Chapter 2: 1977 – A Year for Growth – by George D’Iorio

Submitted by George D’Iorio, Arbella principal brass instructor, 1976 – 1979


During the successful first season, Arbella was entered in only 9 competitions, which was appropriate, because it got us on the competition field without ‘biting off more than we could chew’.  In preparation for the 1977 season, we joined a second circuit, Eastern Massachusetts, essentially doubling our competition schedule.  With that inaugural achievement under our belts, expectations were higher for year two.  As with most drum corps organizations in autumn, changes in personnel took place as the leaves fell.  A number of older girls were gone, our Marching and Maneuvering staff left, and there were new faces on the board of directors.  In any organization, adjustments are inevitable, but we hoped to maintain the momentum we had built in our first year.


The beginning of the off season for drum corps is a time when program ideas are formulated.  Peter and I had many meetings to discuss the musical repertoire for the 1977 season, knowing that we needed to write more ‘meat’ into the show in order to progress musically. Although the 1976 program was adequate, it had to be thrown together quickly due to time and talent constraints.  In addition, the back half of that show, ‘Everlasting Love’ and ‘Shannon’, although popular with the kids, were ‘Top 40’ tunes without much depth. We wanted the ’77 program to be more musically complex while still respecting the limits of our young musicians.  I lost a great assistant when Jim Dennesen moved away to attend UMass Amherst that year.  Fortunately, I was able to lure my brother Michael, a music major, in as his replacement. He had a deep knowledge of harmony and I knew he would be a huge help when I was writing the brass charts.  Peter, Michael, and I spent an entire day at the University of Lowell music library in September, listening to dozens and dozens of selections trying to find an ‘off the line’ that could propel us to the next level.  As the sun began to set, we finally settled on playing portions of a concert band piece named ‘Chant and Jubilo’ (which we called ‘Jubilo’) because it offered just the right combination of difficulty and effect.  There was no sheet music available, but Michael’s amazing ear helped us ‘pick’ the essence of it off the recording.  For those familiar with the piece, it features some intentional dissonance, adding harmonic interest without introducing much difficulty.  There were a couple of natural percussion ‘breaks’, and it had a martial feel to it, so the drum line would have plenty to work with as well.  We were excited about this selection and we dove into writing it with enthusiasm.


It was around this time that Peter and I started talking about long term goals for the corps. With the surprising success we had in 1976, we had gained confidence.  We believed that with a strong repertoire and a full offseason, we could be a serious contender in Class ‘B’ in 1977.   Looking at the fairly narrow number of competitors in ‘All Girl’ at that time – approximately 30 – we saw another opportunity. Several of these were strong on a ‘national’ level including St. Ignatius, Les Chalelaines, the Ventures, and the Jeanettes from Lynn (later named Charisma). Locally there were also the Joanettes from Leominster, Saugus Socialites, and Suburbanettes from New Hampshire. Most of these were ‘Class A’ corps, and we knew we would need to improve significantly to compete with them. But, in the winter prior to the 1977 season, Peter and I clarified the goal: to be the best All-Girl in the world within 3 years.  Based on where we were at that point it was a ‘stretch goal’ to be sure, but we believed that if we could maintain the improvement curve established in the first season we had a shot at achieving it.  Of course, first things first – we needed to show marked improvement in 1977, hopefully contending for top honors in Class B local circuits. As the musical program began falling into place, we rolled up our sleeves.  We had an influx of new members, and some of them already had some musical training, so they were quickly added to the horn line or drum line.  We sorted through what seemed like a thousand pieces of music before settling on a small section out of Richard Rogers’ ‘Victory at Sea’ called ‘Fire on the Water’ for our second selection.  In addition to the nautical theme, it had some force and a ‘clean’ edge to it.  I was confident that the brass line would perform this piece extremely well.  The kids were starting to read music and I began providing copies of individual parts to the kids, hoping they would practice at home more effectively.  That would allow us to place more focus on performance at rehearsals and less on review.


Speaking of performance let me digress for a moment on a strategy that my brother and I developed back in 1977.  When looking at the judging criteria back then, the brass scoring had 3 captions:  Execution Brass (15 points), Musical Analysis or MA (10 points), and General Effect (GE) Brass (10 Points).  Out of a total of 35 brass caption points, 15 – almost half – were allotted for execution. At that time, execution was judged using a ‘tick’ system, with the judge making a ‘tick’ mark on the score sheet, deducting one-tenth of a point for every mistake observed. With the ‘tick’ execution system in place, the judge would only deduct from your score when a mistake was heard. (Note:  The tick system was abolished in the 1980s in favor of an ‘evaluation’ execution approach that is still in effect today.)  Musical analysis (MA) gave credit for 3 musical elements: difficulty, musicianship, and T & I (tone quality and intonation) and was evaluated by the MA judge. General Effect measured the overall performance and was also an evaluation based score.  When we marched in the Cardinals, in the early to mid-70s, we had played some of the most technically demanding music in drum corps. This presented a challenge for us in the execution captions since very difficult charts generally result in more ‘mistakes’.  And, even though our performance level was very good, we never quite got the credit we deserved in the GE or MA categories, because we did not perform at an elite level.  Having seen many corps fall victim to this scenario, we were not about to repeat it with Arbella, particularly with such a young group.  The strategy we developed was to write charts that had adequate content, but were ultimately very ‘performable’ by our players. We would focus on good brass technique and intonation to produce a pleasant sounding line while executing at a high level.  Where we avoided rhythmic content in the brass charts, we added harmonic content.  In other words, we wrote fewer physically demanding passages, but utilized complex harmonies believing judges would reward the results of good performance and musicianship. Basically, we aimed to find a ‘sweet spot’ where the players could excel, score high in execution, and produce a pleasing and effective sound to optimize scoring across the 3 brass captions.


While the music side of the program was coming together, there was the matter of filling the void in the Marching and Maneuvering and visual instructional staff.   Mr. LeFrancois, president of the board, knew Richard ‘Dick’ Pelletier well because they attended the same church and had become friends.  Dick was a legendary drum major for St. Mary’s Cardinal’s, many years before Peter and I had marched in the Cardinals and he had significant experience as a drill instructor with numerous corps across New England. Mr. LeFrancois brought him in and the board hired him fairly quickly.  His wife, Carla, was added to teach the color guard.  On a cold fall Sunday, I can remember watching Dick put the corps through their paces in the old Salem Armory. Although he was relatively young, he seemed way older than us, and Peter and I considered him an elder statesman, and wondered how we would interact with him.  Marty Grant had established solid marching fundamentals in 1976 and that base still existed.  It was obvious that Dick would continue the emphasis on fundamentals, and he was reportedly strong on marching execution, but how would he coordinate the drill with the music? Would he be willing to adjust his plans to allow coordination and musical integrity?  Did he share our vision?


Dick put our concerns to rest fairly quickly when he invited us over to his house after one of his practices.  We talked about our backgrounds in drum corps and our teaching philosophies. As the conversations deepened, we discussed programming ideas and music/visual coordination.  It was obvious within a short time that Dick and Carla were extremely collaborative and, in fact, they were looking for us to provide input to help them coordinate the visual with the music.  Within weeks we were scoping out ideas for the drill and how it could frame and even enhance the music.  It was a time when show coordination was being increasingly emphasized in the way drum corps was judged, so it was essential that we got ‘in step’ with that trend.  As an instructional staff, we all had a common vision, with the ultimate goal of an All-Girl championship.


Looking back on that off-season, the strength of the organization really started to assert itself.  Corps management was very efficient and the parental involvement was stellar.  Attendance was consistently good at rehearsals and when we put in requests for new equipment the parents found a way to raise the money and provide it.  It was the advent of 2 valve bugles and more advanced percussion equipment, and even though we were a class B corps, our ability to get the best equipment spoke to the organization’s commitment to quality.  There were section managers for the hornline, drumline, and color guard, and these parents did an excellent job enforcing rules and ‘riding herd’ on their sections.  As an instructor, I took this for granted back then, but in retrospect it enabled me to focus on instruction and not be concerned with administrative details. Without a doubt, the quality of the organization and the dedication of the parents were major contributors to the growth and success of the corps.


By the time spring arrived, most of our musical program was in place and marching practices outdoors began.  We rehearsed outdoors every Sunday at Winter Island with a cold breeze often blowing in off the water.  I remember how great it was to hear the corps outdoors and be able to see the drill while standing atop one of the buildings at Winter Island.  ‘Jubilo’ was shaping up nicely, and us ‘younger’ instructors were successful in convincing Dick to introduce some ‘curvolinear’ patterns into the drill. Drum corps had really started to embrace these nuances and the GE judges were expecting them.  The paved area at our practice site was just large enough to accommodate us and as we approached May the show was complete up through concert.


Speaking of concert, it was tricky finding a selection that would work that year and I spent many afternoons after school sifting through records (yes, records – remember them?) at Ted Cole’s in downtown Salem.  Peter was searching also. We were trying to establish a unique identity so we wanted to avoid music that had been ‘played to death’ or recently played by an established corps.  After purchasing and listening to many records I found music from the movie ‘The Three Musketeers’ composed by Michel LeGrand, and after conferring with Peter we settled on that. It was a bright piece of music and allowed us to feature different sections pretty effectively. (Once again, of course, there was no sheet music!) I don’t believe any other drum corps has ever played it, but ‘The Three Musketeers’ was a good fit for us at that time.   For our ‘exit’ we were very fortunate.  The movie ‘A Star is Born’ starring Barbara Streisand had been released in 1976 and it featured an Academy Award winning song, ‘Evergreen’, with a beautiful melody and great harmonics. Listening to Streisand sing it with smooth instrumentation behind her, I could envision a nice translation to drum corps. With sheet music (yay!), it was one of the easiest arrangements for me to write.  In succeeding years it became somewhat a ‘signature’ piece and we added enhancements to the arrangement each year.


With only a few weeks to go before we hit the field, we were much better prepared than in 1976.  The full off-season had been extremely beneficial. Because of  rainy weekends, it was still ‘down to the wire’ in completing the drill, but musically we were in good shape and the kids were really focused.  Dick finished teaching the drill a week before our first show and we spent the final days correcting the major problems. Even the curvilinear patterns were shaping up.  The kids were marching with authority and Dick’s emphasis on carriage and fundamentals were really showing through.


Our first contest was actually our home show that year, on May 29th, at Bertram Field.  I think the fact that we were performing on our home turf boosted the kids’ confidence, and we won that show by more than 5 points over the Regal Crownsmen of Rhode Island.  But we had not yet seen our real competition – the Arlington Heightsmen. The Heightsmen were an experienced corps with a lot of older members and they were good in all captions.  All year we went back and forth, with us winning one week and them winning the next.  We were evenly matched and the scores were always close.  The older girls in the corps came up with clever lyrics for the tune ‘Hello Dolly’ substituting ‘Heightsmen’ for ‘Dolly’ and they sang it on the busses as a form of ‘pre-game’ ritual on the way to shows.  This rivalry helped us become a better corps as it served as a form of motivation for the girls.  They knew that to beat the Heightsmen they would have to continue to improve week after week.  The progress in both corps was evident, with both  scoring in the 70s toward the end of the season.


To ‘push the envelope’ we had entered the corps into the ‘Class A’ preliminaries at the World Open, held in August at the Manning Bowl in Lynn.  This was not the ‘Open’ class, where elite corps like the 27th Lancers and North Star competed.  ‘Class A’ at the World Open consisted of many lower scoring Class A corps who had no chance at making the Open Class finals, and a some Class B corps, with the Class B corps usually ending up at the bottom of the pack.  We entered for the experience of competing in a preliminary competition and to see where we stood against the All-Girl corps, because they were judged by the same panel.  There were 27 corps in the Class A prelims that year with only 7 qualifying for the finals and I remember that we competed early in the day (the finals were held the same night).  In the prelims, corps performed a ‘short’ program, which in our case was actually our full show, since Class B corps’ shows were shorter.  Scores in the preliminaries got announced as soon as they were tabulated, so we knew our score – 64.75 – about 15 minutes after we competed. We were happy with that score, and as other scores were announced most of them were lower than ours. With only a few scores left to announce we came to realize that we were actually going to make the finals, placing 6th!  This was totally unexpected.  The scores:


1977  World Open Class A prelims
1. Shoreliners 76.3
2. Mighty Liberators 69.35
3. Black Watch-NJ 69.05
4. Centurions 66.1
5. Valley-Airs 64.95
6. Arbella 64.75
7. Compagnons 64.4
8. Heightsmen 63.05
9. Renaissance 61.9
10. Troubadours 60.6
11. Dynamics 60.25
12. Classics 60.25
13. Royales 59
14. Cruading Militiamen 58.25
15. Cranford Patriots 57.85
16. Rancheros 57.7
17. King’s Regiment 56.9
18. Sacred Heart Crusaders 56.45
19. Annunciators 53.05
20. Picadors 52.65
21. Barons 49.85
22. Ambassadors 49.45
23. Pacers 48.1
24. Imperial Knights 43.85
25. St. Andrew’s 42.05
26. Golden Bucs 42
27. St. Mary’s Cards 34.8


1977 World Open All Girl prelims

(note: I superimposed the Arbella score here to show where we might have placed)

1 Ignatius 75.75
2. Jean-ettes 70.95
3. Fire-ettes 69.5
4. Les Chatelaines 68.7
Arbella 64.75
5. Mello-Dears 58.15
6. Socialites 57.6
7. Royaleer Mounties 48.75
8. Suburbanettes 36.7

Of course, there was one problem – since we never expected to make the finals, we did not have a ‘Class A’ length show. As a result, we competed in the finals, but were penalized heavily for being under time, and we ended up 7th (last). While the instructors were delighted at having simply made the finals and getting the experience of competing at night, the kids were totally dejected at coming in ‘last’.  When we got back to Arbella hall, the kids were obviously upset and there were many tears.  We pulled the kids together and explained that in making the finals we had defeated 20 other corps and we should be celebrating.  But the tears did not subside.

Even telling them that we would have placed 5th among All-Girl corps did not help.  Whether instilled by the instructors or the kids themselves, this corps craved success.

As instructors, we decided we would not be in that same position again – if we made the finals next year, we would be ready.

In the final competition of the year we lost, narrowly, to our rivals, the Heightsmen, which was disappointing.  Even with a second place finish in Class B, the season was highly successful.  It truly had been a year for growth. We took some major steps forward in performance, we were right near the top of our class, and we fared very well in our first preliminary competition.  But, ending the season with that loss left everyone with a healthy sense of unfinished business.  Looking ahead to 1978, we were determined to strive for more.

1977 Instructional staff:

M & M: Richard (Dick) Pelletier, Assistant: Bob Pelletier, Color Guard: Carla Pelletier
Brass: George D’Iorio, Assistant: Michael D’Iorio
Percussion: Peter Furnari

1977 repertoire:
‘Jubilo’, ‘Fire on the Water’ (from ‘Victory at Sea’), Selections from ‘The Three Musketeers’, Evergreen (from ‘A Star is Born’)