A Blue Devils Audition

Although not nationally televised, auditions for a top-rated drum and bugle corps can be just as exciting and just as frightening as those for “American Idol.” Halftime Magazine follows one musician in her bid to go to Concord, Calif., to play with The Blue Devils.

“Eleven is up, and 12 is on deck,” calls out John Meehan to a group of drum corps auditionees at the Indianapolis Convention Center on Nov. 16, 2007.

Johanna Hutchins is the 11th performer among more than 20 musicians under the age of 22 vying for a position in the 2008 Concord (Calif.) Blue Devils that evening.

A talented mellophonist and horn player from Carmel (Ind.) High School, Hutchins enters Room 148 somewhat cautiously behind Meehan, brass caption head.

The conference room consists of a table, two chairs and a music stand. Meehan and Wayne Downey, The Blue Devils’ musical director, sit at the table eagerly waiting to hear Hutchins perform.

Hutchins moves toward the music stand and takes a deep breath. She will be one of thousands of young people throughout North America competing for a position within drum and bugle corps this winter.

It just so happens that the corps she is auditioning for is based in a city that is more than 2,200 miles from her home.

A National Market

Traditionally, drum corps had been populated with local kids. The drum corps they chose reflected their geographic region, sometimes their neighborhood or even their religious parish. Recruiting was fierce for talent who were often afforded numerous performance options in or near their hometowns.

In recent decades the total number of competing junior drum and bugle corps have diminished. In 2007, 53 junior corps ventured onto a competition field, compared to 442 in 1972, according to an article in the November 2007 issue of Drum Corps World. This decline is due in part to the increased touring costs, but it’s also attributable to a reduction in the number of students capable of or interested in undertaking a season in the drum corps activity.

With school music budgets being significantly trimmed or outright eliminated, the number of kids with the skills necessary to participate in a World Class junior corps continues to be drastically reduced. In a September 2004 report, the Music for All Foundation cited a 50% drop in music class enrollments in California schools over the previous five academic school years.

So it’s no accident that The Blue Devils are auditioning in Indianapolis. On this date, it’s a city teeming with marching performers from all over the country. The Blue Devils will also host auditions in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, as well as in Northern and Southern California.

World Wide Web

Today many drum corps members travel significant distances to participate in junior corps rehearsal camps, requiring corps to continually refine their national recruitment initiatives. Drum corps are taking full advantage of the information superhighway to attract and prepare students to audition for their corps. The Blue Devils have prepared an outstanding amount of information to help prospective performers “make the cut.”

The Blue Devils utilize their website (www.bluedevils.org) to promote their corps, sell merchandise, keep alumni informed and attract new talent. YouTube videos of the corps performing—even the drum and brass lines warming up and rehearsing—promote the corps to potential members.

Meehan prepared an immense audition packet for would-be brass section members interested in auditioning for the corps. Such packets are not an unusual offering from corps of nearly every size, but Meehan’s info packet mixes a detailed overview of the audition process and performance expectations with testimonials from existing corps members that help those auditioning with their decision-making. It also serves as a formidable motivational tool:

The first time I auditioned for the Blue Devils I was scared out of my mind, and I didn’t make the cut. This held true for me again the second and third times I auditioned. The fourth time I did something a little bit different … I went in to the music audition determined to be confident and to pretend that I was the best that they would hear that day. I do not know if I was the best they heard, but I felt my confidence helped me secure a spot in the 2007 brass section. As a result, I had the best summer of my life that ended even better than I could have thought possible. The 2007 Blue Devils were world champions, and I was one of them!

By reading the materials presented in the audition packet, performers auditioning for brass positions for the corps are provided a wealth of knowledge to help them prepare for a successful audition.

The Audition

Hutchins had just finished with the visual portion of the audition prior to her brass audition. The visual demands of world–class drum corps requires students to be in great physical condition. The Blue Devils recommend their performers be capable of running a mile, and running is part of the corps’ conditioning program.

The visual audition evaluates the prospective member’s ability to march in time with proper body alignment. While adherence to The Blue Devils’ specific marching technique program is not a requirement, each person auditioning performs basic marching maneuvers such as high mark time, slides, backwards marching and even jazz running.

The brass portion of the audition involves the performance of several brass exercises and a brief performance of a selected piece. There’s no sight-reading, and the staff takes great pains to ease the performer’s anxiety as much as possible. During Hutchins’ audition, Meehan compliments her on her full sound and briefly inquires about the equipment she’s using.

The Blue Devils have approximately 37 openings out of the 76-member brass line for 2008. This figure may be a conservative estimate based on a rules change enacted by Drum Corps International for 2008 that allows corps to expand to 150 members from 135. It’s very possible the corps will be looking for 40 brass performers to fill vacancies in the line.

The staff assesses each performer on his or her tone quality and basic brass technique. Each performer plays brief warm-up exercises specified in Meehan’s audition packet and has an opportunity to play a short prepared solo.

The staff then offers comments and asks questions of each auditionee. Considering the financial obligations associated with traveling across half the country for obligatory winter rehearsal camps, finances are part of the conversation. The staff asks if the performer can meet the travel requirements and fulfill the attendance expectations of a world-class corps. Fortunately, Hutchins has her mother’s complete support in her desire to perform with The Blue Devils.

The Verdict

The staff uses a simple rating system to assess each performer. A “1” rating in brass and marching indicates that the individual would be offered a position. A “2” rating means the musician has performed well enough to be evaluated further at a corps rehearsal camp. A “3” rating indicates the performer has an open invitation to audition again next year.

Hutchins did less than stellar in her visual audition, but earned a “2” rating and was invited by Meehan to participate in a winter audition camp with the corps in December.

However, Hutchins elected not to pursue her audition in California, opting instead to continue her pursuit of a position in a drum corps brass line in Canton, Ohio, with the Bluecoats Drum and Bugle Corps. Hutchins received her invitation to sign a contract with the Bluecoats in January and fully intends on competing throughout the country with the corps this summer.

Looking back on the audition process, Hutchins has no regrets and would recommend to anyone interested in the activity to undertake an audition, “Don’t be afraid to just go and audition,” she says. “Even if you don’t get a spot, it is still a great opportunity.” 

About the Author

Scooter Pirtle is the publisher of The Middle Horn Leader, a mid-voice activist publication celebrating the heritage of the mellophone and related mid-voice instrumentation. He’s also an active mellophonist with the Star United mini-corps from Indianapolis. He has competed with The Belleville (Ill.) Black Knights Drum and Bugle Corps, the Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps of Bloomington, Ind., and the Bluegrass Brass Senior Drum and Bugle Corps of Lexington, Ky.