Case Study: The Jersey Surf model of drum and bugle corps – part 1

The Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps are in their cinderella year in World Class this year, and as an individual who has some personal investment in the corps as a former staff member and the mentor of one of the current staff members who likes to chat it up with me, i felt like it was worth doing a writeup of their unique position in the world of DCI and drum corps of today.

First, a little background:

Since it’s birth in 1991/1992, Jersey Surf was a Division II corps (now dubbed “Open”), and in the past few years established themselves as one of the more dominant forces in that class, culminating in a 2nd place finish in 2007 (winning both brass and percussion performance) and a 3rd place finish in 2008. Given their success and growth as an organization, they decided bump up to World Class for the 2009 season.

What makes the Jersey Surf unique in today’s drum corps world is their summer schedule. The corps director, Bob Jacobs, has always been a drum corps fan, but was never able to march in a drum corps in his youth because he couldn’t afford to not work over the summer, which took most full-summer-tour corps out of the picture. His goal with the Surf was to be able to give kids who needed a summer job or otherwise wanted or needed their summers free the opportunity that he didn’t have, to give them the opportunity to march in a respectable junior drum corps organization without having to sacrifice their entire summer. Thus, Surf functions primarily as a weekend corps in the summer with a couple of two-week block “tours” that go every day.

Surf has gone through a lot of growing pains in their history, but has steadily matured as an organization culminating to their open class success. I feel that part of this has to do with the focus in recent years to raise the level of professionalism and organization of Surf’s middle and upper management, and thus be able to bring in greater staff talent tha and build loyalty in the staff talent. When i taught Surf in 1999, everyone on staff was volunteer, and that can only draw from a certain pool of instructional staff. Eventually this model changed, and along with that was a gradual changeover of the staff that was able to bump up the vision of excellence and the reputation of the corps as a force that even with its strong running start in its early years continued to build in strength and be a force to be reckoned with, which in turn helped attract a stronger and more loyal membership pool.

Although I don’t know all of the details of the Why and How of Surf moving from Open to World Class, it seems like this was an inevitability given the sort of momentum and evolution they’ve had as an organization. Regardless of this, making this move couldn’t have been easy and deserves a high level of admiration. i’m making an educated guess that it would have been easier for them to stay in Open Class and know that they had the potential to capture their first gold medal. Instead, they decided that they needed to think bigger, and even if there was a risk that it was biting off more than they could chew, they threw themselves into the fire as a new rookie to see where it would take them. In today’s world where it seems like more organizations and individuals focus mainly on stability and creating a business model that they know will succeed with very little risk, Surf needs to be commended for standing against that model and attempting to try to see how far it can push its success.

And now that they’re in their first summer tour as a World Class organization, i think that it’s highlighted some of the challenges that this new kid on the block has to face not only because it is their debut year in World Class, but because of their unique “weekend-only summer” model, the only World Class drum corps tomy knowledge that is functioning in this way. And i think that it’s important, therefore, to take a moment to do some outside analysis on the choices that Surf has made, how that fits within the bigger picture of the current DCI model, musical pedagogy, and life pedagogy, and speculate as to what role Surf has in the future, both for itself and for the activity of drum corps.

There’s no doubt that because of the choices that Surf has made, they’re fighting an upward struggle. Take the shittiest and most inexperienced drum corps out there that does a full tour and pit them against the Surf, and there’s a good chance that the shitty drum corps will beat them purely because of how much more time they practice and thus how much more time they can meld as a collective ensemble from the top down, how much more chops are built through consistently playing/spinning every day, how much more physical endurance they develop, &c. Talent can only go so far behind solid, consistent, hard work.

Top that with the perception that Surf has struggled with for years as being a “gateway corps”, as in kids will come to Surf as a means to build their chops, experience, and resumé to then go march in a full tour/top 12 corps a year or two later. It’s true that every year is a building year, there are always going to be age outs or transfers, but i think Surf had to deal with that more than most because their weekend-only model is definitely seen by some of the membership (although i can’t say how much) as “not a full drum corps experience”, and when they see top 5 corps like Crown or Cavaliers or Blue Devils, they get the grass-is-greener complex, particularly if they feel like they have the talent and the means to be a member of those corps.

Given those sorts of struggles on top of other small or big struggles that they face, questions arise: should they have stayed in open class? should they have reached for a longer term goal of becoming world class but with more of a full tour model? is this “in between” model that they’re employing a failed model for the world class paradigm?

Part 2

originally posted on darkblog resonate. i prefer any comments there.