DCI & WGI: 5 Tips for Making the Cut – Mindsets to get you through audition camp weekend and back for the next

Photo: Connie Chioda

You’re in a room full of strangers, and everyone wants the same spot. Rather than dwelling on the 100 things that may sink you to the bottom, here are 5 things that will help you rise to the top.

Auditions are a rite of passage for every musician. All those hours of practice are eventually put to the test, and you’re asked to showcase your abilities and potential with the goal of being selected. In this post, I offer 5 tips for those traveling to Winter Guard International (WGI) and Drum Corps International (DCI) auditions this winter. From the perspective of a former participant to eventual caption head, here are some thoughts that may be helpful for students to read while traveling, and for teachers to share with their students.

This is a very broad piece of advice, but an appropriate starting point as it’s perhaps the most important. There are multiple facets to the audition process that require you to “prepare,” but to begin, I’m specifically talking about preparing the audition material.

Simply put, memorize your music. Memorizing music requires time and repetition, both of which reflect your ability to prioritize and take care of business independently. It also frees up your mental ability to focus on the real work that should be taking place at camp, which is receiving instruction, performing in the moment, and adjusting your habits. Instead of constantly looking down, or “sort of knowing the music,” having all the warm-ups, etudes, and music memorized will allow you to execute. “Perform” rather than “Play.”

It’s natural to feel nervous, but realize that everyone wants to see you play your best. In fact, the staff and the vets are rooting for you! Vets want to stand next to people they consider peers, and staff members are looking for the best of the best. Approach the camp with attitude that says you’re there to display how much your musicianship can contribute to the ensemble.

If you have any feelings of doubt, start by giving yourself the credit you deserve and recognizing all the experience you’ve accumulated over the years. This doesn’t mean being over-confident or cocky, but rather, conveying a sense of comfort and ease in what you do. Your body language speaks volumes about how you feel, so stand up straight, make eye contact, and go for it without fear.

One of the best pieces of advice my teacher gave me in high school was, “When a staff member is looking down the line, if you look like you belong there, that’s one less person they have to worry about.” The vets will look confident and so should you. Some students wait until making the cut, the first lot warm-up, or even Finals Week to realize that they belong there. Don’t do that. Realize that you’re a bada** now, and present the best of what you have to offer.

“Please” and “Thank you” go a long way.

Whether intentional or unintentional, every interaction you have with someone is making an impression. Being polite is a quick win for everyone and an easy way to make sure you’re leaving a positive impression on the number of people you’ll be meeting throughout the audition process.

People in the know realize that it takes a village to make things happen behind the scenes, many of whom are volunteers. Countless hours have been spent preparing for the weekend, from housing sites logistics and equipment setup, to food prep – the list goes on and on.

So make it a point to be appreciative and thankful as soon as you arrive, starting at the registration table, during informational meetings, and walking through the food line. Audition weekend is about displaying your musical chops as well as your interpersonal skills. “Please” and “Thank you” go a long way.

Drum Corps is about discovering and growing a better version of you – You 2.0. Realize your potential of being not just a great musician, but a great person. Imagine the impression you’re making from other people’s perspective. Are you the kind of person people want to have in their organization?

The approach to playing may be different. Music will change. Drill will be added to the music. In short, a lot of learning is taking place during and between camps. During auditions, staff members take snapshots of your performance: they assess what you’re doing, diagnose how you can improve, and give feedback on how you can go about doing so. Over time, these samples reflect to what extent your habits are changing. In other words, your ability to improve by applying the information you’re receiving informs the staff members how teachable you are.

This is especially difficult considering the number of people auditioning and the limited amount of time they have to zoom in on each player. Your goal is to take the information and adapt quickly. Are you able to take the information and adjust your habit, or are you being told the same comment multiple times in a row?

A strategy you can use is to create a mental checklist. Each time you receive a comment, put it on your mental checklist. As you perform, you scroll through the checklist and remind yourself to make that adjustment. “Stand up straight.” Confirm you are standing up straight, then move on to the next item: “Put your beads together in the center of the drum.” Check. Move on to the next item, “Balance to the player next to me.” When you reach the end of your list, cycle back to the top and repeat. Once you are consistently demonstrating the habit as you scroll through the checklist, you may move it down and prioritize another comment to the top of the list. If I receive a comment from a staff member more than once, you can bet that comment is moved straight to the top of the mental checklist.

Everyone is trying to improve, and you will be making many corrections over the weekend to embody the approach and style of the group. How well you adapt is key, and more importantly, how much independent learning and correcting is taking place reflects your maturity. It’s very telling for a teacher to see a student catch themselves and self-correct.

Mature musicians listen and adjust how they play depending on the room, instrument, and players around them. Things that prevent change may include perception, ability, attitude, etc. Do everything you can to show you can adapt and improve, and that you are taking incremental steps towards becoming the archetype member.

Pro Tip: Keep a notebook. At the end of each block, write down your big takeaways. You will be learning more than you can remember, and writing them down is a way of having something to come back to and reinforce your mental checklist. If you get a specific individual comment, that should definitely be written down in your notebook.

I’ll keep this one short. The summer is a long grind, and members need mental tenacity and grit to keep up. Your attitude is just as important, if not more so, than your playing ability. Nobody wants to be a Debbie Downer. Be optimistic with correcting your own problems. Tell people around you, “Good job.” Be upbeat and proactive when talking to the staff.

I was once told there are two types of people in the room: those who bring the vibe up, and those who bring it down. Those who can inspire confidence and bring out the best in the people around them are the ones that others gravitate towards. Be the kind of person other people want to be around for an entire summer.

Thanks for Reading
Hopefully you found some new information or reinforced what you already knew. What are your tips for a successful audition weekend? Share it in the comment section below.

If you enjoyed the post, please share it using the social media buttons at the bottom.

For a PDF of my mental audition checklist of all the things you should be thinking about in addition to the playing, check out: LESSON #19: IT’S ABOUT THE LITTLE THINGS 

Most importantly, best of luck to everyone with their upcoming auditions!


with Huei-Yuan Pan (7).png

Coaching you through what happens Before, During, and After auditions



About the Author
HP 2015.jpg

Huei-Yuan Pan is a Los Angeles based musician via Chicago, originally from Houston. His drum corps experience includes performing with the Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps (Snare, 2001) and The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps (Snare, 2002-2003; Front Ensemble, 2004). From 2008-2011, Huei served as Director and Arranger for Green Thunder Percussion, and in 2012-2013, Percussion Caption Head with Regiment. He is currently the Director of the Jumpstart Young Musicians Program at The Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles. For more on Huei, click here.



8 thoughts on “DCI & WGI: 5 Tips for Making the Cut – Mindsets to get you through audition camp weekend and back for the next

  1. I am not a former DCI member but am a former college 4 year drum line member. I am now an assistant professor of forensic science and microbiology. However, I follow DCI just because the talent, dedication, artistry and discipline of the corps members amazes me. What I also take away is that (if you exclude the specific references to learning the music) every single piece of advice given in Devon’s post is something I would communicate to my students no matter what their major or what career they are pursuing. It just goes to show how DCI builds important and relevant character and social skills that will last a lifetime. Being in DCI will help you in graduate or professional school, with interviewing, on the job working as part of a team, etc., etc. So best of luck to all of you. You are winners simply for auditioning!!!!


    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Amy. I really appreciate hearing the perspective of a musician who pursued a professional career in another discipline, but still speaks so passionately on the benefits and life lessons they took away from their participation in the arts. I agree that simply auditioning speaks volumes about a student.

      Thanks again for your words of encouragement and positive feedback!


  2. My name is Devon Koning. I marched for two years under Huei’s instruction at Phantom Regiment Drum & Bugle Corps in 2013/2014, and aged out in 2015 with the Bluecoats Drum & Bugle Corps. Huei thought I could add some insight from the perspective of a member, so I thought I would chime in with my thoughts and findings from my past four years of auditions. I have two insights that may be of assistance to anyone reading.

    The first is that you want to be the absolute best version of yourself. And when it comes to auditioning for drum corps, this does not simply mean being the strongest player. Drum corps is hard. It is monotonous, and it is mentally taxing. You will be practicing upwards of 14 hours a day perfecting the same 12 minute show, every single day, of every single week, for three months. Because of this, the staff is looking for the someone that is a pro BOTH on the field and off the field. They want to know if the positive attitude that you may or may not have during the 3-day audition camp will last for 3 months. They want to know that when the going gets tough, you will be mentally strong enough to keep pushing. Essentially what I am saying is the staff members are going to be gravitated to people they TRUST. So how do you make a staff member trust you? Simply put, be the absolute best at absolutely everything you do. Huei outlined very clearly what this means in terms of preparation and playing. I would add that this applies when the sticks are put away too:
    -How do you speak to the staff? Are you pessimistic and offended when receiving feedback or are you eager to improve?
    -How respectful are you to you to the vets/auditionees around you?
    -Do you listen intently to the staff when speaking or are you distracted or even worse distracting others?
    -Is your playing area/stand/drum/backpack neatly organized or does it look like how your room at home looks? Snare drummers in particular, this is very important. We love uniformity when we stack the drums, line up the stands, etc. Don’t be the odd one out who recklessly throws their equipment/belongings around.
    -Do you use your time wisely between blocks? Do you show up five minutes early padding before blocks or are you five minutes late because you were on the phone with your boyfriend/girlfriend?

    These may sound like little nit-picky things (they are) but this is what separates the leader from the herd. Just put yourself in the shoes of a staff member and ask yourself, “Would you want to contract yourself?”

    My second and final point plays off of the first, and may be an uncomfortable subject for some to act on, but I believe it is necessary to discuss. After auditioning for countless DCI/WGI groups over the years, I would be lying to you if I told you that politics and relationships don’t play a part (at least a small one) in who ends up making the cut. What I mean by this is that a lot of times staff members will allow certain attributes to enrich their preferences on members. Here are a few examples…
    -Have you auditioned in the past with the corps? Sometimes showing that you are a fighter and have come back after being told no, shows the staff that you are committed.
    -Have you had a lesson with/clinic with/school instructor as one of the staff members? Or heck even spoken to the staff before? This helps with name recognition and makes you more memorable to the staff in some cases.
    -Have you marched with/are good friends with one of the vets on the line? This is huge. Staff members as I said before want to trust you. You can safely bet that they will ask the vets opinion on the playing ability and chemistry/personality of the members.

    None of the above are negative/unethical/wrong, it is simply the nature of the activity. Staff members are trying to narrow down hundreds of applicants in a matter of hours. As I said before, it’s all about trust. How can you improve these (political/relationship-based) odds? Be assertive and don’t be afraid to speak with the staff. Don’t be timid or shy to make yourself known to the vets. Maybe eat at a meal with them (don’t worry vets love to talk about themselves and the corps to potential new members), or have them work with you before lights out on a pad on a certain lick or exercise. Try to find out what they look for in strong members, and try to mold yourself to that person. It’s all about putting your best foot forward.

    To sum up, nailing an audition is all about having the whole package. Playing ability, preparation, personality, attitude, and ability to adapt. It may sound daunting but if you simply remember that the staff WANTS you to succeed and see you be a BA, you can be that person with the whole package. On AND off the drum.

    PS: The best advice I’ve ever received about drumming/music (and life to be honest): when you are relaxing and procrastinating, someone out there is working hard, coming to take your spot (and glory). I think I heard Huei say this one a few times too ;)…..Get to work.

    Hope this was helpful. Best of luck at your auditions!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Devon, thanks for the EPIC post! The points you make reflect the depth of experience you’ve accumulated over the years – only one of the many reasons why you’re an archetype center snare.

      For those of you who haven’t met Devon, he’s one of the most talented and focused students I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. For a video of his 2014 Finals Snare Cam Run, as well as a rare photo of the PR snare line smiling 🙂 Click here: http://goo.gl/8Agq7w

      To connect with Devon, you can find him here:
      FB: @flamdrags http://goo.gl/vV5tfT
      IG: @dkkoning http://goo.gl/ji4gc4


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