Alyssa Wells defends dissertation

March 10, 2022

On March 8, SMR member Alyssa Wells successfully defended her dissertation, “Falling Out of Step: Belonging, Grit, and Drum Corps International’s Moment of Reckoning,” before a Zoom room packed with captivated attendees. Congratulations on this achievement, Alyssa! Please see below for an abstract of Alyssa’s dissertation.

Falling Out of Step: Belonging, Grit, and Drum Corps International’s Moment of Reckoning

The emergence of the #MeToo movement in 2017 publicly unveiled decades of abuse within many organizations and industries. Drum Corps International (DCI), an administrative organization for drum & bugle corps (drum corps or corps) competitions in North America, was no exception. The independent corps that compete in DCI were forced to reckon with consequences incited by an insular culture and its (mis)handling of a variety of allegations. Rumors that had previously circulated within whisper networks were thrust into the public eye, ushering in a moment of reckoning for the entire drum corps community. This dissertation interrogates the drum corps community’s social practices and norms, including their origins and preservation, to articulate factors that facilitate misconduct and promote silence, and inform efforts to rehabilitate this musical tradition.

Branded “Marching Music’s Major League,” DCI brings together more than 60 drum corps each summer for a 90-day season of competitions across the contiguous United States, culminating with the World Championships in early August. Each corps consists of no more than 154 members, aged 16 to 21. Together with instructors, volunteers, and administrative and support staff, the 200 or more individuals involved with a corps all work toward shared goals. Between performances, individual drum corps rehearse upwards of 12 hours a day to perfect their field show, an eleven-minute production consisting of thematically unified music and movement. The result of these rehearsal and performance contexts, I contend, is an insular community that is poorly equipped to prevent or address issues of misconduct, violence, and abuse. The community’s reverence for extreme precision, conformity, loyalty, unity, grit, and stoicism work to normalize harm and promote silence in the face of abuse.

This dissertation contributes to ongoing conversations in academic and nonacademic circles about systemic abuse in DCI. Building on the work of theorists including Natalya Alonos, Jennifer Berdahl, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Peter Glick, I articulate the historical role of hegemonic social identities on the formation of distinct cultural values. Using ethnographic research, previously uncited materials from archival and private collections, as well as autoethnographic insights, I demonstrate how these values can obscure ethical and legal boundaries. Structured to mimic the experiential trajectory that results in the normalization of abuse and misconduct in DCI, this dissertation provides a glimpse into a musical culture that receives scant ethnomusicological or musicological attention (Cole 2009, Maher 2011, George 2022).

“Chapter 1: Belonging in DCI” expounds upon the role of belonging, the mechanisms by which it is achieved, and the factors that inculcate feelings of connection and kinship among corpsmates. In “Chapter 2: Welcome to Drum Corps?,” I then demonstrate how belonging and conformity work alongside glorified ideas of resilience and grit to reframe problematic conduct and questionable living conditions as inherent to the drum corps experience. These opaque and uncertain expectations provide context for “Chapter 3: Keeping it In-House,” wherein I examine hazing, and member-on-member misconduct. Finally, in “Chapter 4: Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire,” I turn to staff and administrator-based misconduct or mismanagement, exploring how corrupted cultural values are (un)intentionally exploited by trusted adults. Within this context, I argue that rumors and a culture of silence perpetuate violence. Overall, I contend that the issues of power and violence in DCI reflect larger problems within the performing arts that require intervention.