The cream of marching music's major league - Drum Corps International (DCI) - is coming to town this week to vie for an annual title awarded for performances that redefine the phrase "half-time show."
If you've never seen a marching band at the DCI level, you should expect serious musical skill mixed with the physical prowess of collegiate athletics (everyone on the field is under 21). Each corps of up to 150 members has spent months perfecting the music and marching of their 10 to 11 minute shows. Corps form and start to rehearse as early as November, followed in May by spring training and its 10-hour practices. The tour, beginning in June, includes 130 events and climaxes in August with the finals.
The World Championships are the endgame, and bragging rights will be determined August 11, with the respect of band nerds across the country on the line.
Perennial powerhouse corps the Blue Devils lead the current score rankings. With more titles than any other corps, they'll be looking for their 15th championship with an ambitious show inspired by, of all things, the Dada movement and its home base, Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire. David Gibbs, the Devils' executive director, says it's all about making it new: "Dada artists wanted to take the absolute and the typical and the expected and turn its on its ear."
The Blue Devils' five-part show draws from a wide range of American and European compositions, starting with "Tristan [Tzara] Writes a Manifesto" (including excerpts from work by John Adams, James Horner and Charles Mingus), moving on to "Hannah [Höch] Makes a Collage" (Erik Satie's Gymnopedies) and "Man Ray Makes a Metronome" (George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique), and closing with "Gertrude [Stein] Writes a Play," an eclectic grab-bag of Steve Perry, Danny Elfman, Thomas Ades, George Gershwin and The Artist composer Ludovic Bource.
Carolina Crown, second behind the Blue Devils in the rankings, is looking to join an elite group known as the "Top 6" - comprised of competing groups with a championship to their name - with their first title. Known for its impressive horn sections, Crown playing to its brass strength this year with a show based on Copland's trumpet-heavy "Fanfare for the Common Man."
George Hopkins, director and program coordinator for the Cadets, says that going into Finals Week ranked fourth, his corps maintains a hopefulness appropriate for their show, an exploration of the various meanings of Christmas. He understands that a win or loss is dependent not so much on what the young men and women on the field do as how the judges score them, which informs his attitude.
"I teach kids that when you wake up in the morning, you have two choices: you can believe that everything is going to work out and life is going to be great, and then you go about your day, or you can believe that it's not going to work out, and you're still going to go about your day," he says. "So why not believe in miracles?"
A Cadets championship win in Indy wouldn't be miraculous, but it would be a great underdog story. The beauty of DCI is that there is no win/loss record going into the finals. Aside from determining the order in which the corps perform, previous scores have no concrete bearing on what happens finals night. Which means surprises happen.
Calendar for DCI World Championship Week
August 8, 2 p.m.: DCI World Championships Open Class Individual & Ensemble Championship @ Indiana Convention Center
Members of DCI's Open Class corps offer up solo and ensemble pieces. (Free)
August 8, 9:30 p.m.: DCI World Championships Kickoff Party and Hall of Fame Induction @ Historic Union Station
On the last night before competition begins, DCI celebrates its championship and honors its legends in a party open to the public. (Free)
August 9, 10:30 a.m.: DCI World Championship Prelims @ Lucas Oil Stadium
In the first of three rounds, over 40 top corps compete throughout the day for one of 25 spots in the semifinals; also broadcast live to movie theaters across the country. ($25-55)
August 10, 2 p.m.: DCI World Championship Semifinals @ Lucas Oil Stadium
Competition heats up in the second night of the championship: 25 will enter, 12 will advance. ($25-75)
August 11, 11 a.m.: Celebrate Indy Arts! Parade in Downtown Indy
Over 30 corps will march through town starting at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North, heading down to New York Street and then up Meridian Street to St. Clair Avenue. (Free)
August 11, 5:30 p.m.: DCI World Championship Finals @ Lucas Oil Stadium
DCI's 12 top corps compete for its 40th World Championship in marching music's biggest event of the year. ($35-125)
Next Page: Five must-see drum corps performances
Five must-see drum corps performances
Appalachian Spring, The Cadets, 1987
The '80s were kind to The Cadets, and their show based on Copland's ballet effectively captured the original's big brass moments and softer sections. Copland's work is a favorite among DCI powerhouses (see Carolina Crown's show this year), and this show set a standard for any corps set on using his work on the field.
Phantom of the Opera, Santa Clara Vanguard, 1989
Drawing on the mystique of the Andrew Lloyd Webber warhorse, Santa Clara Vanguard (SCV to their fans) blew away the 1989 finals with a show that wedded the best-known music from the stage version with high-precision marching. In an ending still speculated on by corps aficionados, one of the Vanguard's members disappeared under a sheet on field in true Phantom style.
My Spanish Heart, The Blue Devils, 1994
It's hard to find a Blue Devils show that doesn't showcase something original and innovative, but this mid-'90s piece matched the corps' traditional attention to detailed drill with a sensitively played show drawn entirely from work by jazz pianist Chick Corea.
Machine, The Cavaliers, 2006
The Cavaliers dominated DCI finals from 2000-2006, winning five championships in seven years, and their 2006 show was emphatic proof that the Cavies deserve their nickname "The Green Machine." Musically ambitious, the show's real wow-factor came from its mind-blowing drill, especially when the corps took a simple block formation of straight lines and made it move like a sentient being.
Spartacus, Phantom Regiment, 2008
Phantom Regiment's identity as DCI's source for marching adaptations of classical standards was brilliantly realized with a finals-topping interpretation of the story of Spartacus, the king of the slaves. With a show ending outdone only by SCV's Phantom of the Opera show, Phantom Reg reminded the drum corps world that they're never a group to count out.