One of the most anticipated storylines of 2024 in the drum corps world is the return of Santa Clara Vanguard after a one-year hiatus. Drum Corps International’s Dan Potter sat down with Vanguard CEO Russ Gavin during the DCI Annual Meeting early this January to learn more about what’s in store for the California corps in 2024. The following transcript of their conversation is lightly edited for length and clarity.
Dan Potter: Give us a little bit of context and help us remember: Why did Santa Clara
go inactive in 2023?
Russ Gavin: In December of 2022 our board of directors looked at the landscape in front of them and they knew they could not give the members in the activity the experience that Vanguard prides itself on. They made the decision to take a hiatus to get the affairs of the organization in order. It was important to make sure that the next time they took a step on the field, it was the Santa Clara Vanguard.
Potter: What's made the return to the field in 2024 possible?
Gavin: A lot of things around finances have been attended to. It was a culmination of years of transitions, overlapping COVID, overlapping turnover of personnel. It required a little bit of a focus on finances and the big picture of making sure that everything that goes into running a drum corps in 2024 could be done well, which requires the financial health that we've been working toward.
Potter: How about the staff and members? What are we going to see from Santa Clara in 2024?
Gavin: One of the coolest things about coming in at the time I have is that the staff of the Santa Clara Vanguard remains largely intact from what they were the last time they took the field. Working with our brilliant design team and our brilliant instructional staff has been a highlight of my time in the role, and it's a reminder that this is an organization that those people stayed committed to. They're coming at this season ready to give that amazing experience and that amazing product to the activity.
I do think that continuity of staff is an absolutely critical piece of what we're working toward, because if we didn't have that, it would just be different. It's why when I look at a student and they're talking to me about potentially becoming a member of the Santa Clara Vanguard in 2024, I say, “I envy you. You're going to get to learn from these people. You're going to get to perform this kind of a product with these elite artists. It's going to be an amazing experience for you. Come on down.” I envy them.
Potter: What has the audition process been like? What's the interest in members both returning and new?
Gavin: The audition cycle has been very healthy for us. We have seen a similar rate of interest as we saw going into last season. So coming out of the 2022 season, it's been relatively unaffected. We do have a number of veteran members who have come back. We have a lot of students who are coming to us from the Vanguard Cadets from 2022. I’m very excited that our drum major, who was the drum major of the Vanguard Cadets in 2022, will be our drum major for the “A” corps in 2024. We're seeing a lot of that love for the organization from the people who previously experienced it.
Potter: I know that you are out there communicating a lot with the public about Vanguard and about the rebuilding process. Where is the best place to get accurate information about the corps?
Gavin: If people go to our website, scvanguard.org, I would recommend they sign up for the “Vanguard Voice‚” our email newsletter. It gives both updates from me personally and general updates from the organization.
Potter: You are also the director of the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band. A band that was at one point suspended. That's when you took over and brought it back. Russ Gavin, you must just love big challenges.
Gavin: I like places where I believe I'm going to be able to have a positive impact. And in both of those instances, when I saw what was needed be at Stanford, be at Vanguard, and I thought about the skills that I possess, I imagined that I could be helpful. And at the end of the day, both of those entities provide young people amazing life experiences. It may look different in terms of the performance outcome, but it's really about providing a journey and an experience for people that they're not going to get anywhere else. And when we see that mission being underserved, that's what compels me to action.
Potter: What are those skills that you bring to this kind of situation?
Gavin: Patience. Tenacity. The ability to look at people and ask them, “What is success here? What are we doing? Why are we doing it?” A fresh outlook can be really helpful with that. Being able to come into situations as a new person with that energy of curiosity that leads to answers that hopefully lead to a higher level of success is what I try to bring.
Potter: Speaking of curiosity. You know how much Santa Clara Vanguard's fans love the corps and how deeply they cherish tradition and things like the cymbal line and the uniform. What can you tell us about what Santa Clara Vanguard is going to look like going forward?
Gavin: One of the benefits I have in this role is that I am a fan of the Santa Clara Vanguard. When I was 14 years old in Boston, Massachusetts, I was on about the 35-yard line when that drum corps hit the company front hit and played “The Great Gate of Kiev.” As I tell that story, I get goosebumps. I know that the Santa Clara Vanguard is giving that experience to fans all across the country. When I think about what we look like or traditions, to me, it's the tradition of giving people those goosebumps. It's a tradition of having an artistic or a musical experience that people don't even understand what just happened to them, but you provided it. To me, that's the number one tradition I'm thinking about. I know all the other things are a part of that, and it's something that's constantly being considered. But to me, that moment of indescribable feeling that the Vanguard was and has been known for providing people, that's what I'm obsessing over.