Austin Drum Corps Teaches Members More Than Music
By Ali Killian
Standing in the bed of a white pickup truck, head drum major John Filippone moved his white-gloved hands with brisk authority. At his command, 132 high-stepping musicians, and the truck, bounced in time with the theme song from “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Welcome to the world of big-time drum corps competition. Austin-based Genesis Drum and Bugle Corps is one of three Texas teams that vie for honors under Drum Corps International, the governing body for an activity that involves some 5,000 high school and college students, mostly from Texas, California and Florida. DCI calls itself “marching music’s major league.”
On this chilly March morning in the Bastrop High School parking lot, corps members trooped through their fifth weekend rehearsal in as many months. The intensity of the practice signaled Genesis’ hopes of grabbing gold in the annual DCI Tour, a summer series of competitions that this year will take Genesis to 19 U.S. cities.
Yet Genesis Executive Director Chris Magonigal said the real prize is the personal journey each member experiences, as Genesis stresses building character and positive relationships, along with music and marching.
“I believe in the message that it sends,” Magonigal said. “I believe in the athletic prowess of the activity … in what it does for kids. I believe in what it spawns for communities.”
It certainly has produced diehard participants. Filippone, 20, said Genesis “puts you in a place where you’re gonna take it to your limit and fail, whether it’s physically or what have you. It really prepared me to be unafraid of the real world.”
And DCI competition is very real. Genesis competes in the Open Class against 24 other corps and can face another 22 or more if it advances to the world championships. Last year, Genesis won bronze in Open Class finals and placed 23rd out of 25 in the championship semifinals in Indianapolis.
Genesis is in “that transitional period between being the new kid on the block and being somebody who’s a real dominant force in this activity,” said Magonigal, who founded the corps in 2009. “They can feel that everything that we’ve done is starting to pay off with people recognizing it.”
In its first season, Genesis fielded all 65 kids who tried out, Magonigal said. This year, 496 instrumentalists auditioned over two months and 132 made the roster. Another 28 color guard members will soon join.
Magonigal started Genesis in the Rio Grande Valley to give students from low-income families the opportunity to become better musicians and to acquire skills and values to push them forward in life. But it was hard to muster financial support, so in 2012 he moved Genesis to Austin.
Today, Magonigal said Genesis has a yearly budget of $695,000. Half of this money comes from members’ tuition of $2,300 per year — there’s a discount for veteran marchers — and half from grants, awards and donations. Magonigal doesn’t draw a salary but there is a paid staff of 30, in addition to several dozen volunteers and interns.
Typically, drum corps have three sections: percussion, brass and color guard. Their 11-minute performances are similar to marching band halftime shows, but are more theatrical and intricate. Judges award points for the quality of the music and visual and general effects. Tenths of a point can determine who walks away with a prize.
DCI divides the corps into three divisions based on criteria such as size and program strength, according to its website. World Class houses the top corps, including San Antonio’s Crossmen. Genesis and the Houston-based Guardians compete in Open Class with the smaller and generally younger corps. International corps have their own division.
This year’s tour will culminate in the weeklong world championships series in August in Indianapolis.
In 2013, Genesis made its first appearance in the World Class semifinals with a show that blended the musicals “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Wiz.” Corps members scurried across the field fluidly forming ovals, diamonds and the letter “Z” encircled by a rotating “O” of brass players. Color guard members swirled brightly colored flags. Even so, Genesis finished 23rd that year and has yet to make the finals.
“We brought to life a production that we felt would tell our story, and we got great praise for it,” visual supervisor Josh Gall said. “So we’re sort of doing that with this [year’s] show,” “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Back at training camp in Bastrop, 20-year-old bass drummer Kevin Torres and the battery — half of the percussion unit consisting of cymbals and bass, tenor and snare drums — marched in a precise square in the parking lot. Beads of sweat dotted their foreheads.
“We are chasing perfection,” Torres, a Texas State University sophomore, said later. “We are working for that every single day.”
Genesis education director Ed Gobbel said the strict rehearsal routine adds to the corps’ educational mission.
“They understand what it’s like to push through … the pain and… the frustration … until they get to the other side and realize that they’re so ahead of what everyone else is doing,” Gobbel said. “And just because they put their heads down and they went for it.”
Filippone, the head drum major, has one more season before he hits 21 and is too old for the corps. The UT-Austin computer science junior said he plans to enlist in the Navy after graduation. He craves the military structure on which DCI is based, he said.
That much was clear at the Bastrop camp when Filippone’s white gloves moved in sync with the metronome. All that seemed to matter then was “The Phantom of the Opera” and the summer tour.
“If you’re not feeling it while you’re playing it,” Filippone said, “there’s no way the audience is going to feel it.”