Pioneer Drum and Bugle Corps

With 50 years in the drum corps activity, Pioneer has gone through many changes. Roman Blenski, executive director and one of the corps’ founders, discusses the corps’ history, present and future.

Photo by Ken Martinson/Marching.com

In 1961, Roman Blenski and one of his colleagues were approached at a solo and ensemble contest by a couple of nuns who said they wanted to start a drum and bugle corps at St. Patrick’s school. Blenski and his colleague agreed to teach, forming The Imperials of St. Patrick in Milwaukee. After merging with a nearby corps in the 1970’s, the corps changed its name to the Pioneer Drum and Bugle Corps. Pioneer is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Halftime: You have been with the corps for 50 years. What keeps you coming back?

Blenski: Dealing with the students … and helping them meet challenges. The corps activity has a way of stretching you out like a rubber band. It teaches you to be creative, and you have to come up with alternate ways of doing things when the way you want to doesn’t work.

Halftime: How is the corps celebrating its 50th anniversary?

Blenski: The name of the show this year is “Celebrate,” and we picked out various selections from the last five decades. We’re [also] having a big celebration. It’s a two-day event in Milwaukee. Saturday we have a picnic, and we have a procession of the different five decades of the corps and then all of the alumni from the 60’s and the 70’s are going to pose for a picture and march around the field. Then the corps is going to perform a couple of times and feature some of our solos. We’re going to have a combined dinner, … and then in the evening, there will be activities and games, and then we have a mass bonfire. … Then on Sunday, … we’re all going to St. Patrick’s church and tour the school in which we started.

Halftime: How did the corps evolve from a church-sponsored group to an independent group?

Blenski: The Catholic church was going through changes with the Vatican, and a lot of the main supporters of the corps left the order, so the pastor advised me to incorporate the corps since I seemed to have the most interest in it, and that’s how we became an independent entity.

Halftime: What are some of the challenges you face running the corps?

Blenski: The current challenge is Bingo. Last year, Congress passed the no smoking law in public buildings, and since then it has been a big challenge. Our profits almost plunged down to zero, and we lost money there for a while. We got that under control to the point that we’re not losing money now, but we’re not making it, and of course since it is a big part of our budget, it’s a significant challenge, … and it is taking time away from … recruiting and other things.

Halftime: How has the corps overcome this financial setback?

Blenski: We’ve made significant cutbacks in things that we want, staff that we’ve hired. Our equipment was in pretty good shape. … This year we just didn’t buy anything.

Halftime: Do you have any advice on how to sustain a corps for 50 years with the economic swings?

Blenski: You have to be persistent, and you have to be committed to making it happen for the benefit of others. … The one crisis that we’re all anticipating in the corps activity is you’re seeing different focuses between the corps that are not-for- profit volunteer-based youth groups as opposed to some of them which are very successful businesses, and that might be causing some significant differences within the activity.

Halftime: What other changes have you seen in the corps activity?

Blenski: I’ve been 50 years in the corps, and I’ve marched six or seven years, so it has come a long way in that period of time. … I think in the nature of the activity, a lot of times we forget that we used to [only] be weekends, then that expanded a little bit to doing short little tours each month; now it’s to the point that we’re on the road for 80 straight days, and that is definitely pushing it because it narrows down the percentage of students interested in doing this. … It adds benefits, but it costs a lot of money per day. You have food [and] instructional costs, and it’s putting quite a stretch on the organization. It’s been good growth.

Halftime: What are the corps’ future goals?

Blenski: Our particular goal is to stay evenly balanced, keep our finances under control and to continue to perform at a very high level. … We push really hard on our motto to “be better every day.” … We pound on that pretty hard because some days everything seems to go wrong or not as planned, but you can’t give up on it; you have to work on it. Young students sometimes tend to want to give up pretty quickly.

Halftime: What advice would you give to aspiring corps members?

Blenski: If you love your instrument and love to perform for people and want to experience something that you will probably never do again in your life, being on tour with the Pioneer for the summer is great. … You’ll never work harder in your life except if you join the service or if you get married.

About the Author

Lydia Ness is a visual journalism student at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. She has performed in the Glassmen, the Bluecoats, and The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps as well as the Riverside Community College indoor percussion ensemble. She teaches the front ensemble at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, Calif. Lydia plans to go to law school and focus on international and global justice.

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