Cut from drumline
THE TENOR DRUMMER Intermediate 6 Reasons Chops Aren’t Enough to Make a DCI Tenor Line

6 Reasons Chops Aren’t Enough to Make a DCI Tenor Line

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Cut from drumline

You’re the best drummer at your high school, with a year or two as section leader under your belt. You’ve learned all sorts of DCI licks on Lothype, but you still got cut from the corps. Why?

What can you do to give yourself the best chance to make a DCI tenor line?

In this post, I break down six reasons chops aren’t enough for DCI.

Before we get to the list, let’s get a baseline of how many available spots there actually are and how many drummers you are up against.

Those of you who are averse to numbers, bear with me while I math this out for a minute:

Available DCI Tenor Drum Spots

  • There are only 22 World Class DCI Corps, so at best, if all march 5 tenors, there are 110 total spots available. (60 drummers will make Finals, 5 will win a Championship)
  • Now, let’s assume 2-3 veterans will return at each corps, that cuts the number in half, leaving room for 55 rookie tenor drummers.

How many Tenor Drummers are you up against?

I have no idea how many tenor drummers there are out there. I’m sure it’s in the thousands. But to really figure out your chances to make a DCI tenor line, let’s just get a rough estimate of how many quality players might think about auditioning.

  • Starting with the university marching bands, there are 65 “Power 5” NCAA schools. If they each march five tenor drummers, that’s 325 right there. These guys obviously have more years of experience than high schoolers and might be marching with corps vets.
  • For the high schools, let’s just say 10 of the best graduating seniors from each state try out. That’s another 500!
  • Let’s not forget the international community. The travel expense weeds out many of them, but there are always a handful of Japanese prodigies that show up. (I had a ridiculously good wing man from Japan in ’03. He was soooo good; I was spoiled!)

Of course, not all of these drummers will show up to audition, but with our conservative estimates, we got all the way up to 800+ decent tenor drummers available for 55 spots!

When I was growing up, there was no YouTube with it’s endless supply of licks and instruction. Proximity to certain programs, and some luck, went a long way to making a line. Nowadays, with the help of the internet (and websites like… sorry, had to), anyone can access world class instruction.

So, how can you increase your chances to be one of the lucky few to make the cut?

Let’s unpack my six reasons chops aren’t enough for a DCI tenor line.

1. You didn’t learn the music

This one might seem obvious, but it doesn’t matter how well you can play BD’s 2017 drum break, you have to be able to play the notes in the audition packet.

Don’t just focus on the exercises you think you will be asked to play, LEARN THE ENTIRE PACKET!


Every note needs to be in your hands, so you don’t have to even think about what comes next. Think of how well you know the last show you performed. You can probably play it with your eyes closed, daydreaming about puppies.

All exercises and excerpts need to be at that level. There will be plenty of distractions, so get as much as you can on autopilot.

I made this mistake when trying out for The Cavaliers for the 2001 season. I focused on the front end of the packet and didn’t quite make it to the back.

Of course, the third exercise we played was on the last page! I scrambled to learn the around pattern on the carpet in the back of the room, but it wasn’t nearly enough. My nerves got the best of me, and I embarrassingly stumbled through the notes in front of everyone.

I was cut soon after.

2. Your technique doesn’t match the line

A visual tick is sometimes worse than an auditory one. Most of the audience will miss a random dirty attack or crushed diddle, but they will certainly notice a player who’s hands look different than the rest.

“One of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn’t belong” is what my old tech used to say.

When you have your sights set on a particular drumline, study not only their most recent drum solos, but how their hands look while playing, especially crosses and sweeps.

I see videos of kids absolutely throwing down all the time! They are much, much better than I was at their age. Unfortunately though, their technique doesn’t match their chops.

The most common tendencies I see are very French (vertical) wrist positions, lots of back finger usage, and wrists too close together, turning the hands outward.

When you watch the top lines of today, you don’t see them playing that way.

Even for experienced players, it’s important to slow down and really lock in your technique, often with the most basic exercises. Do not overlook any detail of your playing. If you want the staff to notice you (in a good way), you have to blend in!

3. You can’t play clean

Most often, the best drummers at a school tend to be section leaders. They have earned their spots through hard work and proven performance.

Unfortunately, being section leader doesn’t give you the chance to work on your listening skills. Sure, you are following the snares or watching the drum major, but it’s not the same.

Listening and playing clean (a lesson in my free course) is an art form in itself, and very different than having the line follow your lead.

As a non-section leader, you must be constantly focused on your inside guy, matching heights, stick movements, and interpretation whether correct or not!

This isn’t for just a rep or two. You have to consistently play clean for hours at a time. This takes quite a bit of mental focus that many players can struggle with.

If you are section leader at your school, try switching roles with one of your linemates and spend some time playing to them. This way, hopefully your seniority won’t work against you at November camp.

4. You can’t physically handle the show

Let’s face it, drum corps is tough! You are basically spending 12+ hours every day either on a field practicing or performing. Typically, you only get two days off the entire summer.

My two years in DCI were BY FAR the most difficult things I ever did, and I was in the most spoiled section of the most spoiled corps! Many other groups had it much worse.

We would spend all day sprinting across football fields in the blazing summer sun. People were exhausted, passing out, and even getting injured.

Whether you are over or underweight, you have to be honest with yourself about the physical demands of the activity. Jogging regularly the summer and fall before audition camp is a good idea, as well as push-ups or lifting weights if you need to bulk up.

Unfortunately, tenor drummers have it pretty bad compared to most of the other instruments. Other than possibly the contras and lower basses, we have the heaviest load to carry. If you really want to increase your odds and make a DCI tenor line, be sure to “physically” look the part!

5. You have a bad attitude

When marching drum corps, you are spending all day, every day with the same group of people. Arguably, you spend more consecutive time with them than your parents, siblings, best friend, anyone! (Okay, this is before the COVID-19 era.)

You can’t get away from these people, no matter what you do. Would you want to spend all of that time with someone who is terrible to be around?

Even one bad apple can be toxic to a line. There is a reason staff pays attention to how everyone interacts during breaks and at meals. And yes, this can get you cut from the tenor line.

Getting along with “the guys” is very important during those inevitable low periods you will experience in mid-July when tensions can be high.

In life in general, it makes things much easier being an open-minded, non-judgmental person. Everyone is going through something difficult in their lives, so don’t hesitate to flash a smile and ask how someone is doing!

6. There aren’t enough spots

Now, we come full circle back to the beginning of the post. Most corps have five tenor spots, and it is not unusual for 30-40+ drummers to show up to auditions. Even great drummers are not going to make a DCI tenor line.

Maybe a handful of the auditionees are (smart) young kids just looking to gain experience, but most will be real contenders.

The techs have difficult decisions to make when it comes down to the final group of drummers. This is when a bad attitude or different technique could really cost you a spot.

Sometimes, they pick the player who isn’t necessarily the better drummer now but will be in August.

This is what happened to me in 2002. I was the sixth tenor and very last person to get cut from the 2002 Cavaliers, at the February camp. It was brutal!

Fortunately for me, the phone rang two months later. I was back in for April camp, and a World Champion by August.

make a dci tenor line

Even if you end up getting cut from the tenor line, learn from the experience, stay positive, and keep working hard, no matter what. You never know how things will work out that year or next!

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