Auditioning for Drum Corps

Interested in being a drum corps member? For newbies, the process starts with the audition, often held during a weekend camp. Find out from corps members and instructors what the process is like and how you can do your best.

Photo by Connie Chiodo

After the departure of summer and all of its rehearsal days, bus rides and competitions, fall brings with it a new year of drum corps. Every season of drum corps starts with thousands of students spending hours in practice rooms, running around town and practicing their roll-step down hallways in preparation for one of the activity’s most daunting aspects—auditions.

The Decision

The first, and arguably most important, step in auditioning for drum corps is the decision to take the leap.

“I really made the decision to audition for drum corps after watching DCI finals in 2008,” says Lia Huang Morris, a Phantom Regiment color guard member. “I never knew what the activity was until I sat in the stands and was blown away by 150 members’ energy shooting up at me all at once. I had nosebleed seats, but it still managed to take my breath away, and all I wanted to do was be a part of that.”

Camp Atmosphere

Many drum corps set up audition camps as a weekend-long activity. For the majority of the camp, the attendees will be in a large group setting, working on the corps’ fundamental techniques, such as musical attacks and marching step-outs. These large group auditions allow instructors to see how each individual fits in with the overall sound and look of the group.

For the visual audition, there is no specific routine to memorize in advance— rather, it’s a chance to see how prospective members take direction and work on the field.

”We’ll spend time together as an ensemble breaking down a few simple exercises, allowing everyone to use whatever movement technique they are familiar with,” says Christopher Alexander, visual caption head for Santa Clara Vanguard. “We use this time to identify the audition criteria and take notes on how each auditionee performs in a large group setting.”

Huang Morris’ color guard auditioning experiences have taught her to adapt to what each choreographer is looking for.

“I’ve learned that in every audition, you must find the best light to represent and sell yourself,” Haung Morris says. “And you must fight to be seen; they are looking for fighters. However, I’ve also noticed that sometimes your skill level doesn’t necessarily matter. The one thing all the choreographers have in common is that they are often looking for people who are willing to work hard and people who have shown growth over the three-day audition weekend.”

Individual Auditions

At some point during the camp weekend, individuals will be called out for their individual auditions. These auditions allow instructors to evaluate and educate the prospective corps members in a one-on-one setting.

“Individual auditions are used to see how candidates perform when they receive focused attention,” says Landon Ewers, Legends percussion supervisor. “The individual audition is not designed to intimidate, but rather to give people an opportunity to show they are confident in themselves and give the staff a great read on what the candidate considers to be their best stuff.”

During the brass audition process, the first part will most likely consist of casual questions about your background, schooling history and interest in the activity. Next, the candidate will be asked to play a variety of ascending, descending, slurred or tongued scales to show their mastery of their instrument.

Then, the moment you’ve been anticipating: Performing the audition pieces allows prospective members to show off their knowledge of the music and ability to prepare music. Ryan Mohney, 2012 Blue Stars brass caption head, advises candidates not to be discouraged if you are asked to only play part of your piece or are stopped before you finish.

“Do not fret; this does not mean anything one way or another,” Mohney says. “All that means is that the judge has heard enough to get an understanding of your playing ability.”

Depending on the instrument and part for which you are auditioning, the end of the audition might include you showing your upper register ability, according to Mohney. “Remember, though, the performing group has the final say on the part that you will play,” he says.

For percussion, prospective members are expected to demonstrate a variety of skills. “Candidates prepare a packet of exercises: rudiments and rhythm concepts for the battery, two and four mallet techniques for the keyboards, pedaling and tuning for the timpani, groove styles for the drum set, and various percussion techniques on snare drum, congas, bass drum, etc., for the auxiliary percussion,” Ewers says. “The only section not expected to prepare a particular set of exercises is the cymbal line. All those techniques are taught by the staff at camps.”

The percussion staff looks at not only the skills the candidates have when they come to camp, but also how they apply the information given to them throughout the course of the weekend.

“The staff is looking for a certain level of ability, experience and adaptability,” Ewers says. “While having a base level of ability is certainly important, the staff understands that candidates are going to grow over time.”

The staff does not expect auditionees to know and perfect everything they are taught during the camp. The entire season is a learning process, and while camp weekends are tiring, instructors are looking for students who show the ability to keep improving throughout the season.

“The biggest question the staff has to ask about a candidate is: ‘Are they far enough along and moving at a pace that will enable them to reach the goals for the percussion section over the course of the season?’” Ewers says.

Guard auditions differ from the rest of the corps as prospective members learn the audition routines at the camp. The guard candidates are then split up into small groups to perform the routines in front of the staff.

“It is a lot like ‘American Idol,’ and you never know if you are going to have a Paula Abdul that loves you or Simon Cowel that will cut you,” Huang Morris says. “You also feel like you are being broadcasted on national television, and you feel like the whole world is watching you.”

How students control nerves can be a large part of the camp experience. Audition anxiety can reduce a well-prepared prospect to a shaking pile of nerves. “You have all these choreographers throwing new skills at you, putting you under a microscope and looking at every detail,” Huang Morris says. “You have to perform your heart out on these new skills learned in order to compete with the 70-some other applicants, and your body is also starting to become really sore from the three-day audition process. However, you must continue to go on until the end. But it is stressful on purpose because, let’s admit it, drum corps is stressful, and they are looking for people who can look past the crazy cards dealt for them and still be able to enjoy the game.”

It is understood that not every prospective member will be able to attend every camp, especially if he or she is auditioning for a corps far from home. In these cases, many corps allow prospective members to submit videos.

Meg Highley had a nontraditional entry into the world of drum corps—she was unable to audition in early camps and submitted an audition video for the chance to fill a hole in The Academy brass line later in the season.

“When I heard that The Academy was an option, I was really excited,” Highley says. “I spent several days recording an audition video. It got really frustrating at times; I would get to the end of the recording, mess up and have to start all over. Video auditions are much harder than they seem.”

Callbacks

Each corps has a different way they go about giving contracts to members. Many corps do not give contracts at the first camp and instead use a callback system. Corps may use a three-tier scale in order to rate prospective members: ready for a contract if they maintain the high level of execution shown at camp, needs improvement before being offered a contract and currently not at the level the corps requires.

Prospective members may receive the results of their audition at the end of the camp or in the following week. “Some groups will give you a rating at the end of the camp,” Mohney says. “This rating will be based on a scale that they have defined and will tell you what you need to do. The second way may come via email or a telephone call within the next week after the conclusion of the camp.”

Preparation Tips

In order to get the most out of the audition camp experience, adequately prepare for the musical audition. Much of the weekend will consist of learning how one part fits in with the rest of the group. If prospective members do not know their own part, then they will not learn as much during the camp.

When preparing the etudes for the musical audition, start practicing at a slower tempo to ensure the piece is played correctly before increasing the tempo. “Preparation is about more than notes and correct rhythms,” Mohney says. “Of course those must come first. However as a performer, it is your job to take on the role of what you are performing.”

You should be your harshest critic. Practice your music at the highest level of quality possible in order to perform to the best of your abilities. “Try to be as picky as you can about all aspects of performing,” Mohney says. “Some of these aspects would be using steady air from note to note, tonguing clearly with the same strength in the same place and ensuring that all markings are played correctly.”

At camps, in order to direct everyone to the same place in the music, measure numbers will be used as starting and stopping points. Prospective members should number the measures in their music to quickly find a specific spot when requested.

“The saying goes, ‘Practice makes perfect’. Well that isn’t really true,” says Kristofer Borden, a member of The Cavaliers’ brass line. “Perfect practice makes perfect. I would always practice my audition music as much as I could, but I made sure the practice I was doing was perfect and not creating any bad habits.”

Because you will be marching while playing on the field, make sure to mark time while practicing to make it easier to transition from standing and playing to marching and playing. This will also help for the visual audition.

During the visual portion of the audition process, strong physical conditioning is one of the key criteria.

“One of the best things you can do from a visual preparation standpoint is to show up at the audition with a good foundation of physical conditioning,” Alexander says. “There is a wealth of information online that can aid you in developing a routine that includes cardio, strength training and flexibility.”

Develop a long-term plan for physical conditioning. Drum corps is a physical activity that requires strength and endurance. Physical exhaustion creates tension in the body, which can be heard in the instrument’s sound.

Tension may also build up from nerves before an audition. By recognizing this habit before the camp, auditionees can use techniques while they practice to ward off tension.

“Practice evaluating and addressing your tension every day, head to toe, before you begin practicing,” Alexander says. “This habit will help you stave off anxiety if you become tense or inflexible on the day of your audition.”

No matter what, have no regrets. “Don’t hesitate to come out and give it a shot,” Alexander says. “Whatever your skill level, I can assure you that with consistent preparation and a good attitude, your audition weekend will be a valuable learning experience.”

While making the decision to audition for drum corps may be daunting, it is an experience like none other. Do not let the fear of the unknown or the challenge prevent you from taking the leap.

“Take the opportunities you are given and run with them; don’t think twice,” Highley encourages. “In drum corps we have the amazing opportunity to wake up every day in a new place with a clean slate and simply pursue excellence,” she says. “Nowhere else in life will you find 150 people working towards being perfect— and have it be an achievable goal.”

About the Author

Carolyn Shaffer played trumpet in the Blue Stars Drum and Bugle Corps for a year and the Purdue All-American Marching Band for four years. She has bachelor’s degrees in professional writing and English literature from Purdue University.