1979 – Quest for the Goal – by George D’Iorio, Principal Brass Instructor 1976-1979
Following the 1978 season, having gone undefeated in both circuits and winning by wide margins in every competition, we knew we were headed to ‘Open Class.’ (Note: At the time, ‘Open Class’ referred to the highest class in drum corps competition. The highest class is now named ‘World Class’, and ‘Open Class’ refers to the next class). The move into Open Class meant we would be competing against the very best drum corps in the country. Locally, we would be pitted against North Star, the 27th Lancers, the Boston Crusaders, the Defenders, and Spectra. We would also compete against all national level corps, including those in DCI’s top 12. As instructors we knew the higher echelon corps would be beyond our reach. Our objective was to be competitive against the mid-level Open Class corps and to win championships in the All Girl division at the World Open and at DCI, to be held in Birmingham, AL.
On this higher competitive plane, we knew our repertoire would need to be more sophisticated and performance levels would have to improve in all areas. In addition, with the exception of our brief tour in 1978, we were unknown to national level judges. Accordingly, many of our competitors would automatically have an advantage over us. We needed to make really positive first impressions with national judges who had never seen us before. We faced a huge challenge, but we did have a few things going for us.
First of all, the organization was strong and both the leaders and parents were ‘all in’ on the goals. People like Don Lavender, Maurice Bouchard, Gail Dragon, Dave DeForest, Mae Sirois, the Jalberts, the Kirwins, the Lefrancois, the Keons, the Berubes, and many others whose names I cannot recall (my apologies – it was 35+ years ago) were steadfast in their support. These people volunteered huge amounts of time for the corps. They did everything from fundraising to sewing uniforms, driving buses, taking care of equipment, scheduling rehearsal sites, and many other time consuming tasks. As instructors, if we needed equipment upgrades we got them. If we needed an extra rehearsal they found a place for us. They made sacrifices to ensure the corps got everything needed to succeed. Their efforts were critical and made a huge difference although they never got any public credit. Quietly, behind the scenes, their dedication and support gave us an edge many other corps lacked.
Secondly, a large nucleus of older kids in the corps had an unwavering desire to excel. Most of these kids had been in the corps since 1976 and understood how the work they had put in had paid off. They wanted to take the next step. And they wanted to wipe the smiles off of the faces of the other All Girl corps who had previously beaten them. These kids were the peer leaders and they set an example for the younger ones. The most vocal of these older kids were quite determined. They set the tone and helped motivate others.
The third advantage we had was an instructional staff that collaborated and shared an intense work ethic. We made decisions together and put in more hours with the corps than the typical instructional staff. When Carla Pelletier decided to leave the staff, Dick was able to convince Donna Herlihy, a successful color guard instructor who had previous Open Class experience, to join our staff. It wasn’t very difficult as she had marched with the other instructors, was my girlfriend (and later became my wife), and shared our teaching philosophy. She fit in perfectly and the experience she brought would help the guard get to the next level. Having a cohesive staff also helped ensure the program would be well planned and coordinated.
That addition meant that our entire instructional staff was comprised of former members of the Beverly (and St. Mary’s) Cardinals. As members of the Cardinals we had marched in the finals of Open Class competitions but none of us had ever won a national championship. We saw the potential for Arbella to become the best All Girl drum corps in the activity, the original vision Peter and I had established back in 1976. Although it was a major challenge, we believed it was attainable. To reach that goal, however, would require an enormous effort. We needed to field a larger corps, get better equipment, and have a level of dedication above what the kids had in previous years. It meant many more rehearsals, a more difficult program, and even more support from the parents. We were joining the big leagues against more experienced corps with much older members, and it was a steep hill to climb.
Our success in 1978 had been well publicized in the local paper, as the Salem News had featured articles and pictures of the corps every week, touting our undefeated string and dubbing us Salem’s ‘musical ambassadors’. That notoriety made recruiting easier than in previous years. All three areas of the corps; horn line, drum line, and color guard, retained most of the kids from the previous year so we had a large group of veteran members. Those veterans had to step up as new members would likely play lower level roles. Second sopranos would have to become first sopranos, some tenors might have to become snares, and some flags would have to step up to become rifles.
Our early rehearsals were used to determine the roles of the kids and begin practicing ‘basics’. Dick worked the kids hard in drill rehearsals, stressing stride, precision, and military bearing. Donna began assessing the guard to determine who would carry flags and who would bear rifles. Peter has his largest drum line ever and worked the line rigorously on fundamentals. Michael and I began sorting out where to place our new recruits as we planned to expand to 48 brass players. The plan was to field 16 baritones, 4 contrabasses, 6 mellophones, and 22 sopranos. New bugles, drums, and color guard equipment was needed and, once again, the parents rallied to raise the money for every request we put before them.
The instructors met frequently in the fall to plan the repertoire and the overall show design. We needed to create a program that would optimize the talent of the young corps but with enough general effect to measure up to Open Class expectations. Once again, Michael, Peter, and I collaborated to develop ideas for the musical repertoire. For our opener we eventually settled on selections from the Red Poppy ballet by Reinhold Gliere, which contained ‘Russian Sailor’s Dance’. It had some ‘guts’ to it and was aligned with the corps’ nautical theme. Working without sheet music, I wrote this piece, with harmonic consulting from Michael, over a three week period. It was important to have it ready for our first ever ‘weekend camp’ where we hoped to teach a good portion of it. We worked with Peter to coordinate places in the piece that had percussion breaks and tempo changes. The difficulty level was higher than any previous music we had played, because major portions of it were to be played at over 120 beats per minute.
For the first time ever we staged a weekend camp. It was held at Fort Devens in Ayer, Mass starting the day after Thanksgiving. Everyone traveled on buses for the trip and we all stayed in barracks on the base. One thing we had not expected was that there was no hot water in the barracks. That made for very quick showers and it certainly helped wake us up every morning. It was a productive camp and we made good progress teaching ‘Sailor’s Dance’. We practiced long and hard all weekend. Having the entire corps together also enabled us to start our messaging around goals for the year. We emphasized that every Open Class corps was practicing just as hard, if not more, and that it would take the dedication of every member for us to be competitive in the Open Class. The parents did a great job keeping us fed and well cared for and we left Fort Devens with a good head start on teaching the program and a clear message about the road ahead.
Back home, in December, we got into a strict rhythm of rehearsals. We continued work on basics, teaching the music, and building marching and guard skills. Dick began teaching the opening drill in the Salem Armory. It was decided we would start in a tight circular formation and march toward the back sideline to build suspense prior to the first ‘hit’ in ‘Sailor’s Dance’. Inside the armory, the initial musical sounds echoed off the walls and there was an aura of mystery. We hoped that would work as well in a large stadium setting. The color guard was making good progress with rifle and flag routines starting to look sharp. The drum line was shaping up to be better than ever, benefiting from years of experience and Peter’s continual push for accuracy. We were having effective rehearsals all through the winter and things were progressing well. But we had a long way to go. We had much more music and drill to write and teach.
In late February, Dick decided to take advantage of the fact that there was no snow on the ground and he began having the corps practice drill outdoors on Sundays. The blue laws were in effect in Massachusetts at the time which meant retail stores were closed on Sundays. That allowed us to practice on Highland Ave. in a large parking lot. It was quite cold on many days, but the extra space helped us make progress teaching the drill.
In early March we decided on a little known Stevie Wonder song, ‘You and I’ as our second musical selection. Peter had a drum feature leading into it that foreshadowed the main melody and built up into the initial hit. ‘You and I’ was not a typical drum corps song for a second number as it was fairly laid back, but it had great harmonics and Peter wrote a beautifully tasteful percussion chart to complement the brass. The chord structures were fairly advanced so good intonation was essential to make it work. We put a bold ending on it and it provided the guard opportunities for some subtle shading, contrasting the more aggressive guard work in ‘Sailor’s Dance’. We were hoping the judges would appreciate the nuances we featured and the high level of coordination.
In March and heading into April the drill was progressing well, all music leading up to concert was taught, and we were seeing gradual improvement in proficiency. We thought long and hard about our concert selection and eventually decided on ‘La Fiesta’, a celebratory Spanish jazz piece composed by Chick Corea. Written in 6/8 time, it offered bold and bright melodies with Spanish percussion accents and a chance to show some versatility. At the time, several DCI finalists (including the Blue Devils and North Star) had great success with Spanish jazz as their concert pieces and we believed it would be well placed in our show. This was not a case of us ‘copying’ the top corps. It was a calculated move to add sophistication to the repertoire. We did not like the ending in the original version, so Michael and I spent several hours creating an ending that fit the genre and built to a strong climax. It took a little while to get the kids to perform this as we had never really played jazz before (unless you count the swing jazz version of ‘Popeye’ we sometimes used as a warm up, which was not a serious piece of music). The Spanish jazz nature of ‘La Fiesta’ gave Peter the opportunity to use some different percussion techniques and his writing was especially good in this piece. There was difficult content, but we thought the kids could ‘grow’ into the piece and eventually perform it well and it would add needed contrast to our repertoire. We decided to keep ‘Evergreen’ as our exit, and I added more complexity in the harmonics and counterpoint, with arpeggios played by baritones under the upper voice melodies. It had become somewhat of our signature piece, since we played it the previous two seasons and it was a very comfortable piece for the kids who were veterans. With the subtle enhancements we were confident it would be effective at the Open Class level.
Our overall show design was strategic in seeking to optimize scoring. The scoring system in drum corps at that time was broken into execution captions and ‘build up’ captions. Execution was evaluated by the judges reducing the score in that caption based on the number of errors committed. For example, in the Brass Execution caption, a corps started with 15 points and their score would decrease by a tenth of a point for every mistake the execution judge detected during the timed portion of the performance. The ‘build up’ captions were very different because they gave credit for what was performed and the effects produced. In contrast to execution captions, corps earned their score in those captions based on what they achieved. General Effect in Brass, Percussion, and Marching/Maneuvering gave credit for the overall effectiveness in those areas. Musical Analysis, Percussion Analysis, and Visual Analysis gave credit for the content and technique the corps displayed in those areas. These ‘build up’ captions were highly subjective and dependent on the opinion of the judges while the execution captions were much more objective. Our approach, as in previous years, was to plan the content of the program strategically. It had to be sophisticated enough to garner good scores in the ‘build up’ captions while within the skill range of our kids to maximize execution scores. Content that was too difficult would hurt execution and content that was too simple would not score well in ‘build up’ captions. It meant writing precisely for the anticipated performance capability of the kids. For us, optimizing scoring would be like threading a needle and, with such a young corps, we needed to thread that needle perfectly.
In late May, the focus was on completing the drill and guard work in the closer. We had favorable weather and used it to our advantage. Dick wrote nice maneuvers for ‘Evergreen’, with flowing patterns to match the mood of the softer passages and a huge company front that spanned all the way across the field for the big ‘push’. It ended appropriately with the corps forming a six pointed star. (‘Evergreen’ is from the movie ‘A Star is Born’, originally performed by Barbara Streisand). With all music and drill complete the only thing left was to polish the show, increasing accuracy and confidence. That was much easier said than done. The rehearsal pace picked up as we headed toward our first outing, which was an evaluated exhibition to be conducted by the Massachusetts Judges Association (Peter, Michael, and I were all members). This was an opportunity to get a critique of the show from judges before our first competition. Since it was the very first ‘non-rehearsal’ performance everyone, especially the instructors, was nervous. Precision was predictably missing in spots and execution was rough, but we got some helpful feedback on the show and ideas for adjustments. It was also beneficial for the newer members to have a dress rehearsal prior to their very first contest.
Our first competition was the very next weekend and had us facing a few of the Open Class corps in Massachusetts. It was held in Manning Bowl in Lynn on Friday, June 1st.
- Defenders 60.5
- Arbella 59.65
- Spectra 57
- Amvet Brigadiers 54
It was a positive outing, however our high placement seemed largely because the rest of the corps were not as prepared as we were. The next night, we placed first in a show against the Fitchburg Kingsmen, Amvet Brigadiers, Simplex Minutemen, and the Nashua Spartans. The kids were feeling pretty good about placing second in the first show and winning the second show, but as instructors we knew as other corps improved their performance levels these standing might not hold. We also had yet to compete against the top corps and we knew that level of competition would be daunting.
We didn’t have to wait long to see that fact revealed as the following weekend, on June 9th we competed in the Lancer Invitational. This show featured a slate of national level judges and some of the best corps in the east. In a field of seven corps that included North Star, the Boston Crusaders, and the Bridgemen we placed 6th with a score of 48.0. Talk about having the wind taken out of our sails! That score, more than 11 points below the previous weekend, reflected our status on what is called a ‘national’ norm, not a ‘local’ norm. National level judges evaluate corps on a more demanding scale, the ‘national’ norm. That yardstick was a better indicator of how we would fare in championship level contests.
That sobering experience made it evident just how much work was ahead if we wanted to succeed. This was our first taste of competing in the big leagues and we got some very candid and constructive criticism, pointing out the weak areas of both the overall show and our performance. The kids finally realized what we meant when we told them about the challenge of moving into the higher class. Our score and placement said it more convincingly than any words we could say.
With the information from the judges’ tapes and sheets we set out to make some adjustments to the show and improve the areas where our execution was lacking. As anyone who has been associated with a competitive corps knows, it meant numerous hours of rehearsals and hundreds of repetitions to achieve incremental improvement. We practiced essentially every weekday in June and July and competed on every weekend. It was a grueling schedule but we made very good progress and our scores began to rise. Little by little we smoothed out the rough spots in the show and the kids gained confidence. We also made some changes to the program and had to splice them in as we worked to increase proficiency.
Throughout the year we were monitoring the scores of other All Girl corps. Since most of those corps hailed from places far from Massachusetts we would not see them in competition until we got to championships. The three corps considered the top of the class were; Les Chatelaines from Laval Quebec, St. Ignatius from Hicksville, NY, and the Ventures from Kitchener, Ontario. St. Ignatius and Les Chatelaines had been crowned champions in 1977 and 1978 respectively, and the Ventures were on the rise. As we tracked their scores we guessed we would be above St. Ignatius and very close to the other two, but we were comparing raw scores and their placements against other corps we had competed against, so our assessment was just an approximation. From our research and analysis it appeared that Les Chatelaines was leading the field at mid-season with the Venture right on their heels.
A big test for us loomed at the end of July in Bridgeport, Connecticut at the Drum Corps East Championship. This was our first show of the year with a preliminary round that determined which corps would compete in the finals. In a field of more than 27 corps, only 10 would make the cut to compete in the finals at night. In reviewing the list of corps, we counted 10 corps that has been consistently scoring above us, so we did not believe we could make finals, but competing in the preliminaries would be a good experience. It was our first over night ‘road trip’ of the year. As an example of just how young some of our members were, a few of them became homesick on the trip, and one of them had to actually be consoled on the starting line before we took the field in the preliminaries.
The corps did a solid job in the ‘prelims’ and as the scores were rolling in it appeared we would land just outside the top 10. But then, an announcement was made that the Avant Garde, a corps from upstate New York, would not be competing because their buses had broken down. As a result, we snuck into the finals in 10th place. This allowed us to compete at night against strong competition and get some exposure to national level judges. Our performance in the finals was subpar and when scores were announced we remained in 10th place. We were disappointed that we did not represent ourselves better in the finals, but the Bridgeport trip was positive. From overcoming homesickness to sleeping on a gym floor to actually competing in our first Open Class finals, we were making progress on the journey.
Returning home from Bridgeport, our next competitions, which were pivotal, were in a favorable setting. The World Open was held at Manning Bowl in Lynn, a place so familiar to us it felt like a ‘home game’. First up were the World Open All Girl prelims. This contest would finally have us facing two of the top three corps in the All Girl class, Les Chatelaines and St. Ignatius. The kids were excited for the opportunity to compete against them head to head.
This was a very big day for us. As reported earlier in this article, Arbella had become the darlings of the city of Salem. Apparently, we had also attracted the attention of one of Boston’s media outlets. ‘Evening Magazine’, a popular show, had heard about the corps and decided they wanted to feature us in a story to air on local television. If the excitement of the World Open was not enough, we now had television cameras and microphones at our rehearsal and interviews conducted as we prepared for the prelims. The potential for distraction was a big concern, and instructors urged the kids to maintain attention on our upcoming performance. After rehearsal, with TV cameras rolling, we boarded the buses for Lynn. As the corps entered the stadium I remember telling the horn line to ‘ignore the cameras, just do your job’, worrying about the distraction. I learned how focused the kids were as one of the older members replied “What cameras?” The corps put on a spirited performance that day putting the other All Girl corps on notice. When the preliminary scores were posted we were on top! That meant we would get to perform last at night, giving us a psychological edge if nothing else. We drove back to Bertram field for rest and a run through, with the ‘Evening Magazine’ crew still with us, filming and interviewing. At one point, they asked us what it was like for the instructors when the corps is competing. We told them that ‘their success or failure is our success or failure’, and that the entire organization is represented by the product on the field. The truth in that statement really hit me after the season.
We would be competing last in Finals that night and on our ride over to Manning Bowl it began to rain. It started as light rain but as the corps lined up to enter the stadium it began raining harder. I cannot remember another time the corps competed in the rain that year. Regular competitions were often cancelled or delayed because of rain. But championships always go on unless conditions are severe. I saw the weather as another potential distraction as I watched beads of rain dripping from the bells of the horns.
‘Forget about the rain, just stay focused!’ I urged. My concerns were quickly diminished as one of the baritones turned to me and shouted “What rain?”
That night with Evening Magazine filming our rainy finals performance I believe the corps turned a corner. Maybe it was because it was in Lynn, right in our backyard. Maybe it was the chance to avenge our mistreatment in Brantford the year before. And maybe it was just the culmination of all the hard work we had invested. The corps displayed such an air of confidence that night that I was less nervous than usual while they were on the field. It was an impressive performance in front of a very friendly audience. The final note was followed by an enthusiastic roar from the crowd, echoing across the rain swept stadium.
With the rain not letting up, the show coordinators rushed to have the scores announced as soon as possible. Since the announcement of scores was imminent, instead of having the corps leave the area, Dick had them make a huge semi-circle along the track on the far left side of the stadium. He had given them specific instructions to hold hands in unity and about how to act when our score was announced. With the Evening Magazine crew capturing the moment, when the final scores were announced, the words we heard were music to our ears ‘..in first place….and World Open All Girl Champions…..Arbella! The entire corps raised their hands in unison to acknowledge the announcement. It was a sweet victory. We had beaten St. Ignatius soundly and topped Les Chatelaines by more than 4 points. Arbella was now a legitimate contender for the DCI All Girl crown. We were thrilled with the win but had very little time for celebrating. We were scheduled to compete in the Open Class competition the very next day.
The weather cleared up overnight and we performed in the Open Class preliminaries in the sun at mid-day. Again we faced a situation where only 10 corps out of a field of 25 would reach the finals. We placed 10th in the prelims just a half a tenth out of 9th place. In doing so, we had topped Les Chatelaines by more than 4 points once again. Our score, 66.0, was our highest score against Open Class competition (with national judges) to date. In finals we took a step back in score and remained in 10th, but it was another experience against top competition. Many of the kids were unhappy that we placed last in the finals. What they were forgetting is that 15 other corps they had beaten that day had to WATCH the finals that night. Any of those corps would gladly have traded places.
Our next big show was the CYO Nationals, held at Boston College against some of the top drum corps in the country. It was a character building event. We placed dead last – 13th – with a score of only 56.65. It was not a very good performance, so the lower score had a silver lining. It reinforced the reality of the correlation between performance and scoring. We knew a score that low would not be good enough at DCI in Birmingham.
After being brought back down to earth by placing last in the CYO Nationals, we embarked on the journey to Alabama for DCI Championships. This would be the longest trip the corps had ever taken, more than four times the distance of the 1978 tour. The long trip included an overnight stay in Virginia, arriving in Alabama the following day. Our management had secured housing for us at a middle school in a quiet suburb of Birmingham and upon our arrival we were greeted warmly by the band director of that school.
This school was an ideal location for us. It was secluded, and with our own football field for practice. The band director quickly became a fan of the corps as he watched us rehearse. We had a solid half day of practice and got settled in our accommodations, which were basic but adequate. DCI All-Girl prelims were held on Tuesday, the day after we arrived. Since it was our first time ever competing in a DCI competition, we were the ‘new kids on the block’. We were an unknown entity to many of the DCI judges. Every other corps had competed at DCI in previous years and they were much more established.
Historically, DCI held the All-Girl and ‘Class A’ (corps not competing in Open Class) preliminary competitions on one day with 7 Class A corps and 3 All-Girl corps making the Finals which occurred on Friday night. Upon our arrival at the stadium we learned that for the first time ever there was a change and it was significant. For 1979 they would hold an ‘Associate’ Finals competition on the same night as Class A and All-Girl Finals. The Associate corps would be 5 corps from Open Class who placed 13th through 17th in prelims, thus not making Open Class Finals. This change meant that the Finals competition would include 5 Associate corps, only 5 Class A corps, and only 2 All-Girl corps on Friday night. This did not seem like a big concern for us because we had won the World Open All Girl Championship by a comfortable margin. We had defeated Les Chatelaines by over 4 points in Lynn twice and all the other All Girl corps in that contest were far behind. The only All-Girl corps we had not competed against was the Ventures from Kitchener, Ontario. They had been scoring fairly close to Les Chatelaines, recently ahead of them by a small margin, so we assumed we would qualify for finals since we believed the Ventures to be our main competition.
Legion Field in Birmingham was the largest stadium the corps had ever seen. It was a major college stadium and I remember thinking the kids might be a little intimidated because of its size. Our preliminary contest was held under a scorching sun in the middle of the day. It was not as good a performance as World Open All-Girls finals, but still very solid. The instructional staff stayed to watch the Ventures, who were on immediately after us. The Ventures were an experienced drum corps with an average age several years above ours. They had placed 2nd in DCI All Girl Finals the year before and it was obvious they had no intention of being the runner up this time around. Their routine included sophisticated arrangements previously played by DCI Open Class corps. It was an impressive program, they were confident, and they performed well. As we watched them we knew they would be the corps to beat. That fact became quite apparent when preliminary scores were posted, and we were stunned.
1979 DCI All Girl Prelims scores:
- Ventures 68.80
- Arbella 62.25
- Les Chatelaines 61.60
- Capitolaires 56.50
- Mellodears 53.00
We had barely qualified for finals, ahead of Les Chatelaines by only .65 and behind the Ventures by 4.65! Both of those corps bested us in all three GE captions. In fact, we lost every one of the ‘build up’ captions, placing 3rd and 4th in most captions. The subjective view of the judges in the ‘build up’ captions was that we should not qualify for finals. What saved us from elimination were our scores in execution brass and percussion. These results were devastating. In the history of DCI Championships, no corps had ever won the finals after trailing in the prelims by more than 4 points. Our quest for the championship had been dealt a crushing blow. And the low scores in the GE captions convinced us that being a ‘rookie’ corps at this competition was working against us.
The entire instructional staff was demoralized. When we got back to our housing location, corps management let us borrow a car to visit the DCI Headquarters hotel in the hope that we could rub elbows with some people there. We didn’t have much success in that regard, so we each ordered two black Russians from the bar to drown our sorrows as we reviewed the scoring sheets. Our aim was to identify how we could make up almost 5 points in the next 3 days – a monumental task. What stood out immediately was that we had lost Marching and Maneuvering execution to the Ventures by over 2 points and we had another 2 point gap across the GE captions. Those were the areas we had to address to have any chance of catching them. We had lost execution percussion narrowly and won total brass performance by only a few tenths because of a 4th place finish in Musical Analysis, so we saw opportunities there also. After a long discussion we created an action plan for the next two days of practice.
That evening we pulled the corps together to brief them on the score breakdowns and the challenge ahead of us. Although we recognized that the Ventures were clear favorites to win the crown, we still believed we had an outside chance. It would take a tremendous effort from our young corps. It would take two full days of intense rehearsals to eliminate mistakes and polish key parts of the show. And it would take bringing all of those improvements into a stellar Friday night performance. We explained this to the kids and their response was unanimous. They were ready for the challenge and whatever work was required.
Bright and early the next morning we had the kids out on the field. There were several places in the show we had targeted for improvement and we worked on them intensely. During the drill in ‘Evergreen’ we had lost a point due to distance and interval problems. It included a section where the horns marched in long files toward the back of the field setting up for the big company front. Dick repeatedly instructed that the distance had to be 2 paces, but performance had been erratic, as the judging sheets showed. To drive home this point we had the kids make signs with the number ‘2’ on them and had them pinned to the backs of all the horn players. After dozens and dozens of repetitions, with those signs as a reminder, the distance problems started to disappear. We took similar approaches with other sections of the drill and also worked on brass, percussion, and color guard routines we knew we could improve. We stressed that every mistake we corrected would get us a little closer to our goal. It was two days of diligent practice in the blistering sun. Sustaining us during this time was our corps management, providing good food, plenty of liquids, sunscreen, and encouragement. Hour after hour we worked with the hope of closing the gap.
On Friday, with finals scheduled at night, we had light rehearsals to save energy for the show. After rehearsing hard in sweltering heat for two full days it was time to rest and get mentally prepared. I remember standing in a paved area with the horn line, reviewing key areas of the music we had worked on and reminding them that it takes both technical skill and mental focus to perform at a high level. We did very little playing. We spent time talking about the journey that had led us to that day. The kids who had been in the horn line since I first joined the corps four years earlier knew what I was talking about. They remembered their first year, when we combined the two former corps to form Arbella. They recalled the battles we had with the Heightsmen in 1977 and the bitter taste of second place that year. And they knew all the victories in 1978 were nice, but tonight was what the quest was all about. This is what Peter and I had envisioned in the beginning – being in a position to claim a world championship.
Corps management fed the kids and got them dressed and on the buses for the ride to the stadium. As we traveled to the finals there was a combination of tension and excitement. That bus ride was more quiet and pensive than any I remember that year. At Legion Field the corps assembled under the back side of the stadium where it was cool.
As we waited to take the field for finals, Dick gave an impassioned speech, as he often did before an important contest. He reminded them how hard they had worked all year and the extra effort of the past two days. He encouraged them to ‘leave it out on the field’, to ‘give it everything you’ve got’, and he said regardless of the outcome they should be proud to be a part of Arbella. I remember him saying “Don’t worry about the score. If every girl in this corps goes out and does their very best and you work as a team you’ll come off that field with your head held high”. He then proceeded to do his famous cartwheel – at the urging of many of the kids – and going slightly off course he narrowly missed wiping out part of the horn line. It was both an inspirational act and an unintended comical moment that broke some of the tension. As the kids marched out to the ready line all of the instructors gave the same advice. ‘Do your best and work as a team’. As the corps moved out of sight the instructors walked around to the concert side stands and climbed high up in the stadium. We all wanted a good location to view the drill and be close to the GE judges to get a vantage point similar to theirs.
After the signal was given, the corps marched out on to the field and got into our opening formation. The corps was announced and when the timer’s gun was fired they began. It was obvious from the first few seconds this was going to be a spirited performance. The tempos were a bit faster than usual, the brass volume was a little louder than usual, and the marching precision looked crisper than prelims. We hung on every note and drum beat, watched every twirl and step. We were both nervous and excited as we witnessed the culmination of all the efforts of kids, instructors, parents, and supporters. When the final note was sounded, in the din of the crowd’s cheers, we all breathed a sigh of relief. It was a very strong performance and it gave us a chance.
We would certainly score higher than the prelims, but would it be enough? As the corps began marching off, I noticed the timing and penalties judge picking up 2 pieces of silver material from the field. We used silver Mylar flags toward the end of ‘Evergreen’ and I wondered if that material might be from our flags. The penalty for dropped equipment was a tenth of a point per item. I was a bit discouraged, as we certainly could not afford penalties in this competition. As Arbella left the field, the Ventures marched on. Right from the start they played and marched with confidence. We watched intently as they performed their routine well once again. A curious thing happened near the end of their show. The timing and penalty judge’s gun didn’t fire. We saw him raise the gun to fire, but it malfunctioned. We immediately scanned the execution judges, as without hearing the gun they wouldn’t know to stop judging. They made no marks, and the timing judge ran out and shouted for them to stop judging. We later heard that he checked with them carefully to confirm they had not marked anything after the timed judging period. We were happy with our performance but the Ventures were a formidable competitor. We believed the scores would be close. If we lost it would be to a very good drum corps, and we could hold our heads high.
In preparation for the announcement of the scores, Dick had instructed the kids that regardless of the outcome, they were to take the same actions. When our name was announced the kids were to join hands in unity and raise them over their heads. It was the same action from when scores were announced at World Open All-Girl Finals. Win or lose, the corps would be united. All corps competing that night marched onto the field for the presentation of scores and Finale. The scores for ‘Class A’ were to be announced first followed by All Girl and then the Associate corps. While the corps lined up on the field, all of the instructors stood anxiously on the track. Although the corps had performed well we knew it was a long shot to have closed the 4.65 gap. Regardless of the scores, we could be proud that we presented ourselves well in our first DCI Finals competition. After the Class A scores, it was time for the All Girl scores.
We knew that when second place in All-Girl was announced we would have the verdict. All of the instructors joined hands with eagerness. Over the PA system the voice boomed, “…..in second place ….with 2 tenths in penalties……” “Oh no”, I said dejectedly, “we dropped two pieces of mylar”. “NO!”, Donna said, “they didn’t mark them, I don’t think we had penalties!”. “Really?!” I asked excitedly. She nodded as all of us clutched hands tightly with eyes widened in anticipation. “…in second place…with a score of 67.10…….sixty-seven….point one zero….…”, the announcer paused. Our hearts pounded in suspense. He finally exclaimed ….. “The Ventures!” WOW! Incredible! We were ecstatic, jumping for joy and hugging each other. Looking out on to the field, our corps stood still, but you could see the smiles and their grips tightened. The announcer resumed, “..In first place….. with no penalties….. and a score of 67.35..…sixty seven…. point three five….. Arbella!” Denise Berube strode up to receive the trophy, grinning from ear to ear, as the corps raised their clasped hands above their heads. We had won the championship by the narrow margin of .35 and without the Ventures 2 tenths in penalties we had won by the smallest margin possible.
Reviewing the scoring sheets revealed that we had made up over 2 points in marching execution, winning that category by 2 tenths. We closed the gap in GE Percussion to one tenth and we swept the brass captions. Our performance was just good enough to win. While defeating the Ventures we also topped every one of the Class A corps by more than 2 points. Not only had we defeated the Ventures, looking back over the year, what we accomplished was pretty amazing. Kids who had never marched in drum corps prior to that year became proficient. Drummers advanced from good to great. A color guard went from a weakness in 1978 to a real strength. Brass players matured from above average to excellent. The progression was extraordinary. And on that night it helped us achieve something miraculous.
Scores from some of the 1979 drum corps season can be viewed here: http://www.fromthepressbox.com/1979dcirecaps.htm/
After the long journey home, we arrived in Riley Plaza with parents and friends eagerly greeting the buses. Reporters from the Salem News were there as well. The front page story the next day chronicled our amazing come from behind victory. Nearly four years of effort, fundraising, sewing uniforms, polishing routines, and dedication had culminated in a successful quest. We had earned the honor of laying claim to a title to be proud of: World Champions.
The end-of-season circuit championships in Massachusetts were the only competitions remaining that year and they were quite anticlimactic for us. We were somewhat going through the motions as we had already achieved all of our goals. At one of our final rehearsals a point was made that ‘we will never pass this way again’, a phrase from a song the kids had played at one of our previous end-of-the-season banquets. Knowing that many of the kids and some instructors might not stay with the corps, we wanted to recognize what we had accomplished together. A lot of the kids were probably too young to fully appreciate it. In addition to our competitive achievements, that season also created some impacts that went beyond drum corps.
At the corps reunion in 2011, several people who were members of Arbella in 1979 told me that they learned more than just music and marching that year. I think we all did. We learned that facing stiff competition can drive you to improve. We learned that setting goals and sacrificing to reach them has its rewards. Good planning and hard work can get results. And even when the odds are against you, it is important to believe in yourself and stay focused.
I was fortunate to have been a part of Arbella’s rise from startup to champion. It was a great ride and it provided indelible memories. Every year when I attend a DCI event, I buy the annual yearbook. In the back there is a section that honors successful corps from the past. There, under the year 1979, you will see the listing:
All Girl Champions: Arbella.
1979 Instructional staff:
M & M: Richard (Dick) Pelletier, Assistant: Bob Pelletier, Color Guard: Donna Herlihy
Brass: George D’Iorio, Assistant: Michael D’Iorio
Percussion: Peter Furnari
Selections for the Red Poppy Ballet featuring ‘Russian Sailor’s Dance’, Drum solo, ‘You and I’, ‘La Fiesta’, ‘Evergreen’ (Love Theme from ‘A Star is Born’)
What Arbella achieved in the four years I was associated with the corps would not have been possible without the constant and enthusiastic support from the board of directors, managers, and parents. They deserve just as much credit for the corps’ success as anyone else and they deservedly shared in the pride of the corps’ many accomplishments.
Trivia fact: During the time I was with the corps, we made the finals in every competition we entered. That included 1977 and 1978 when we competed above our class.