The Blue Devils

As The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps prepares to defend its Drum Corps International World Championship, Executive Director David Gibbs found some down time to talk to Halftime Magazine about his history and leadership philosophy working with this top corps.

In 34 years with The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps as a performer, teacher and director, David Gibbs has won 12 DCI World Championships— six of them while director. But according to Gibbs, no season can compare to the corps’ 2007 campaign. The Blue Devils beat out The Cadets in the 2007 DCI World Championships finals with a score of 98.000 to conclude the corps’ exceptional season.

Halftime Magazine caught up with Gibbs as he and The Blue Devils from Concord, Calif., prepare to defend their DCI World Championship in the 2008 summer season.

Halftime: Talk about your history with drum corps and The Blue Devils.

Gibbs: I started marching in 1974 as a trumpet player and became drum major in 1978. My last year was 1980. My last couple years, I began working with the drill and started working with the marching and drill stuff. When I aged out in 1980, I joined the staff, which pretty much went until 1990. In 1991 I became the director of the corps, and then probably a few years later, I got the official title of executive director of the organization.

Halftime: What did you say to your corps before the finals last year?

Gibbs: This corps had a lot of challenges and a huge amount of, I don’t know, burden. To be the corps that has the 50th anniversary and the first time for the championships in California, that’s a lot to put on a kid’s shoulders. Those kids just barreled through it at the weakest times and the strongest times, and I told them that I was proud of that. I told them to enjoy it and soak it in. They’ll never ever have that experience again. … I thanked them for their unbelievable journey. They should be extremely proud of themselves.

Halftime: Tell us about this year’s show. What do you expect from 2008?

Gibbs: The show for this year is called “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” It’s a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The poem is about an acrobat who risks failure and the creative process or creative efforts and risks that artists take when they display their craft in front of a crowd.

We’re taking that poem—it’s the same issues we go through with The Blue Devils and the drum corps—and we’re going to interpret it in a very fun and unique show. It’s going to be very bright, bright uniforms. It’ll be very fun and different.

Our expectations are really the same, hoping that we can put out an outstanding product, hoping that we can entertain the people that come watch us, hoping that we can give the kids a good experience.

That being said, our goals are to be the best group out there. We shoot for 100. We don’t know what other groups are going to do, so we don’t judge ourselves against other groups; we judge against ourselves.

Halftime: Can you describe what it’s like to win a DCI Championship? How do you follow that up?

Gibbs: Well, I’ve been with the corps since 1974, so I’ve won 12 of them. Some of them are not my favorite years, though; some of the championships are my least favorite years, just because that’s not the end-all. It’s about getting to the same place at the same time. Winning it just puts the cherry on top of it all.

When other people recognize your efforts, that’s always a good thing. How do you follow it up? You don’t. You don’t try to copy it; you try to push forward with a new show that entertains people and pushes the art and the craft that you do. The kids aren’t the same this year; each year is different, and we base the show on this new year’s talent. We enjoy our successes when we have them and learn from our failures.

Halftime: Why were some of the championship years your least favorite?

Gibbs: It’s about the journey. It’s kind of cliché, but it really is the journey. Did you achieve what you set out to do? Did you achieve to your potential? Did the kids truly leave there with the best experience possible? Did the staff truly jell? Did you really leave everything on the field? And sometimes you don’t.

There are a few instances where I didn’t get them to that full maturity level, or we didn’t quite achieve the show we wanted to achieve. Sometimes there’s a week or two when we didn’t try hard enough.

The championship is the cherry on top of a really bad chocolate ice cream sundae. It’s made horrible and tastes horrible, and even with the cherry on top, it still tastes bad. If it’s a good year, then that cherry makes it all good.

Last year was so special. The journey was great. They worked hard, and the kids were spectacular. The experience was awesome, and they all learned a huge amount, and the show was awesome. And they got a championship on top of it, which was the cherry.

Halftime: How have The Blue Devils managed to maintain such a level of success? What’s the secret?

Gibbs: It’s a consistency of approach with our staff, consistency of each other’s expectations. Our staff is at such a high level. Even though we have turnover, they really are the best. It’s not just them; it’s the entire organization. There are so many people behind the scenes that allow the staff to focus on their job and what they have to do.

The other reason for the success is, thank God, for Jerry Seawright [who led the conversion of The Blue Devils from a drum and bell corps to a full-fledged competitive drum and bugle corps]. He had some very fundamental approaches to what will create successes on the field and what will create a brand that is unique. We really are still following what Jerry Seawright and the original corps set up. I’m only the third director of the corps since 1972. It’s the people in front of these kids and the many years of development of the philosophy.

Right before he passed away, I got him on video in a discussion. The very first time he went on tour, they got about 100 miles down the street, and the bus broke down. Jerry took the kids off the bus, and he said, “We tried; we almost made it to Nevada. Maybe next year.” He asked the kids, “What do you want to do?” and the kids all looked at him and said, “Are you crazy?” and he said, “That’s what I wanted to hear. We’ll get an extra bus.”

That’s kind of like the founding principles. The kids said, “Are you crazy? We’re in this 100 percent.” Imagine if the kids then had said, “We want to go home.” We wouldn’t be here today. That’s who we are. Right there.

Note from the Editor: Read more questions and answers from David Gibbs. Visit our Web Exclusives section at www.halftimemag.com.

About the Author

Eddie Carden is an editorial intern for Halftime Magazine. He will be a senior, majoring in public relations and neuroscience, at the University of Southern California. He has been playing the trumpet since the fifth grade and currently serves as the drum major for the USC “Spirit of Troy” Trojan Marching Band.

Photo courtesy of Drum Corps International. All rights reserved.

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