Drum Corps and Marching Bands, to most observers, are the same thing. Under the surface, however they each have their own unique styles of music, marching, and pagentry.
The marching band in one form or another has been around for hundreds of years. Over the centuries the old style fife and drum corps of the civil war era evolved into two distinct bloodlines the school based marching band and the organization oriented drum and bugle corps. Today's modern drum and bugle corps can often trace their ancestry to veterans groups and youth groups such as the Boy Scouts of America dating back to the early 1900's. In the mid 1900's the school based marching band emerged playing performances at halftime of football games all across America. As the popularity of marching band grew, slowly but surely the drum and bugle corps enthusiasts also pressed forward. While the marching band remained a part of the high school, the drum corps emerged as a summertime opportunity for young musicians to continue and excel at their art.
The Birth of Drum Corps International
In 1972 a national organization was formed to provide a foundation on which for the many different drum and bugle corps to grow and perform under a uniform set of rules. Drum Corps International today is a major international organization with over fifty corps in active competition during the summer months. But drum corps is not traditional marching band. It has evolved on a slightly different path than the high school based marching bands that we all grew up with in our local communities. For one thing, all drum corps are restricted to using only brass and percussion instruments. In 2005 for the first time woodwind instruments were allowed, but only in the solo and ensemble competitions that run separate from the massive full corps performances. Other recent changes have allowed the use of amplification through electronic means on the field. While high school marching bands have used amplification for years to provide such things as electric bass parts on the field it is a very new and experimental addition to drum corps competitions.
Differences in Marching Styles
Another significant difference between traditional marching band and modern drum corps has been the marching style of the members. Very traditional marching bands still use what is known as "Big Ten" or "High Step" style marching in which the performers lift their knees to their waist level with each step. Drum corps today use what is known as "Corps Style" marching which uses a very low gliding rolled step from heel to toe. Another difference between marching band and drum and bugle corps are the forms used on the field. In Big Ten style the forms tend to be created in groups or squads of four to five performers. These squads work together with other squads to produce generally straight, angular forms on the field. In corps style marching the shapes can be angular or curvilinear depending on the mood and intensity of the music and each performer is totally independent of the others.
Regardless of which style you personally prefer, the differences between marching bands and drum corps are becoming less and less obvious. The drum corps movement has made a huge impact on the high school based marching band, and in general this impact has been very positive. For those of us that love the thrill and energy of music in motion, either drum corps or marching bands will do just fine.