyping at night, and so we've been known to hype everything from muffins for breakfast to last load of the day. One thing we've been hyping a lot lately is 'the dome.' The first of two DCI regionals are dome shows. The Southwestern regional in the Alamodome of San Antonio, and the Midwestern regional in the RCA Dome of Indianapolis. These shows are, in format, a lot like finals, with a qualification/elimination process that whittles the lineup for the night show to just 12 corps. The competition is intense; the final results at the regionals are frequently taken as an indication of a corps' final placement at the end of the season. The crowds are large and responsive, the boxes are massively high, and, perhaps best of all, you get to perform in air conditioning! There's certainly something to hype about. But what really makes dome shows so different, even from other large shows is, well, the dome. A dome is basically a stadium with a roof. The roof is a vast improvement when it comes to sporting and entertainment events, since it allows the spectator to sit in climate-controlled comfort. Drum corps, however, was designed as an outdoor sport and the addition of the roof to the containing structure does some pretty drastic things to the already complicated calculations of tempo, checkpoints and listening responsibilities. The task of getting everyone on the field to play exactly together already requires a doctorate in physics due to the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound. A player on the 30-yard line and back hash will see the drum major's hands at the same time as the player on the 45 and front hash but their sound will not arrive at the front sideline at exactly the same time. The process of figuring out who listens to what when and how much various elements of the corps need to anticipate the pulse source (generally the drum major's hands) given field position, consumes many rehearsals days. Even the slightest tendency on the part of any given section of the corps to push or drag can result in an uneven pulse at the front of the field. If the difference is extreme, it can cause an ensemble tear. Once you get the whole mess ironed out, it's not that hard to maintain steady ensemble timing -- until you take the show indoors. In an outdoor venue, all the sound either dissipates upward or is absorbed by the spectators in the stands -- except for the occasional ten-foot concrete wall in front of the pit, bounce-back is rarely an issue. But in a dome, sound can't dissipate upwards. Instead, it floats around in the top of the stadium, making itself known to the performers at the most inopportune of times. It's a little disconcerting to be playing letter K at the end of the opener and hear letter B making a reappearance. Horn parts you've never heard before suddenly pop out of nowhere, and the snare cue you've always depended on is nowhere to be found. Sound also travels differently depending on whether the dome is freestanding or pressurized: Freestanding domes react more like the outdoors, with the sound traveling forward, whereas in pressurized domes the sound tends to travel straight upwards. I have no idea if there is any scientific basis behind these observations but every drum corps vet I know says it's true! The one good think about the craziness of playing in a dome is that every corps is affected equally. The best you can do as a performer is control how you react to what's happening around you. It's a little like trying to stand on a spinning log floating downstream -- a lot of fun if you manage to stay afloat. And the acoustical bounce does have an upside: No matter how loud the crowd really cheers, the echo makes it sound like you've just won the Super Bowl! Here in the Glassmen pit, we like applause -- a lot. We also like a challenge. So acoustical nightmares and all, we'll just keep on hypin' the dome.