It was 9:30am on a Monday morning, and we were still reeling from the show that weekend. Up to that point, our only exposure to drum corps had been VHS tapes that our band director would play for us in the band room before rehearsal. But that weekend, my friend Nick and I had taken a road trip from Houston to San Antonio to attend the Drum Corps International (DCI) Regional show. It was our first live show, first lot show, first “face melting” by World Class drum corps. We had never seen anything like it, and days later, we were still processing what we’d seen and heard.
We were hooked.
The two of us huddled around the DCI show program in homeroom, flipping through the pages reading about each corps: where they were based, their show titles, and musical selections for the program. On the way home from our trip, we had decided that we were going to audition for a corps together. Now, it was only a matter of choosing which one.
We had only recently discovered drum corps, and to illustrate just how oblivious we were, I really had no opinion on which group we should try out for — I thought they were all mind-blowingly good, and I just wanted to play on a line with 9 snares.
Nick, on the other hand, had a plan. He knew exactly what he was looking for. With one hand bookmarking the Cavaliers page and the other on Phantom Regiment’s page, he flipped back and forth and asked out loud, half to me and half to himself, “Do we want to wear green… <flip>, or black?”
What Were We Thinking?
It’s so laughable, even now. I still crack up at the thought of it because neither one of us was considering any of the practical concerns: where was the corps based, who taught on staff, what was the style and approach to playing, should we ask our parents, etc.? You know, the boring stuff.
If this is you, you should first read this post I wrote about How to Choose a Drum Corps or Winter Drumline. Funny side note: when I first approached my Dad about joining a music performance group that tours the country playing music all summer, the first thing he said was, “That sounds like an exciting opportunity. How much do they pay you?
Fast forward, and the fairy tale ending of the story is that we ended up auditioning and marching at Phantom Regiment as well as The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps during our drum corps careers. It was an experience of a lifetime that became integral parts of our development as musicians and teachers. 10 years after aging out, we reunited as Percussion Caption Heads at Regiment. We’ve since gone through many, many rounds of auditions as new guys, vets, and staff, and I now empathize with students when I’m on the other side of the table. When they walk in for their individual auditions with that bunny rabbit-about-to-be-mauled-by-a-bear look on their face, you just want to pat them on the back and say, “There, there - you’re gonna be fine.”
With the Winter Guard International (WGI) and DCI seasons fast approaching, more and more questions have come in to #AskHuei from students regarding auditions. For those who already know exactly where they’re going, they ask what advice I have for the DCI and WGI audition process. I’ve linked another post at the end of this article about mindsets for a successful audition, but before that, the question I would ask myself if I were auditioning at this point in the season, even before auditions have started, is “Have I done my homework?”
Memorize that Packet
We picked up our warm-up packet during Friday night registration of November camp. DO NOT do this.
Preparation starts with learning last year’s audition packet, and a few months before the first camp, you’re only having to learn the changes and additions to the upcoming season’s packet. Meanwhile, assess which parts of the packet cater to your strengths, and more importantly, which parts reveal your weaknesses.
Plan your practice and spend a majority of your time moving those deficiencies into your “Strengths” column. You don’t want to be the guy who’s trying to read music out of the corner of their eye, or frantically trying to memorize the part before you get called up to play in the line. You have to approach it like you only get one shot, because you DO only get one shot to make a first impression. Don’t you want to look strong and feel confident when you get up there?
If yes, then the best way to do that is to have the self-assurance that comes from putting in the time, and drilling the exercises so you feel 100% prepared. Doing so frees up your attention to focus on the things that really matter, like listening in, playing clean, immediately adjusting to the feedback that you’re given by the staff, and making it stick on your own.
You don’t memorize the packet for the sake of memorizing — you memorize it to show that you’ve put in the play time commensurate of a vet who has invested one, if not multiple, summers on tour. Show that you deserve to stand next to them.
Memorizing the packet is the price of entry.
“I should watch YouTube videos for homework?” Best. Homework. Ever.
You should be very clear on the style and approach to the instrument, and it has never been easier than now to access the wealth of video content available. Rehearsals, lot videos, shows, snare/tenor/bass/marimba cams — it’s all out there!
What does it look and sound like when they play? What does a typical warm-up routine look like? What kind of vibe does the line project? Different drum staff this year? Find out where else they’ve taught and watch those videos.
What kind of drumming vocabulary is stylistic to the group? Do they play a lot of triplet rolls and paradiddles? Then practice a lot of triplet rolls and paradiddles. Left hand octaves and arpeggios? Then play a lot of left hand octaves and arpeggios. Get it?
One of the best pieces of advice I got from my high school teacher when auditioning was, “When the staff is scanning down the line, if you already look like one of the vets, then that’s one less person they have to worry about.”
Watch video. Look and sound like the archetype members in the line.
Again, it has never been easier to connect with people you haven’t actually met via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. I get messages all the time from viewers or readers (thank you!) and am more than happy to help when the messages are so thoughtful. How does this apply to you? You can do the same things with returning drum staff and vets and reach out to make some initial contact before the first camp.
Disclaimer: First off, don’t expect a response and you won’t be disappointed. You’re a stranger, people are busy and all you can do is make an effort. Secondly, don’t ask for something right out of the gate. It’s about making a connection first, and better yet, thinking of a way that you can offer value first. Last, once you make a connection, if you have a “small ask,” be specific with your question. Asking, “Can you help me with my rolls?” puts the responsibility on their shoulders to figure out your specific situation. Instead, target something concrete, like “I notice that last year’s line played a lot of cold attack triplet rolls — could you share how the staff and members worked that skill set as a line?”
“When the staff is scanning down the line, if you already look like one of the vets, then that’s one less person they have to worry about.”
The value you can provide doesn’t only come in the form of money or material things — it can be words of encouragement or appreciation for their work. Think of it as a respectful way to get on their radar so that when your name shows up later on, they can think back and say, “Oh right, that was the guy who was hyping on the lot video and said his dream was to march in the line someday.”
Don’t interpret this as the need to be a toady man — no one likes that. Instead, realize that getting people interested in you starts with you being interested in them. From there, you can learn all kinds of useful information, like how many vets are returning. You may find out if any staff or vets live nearby you, and ask about taking a lesson or practicing together.
I once had a student who would take an hour-long bus ride in order to practice with a returning vet. The sessions gave him an insight into the approach, helped him improve and build confidence, and he received an informal positive review from the vet. It paid off in the long run and after several successful camp weekends and his continued effort to travel to practice with the vet, he ended up receiving a contract for the season. Taking some lessons with the staff beforehand will exponentially increase your chances of being noticed during camp weekend.
Note: this could be a positive or a negative, depending on your attitude, teachability, and how little or how much you improve since the last time they saw you.
Reference the previous two points and make sure you’ve done your homework.
Somehow Nick and I convinced our parents to let us attend an audition. They graciously put us on a plane, and as the story goes, two high school boys flew cross country, by themselves, and were thrown into the world of DCI — what could possibly go wrong?
Even though we had no idea what we were doing, we just figured it out as we went. We went on to spend four summers touring the country, living the roller coaster that is summer tour.
Talk about a surreal moment — walking into the Alamodome that first summer of tour, but instead of looking at a program from the stands, we were now walking out of the tunnel in uniform, taking our places on the field with thousands of people screaming the same way we did just the summer before.
Take the first step, and do your homework.
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For more reading, check out —5 Things to Do If Auditioning for WGI or DCI Soon