DCI & WGI: Perform Like a Champion

You’re on the bus. You have 15 minutes before arriving at the lot, and then it’s time to perform like a champion. Good thing you read this beforehand.

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Performing is something I’ve always enjoyed, and I learned a lot during my first summer tour of drum corps in 2001. Something changed, and it wasn’t “just for fun” anymore — this was serious.

Have you ever wanted to do something right so badly that it actually got worse?

For me, I made the mistake of not switching from “practice mode” to “performance mode.” In practice, I was constantly listening and thinking, critiquing myself and narrating what I would do differently the next repetition. However, you shouldn’t be talking to yourself in performance mode — you’re performing, remember?

I finally learned how to shut that inner monologue off in my head, and my approach to walking on stage completely changed. It was a process, but I figured out a lot over four summers, two of which were DCI World Championship titles. These lessons were a large part of my foundation as I continued life as a professional musician, and the lessons that I now share with my students today.

Whether you’re at a weekend audition, football game, BOA Grand Nationals, or DCI Finals, here are my tips on how to perform like a champion.

1. Every Rep is a Show Rep

“Rep” is short for “repetition,” and I often ask my students, “What are we trying to accomplish through these repetitions?” Answer: improvement and consistency. We do this by logging correct repetitions. “Do it right so many times you can’t do it wrong.”

Young players often make the mistake of “turning it on” for the performance. My good friend, Joe Roach, talks about the “output of energy,” and figuring out how to keep it constant. You hear people say, “You will perform the way you practice,” but as the performer and teacher, that translates to, “Practice the way you want to perform.” That means you need to be “turning it on” in rehearsal when there’s no one in the stands.

Going through the motions? Getting distracted? Caught off guard for the start of a repetition? There’s a chance the same will happen in performance. When students say, “Wow, that’s A LOT better than how we’ve been rehearsing!” they consider it a success. Instead, consider the perspective that it’s a failure; think of how much better it could have been. Also, realize you were lucky. It could have swung the same amount in the other direction. It could have been a lot worse.

“Practice the way you want to perform.”

When you change your thought process or behavior for the performance, the outcome becomes an unknown. Sometimes people are confused when I say, “Don’t try harder for the performance.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. It means you should be trying your best in every rehearsal up to that point.

Thinking of the show as just another rehearsal relieves a lot of the unnecessary, self-created pressure. One thing you see world class level players do is always practicing at a “10”, every single rep.

If you want to perform at a “10,” you’ve got to practice at a “10.”

2. Get it together

This one is very straightforward, but often overlooked and can be the beginning of the end.

Be prudent and you’ll set yourself up for success. There’s nothing worse than having to scramble right before walking off the bus. You’ve seen those people — frantically asking around for electrical tape for their sticks or flags, trying to figure out why they’re missing a shoe or plume, pulling their pants lower to hide their forgotten black socks. What are you doing?

Instead, prepare everything beforehand. Taking 60 seconds to make a checklist can save hours of panic. The peace of mind that you’ve taken care of everything in advance is priceless.

On tour, I would often rush to be the first packed, showered, and through the food line, just so I would have 30 minutes before pulling out of a housing site to chill and calmly treat my sticks to the perfect tape job — my meditation. I’d always pack two pairs of black socks, so in the event of “missing socks,” I could provide the solution to the problem, not be the one causing the problem. Before the bus doors closed, I was already in show mode.

Do whatever you need to do to be physically, mentally and emotionally primed, ready to execute your best performance. On that note: I know it’s tempting, but why roll the dice by getting loaded on candy, coffee or soda just ‘cause you’re on a bus ride? No need.

“The peace of mind that you’ve taken care of everything in advance is priceless.”

3. Create a routine

Humans are creatures of habit, and this can be used to your advantage. Find which rituals or habits you can pair with your best performance. What kind of music do you listen to beforehand? Pre-show high five? Do you get excited or prefer to keep quietly to yourself?

During my first summer of tour, we would stay in our “serious drumline vibe” when walking from the parking lot warm-up to the stadium. In contrast, during my second summer, we would casually stroll from the lot to the stadium, often chatting in pairs, trios, or left to our own thoughts. Letting each performer choose how they wanted to prepare was a chance for me to discover how I prepared best.

Some people prefer to think of getting into performance mode as a “light switch” where they just turn it on. Others may try a “slow burn” approach — like lighting a candle or fuse and gradually intensifying the focus & energy to the moment you walk up to the gate.

Discovering what works best for you will take time. Experiment and realize that this is a skill you can and should practice.

4. Visualize the ideal scenario

I’m a fan of Chef Gordon Ramsay’s work, and on Master Chef, he often asks the presenters what he should expect to see — for example, before cutting into a steak or poached egg. In other words, he is asking the contestants to visualize the ideal scenario beforehand, which is then used as a barometer against the dish in reality.

Our ability to imagine is an extraordinary gift. Instead of stepping off the bus and then reacting in the moment, picture exactly what will happen each step of the way beforehand. You control the situation, don’t let the situation control you.

Are you already dressed? Where do you go and what do you do first? How do you feel as this is all happening? The more vivid a picture you’re able to paint in your mind, the more likely you’ll be able to bring this perfect scenario to fruition.

You can start focusing and getting in the zone even before you get off the bus. Remain flexible as unexpected situations may arise, but your job is to execute on the ideal vision you’ve created in your mind.

You control the situation, don’t let the situation control you.

5. Stay in the moment

Things go wrong. Failure to prepare for anything otherwise is a mistake.

For me, this is where I struggled as a young player. If something went wrong, my inner monologue would start talking (check out The Inner Game of Tennis by Gallwey). I learned that this didn’t help, and would often lead to more problems. The phrase I now think of when something goes wrong is the same as when someone does something that might ruin your day, “Water off a duck’s back.”

That being said, your goal is to avoid these mistakes and stay in “performance mode” — showcase your absolute best version of yourself. If something does go wrong, then recover and get back to “performance mode” as quickly as possible.

To avoid having to shift into “recovery mode,” stay focused and don’t get distracted. This is a skill you have to practice and develop. The audience is screaming, the electronics aren’t working, someone trips — you have to keep your blinders on and eyes on the prize: execute the absolute best performance you can.

Our snare tech, Jeff, actually talked about how if you are truly in “performance mode” during the show, you go into a mental zone where nothing else outside of your immediate physical bubble exists. When the show ends, it’s as if you “wake up” from your meditative state and ask, “Was it a good show?” There is zero reflection and critiquing going on during the performance — only afterwards while replaying the show in your mind are you having those thoughts and judgements.

Focus on your job, stay in the moment, water off a duck’s back.

6. Control what you can control

This may be the most important lesson. Really, it’s a life lesson.

Judges are people. Perception is subjective. Scores are just numbers.

Instead of placing your definition of success on what you can’t control, like a score or placement, focus on what you can control. Legendary basketball coach and author, John Wooden, writes:

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

To hand someone else the power and influence over whether or not you feel successful is a mistake. Instead of doing the work to achieve a specific number or placement, do the work for the love of the process and final product.

In 2003, The Cavaliers undefeated streak ended, and for weeks, we were trailing behind the Blue Devils. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why. When I brought it up to my friend Dre, he asked, “Well, where would you rather march?” Of course I was right where I wanted to be. He helped me realize it wasn’t about placement, but the people, music and the process I was a part of that actually mattered.

If you can say to yourself that you did your absolute best, in preparation and performance, and that you couldn’t have tried any harder, then consider it a success.

You may feel disappointed, or get hung up on something. Do yourself a favor and get out of your own head. Instead of wasting your time and energy worrying about things or people you can’t control, focus on what you can control.

Focus on you.


My friend Scott used to say before every performance, “Everybody comes off the field happy.” Something about focusing on “feeling great about the performance” rather than a perfectly clinical execution of the show reminded me there’s so much more than worrying about the physical. It’s also about taking care of the mental and emotional side of the process.

Do everything you can to set yourself and the people around you up so that everyone comes off the field happy. I hope this helps, and good luck!


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Professional Musician, Dad, Digital Content Creator, building community one note at a time. #SundaysWithHuei Free live video music lessons @hueiyuanpan

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