Interview with George Hopkins

2001-07-24

The Cadets of Bergen County came to the West Coast for a tour with the Blue Devils in July, part of a multipronged and bicoastal effort they and the Blue Devils are mounting to build enthusiasm and attendance for California shows as well as attract a bigger crowd to DCI finals in Buffalo, NY in August.

For the Cadets, the California tour was their first trip west in half a century. The two corps also teamed up in a similar effort in late June for an East Coast tour with the same object: build up the audience by getting a chance to see top corps touring together.

It worked: last year, a show in Orlando, FL attracted 2,200. This year, with the addition of the Blue Devils and Cadets, the attendance was 6,600.

Longer term, more needs to be done to keep drum corps vital, says George Hopkins, Director of the Cadets. In fact, if DCI stays the same and doesn’t play down its military heritage, it will continue to be plagued by declining crowds, he believes.

Interviewed at a picnic hosted by the Blue Devils for the Cadets in Walnut Creek, CA, Hopkins said the call to no more arms should be a serious one for fans who care about drum corps. “We grew up with it, so we don’t think anything about the fact that we use swords and rifles, but people who are new to the event can’t understand why we use weapons,” Hopkins said, citing the example of TV talk show host Rosie O’Donnell, who refused to do a promotion for Blast!, the Broadway-based show that grew from the Star of Indiana, because it uses guns and sabers.

In the Cadets 2001 show there are no rifles. Instead the guard spins the much-talked-about apostrophe like devices. Swords will be the thing next to be replaced by some less warlike performance prop. He hopes to create a sabre-like device that will still require the same kind of skills to toss but doesn’t have the association with violence. But wholesale change, Hopkins says, even in a guard where he has the final say can sometimes take longer than he’d like.

Hopkins has a proposed solution to the shrinking audience: focus on the two million kids who are in high school band programs nationwide. “There are 7,000 kids in drum corps, two million in bands. We can be for them what Tanglewood is. If it’s the absolute best place for concert music students, drum corps can be the absolute best place for marching music students.”

That approach would de-emphasize competition between corps and emphasize using the top musicians in the top corps as examples which the two million band students could try to emulate. It would mean programs of top corps putting on performances together accompanied by clinics at high schools instead of road trips to competitions. The payoff would be a drum corps with long-term viability.

“The difference between the best marching bands and the top corps has shrunk; they don’t need us for that (example of unreachable excellence) anymore. But we do have a vital teaching role; to make high school music programs more popular.”

“Our total audience, throughout the year, is around 300,000,” Hopkins said. It would be better to reach the far larger audience of two million in the nation’s bands along with their mothers, fathers, uncles, brothers and sisters.

Hopkins already has a strong validation of his idea; the Cadets have spawned a parent organization to the Corps that runs festival and educational programs for 350 high school bands along the east coast that reaches 30,000 musicians annually. The high school program budget actually dwarfs that of the Cadets and helps fund the corps. Last year alone, it sold more than $125,000 in performance videos.

On the West Coast, where the marching band programs are weaker than in the east, the answer could be an expansion of something like the existing symphonic or concert band program, Hopkins said.

“We have 2,000 kids who apply for the Cadets,” Hopkins said. “The Blue Devils and the other top corps have a similar number. The kids who get turned down don’t join other corps for the most part; they only want to be in the top corps. I think we will end up with 10 or so super performance groups.”

Hopkins ideas could shake up the status quo, but they are likely to be taken seriously.
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