Chapter 1: 1976 – Maiden Voyage

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


It was in the fall of 1975 when I learned that the two Salem drum corps – the Comets and the Rockettes – were looking for a brass instructor.  Both corps had been inactive and the goal was to get them back on the field of competition for the 1976 season. At 20 years old, I had been an assistant instructor for several years for various drum corps up and down the New England coast from Pembroke, Mass. to Portland Maine. I had marched in drum corps for almost 10 years, so I was a ‘veteran’ brass player. My experience in teaching was lighter, but it included some arranging, and I had learned a great deal about leading a brass section from other instructors. This was my first chance to be a principal brass instructor, and I was excited about the opportunity.  The fact that I happened to be attending Salem State, right down the street from the practice hall, would make this really convenient.  I was very happy when they hired me, but I could never have predicted the journey ahead.


At the first Comets rehearsal I led there were less than a dozen brass players, and the skill level and the age of the kids were both quite low.  The first Rockettes rehearsal had more players, but it was then that I learned that only a few of these kids had ever marched in competition. There were some older members but, as a group, they were far less skilled than any kids I had ever taught. This was going to be a much bigger challenge than I had anticipated.  We started on the basics – brass technique, long tones, simple articulation exercises, and scales. Every week saw a little improvement, but how on earth were we going to get these units ready for competition? I remember being worried. This was not going to be easy.


Unknown to me, there was controversy brewing at the Board of director level. Without much knowledge of specifics, it was obvious there was concern about our ability to field two competitive units. Eventually, the decision was made to merge the two corps and create a single unit.  This offered the best chance of fielding a competitive corps in 1976.  There was a great deal of consternation regarding this decision and a lot of unhappy people, including most of the instructional staff. While I was breathing a sigh of relief, the rest of the instructional staff resigned after the decision was announced.  Now we had 1 corps, but there was only one person on the instructional staff – me!


About a week later, I happened to be studying in the Beverly public library and I bumped into Peter Furnari, who I had marched with in the Cardinals.  I mentioned to him that the new Salem corps was looking for a percussion instructor. Although young, Peter was a talented percussionist and I knew he would be a great addition. He was interested, and within a week he was interviewed and brought ‘on board’.  I convinced the corps to hire Jim Dennesen, a veteran baritone player and former drum major of the Cardinals, to assist me with the horn line. Not long after that we landed Marty Grant, an experienced drill instructor, to lead Marching & Maneuvering. He brought Sue Cawley in to teach the color guard and Greg Jacobsen as his assistant. Ina matter of weeks, we had formed an instructional staff comprised completely of Cardinal Alumni.  The corps was to be named ‘Arbella’, after the ship that had brought the first settlers to Salem back in the 1600s. The corps was extremely young, with an average age of just under 11 years old. Our work was cut out for us with less than 6 months to get this ship afloat. On the bright side, we had a focused organization and eager kids who paid attention (most of the time), and a tremendous amount of support from the parents.


As instructors, we were fortunate in a way that most of the kids had not marched competitively, as they basically accepted what we told them as gospel and simply followed our direction. I remember emphasizing the need for practice at home, since we had such limited time. Skills needed to be increased, but at rehearsals we needed to start learning the program, so the fact that the kids practiced at home helped considerably. With this inexperienced group, selecting music was a challenge. It had to be fairly simple, but interesting enough to generate interest and decent scores. I struggled picking the ‘off the line’, but eventually decided on ‘The Great Escape’- a throwback to when I was marching in the St. Mary’s Crusaders. I was unable to find any sheet music for it, so I essentially wrote the arrangement from memory.  It was important to write it in a key that fit within the limited range or our sopranos, and there were lots of ‘whole’ notes in that score. Once we got the first song under our belts we figured we could build on that.  One of my habits was recording parts of rehearsals so I could review progress and plan what needed the most work.  One of these early recordings of ‘The Great Escape’ fell into the hands of some of my friends who I had marched with in the Cardinals. They insisted on listening to it and I remember being embarrassing at how rough it was and being kidded mercilessly about it.  Instead of ‘The Great Escape’, they sarcastically told me we should be playing the theme from ‘F Troop’. They said if we made the field that year we would be the worst corps in Class B.  I was determined to prove them wrong.


We had very good attendance at practices and made great strides. The kids were practicing at home, which minimized the amount of re-teaching, and we made progress.  Week after week saw incremental improvement and the recordings became less embarrassing, although I guarded against them being heard by anyone outside of the instructional staff. We finally finished teaching the music, and through many outdoor practices in the cold New England spring, the drill was coming together.  June was quickly approaching, and it was tense as we went down the home stretch.  In the final week, we were not sure what would happen when we took the field. They had learned the routine, but would they remember it?  Could they perform in a competition? To say the show was ‘shaky’ would be an understatement.  The instructional staff wondered if the corps could actually make it through the show in that first contest. Then, the night before the maiden voyage of the Arbella, something amazing happened.  At the dress rehearsal, wearing the uniforms for the very first time, things started to click.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was so much better than any of us could have ever predicted. As if some magical thing had happened, most of the major mistakes started to disappear. This phenomenon, which became a constant all four years that I taught the corps, would come to be known by the instructors as ‘the miracle of the uniforms’.  Like flipping a light switch, when those uniforms went on, performance levels rose significantly.


At our first competition, under the lights on a cool Friday night up in New Hampshire, everyone was nervous – kids, instructors, parents, and friends.  There were 4 Class B corps competing that evening.  Honestly, my hope was that we could just get through the show without anything catastrophic happening.  After all, it was their very first competition and hardly any of them had ever been in this situation.  As they took the field I was half excited and half terrified about what might happen.  In true ‘miracle of the uniforms’ fashion, the corps performed surprisingly well, with no major disasters and they looked and sounded pretty good. (Note: One of the former instructors sat directly in front of me in the stands and was incredulous at the end of the performance.).  No matter what the scores were, we had to be proud of this accomplishment. When the scores were about to be announced, I was standing in the midst of a bunch of proud parents.  Back in those days, the circuits announced 3rd, 2nd and 1st place in each division.  If you were not among the top 3, your name and score were not announced. With 4 corps competing in Class B, I did not expect to hear ‘Arbella’ announced.  So when 3rd place was announced and it was not us, I was not surprised. But when they announced Arbella in 2nd place, I was surprised, and you would have thought those parents had just won the lottery!  This fledgling corps had not only made the field, but achieved second place in their very first contest. In a year of surprising success, the corps went on to hear their name announced in every competition, even winning 2 contests. The strength of the organization, outstanding support from parents, and common focus resulted in an inaugural year that was nothing short of miraculous. And the journey was just beginning.


1976 repertoire


The Great Escape, Patriotic Medley (Navy Hymn, Victory at Sea, Theme from 12 O’Clock High, America the Beautiful), Everlasting Love (Concert), Shannon