What makes The Blue Devils the winningest drum corps? How does the business operate? What are some of the corps’ philosophies? Halftime Magazine interviewed David Gibbs, executive director of The Blue Devils, for “Direct From” in our July/August 2008 print issue. Here are more of his comments.
Halftime Magazine: Why did you decide to become a director? How long have you been a director?
Gibbs: There was no real decision actually. The director before me decided to retire—it was a little bit of a surprise, last minute around Christmas time. He came to me and said, “We’d like to have you be director of the corps.” I had a few days to think about it, and I decided to go for it, do it for a little while.
Halftime: What have been some of The Blue Devils’ accomplishments while you have been there?
Gibbs: I’m very proud of a few things, one being the well-rounded experience the kids get while they’re here. The well-rounded experience means that they leave a much better person and leave with skills they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. These kids are getting experiences at our organization that they couldn’t get anywhere else. I’m very proud of that.
In terms of the business aspect of the organization, we’ve worked hard to establish the business and some depth to it, so it can withstand hard times. We’ve got a pretty good infrastructure. We’ve built The Blue Devils into a powerful brand.
I’m proud of the breadth of our organization and the impact it has not just locally, not just in the United States, but worldwide.
Halftime: You mentioned that kids leave the corps with an experience and skills that they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Can you expand on that?
Gibbs: In life, there are not a lot of group activities. In sports, there are a few. Not everybody’s the quarterback on a football team; they’re cornerback and wide receiver and do different things. In this activity they all have to perform and achieve at the same place. In this world, where they have to achieve, they’re very much changed people when they leave. They really do achieve excellence. So much in life people try just to make a dollar and not make a mistake and don’t’ take risks.
They’re going to be people in job environments that know how to work with each other, work in a team environment. They’ll learn how to have successes and also to live with failures. They learn how to lose. They don’t win every show. They learn how to pick themselves up.
Competition is a dirty word sometimes. It’s not the end-all, but it’s a good way to teach kids.
Halftime: How is the corps this year different than past years? Were there a lot of age-outs?
Gibbs: We don’t really reflect on that too much. We take the group we get. We always get a very high talent group each year. There are different strengths and weaknesses each year.
Everything’s our strength this year. Our color guard comes in strong; percussion is as good as ever. Brass is as good as ever. The kids are totally professional. Our strengths are pretty much across the board. It’s hard to find weakness.
Halftime: What is the first thing you say to your corps this year? Do you bring up last year’s championship?
Gibbs: We move on. We talk about the history. We show them last year’s video, what those kids go through, what they achieved. It’s different people wearing the blue uniform this year.
The first thing I tell them about is two things: one, they have choices in life, and two, they have responsibilities in life. It’s their choice how they approach the year. They can choose to be positive; they can choose to be negative. They made a choice to be here, and they’ve got to continue making good choices. There’s no finger-pointing anywhere but in. Make the right choices.
The other thing is responsibility for themselves and responsibility for the performers next to the them, responsibility to the people there for them [and] their responsibility to the history and The Blue Devils.
Those are the two things I try to tell them right off the bat. The talent level isn’t the issue, and I’m confident that my staff can teach them. That’s what I tell them every year.
Halftime: What are some of The Blue Devils’ unique traditions?
Gibbs: We don’t have traditions. Our tradition is to be the best performing group in the world. I tell my kids every year that every corps is different. To model themselves around how the corps was last year does this year a disservice. It’s a different group, and you’re going to have a different way of motivating and inspiring themselves.
Our philosophy is that we want each of these kids to reach their full potential. Some programs, some sports will work toward the median, where some kids go up, some go down. For us, we like to work towards the highest level there is. We’re not going to box them in; we want them to be individuals. They’re all going be able to be their own individual performers, and we’ll see what their potential is.
They all have their unique traditions and they change year to year. We are real. We’re real performers, and we’re going to be real that year.
You’ll know that it’s The Blue Devils because of how they perform. It’s how they’re going to identify The Blue Devils.
Halftime: How have you made the Blue Devils run more like a business rather than depending on donations and event fundraisers?
Gibbs: We’ve done a lot of things because of the cost of running these kinds of organizations is so expensive. When I came in 1991, I think there was one person writing checks and one Mac computer. My first year, everyone quit on me. The good and bad thing of that was that I did everything. At the end of the summer, I was so sick I was in bed for a week. The good was I learned the business. I learned everything. Now they’re doing it the way I created it. Now we’re lucky to have bingo, but it’s gone down, so we’ve had to go to some other things. We used to own our own buses; we could have gone into the bus business, but we decided that’s not what we’re good at.
What we’re good at is entertaining; we’re good at brand recognition. So BD Entertainment came about. We were able to give our staff and kids the opportunity to make some money and make some for the organization.
We’re getting involved with developing products that will be The Blue Devils product line. That should be some money making for us. We’re looking for some ways to develop bingo. Bingo’s a big business. We developed an infrastructure that is efficient. I want to soak in money to the kids, not admin costs. We’re constantly looking at new ways to make money as well as performing arts and education.
Halftime: Do you have any advice for other directors and corps?
Gibbs: The corps directors that are out there doing their jobs right now are amazing people. They sacrifice so much. They’re on the road for the whole summer; they put their own money into it. They take care of the kids.
I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to tell anybody any advice because they’re already doing it. Keep it in perspective, especially from the competition perspective. It’s important that your life is balanced in order to give your all to the organization you’re a part of. You’re the guy on the ground holding up a whole building. All the talent and amazing volunteers need as much support as you can give them.
Halftime: Who/what inspires you?
Gibbs: What inspires me or motivates me is knowing the responsibilities I have to the activity and to The Blue Devils. I have a responsibility to the people that came before me; I have responsibility to my 5-year-old and 7-year-old. So, I guess I get inspired by the obligation of it all. I get inspired when I watch the [corps] or watch my kids watch it. It rekindles my passion to see that, “Wow, it is still a very cool thing.”
Halftime: To what do you attribute the corps’ recent success?
Gibbs: It is great kids and amazing talent. It is a staff that, in my opinion, is leaps and bounds the best in the world. If you add up all the experience in that staff and how they don’t panic when things go astray. I just think last year everything came together at the right time in the right place. I think the maturity of the organization—the kids, the staff, the volunteers, the board. Everybody knows their roles. We did a lot of prep coming into last year, creating the Stanford show and the championship show.
Halftime: What’s your favorite memory with The Blue Devils?
Gibbs: Last year was pretty memorable. There’s been such a variety of memories. As a year that sticks out, last year is it. Our 50th anniversary, championships in California, having all the alumni and your friends there. It was this all-out uninhibited support for us. That year probably won’t be able to be matched.
The other memories are fairly general in nature. Watching the success of the kids. Watching the families who have marched have kids in the corps. Being able to do it all with The Blue Devils, from marching to teaching to leading is pretty special.
Halftime: What has drum corps taught you?
Gibbs: So many things that I can’t even boil it down into a few years. I’ve been a part of it forever, so we’re kind of intertwined.
I was always fairly dependent, but as a member, drum corps matured me and gave me confidence. It gave me a purpose and a passion for what I’m doing.
As I grew into the teaching stage, it taught me a lot about how to communicate and teach better. You never stop growing. It’s the importance of what we do with The Blue Devils and what we do with the kids. Leading the corps and leading the organization really taught me a lot. At this stage in the game, it’s taught me to be an entrepreneur, multitasking and handling a lot of different situations.
Being a drum corps director, you have to do everything. You have to know food, web pages, marketing, PR, teaching, writing drills, pretty much every aspect. You have to fundraise, be a nonprofit. It’s taught me to be patient and multitask.
It’s shown me how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing and making a difference in kids’ lives.
Photo courtesy of Drum Corps International. All rights reserved.