Fanfare: The First pit performer and the birth of the pit
Tom Scheffler marched Guardsmen from 1977 through 1980. He contributed the following fascinating memoirs, from the perspective of being the very first pit percussionist in DCI history.
“Pit Stop: A Front ensemble primer” (Fanfare: April 27, 2004) did a very good job of illustrating the difficulties of marching with a xylophone or timpani strapped to one’s back. Someone finally realized the folly of marching with such heavy instruments. As a drum corps member who was personally involved in the birth of the pit, I can fill in the history of exactly how and when this happened.
In 1978, sweeping DCI rules changes allowed the marching members of a corps to start the show anywhere on the competition field. Previously, a corps had to start its show behind the starting line, which, from 1974 to 1977, had been the back sideline of the field. As a side effect of this 1978 rule change, percussion instruments could be parked on the field for the entire show, though few corps took advantage of this at first. (See the 1978 DCI Legacy DVD.)
After playing bass drum with the Guardsmen in 1977, I decided to move up to timpani in 1978. Why would I want to march around with one of those things? Because I thought it was a cool instrument, and I noticed that timpani players got a lot more camera time than bass drummers did on the annual DCI finals telecast.
After finishing out of the finals in 1977, Guardsmen got off to a very slow start in the winter of 1977-1978. Twenty horn players and a handful of drummers were showing up for rehearsals. I would have no problem auditioning for timpani. I was the only member who wanted to play it. Our drum instructor, James Campbell, was already thinking about stationing one timpanist at the front of the field, especially after he heard about the Racine Kilties recent purchase of a set of orchestral pedal timpani. Years later, James was part of the creative team that put together The Cavaliers legendary 1985 “Planets” show.
By the spring of 1978, we did manage to patch together a shaky marching timpani line. When the season began, we got our first look at the Kilties brand new set of beautiful copper pedal timpanis. The pit was born. The 1978 Racine Kilties have the honor of being the first drum corps to use concert pedal timpani on the competition field.
After watching us struggle at the beginning of the 1978 season, James decided that marching timpani lines were hardly worth bothering with, now that there was a better alternative. In June, he made a major show change that turned out to be a compromise approach.
We continued to march with our timps during the first part of the show, but then for the rest of the show, I played all four timps at the front of the field, while my fellow timpanists were moved to cymbals. When we changed our closer to “Greensleeves” in mid-season, I also got to play a set of chimes. And I didn’t even have to march around with them! They were set up on a green wooden stand at the front of the field. Check out the 1978 Guardsmen on DVD. We finished in 11th place, and I got plenty of camera time.
The Kilties were the only corps in 1978 to use pedal timpani. Only one other DCI corps took advantage of the new rule and used stationary timpani during the entire show. That corps was the 27th Lancers, who came up with a very creative concept, using two timpanists on the front sideline, each stationed on opposite 40-yard lines, twenty yards apart, each playing sets of three hand-cranked timps. At times they played in unison, sometimes they played different parts, and it created an interesting stereo effect. Listen to the 1978 27th Lancers.
Other 1978 corps, such as the Bridgemen and North Star, set their timpani down at various points in their shows, more than they had done in prior years. The new rules also allowed a corps to have up to four players on mallet keyboard instruments, although no one was setting them down yet in 1978.
As odd as it sounds now, the 1978 experiments in grounded percussion were considered a failure at the time. In 1979, the Kilties went back to using a marching timpani line. So did the 27th Lancers. Only Jim Campbell decided to continue down the path to the pit. The Guardsmen were the only 1979 DCI Finalist that didn’t have a marching timpani line. We still had a marching mallet line, with two xylophones, bells, and a very heavy marching vibraphone.
In my new job of multipercussionist, I stood alone at the front of the field, playing timpani, congas, chimes, and various percussion toys. I was the only full-time “pit” percussionist in the entire 1979 DCI Finals. I was joined by xylophone player David Sander during our “Greensleeves” closer. He played a beautiful four-mallet accompaniment part on a concert marimba stationed at the front of the field. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time that a full-sized concert marimba was played in a drum corps competition.
A few other corps did use a bit of grounded percussion in 1979. During Phantom Regiment’s “Malambo” number, one of their drum majors briefly played a gong that had been preset along the back sideline. And when the Cavaliers played “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” a mallet player took off his marching xylophone and played a set of chimes that were parked at the front of the field. But the 27th Lancers still had someone marching around the field carrying their traditional set of marching chimes.
The Guardsmen didn’t have concert pedal timpani, so I had to hand-crank a set of fiberglass marching timpani that were set up at the front of the field. Even with tuning gauges, it was tough to play in tune if I had a lot of fast changes to make by myself. If you listen to the 1979 Guardsmen, you will hear what I mean. I really could have used a set of pedal timpani!
Today, we take stationary percussion for granted, but in 1979 we encountered resistance from every direction. Many people in drum corps thought it was a bad idea. And the instruments got in the way, since they had to be on the field, not over the sideline. At a spring rehearsal, a member of our rifle squad insisted that one of my drums was in her drill spot. During the 1979 season, a percussion analysis judge told us he was giving us a lower score because, “It’s easier for one person to play timpani than it is to get a timpani line to play well.”
On the strength of our great horn line, the Guardsmen finished 7th in 1979, and other corps began to notice what we were doing. For the 1980 season, the DCI champion Blue Devils bought a gorgeous set of concert pedal timpani, and the days of marching timps were numbered. Other corps who couldn’t afford pedal timpani did the same thing we did, setting up their old marching timps at the front of the field and leaving them on the ground for the whole show.
Many corps realized the advantages of not fielding a marching timpani line. They could shift personnel to other sections of the corps. That’s why grounded timpani led the march to the pit. The two greatest marching timpani lines in DCI, the Santa Clara Vanguard and the Phantom Regiment, were holdouts for a while, but in 1981, Santa Clara began using pedal timpani, and Phantom did in 1982.
By 1981, many corps set up their marching xylophones on instrument stands at the front of the field, and the corps with deeper pockets started buying concert marimbas and vibraphones. The Cavaliers even put a jazz drum kit on the sideline. In an effort to ease the congestion at the front of the field, DCI established the “pit” area in 1982. The percussionists got their own place, out of the way of the horn lines and color guards.
The last remaining holdout -- the last major corps to field a marching timpani line -- was the 27th Lancers. This corps, who had been one of the first to experiment with stationary timpani in 1978, was still using a marching timpani line through the 1983 season.
By the time I started playing timpani in 1978, we didn’t have to tune a timp by counting the turns of the crank. Tuning gauges were in widespread use by 1974. That’s one reason why the timpani line of the 1974 Kingsmen sounded so great.
Tuning gauges were mounted just below the rim of the drum. A spring-loaded mechanism made a needle point higher or lower as the drumhead got tighter or looser. Before a show, an instructor would tune a timp to every pitch needed, one at a time, and mark the precise spot where the needle was pointing for each note. Then, during the show, a player would crank until the needle was on “C,” for example, before playing his next note. It wasn’t a perfect system, but the best players and instructors knew how to make it work. Just listen to Phantom Regiment or Santa Clara from the late 1970s.
In their day, the best marching timpani lines played very intricate parts, similar to a bass drum line, but with a lot of tuning changes between notes. It took four or five players to play all those notes, and some players would be retuning while someone else was playing. It was an art form of a bygone, backbreaking era.
I was lucky enough to be there at that moment in history when one era was ending and another was just beginning. In four short years, the “pit” evolved from a radical idea in 1978 to the establishment of a whole new section of the corps, the front ensemble.
When I watch the amazing pit players of today, I sometimes think back to 1979, when I was the only full time “pit” percussionist in any DCI corps. Of all the percussionists who performed in the 1979 DCI finals, I was the only one who had the luxury of just playing, without having to march around with any heavy equipment. I had no drill to march. It was a radical idea that we now take for granted.
Michael Boo has been involved with drum and bugle corps since 1975, when he marched his first of three seasons with the Cavaliers.
He has a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in music theory and composition.
He has written about the drum corps activity for over a quarter century for publications such as Drum Corps World, and presently is involved in a variety of projects for Drum Corps International, including souvenir program books, CD liner notes, DCI Update and Web articles, and other endeavors.
Michael currently writes music for a variety of idioms, is a church handbell and vocal choir director, an assistant director of a community band, and a licensed Realtor in the state of Indiana. His other writing projects are for numerous publications, and he has published an honors-winning book on the history of figure skating.
His hobbies include TaeKwonDo and hiking the Indiana Dunes.
But more than anything, Michael is proud to love drum corps and to be a part of the activity in some small way, chronicling various facets of each season for the enjoyment of others.