Drum Corps International
In Further praise of Sandra Opie

In Further praise of Sandra Opie

by Drum Corps International

You know it's a good day in the drum corps universe when you get two Michael Boo Fanfare columns in one day. Happy holidays, drum corps fans! Jeff Yeager marched in the Argonne Rebels from 1967 through 1974. He wrote me in response to a thread on Drum Corps Planet about Sandra Opie that I responded to. A previous Fanfare column titled "In Praise of Sandra Opie" ran on October 17, 2003. Here's some additional information on one of the most legendary instructors drum corps has even seen. Michael: I have just caught up with a thread on DCP entitled "Thanking Those Along the Way." Thanks for your kind comments regarding Sandra Opie. I thought you might enjoy some additional details. Your comments: "Sandy Opie: Her work as an arranger and horn technician lasted into the '70s, but she started getting attention prior to the formation of DCI with stellar horn lines she developed from scratch out of the little town of Argonne (actually Great Bend), Kan. Word is that she gave members private lessons in brass technique through the year. At the peak, her horn lines for Argonne Rebels were unstoppable." The Argonne Brass Legacy: Sandra assumed brass instruction duties with Argonne Rebels in late 1958. She is a graduate trumpet major from Wichita State University and studied trumpet under Raphael Mendez. She was, at some point, employed by United School District 428 in Great Bend, Kan., to teach vocal music in one of the junior high schools. I have heard repeatedly that her choirs were exceptional. I do not, however, recall that she was ever employed by the district to teach brass or instrumental music. Throughout the 1960s, a large number of kids from Great Bend and surrounding communities in Kansas took private brass lessons from Sandra. As this progression of kids entered the corps, the effects were dramatic. These kids were formally trained on symphonic brass instruments (not bugles) from a very young age. In my case, I started in the 6th grade. Some started earlier. Imagine the impact of learning from Sandra during the formative years -- and staying with her into college. In order to be accepted for lessons, you had to score 95 or higher on a music aptitude test. For Sandra, it was always about a music education and developing a life-long appreciation for music. It was not about pulling kids off the streets to keep them out of trouble. These kids had high musical aptitudes. By the time they were old enough to enter the corps, Sandra's students were versed on the importance of proper breath support and how to use their diaphragm in playing a brass instrument. They understood the impact of playing with a relaxed, wide-open throat. Each used the proper embouchure, keeping pressure off their upper lip. They knew the mechanics of a clean attack and how to release a tone without using their tongue. Over time, "Sandra's kids" could all use their ear -- and the techniques mentioned above -- to alter the pitch of their instruments on a note-by-note basis. It should be noted that overcoming the intonation problems related to the instruments of that era took incredible discipline and a high degree of musicianship, something that only a few horn lines were able to accomplish, and a problem that today's corps generally don't have to address. Many of the things that differentiated Argonne's horn lines from others took years to accomplish. One example was the "brass choir" tone quality that could only be achieved through years of playing together, with kids that all played their instruments the same way, the correct way. Another thing to note regarding Sandra's horn lines was phrasing. If you were to have a discussion with Sandra regarding musical phrasing, she would most likely refer you to Eugene Ormandy and his work with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The next time you listen to any musical group, ask yourself if they are playing the music one note at a time (most are) or are they emotionally tied to the music they are playing, driving the emotion through the phrases. I think you will be surprised by what you hear. Early on (mid-1960s), out of what I believe to be a deep respect for Sandra and a true understanding of our activity, Truman Crawford suggested that Argonne would need to be "four times better" than everyone else to get credit for what we were trying to accomplish musically. I am guessing that Truman was referring to our geographic location (we were after all, farm kids from Kansas), the political nature of the activity, and perhaps the gender barriers that Sandra would have to overcome. Sandra took all of that to heart and addressed it at a very fundamental level. It was her intent that every young person in her horn line be technically superior in brass proficiency. As this group of kids collectively moved through the program, you could hear the impact in Argonne's horn lines. Generally speaking, those that studied under Sandra in the Great Bend High School classes of 1970 through 1973 (and surrounding high schools) became the backbone of the early 1970s horn lines. When this group entered junior high school, they were very good. By the time they were in high school, they were exceptional. As they approached the end of Argonne's DCI run, (Sandra and Glenn left the corps in 1973), the members were at a post college level, playing music pulled directly from professional charts. As Sandra entered the judging ranks, she became a role model for many young women in the activity. She was the first woman judge in the Central States Judges Association and went on to become the first female member of the DCI brass judges panel. Sandra also became the first non-administrative woman to be inducted into the DCI Hall of Fame. To those that only had the opportunity to know Sandra as she stood behind a clipboard, I can tell you that throughout my lifetime I have not run across any individual that was fairer or more honest than Sandra Opie. Her interest was always with the kids -- not the corps that they represented. She was always an advocate for those that had taken the time to do it right, and was frequently frustrated with those (including judges/educators) that either did not know or could not hear the difference between what was musically correct and what was marginal. It is my belief that were it not for the kids, she would have left the activity long before she did. For me, it is hard to grasp the gender issues that Sandra had to overcome (in what remains a male dominated activity). She never complained. She just made sure that we were better than everyone else. Can you imagine Sandra going to a critique in the mid-1960s, defending these kids (boys and many girls) from small town Kansas? Fortunately, the activity's brass establishment eventually recognized her for who she was -- and for what she had accomplished. I can only smile when I read the comment attributed to Truman Crawford in support of Sandra's DCI Hall of Fame nomination. "I long to ... watch her stand proud and confident in the judges critique and defend quite simply, but explicitly, that a tick was a tick and a 3.5 in content meant exactly that -- regardless of what corps you represented, or who you thought you might be (and regardless of your reputation, real or imagined)." I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Brian Pennington. Sandra will be the first to tell you of Brian's immense contribution to the success that we enjoyed musically. Brain joined the staff in 1970, moving his family to Great Bend from the Chicago area. He was a graduate trumpet major at Northern Illinois University and was the bugle caption head for the Central States Judges Association. He studied under Arnold Jacobs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Like Sandra, Brian spent countless hours individually with the kids in our early 1970s horn lines. Argonne also had the benefit of the activity's great arrangers. Ken Norman, Doug Denisen, and Hy Drietzer provided many of Argonne's signature arrangements. In later years, Frank Minear gave us the Kenton "classics." And of course, Truman Crawford's impact on the organization was immeasurable. Outsiders that had the opportunity to watch Argonne's horn rehearsals were frequently amazed at their intensity. Sandra was extremely demanding. Those not close to the organization often missed the deep emotional bond that Sandra had with each of the young people in the horn line. Their parents had entrusted them to Sandra from a very young age. Make no mistake, everyone knew what to expect when they came to practice. God help the individual that had a short-term memory lapse. Having said that, I can't over state the connection that Sandra had with these kids. I will simply offer this unsolicited quote from one of my buddies. "I know in my heart that the lessons I learned and the gifts they (Sandra and Glenn) gave were vital to my survival. Sandra was the example I needed and a light for my path out of a dysfunctional home. She gave me the tremendous gift of self-esteem and taught me that I could succeed at anything. I don't think I completely understood this as a kid of 12 or 13. But I know it today. I am so grateful for the experience. So incredibly blessed to have had it." Well, certainly time has passed. It's been more than 30 years since Argonne walked off the field in Whitewater. During that time, the activity has seen improvements to instrumentation, a shift in focus from musical to visual (in my opinion), and now draws its members from a talented pool of college music and performing arts majors. It is my hope that those currently following the activity don't assume that what is happening musically today transcends all that has occurred in the past. Over time, it has become my observation that most cannot hear the difference between a horn line that has been formally trained in the art of brass playing (check out Farkas' book, "The Art of Brass Playing") and the "in your face" horn lines that might be viewed by some as the standard for today's activity. Unfortunately, there is now a generation of drum corps enthusiasts (fans/participants/educators) that has not had the opportunity to experience a horn line that was built from the ground up -- one long tone at a time. It would be a mistake for those currently following the activity to assume that what is happening (musically) today, transcends all that has occurred in the past. Those who are fortunate enough to understand what they heard so many years ago know that there was something very special going on in a small community in Central Kansas. God bless you, Sandra. Jeff Yeager
1967-1974 Fanfare archives 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.