A Shout-Out to Women in Corps

A shout out to women in corps.
More women are stepping up to the table or onto the field to be leaders within Drum Corps International and Drum Corps Associates organizations. Read about four successful female executives who play a core role in drum corps.

A photo of Kathy Black.From the Courtroom to the Boardroom
Kathy Black
Chair of Drum Corps International Board of Directors

In 2011, Kathy Black was working as a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, treating music as a hobby, when a phone call from her former high school drum major—Sam Hodson—changed everything.

Hodson, also a lawyer, was and still is involved with Music for All (MFA). After learning that MFA was looking for new board members, he reached out to Black about the opportunity. “I had not talked to him since high school [more than 30 years prior],” she says.

Black jumped at the chance to make a bigger impact in the music world and has pursued that path ever since. “At this point, I’ve given up on the fact that music won’t be a part of my life,” she says. “It won’t go away. It’s always a part of me. I love the activity and want to give it another 50 years.”

According to Black, her involvement with Music for All led her to seek out a position on the Drum Corps International (DCI) Board of Directors, which she joined in 2016. Black had marched with the Guardsmen Drum and Bugle Corps from Schaumburg, Illinois, in 1978.

A New Perspective

Working on not-for-profit boards allowed Black to bring a new perspective, including her 25 years of experience as an attorney, to the table.

“I’ve always been looking for ways to blend my professional career with my favorite hobby, which is playing music,” Black says. “This is a way to bring it all together.”

Since May 2018, Black has served as the chair of the DCI Board of Directors, where she is the only woman out of nine voting members. She retired from her job as an attorney in September 2018 to focus on her role at DCI.

“This is an activity where there are more men than women,” she says, pointing out that only one-third of marching members are women. “I want to make sure that for my contribution, that we are in a position where women can feel good about what they do.”

Black believes that the lower female enrollment in corps could be caused by several factors, including girls being encouraged to play woodwinds instead of brass or percussion instruments and a lack of mentorship opportunities.

To help alleviate the problem, Black encourages corps to think outside the box when hiring new people instead of relying on the buddy system. “There won’t be women in leadership until they’re considered for certain spots,” she says.


Black had been a founding member and the first chair of DCI’s “IN STEP: Women of DCI” committee in March 2018. When Black became DCI’s board chair, Genevieve Geisler—Bluecoats chief financial officer and chief operations officer—took over as the chair of IN STEP.

Though she’s no longer IN STEP’s official chair, Black is still involved with the program’s growth and initiatives, such as helping with fundraising to bolster IN STEP’s inaugural 2019 scholarship.

In addition to working as the chair of DCI’s Board of Directors, Black continues to perform as a percussionist. She plays a range of percussion instruments for the Albuquerque (New Mexico) Concert Band as well as serves on its board. “I really enjoy my work with drum corps and other nonprofits,” she says. “I’m playing a lot of music and having a great time.”

A photo of Vicki MacFarlane.Leadership Through Collaboration
Vicki MacFarlane
Director of the Colts Drum and Bugle Corps

Every time the Colts Drum and Bugle Corps from Dubuque, Iowa, takes the field, corps director Vicki MacFarlane laughs. MacFarlane finds it humorous when she hears the announcer proclaim that the Colts are “under the direction of Vicki MacFarlane.”

“Every time they say that, I look at the great number of people it takes to pull this off,” MacFarlane says. “The Colts is not one person, one member, one director. It takes such a community and such a great number of people.”

Collaboration is a key component of MacFarlane’s philosophy on leadership. “Our focus with the Colts has been on leadership development, to have an environment that allows students to practice [leadership] in a safe way,” she says.

For the past four years, the Colts has offered guided supervision—which includes monthly calls and get-togethers—for students who want to take on voluntary leadership roles.

This year, “Collaboration” is the theme of the Colts’ leadership development curriculum. “How we’ve defined that is not just communicating, but also being sensitive and responding to each other’s information,” she says.

As part of this collaboration, MacFarlane works with students on concepts like time management and role modeling. She also reaches out to former student leaders for feedback on the best ways to practically apply their leadership skills. “I would say for almost all of us in leadership at the Colts, it’s the thing we’re proudest of,” she says.

Diversity of Skillsets

Beyond this leadership program, MacFarlane has much to be proud of during her time at the Colts. She marched baritone for the Colts in 1994 and 1995, volunteered for a time, and then was director of the Colt Cadets for 11 years—from 2001 until 2012—before taking her current position. She also has the title of Director of Youth Programs. MacFarlane’s husband, Jeff, has been executive director of the Colts since 2012.

Previously, MacFarlane worked as a school band director, teaching students in 5th through 12th grades in the English Valleys Community School District.

MacFarlane’s many life experiences helped prepare her for the role of Colts director. “I’ve always enjoyed a wide variety of topics throughout my life, and that diversity of skillsets has helped in this role,” she says. “I grew up on a farm, so I was used to larger vehicles. The vehicle logistics that we deal with creates a different environment than I had in the public school. … I would say I deal with as many vehicle things now as student things.”

Confidence to Take Risks

In August 2018, MacFarlane received DCI’s George Bonfiglio Chairperson’s Award, which is given to a person who has shown excellent leadership and service to DCI. “It was humbling,” says MacFarlane, who had also previously served for six terms as chair of DCI’s Open Class Advisory Committee.

At the time, MacFarlane was the only female director of a DCI corps, putting the honor in perspective for her. “I have never [before] been asked in my life to represent women in the activity.”

To young women looking to get involved in drum corps leadership, MacFarlane says a resounding, “Go for it!,” adding not to be “scared to take an opportunity.” She explains that people don’t need to “wait until they feel like they’re ready for something.”

For MacFarlane, it’s all about having the confidence to take a risk. “I keep working to help students find ways to gain and maintain confidence and be independent thinkers,” she says. “Take a risk, keep taking risks, keep accepting opportunities.”

A photo fo Kristy Jackson.A Jack of All Trades
Kristy Jackson
Director of the Troopers Drum and Bugle Corps

When Kristy Jackson first got involved with the Troopers Drum and Bugle Corps in Casper, Wyoming, in 2011, she had no musical background and no training in the marching arts. Instead, she was a nurse working with disabled children and adults. After accompanying her clients to local events hosted by the Troopers, Jackson decided to volunteer at the corps’ bingo fundraisers.

A similar passion that led Jackson into nursing fueled her commitment to the corps. “I’ve always been very big on making sure kids are safe and healthy and taken care of,” she says. “They look to us for guidance. Troopers is very family-oriented and always has been.”

Since starting as a volunteer in 2011, Jackson has worked her way up to corps director, a position that she assumed in the fall of 2018. Along the way, she held a variety of positions. “I held every position on the drum corps,” Jackson says. “I’ve been the office manager. I’ve worked on the food trucks. I’ve been the assistant director. I’ve held every title.”

During the past eight years, Jackson has learned new skills, including the musical and the logistical, from those around her. “I was mentored for the entire time I’ve held all the positions,” she says. “I’m still learning, but I’ve been very involved in the design team and the educational staff. We learn something new every day out there. Yesterday was the learn-how-to-work-the-vehicles lesson. You have to deal with anything that comes up.”

An Inclusive Environment

According to Jackson, the culture of the Troopers is about much more than being a competitive drum corps; it’s about creating a welcoming, inclusive environment for personal development. “We have kids that are not prepared physically,” she says. “They have no time management. They’re not used to being on the field for 12 hours. There’s a lot of overcoming out here and making your mind stronger.”

The Troopers welcomes all participants—regardless of their financial backgrounds. As a result, fundraising is important at the Troopers. Jackson put students in touch with alumni who would be willing to help sponsor them, helps them apply for DCI sponsorships, and partners with Pizza Hut to offer profit-sharing nights. “We don’t let kids not be able to march,” she says. “We find a way.”

An Evolution

Some of Jackson’s proudest moments in the Troopers haven’t come from winning awards or competitions but from seeing the evolution in her students. “I have parents call me and tell me, ‘I don’t know what you did with my kid this summer, but they’re doing their own laundry and looking for a job,’” she says.

Even when the corps isn’t doing well competitively, Jackson takes pride in her students’ perseverance. “As long as they’re doing the best they can, they win every single time,” she says. “Once they grasp that concept, it makes me very proud.”

This pride manifests itself at the end of every full-ensemble rehearsal when the corps takes part in one of Jackson’s favorite traditions: forming a circle and singing battle hymns together to celebrate the end of a hard day’s work. “We have become a cohesive unit,” Jackson says.

From nurse to volunteer to corps director, Jackson’s own evolution has led her to realize and share an important life lesson. “I always tell my students to trust their journeys,” she says. “If you’re going down a path in your life, and there’s a crossroads, and it’s been tough, make sure you continue to move forward.”

A photo of Holly Marino and Don Derisi.Making a Musical Family
Holly Marino
Executive Director of Fusion Drum and Bugle Core

Some of Holly Marino’s favorite memories come from family car rides. “My husband and I are both horn players, and our kids are drummers,” she says. “We’d be in the car, and I’d be singing my parts. My daughter who was a snare drummer would be playing her part on the back of the seat. Those memories are priceless.”

Fusion Drum and Bugle Core, founded by Marino, her husband, and some friends in 2007, is an all-age drum corps in Morris County, New Jersey, competing in the Drum Corps Associates (DCA) circuit. In DCA ensembles, entire families can march together. “My daughter met her husband in Fusion,” Marino says. “We have our assistant drum major marching with her son. It’s beautiful.”

According to Marino, family was one of the major inspirations behind the founding of Fusion Core. Marino was proud to have four of her six children march in Fusion. “[The kids] were part of the reason why we wanted to start Fusion,” Marino says. “We wanted to make sure it was a place where people’s kids could march.”

Years ago, DCA used to be considered a senior corps association, intended for musicians who had aged out of DCI. Now, DCA groups are considered to be all-age corps—and Fusion is no exception. “The youngest [member] is 15,” Marino says. “The oldest is my husband, and he’s 56.”

Marino’s husband, Ralph, also works as an administrator for Fusion in addition to being a member.

At the Core

When naming Fusion Core, Marino decided to use a play on words, intentionally incorporating a different spelling of the word “corps.” “You’ll always have your core members,” she says. “The core is the center of everything. In every organization, there is a center that is the strength, and we all build on that.”

Music has been a core and central part of Marino’s life since childhood when a youth drum corps provided her with friendship and security. “I came from a broken family, which was odd back in the ’70s,” Marino says. “My parents were divorced, and my mother didn’t speak English. I was very lonely.”

When one of Marino’s close friends joined the St. Ignatius Girls Drum and Bugle Corps, which was part of their church, Marino decided to join as well. Marino started off playing trumpet, then switched to mellophone, which remains her main instrument today.

When Marino was in high school, St. Ignatius Girls changed its name to New Image Drum and Bugle Corps and started accepting boys. “That’s where I met my husband,” she says.

After finding her own family through drum corps, Marino now treats the members of Fusion as her family as well. “I love them like they were my own kids,” she says. “It’s so important to care and for people to know [they’re] cared for.”

Part of that family dynamic involves getting to know corps members individually, regardless of position or hierarchy. “So many people come into the drum corps, and they’ll say, ‘I’ve never seen so many members feel so comfortable speaking with the director,’” she says. “Why shouldn’t they feel comfortable speaking with the director?”

Caring Instinct

Before founding Fusion Core, Marino was a stay-at-home parent but now works for an optometrist’s office. Even though being director of Fusion Core is a volunteer position, Marino makes it her top priority. “I work three days a week [at the optometrist], so I can dedicate the other time to Fusion,” she says.

As a woman leading a drum corps, Marino has always played to her strengths. She regularly uses the caring instinct she feels as a mom to make sure all corps members are taken care of.

“We want to make sure they get water breaks, put on sunscreen, have enough time to eat,” she says. “It’s easy in this activity to pass by those things.”

Marino encourages other young women to join drum corps and seek out leadership positions.

“I would advise a woman to observe, ask questions, offer to help wherever was needed,” Marino says. She should also “have a voice and believe in herself!”

Further Reading

Hear from another female drum corps leader. Read a Q&A with Vicki Ferrence Ray, executive director of Youth Education in the Arts!, along with Scott Litzenberg, director of The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps in our “Direct From” department.

Also, read more about the accomplishments and goals of the IN STEP: Women of DCI initiative.

Photo of Kathy Black courtesy of Drum Corps International.
Photo of Vicki McFarlane courtesy of Douglas Gardner.
Photo of Kristy Jackson with 2018 drum major Gabe Gallegos courtesy of Michael Gough, Troopers Drum and Bugle Corps.
Photo of Holly Marino with Don Derisi, an original member of Fusion Core, courtesy of Louis Cela.

About author

Savy Leiser

Savy Leiser is a Chicago-based author, journalist, and freelance editor. In addition to writing for Halftime Magazine, she is the author of the “Furever Home Friends” children’s book series. Savy graduated in 2015 from Northwestern University, where she was a member of the Wildcat Marching Band. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Writing and Publishing at DePaul University.

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