Evanston Review 

Pioneer Press- Suburban Chicago

Drill designer's business marches on

January 24, 2008

By RUTH SOLOMON Staff Writer

Growing up in 1970s Northbrook, Evanston resident Mitch Rogers could not have envisioned that one day he would be making a good living designing intricate routines for drum and bugle corps and high school marching bands.  The job did not exist back then.

But 30 years later, Rogers has enough work that he even subcontracts out to two other designers. He has a steady job with several clients who use him over and over again. And the works he designs are not just based on patriotic themes, although they can be, but are as complex as an opera or professional ballet.

"I'm in the second or third wave. When I was in high school, you never heard of anyone doing this full-time," he said.

Before becoming a professional drill designer, Rogers graduated with a degree in engineering from University of Illinois and went on to work in computer design for Northrop and, later, AT&T in Lisle.  But he enjoyed working with drill teams, a sideline that eventually blossomed into a full-time gig for him by 1993.

The skills Rogers needed to become a drill designer started while in high school at Glenbrook North. There, Rogers played trombone for the marching band and learned about drill routines. In those pre-personal computer day, the drills were carefully written by hand.

Hooked from the start

"Back in the day, the band director would do that," Rogers said, although starting his junior year, he began to design drills at Glenbrook North, he said.  "The teacher made it fun and exciting. I was hooked from the start," he said.

In college, Rogers joined the Cavalier drum and bugle corps, whose drill writer was the late Steve Brubaker, a mentor of sorts for him. Drill designers were learning they could do the job full-time, as marching bands and largely not-for-profit drum and bugle corps were starting to take part in more and more competitive events.

Instead of being sponsored by the traditional American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, these new competitions were being sponsored by such groups as Drum Corps International and Bands of America, which were made up of bands joining together.

Designing the routine became too much work for the band director, whose specialty was music education, so designers such as Rogers were able to step in, he said.

Rogers now has 13 high school marching bands as clients around the country, including Hinsdale South locally. Of these, he designs drills for eight and has two subcontractors do the work for the other five.  He also does the drill design for two community marching bands based in Japan, where he travels once or twice a year.

In contrast to high school marching bands, drum and bugle corps are not associated with a particular school but are instead community-based, with the average participant about 19 years old. Rogers has two drum and bugle corps as clients - the Bluecoats, in Canton, Ohio, and the Troopers, in Casper, Wyo.

"He's one of the best. He is well known and has a long history of success," said David Glasgow, executive director of the Bluecoats.

Rogers is also credited by former Cavaliers brass music instructor Gordon Henderson with helping the Rosemont-based corps win their first Drum Corps International championship back in 1992.

Corps, bands differ

Drum and bugle corps differ from high school marching bands in the types of instruments they use. At one time, they would only march with a bugle, but now they use other band instruments, so long as they are valved bell-front brass instruments, such as trumpets and a specialized type of baritone, Rogers said. Woodwinds and trombones are not allowed.

The Cavaliers and the Bluecoats - along with the Blue Devils and the Phantom Regiment from Rockford -- are considered to be among the top drum and bugle corps in the world, Rogers said. Tryouts are held in the fall, and then the chosen musicians and color guard, who can pay up to $1,000 to participate, spend their entire summer touring the country in dozens of competitions and performances.

Powerful software

With the advent of personal computers, drill designers such as Rogers now use sophisticated software programs with animation to illustrate the moves of all the musicians and color guard members on the field. Rogers is even able to adjust the perspective from one of a birds eye view above the field to that more comparable to where the judge will be sitting in a press box closer down to the field.

Rogers starts a project by consulting with the band director to find out the theme. He then works from a computer in an office in his Cleveland Street home, where he has lived for five years with his wife, Jennifer, a social worker with the Center for Law and Social Work, and his two daughters, Ellie, 7, and Ruby, 5.

Paying top dollar for a drill means a drum and bugle corps such as the Bluecoats is more likely to attract the top talent, win competitions and raise funds from sponsors, said Glasgow, the Bluecoats executive director.

Each drill may take as many as 200 pages of computer printed out pages. Each band member is represented on the screen by a blue letter, T for trumpet player, F for flute, P for percussion with all the color guard members represented by red, and drummer in black letters.

On-screen control

Rogers can manipulate the way each of the dozens of musicians and members move around the football field on his computer screen. The software is from Pygraphics (pyware.com), Texas, which is also used in the choreography for Olympics ceremonies, Rogers said.

Besides his experience in drill design and his ability to read music, Rogers said two other skills are needed for his job.

"There are two things I wish I had more education in; one is visual arts and the other is theater. The shows, are becoming more theatrical; we are not just writing drills," he said.

After all, those turning out for these competitive marching drills are not just judges, he said. "The people who buy tickets to see the shows very much see it as a form of entertainment."

The Drum Corps International World Championship will be the first event to open at the brand new Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, Aug. 5-9, 2008.