Drum Corps 101 – Recruiting

(c) Lee Rudnicki 2007

Recruiting and retaining new members are among the most difficult challenges any new or rebuilding DCA or Division 2/3 drum corps will face.  Although this is an inherent problem seen primarily in DCA and Division 2/3 DCI corps, a comprehensive focus on the elements that make up a solid recruiting and retention program will help any corps be successful in the long run, regardless of its competitive success (or lack thereof).

The fundamental elements to a successful drum corps recruiting and retention program has nothing to do with hanging up hundreds of flyers in high school band rooms or single-handedly breaking Jeff Ream’s record for posting on Drum Corps Planet.  It is important to understand that the key to success is to focus on improving your member’s experience of being in the corps. The goal is to create a fun and rewarding environment that will make your members want to return year after year, regardless of the ultimate competitive outcome of your season. This philosophy has nothing to do with competitive excellence—an enjoyable drum corps environment does not necessarily mean that it must be a less competitive one.

The following principles will help your drum corps recruiting and retention program. You may not agree with some of these methods, or your corps may already incorporate a few. In any event, these steps will make the experience of marching in your drum corps more rewarding for your members, which in turn will lead to a higher retention rate and recruiting success.

Principle 1.  Create Internal Social Ties.  Drum corps is a family. You must encourage and help your members meet people in other sections of the corps throughout the season. If your members have more social ties in the corps, they will be less likely to leave, and they will be more likely to return to march another season. They will also be less likely to leave for another corps if, for example, the two snare drummers on both sides of them decide not to march.  Along these lines, breaks and lunch schedules should be coordinated with all the sections, perhaps with the occasional full-corps potluck lunch. Staggered lunches among the sections should be saved for absolutely critical times of the season or if you only have one field, for example, because they eliminate as much as 75% of the corps potential social contact. The basic principle behind this is that if a member has friends in the corps, they will likely return next season. Along these same lines, drum corps rookies tend to be very intimidated at their first rehearsal with a new corps.  You should make it your mission to make all new members feel welcome on Day 1.  Once a new member is at rehearsal, it falls on everyone – members and staff – to immediately make the potential member feel welcome.  As new members join during the season, introduce them to the whole corps, and applaud their presence.  Making someone feel like they are part of the team the first time they walk in the door will make a huge difference in the recruiting and retention rate. Also, ditch the “rookie” concept. Once someone is in the corps, they are in.  Period. Finally, if a member does not return for a season for whatever reason, invite them to come around the corps whenever they want.  Make them feel welcome to come to rehearsal and march in parades etc.  Do not shut the door on them, no matter how frustrated you are that they did not return. By doing this, you will stunned by the members who will return this or next season, because they were encouraged to keep one foot in the door, so to speak.

Principle 2.  Include Family Members in the Experience.  The primary reason a member gets pressure from their family “not” to march in a drum corps, especially a DCA corps, is because their family members do not feel included in the experience. The solution is to proactively include your corps member’s family in the experience any way that you can. You should make them feel welcome at all rehearsals, and even host a few events during the year such as Family Day, an Open House or a picnic where the corps plays the show for family and friends, and everyone gets to interact with the corps and staff. This will help keep family pressure at a minimum and keep members in your corps. Along this line of reasoning, the Renegades allow any family member to buy a corps jacket, since they are typically also making a huge sacrifice for their family member to be in the corps (member patches are another story).

 Principle 3.  Zero Staff Conflict.  No matter what the issue is, there must be ZERO conflict on your staff in front of the corps, and your staff members must be 100% supportive of one another in front of the corps. A staff in conflict will hurt the morale of the corps, and lead your members to question the abilities of the staff. If a contentious issue comes up, deal with it in a professional manner—away from the corps.

Principle 4. The End of Rehearsal Rule.   With the possibility of one or two limited exceptions during a season, it must be the mission of the corps director and staff to get the members to leave each and every rehearsal on a positive note, feeling like something was accomplished and excited about returning for the next rehearsal. Sometimes, this is hard to do after a particularly bad run-through, for example, but you must stick to this rule.  This is particularly important in a DCA corps. When DCA corps members walk away from a rehearsal feeling depressed or bummed out, the staff typically does not have an opportunity to turn things around for another week (at least).

Principle 5.  The No Stress Rule.  The key to success in any substantial endeavor is not the lack of adversity, but rather, how one responds to adversity.  Whether you are the Blue Devils the Bushwackers or the Bananas, things will inevitably go wrong during the season. Your bus may breakdown at precisely the wrong time, as it did for Renegades on the way to 2002 DCA Prelims. Your section leader may forget his or her uniform, law enforcement may kick you out of your rehearsal site for no apparent reason, or the incredible chaotic hurricane may hit just as you take the field.  If you establish a culture of supporting one another and “not” pointing fingers when things go wrong, and you allow and help your staff and members recover from mistakes or chaos, you will all have a more rewarding and productive season, and the corps will get better at responding to adversity.

Principle 6.  Embrace The Internet.  The Internet is a valuable tool, one that most drum corps do not understand how to use properly. You should encourage our members to use the drum corps newsgroups and forums. This will help create a sense of community within the drum corps, and will help get the corps badly needed visibility. The key is to make it clear to your members that they cannot and must not claim to speak for the corps on any given issue.  Mistakes will be made, but these are easily rectified behind the scenes. There is no need for a collective nervous breakdown when your corps members post on the Internet drum corps newsgroups.

Principle 7.   Add a Killer Performance and Rehearsal Schedule.  You should add one or two non-competitive performances during the season where the corps gets the opportunity to stand still and blow the faces off some people who maybe don’t even know what drum corps is all about.  The crowd reaction will be incredible, and the members will have fun performing in a no pressure situation with the fans going nuts. This also is a great way to increase your corps visibility in the community.  Along those lines, it is also important to give your corps members some time off.  Some senior corps have non-stop summer weekend schedules make it difficult if not impossible for members to remain in the corps if they get married, or take on a significant job or school commitment during the summer.  One or two free weekends during the summer where you literally order the corps to take time off and have fun will buy much goodwill with the members and their families, and keeps the burnout factor away.  Putting together a schedule with a break in it and the corps being great are not mutually exclusive goals.  Simply put, rehearsing each and every possible minute throughout the entire summer is not in the corps best interests.

The Bottom Line.  The key to recruiting and retaining members is to improve the experience your members have in the corps.


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