Matt Harloff joined the Carolina Crown staff as Brass Caption head in 2003, already with multiple I.S.S.M.A. State marching championships to his credit as director of the Avon Marching Black and Gold.  Harloff grew up in Iowa, but has close family connections to the Tri-State as his father, Bill Harloff, directed the Mt. Vernon Wildcat Band for many years as the family relocated to Mt. Vernon in 1991.

Matt Harloff attended Indiana University and marched with Star of Indiana from 1989-1993, winning the DCI championship in 1991, was drum major in 1993, and then continued with the corps in 1994-95 away from competition as they introduced the “brass theater” concept that eventually evolved into the Tony award-winning Broadway show “Blast!”

As Brass Caption head of Carolina Crown, Harloff’s brass lines have been nearly invincible in recent years, winning an unprecedented six High Brass awards in the past decade (2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016, and 2017)  culminating in Crown’s first DCI championship in 2013.

One of our headliner corps for 2019, Carolina Crown last performed at Drums on the Ohio in July 2002, the same year that many of tonight’s performers were born. That night Crown finished third behind Boston Crusaders and Spirit of Atlanta, and was the only season the corps has missed finals in two decades. The next season, 2003, found a new musical arranger and brass staff that would build Carolina Crown into one of the world’s most iconic corps, a consistently entertaining crowd favorite, while always evolving and pushing the activity to even greater heights.

We spoke to Matt Harloff about returning to his first Drums on the Ohio since the 1990’s, building that championship “Crown Sound” with his team and best friends, and his advice for young musicians interested in drum corps.

DOTO:  As a performer, do you have any memories of marching in Reitz Bowl with Star of Indiana?

MH: 1989 was my first year in Star, and I did all of the drum corps years after that, plus a couple of the years that they started the indoor project. I’m not sure if we came to the show every year, maybe we did. I do remember it being a very fun show to perform, because as a member of a drum corps, when you’re in that stadium, facing “the wall” and the sound comes back at you…that is always a thrill, for anybody, really, whether it is in a marching band or a drum corps. I also vaguely remember that you have to go up a steep hill to finally get into the stadium there, and it can be a little confusing to the performer because you’re not exactly sure, when you look up, where the press box is, so you just point ultimately up at the school.

My other memories at Reitz Bowl are really more of helping my dad’s band (Mt. Vernon HS) …going in  and watching Jasper, watching Reitz, watching those bands in the early 1990’s. I would come back from Indiana University on the weekends to help my dad, and was very impressed with those marching bands and learning the “Indiana marching band way” and how awesome these bands are. So from being a fan and an observer, I probably have more memories of Reitz Bowl from that, than as a performing member of Star.

DOTO: This season marks your 17th year with the brass line of Carolina Crown. In an activity where staff often play musical chairs from one corps to another, what has kept you coming back to Crown year after year?

MH: The simple answer is the number one reason you do drum corps – and that’s people. You want to be around great people, and that’s what makes drum corps so special. It made it special when I marched, and of course my time here with Carolina Crown. You are with great people.

I’m certainly fortunate enough to have had a great relationship with Jim Coates, Kevin Smith, and the administration of Carolina Crown, we’ve been very fortunate to be great friends. In terms of evaluating the brass program, we’ve always tried to keep the program moving forward, and with them they believe that we’re doing a great job, and they keep asking us back!

But I will also say this: Crown has built a family culture that is very welcoming, they have built a culture of making it feel very comfortable, and I think that also plays into it.

I also have to say, working with Michael Klesch, the arranger for Crown brass and the musical director for Carolina Crown – that is something that has been a lot of fun, we’ve been able to work together and know each other well now for many years. 

It’s the teamwork, that we were taught by the same people, the people who taught me at Star, Donnie van Doren and Jim Prime, taught Michael at the Cadets when he marched in the early 80’s, so we were brought up from the same program, from the same foundation. When that team came together, we were able to be successful. Then it’s just a matter of developing the kids, having the kids come back, all of what goes into develop and build the program.

But if you had told me back in 2003, that in 2019 Crown brass would be what it is today, I would have said “no way.”  I would have had no idea that we could have achieved that. The main motivation (in 2003) was that I wanted to work with Michael Klesch. I wanted to work with Jim Coates. I wanted to work with the staff that was there at the time. It’s all about the people. If you’re around your best friends, that makes it special.

DOTO: You mentioned the likes of Donnie van Doren and Jim Prime mentoring you and Michael Klesch. As an educator, how do take that next step mentoring the next generation? 

MH: I try to make summers memorable & special for kids. We try to make the members as great and as close to perfect as possible, but more importantly they enjoy each other and the experience performing in front of incredible fans.

I guess the answer is, I’m only doing what I’ve been taught. The foundation of what they taught me, not only in terms of a foundation of brass pedagogy, a foundation of ensemble brass playing, they certainly taught me a technique that I have passed on to the next generation of kids. But also a foundation of –doing whatever it takes to be successful at whatever you want to do. So the lessons that are learned in drum corps are lessons that can be applied in life.

Thom Hannum told me one time, if there was a law In America that made every young person do drum corps for a summer, how different our country would be…and he was absolutely right! Just the discipline, the work ethic, putting yourself through situations that not so many people would want to be in.  For example, this past week at Crown it was pretty warm outside! But yet they are out there, we are taking care of them, there’s plenty of people there to make sure they are healthy…but they are out there, and they are doing whatever it takes to be as great as they possibly can be.

And for me, it’s come full circle as my son is in Crown this year. Seeing him go through all this, one of the things I always think about is:  this is going to help him be successful in whatever he wants to do.

DOTO: How have you developed the brass program through the years, and developed that Crown Sound?

MH: When I get the question about “how do you create that sound?” I think it all goes back to what I said about working with Michael Klesch. It’s how we were taught, where we came from, number one. Number two, it’s Michael’s writing. You mentioned the musical chairs that sometimes goes on in the world of drum corps; I’m not sure if our brass team went somewhere else with a different writer, would we still create that sound?  I’m not sure that answer is yes. Or when Michael says, “you know, I’ve had a great career, I’m going to retire” and someone else comes in, but we’re still at Crown…we don’t know what would happen.

Ultimately I think the combination of our fundamental program, the method of which we teach, along with Michaels writing, it’s just a team effort. It’s a lot of people with great expertise that come in and make Crown what it is, it’s not just Michael, it’s not just me…it’s the whole staff, it’s Jim Coates, it’s the Yamaha corporation with the instruments, it’s being set up with our drill, it’s all of that that goes into that Crown sound.

But getting back to the question, our first priority was to get people to come back. When we started with Crown, the goal was to make finals. That was the goal. Then we started trying to go up the ladder, and it was fun doing all of that, but we just wanted to keep getting better than the year before. That became the goal. And ultimately, to build the program we needed kids to come back, instead of going to, say, the Cavaliers. In those early 2000’s the Cavaliers were a very well-known dynasty, and it was a goal for a lot of kids to be a Cavalier, and being from the eastern part of the country, a lot of kids would do a year or two at Crown and then go to the Cavaliers. So we knew things like that would happen, and of course they did, but we wanted to keep as many members in the brass line as possible.

And the more we were able to retain, the faster we were able to build the program. That was certainly a goal of ours, and it took us a while to do that, but then again maybe it didn’t… (laughs) I guess to some it didn’t take us very long to build the program! So that was our goal. And we remember one year, I can’t remember what year it was, but we knew we made a big stride when a kid who had marched Cavaliers came to Crown that year. (laughs) We were like “all right, we’re doing something right!”  

And after that, it’s all about continuing to develop players, our fundamental program continues to evolve, and then we ask ourselves, “what’s the next thing we can we do?”  “What’s something different that we can do?” That’s where we are now…“what can we do that has never been done before?” We ask ourselves those questions every single year. And honestly, it’s hard. 

DOTO: Was there a moment that stands out, maybe the championship in 2013, where you sat back and thought “we really have a great thing going here”?

MH: You know, every year is special, you can’t say whether you are successful competitively, or not…this year you win, this year you didn’t, whatever. But every year is special, the kids are great, being with the people is always great. But I’m not sure that there was a year where we were like, “wow, we really made it!” (laughs) I guess we always just try to keep moving forward and keep getting better.

I mean, obviously, we would have goals, we certainly had competitive goals, and always our goal was to be as good as we possibly can.  But as you build, we said “well, let’s see if we can be 10th in brass.” There was one time I remember where we said, okay, now this year let’s see if the brass line could finish at the same placement as the corps finished.  I remember that was one goal, being like “hey, the corps is going to finish 7th, wouldn’t it be nice if the brass can finish 7th, instead of 8th or 9th or 10th.” And then after that we made top five, then I think we were third one time, and then it became the goal to see if we can win the Jim Ott memorial plaque, let’s see if we can do that?  So it was always “what’s next?” What’s the next thing, and what’s the next thing after that?  So I guess maybe someday when I’m walking around Disneyworld and I’m tired, maybe it will hit me like “hey, wow, we did some great things!” (laughs) But ultimately I know we are doing great things, because we are giving kids experiences and memories that will last a lifetime. And that will just keep going, we will just keep doing that.

DOTO: As we’ve brought back and built up Drums on the Ohio, we’ve worked on a number of education outreach events for students that are interested in the marching activity, from the color guard clinic, national anthem performance, immersive side-by-side drum corps experiences…what advice would you give young musicians interested in drum corps?

MH: Take advantage of as many opportunities as you can playing your instrument. Indiana has so many different things to offer students, whether it is the certainly incredible marching band activity we have…but then there’s All-state, solo & ensemble, the jazz bands, the concert bands. Basketball in Indiana is king, so do basketball pep band!  I would encourage students to get into private lessons and play as much as they possibly can.

If they are interested in being a part of a drum corps, being in marching band is very important, because you ultimately have to know how to play and move. But first and foremost, play as much as you can, private lessons, be a part of solo & ensemble, part of the concert band, all of that, play in your church if you want…just play as much as you possible can.

And then after that, what drum corps do you want to go to?  And what can you afford? That’s another big one. Being here, it’s probably hard to fly to the west coast because of expenses and such. What drum corps do you want to try out for? Try out, and keep trying out, keep playing, keep playing on the move, and experience as many musical things as you possibly can.  Eventually if they are determined enough, they will find a drum corps home.

And I would strongly recommend it. As an activity, my own son is a part of it. I’ve been a part of it.  It’s an activity that is worth it. After going through the activity, you learn so much that you can take and apply to the rest of your life. It’s extremely special. And above all, you will end up having a group of people and friends that you will have for the rest of your life.