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Fledgling drum, bugle corps emerges as world champions

By Jonathan J. Cooper

Aug 26, 2006

Six years ago, the Arizona Academy Drum and Bugle corps was little more than a vision and a dream buried in the brain of a former Corona del Sol High School band director.

So it’s hard to believe that just this month, in only its sixth year of existence, its third competitive season and its very first appearance in finals competition, the Academy was crowned world champion in an activity long dominated by decades-old powerhouses.

Interestingly, the corps’ victory wasn’t much of a surprise by the time the finals approached. The Academy had traveled the country building intense hype for itself but still shattering anyone’s highest expectations with every performance.

The Tempe-based group entered finals undefeated in first place and was able to maintain its lead over several competitors who spent the season nipping at the Academy’s heals, several times scoring within two-tenths of a point of the Academy’s score.

“It was such stiff competition all the way in the last couple weeks that you just didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Mark Richardson, director. “It’s really a nice cherry to the top of the experience to come out on top.”

With many decades of drum corps tradition and history, no one can say for sure if the Academy’s rapid and enormous success is unprecedented, “but I can’t remember anybody in the history of this thing coming out for the first time and winning,” Richardson said.

The corps’ success was a hot topic of conversation in the small but dedicated—some might say fanatical—pool of Drum Corps International fans and followers, many of whom traveled long distances to watch the World Championships in Madison, Wisc., the first week in August.

“That’s been the most exciting part about the whole thing, how the drum corps community and the fan base has really embraced our group and our kids and our product we put on the field,” Richardson said. “In their applause, in their conversations outside the stadiums. Positive feedback; people just send random emails saying ‘congratulations, we appreciate what you’re doing.’”

“It’s just cool to know that people will pay money and go to ridiculous lengths and travel long distances just to see us perform,” he said.

“People came from all over,” said Mike Orrantia, a Corona graduate and Kyrene Corridor resident now attending the University of Arizona.

Marching band on steroids          

A drum and bugle corps is a lot like a high school marching band: Young people play instruments and march drill patterns on a football field. But drum corps is an intense summer program, requiring participants to attend 12- to 13- hour rehearsals six days per week nearly all summer.

Their program difficulty is significantly enhanced as the performers, ages 14 to 21 travel the country rehearsing in small towns and big cities, performing for enthusiastic crowds of drum corps fans and local high school musicians, reaching a level of near perfection by the end of the season.

Eighteen Kyrene Corridor students joined some of the strongest performers at high schools and colleges from around Arizona, and even a few from out of state to form the 2006 corps. The Academy from a traditional marching band largely in the time commitment and athleticism required.

“The difference is the attitude and the passion that comes across when you get 135 people together who are extremely driven to achieve at the highest level,” Richardson said.

Pushing through the challenges of the Valley’s heat, the Academy held most of its in-state rehearsals in the Kyrene Corridor, filling the air with drum beats and chords at the Tempe Sports Complex adjacent to the Arizona Cardinals’ training facility at Warner and Hardy.

It turned out to be a strategic location for the corps. After noticing the Academy rehearsing next door all summer, the Cardinals’ entertainment coordinator approached Richardson about performing at a half-time show in the team’s new Glendale stadium, giving the 135 corps members the opportunity to perform for an enormous crowd in the brand new stadium. The rehearsal facility is also located in an industrial neighborhood, minimizing the annoyance to neighbors.

Richardson thanked profusely the Tempe Parks and Recreation Department, saying the City of Tempe has gone out of its way to assist the organization, and the ability to rehearse at the Tempe Sports Complex was instrumental in the corps’ success.

Roughing it

They may be World Champions, but the Academy’s members certainly do not live a life of luxury on tour. They sleep on overnight bus rides or, on a good night, the floor of a high school gymnasium. They shower and brush their teeth in the gym bathrooms, rarely spending two nights at the same site. High school band students often show up to watch their rehearsals and learn from the corps members’ intricate skill, intense concentration and dedicated work ethic.

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience for us,” one band member told his local newspaper in Milan, Tenn., where the Academy rehearsed in July. “We get a chance to learn from the best and to see the greater standards they set for themselves.”

This year’s tour brought the Academy to several competitions in California as well as others in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Indiana and Wisconsin. The Academy won them all with their show “Danzón,” a unique Latin style dance designed to represent a piece of Arizona’s culture and heritage on the national stage as Academy became the state’s first drum corps to compete in finals competition in more than a decade.

“There were elements that were extremely difficult,” Richardson said. “Musically, particularly. It was one of the hardest musical books out there for any drum corps.”

One corps member said he enjoyed the unfamiliar music.

“The more you listen to drum corps, the more similar it starts to sound,” Orrantia said. “I would even consider it its own specific genre. It’s kind of nice to bring more unfamiliar music to the activity. The crowd responded very nicely. I was fun to perform too. Difficult, but fun.”

An expensive endeavor        

But taking 135 young people and their staff on an extended cross-country tour is an expensive endeavor, one that often bankrupts drum corps, particularly the startups like Academy. For that reason, Richardson has taken a slow and deliberate “baby step” approach in order to ensure long-term financial stability. The corps’ first three years were a standup music ensemble, performing at various community events like a Diamondbacks game and Fourth of July celebration. In June 2004, the Academy stepped onto the field as a competitive unit for the first time in California, extending the tour length and distance in 2005 and finally reaching finals competition in 2006.

“It’s worked really well, in that each year it seems we’ve gotten progressively better,” Richardson said. “We’ve never had to take a step back and recover from financial losses so it’s been growing and growing ever sense.”

The next baby step will likely be another step up in show difficulty, Richardson said, and the corps will make a push to improve its own fundraising efforts and visibility. The ultimate goal, one to five years away, is to make the jump from division II to division I, where the Academy would have a greatly extended tour lasting most of July and face extremely stiff competition against some of the world’s best young musicians.

Without an affiliated school or district to provide financial or logistical support, the corps relies entirely on its own fundraising efforts. The primary fundraiser is the Southwest Corps Connection, a Valley drum corps competition organized by Academy volunteers that brings some of the nation’s top corps.

Other funds come from a Memorial Day benefit concert, a benefit dinner and miscellaneous smaller fundraisers as well as grants from the City of Tempe and non-profit organizations.

Academy members pay $1800 for the summer of touring, which covers about half of the expenses, Richardson said. With 135 members, that puts the total tour cost at close to half a million dollars. Since the AAPA does not want to raise the cost to participants, the corps’ future advancement is contingent upon the organization’s own fundraising success.

The Academy’s championship victory, reputation and extended tour has already cashed in for the organization through a significant spike in souvenir sales.

“We have seen a lot of emails, messages, letters and comments from people on the street that have seen the show or have been following what we’ve been doing and have become fans of the organization,” he said. “I would hope that that would turn into financial support” down the road.

A childhood vision

The Academy is the 31-year-old Richardson’s own brainchild. Growing up he watched his father, Bill Richardson, direct the band program at Corona del Sol High School and earn esteem as one of Arizona’s finest music educators. His father introduced Mark Richardson to drum corps competitions early in life. Without an Arizona corps to perform with, he joined the Blue Devils from Concord, Calif., and won the division I championships in 1996.

“As I was growing up I’d always imagine going on vacation, traveling across the country,” he said. “I’d imagine rehearsing a corps in different locations and think, ‘How cool would it be to rehearse a corps here?’”

By 2000, Richardson was working as a part time assistant band director with his dad at Corona. A group of Corona band parents and area drum corps enthusiasts, were excited by the idea of bringing a drum corps back to Arizona and used their own expertise to help Richardson form the Arizona Academy of the Performing Arts.

There were lawyers, doctors and marketing experts in the group who helped to create, fund and promote the non-profit organization. From there, the Academy grew to be the world championship organization it is today.

When Bill Richardson retired in 2003, Mark took over the Corona band program, ultimately stepping down in May to run the AAPA and the Academy full-time.

The Academy is unique in the drum corps arena because the vast majority of its members live in-state. Most large corps recruit from a wider region in an attempt to attract the highest possible talent.

Lofty goals

Despite the Academy’s early success—the corps remains undefeated throughout its entire existence—the corps aims for loftier goals than mere medals and championship rings.

With a key goal being the overall enhancement of music education in Arizona, Richardson said he hopes the corps keeps true to its values and its emphasis on recruiting Arizona students as it grows.

“The members that we train also return to where they’re going to school or instructing so that (passion, precision and commitment) gets spread to the communities in Arizona so that it has a positive impact outside of just our organization,” Richardson said. “It makes Arizona a better place for music and in turn would help the Academy” because its feeder music programs would be strengthened.

An even stronger Richardson goal is to “provide opportunities for our kids to grow as people,” as is a goal of all drum corps, Richardson said. But the Academy differs from other corps in the method by which the staff goes about achieving that goal.

“We always try to treat the members as if they’re professionals. We like to think that we treat them as equal partners in the process of learning, and their input and energy is as important as the staff members’ input and energy so that it’s an environment of teamwork between instructor, volunteer, student.”

And with such rapid and significant success, the staff strongly emphasizes humility amongst the members.

“We also try to teach the kids to be humble, no matter how successful, no matter how thick their track record of winning becomes,” Richardson said. “Always try to approach other teams with open arms. Be friendly, never look past the fact that you’re a human being.”

It seems to be working. One internet user claiming to have a son in an opposing corps posted on the online forum at

“Spoke with my son last night…they have spent this week with Academy, and says they have been all class at housing and show sites. Lots of vocal encouragement between the two corps whenever they pass each other.”

Orrantia said he’d never forget “seeing the final outcome; everyone’s sweat, everyone’s tears, everyone’s emotions.”



Photo by Mark Richardson


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