Drum Corps International
In Praise of wearing mallets and timpani

In Praise of wearing mallets and timpani

by Drum Corps International

If you're one of the few visitors to DCI.org who doesn't have my Fanfare column from April 27, 2004 bookmarked so you can visit it time and time again, read the Pulitzer-worthy "Pit Stop: A Front Ensemble Primer" HERE. Earlier, we heard from a Blue Devils marcher regarding the above column in "Real Men Wore Keyboards". A member of Seneca Optimists and two Cavaliers further responded to the column. Here are their memories. Mark Lewis marched in a few different corps, playing mallets in 1976 (Dutchmen) and 1977, the latter year his first of two in the Seneca Optimists. I distinctly remember the backaches you spoke of when we moved to harnesses from slings. But I sure didn't miss the shoulder aches caused by the slings. I'm playing quads now in the Toronto Optimists Alumni corps, and we did the St. Joe's Classic this year (2004). There was a young, little corps practicing outside, with kids carrying quads, and everyone in my section started muttering under our breath, "Your backs will be toast in 25 years." One of the guys in our quad line played triple congas in the Seneca Optimists in 1977 -- 55 or 65 pounds if I recall correctly. You mentioned marimbas and vibes weren't legal until 1977. I recall seeing other corps with marimbas in 1976, because I was jealous that my corps only had a xylophone. I also recall seeing vibes on the field in 1975 -- Vanguard is the name that pops into my head. [Boo here. I sent the following to Mark in response to the comment about SCV and vibes in 1975: I can enlighten you about the SCV "vibes" in 1974-1975. They weren't vibes, but an old set of Deagan alto bells that Gail Royer found in his band room, according to Royer. Alto bells were made in the 1920s and 1930s and then became obsolete due to the growing presence of vibes, which were invented in 1924. Although the instrument didn't sound like the bells the drum corps powers-that-be had in mind when they allowed bells but not vibes, no one could say anything because they WERE bells. Gail just found a way to get around the strictness of the rules. And no other corps sounded like SCV because of it.] When I played marimba in 1977 in the Seneca Optimists, I always got upset that people called them "bells." For kicks, I wrote an article (titled "Keyboard Class") for the corps newsletter about the correct reference and so forth. At Canadian individuals that following year, I saw young keyboard players with "Keyboard Class" on their T-shirts. The Optimists' newsletter was well subscribed by Canadian drum corps people. I always absolutely hated the sound of bells. In fact, when the Optimists recruited me in early 1977, they already had a marimba player and asked if I would mind playing bells. I told them there was no way I was playing bells. So, drum instructor Sammy Kays asked me to play something, and I obliged with "Flight of the Bumble Bee." He asked the current marimba player if he would have any problem with playing bells, and he switched with no complaint. I decided to "change" the bells as best we could, since the corps wasn't going to spring for a set of vibes. So, we cleaned the bars as best as possible, put in finishing nails between each bar at the lower brace, and then took out all the bottom screws. We ran a string from one side to the other, on both levels, wrapping it around each nail. The bars now "bounced" more freely (but not out of control) and the result was a slightly more resonant sound. It wasn't vibes, but it would have to do. I hear what you're saying about the musicality of keyboard instruments. I detested that virtually every corps was consistently playing the melody or mimicking some horn part, as you wrote in your column. The only keyboard section I appreciated was the Madison Scouts in 1975 and 1976, in particular, the xylophone player. I think his name was Todd. He became my inspiration. Both years that I played keyboards, I wrote most of the music for the section. And if it was already written, I tended to rewrite it. I vowed to never follow the melody line unless it was absolutely critical to the overall musicality of the piece. As you wrote, keyboards have gone into some other extreme as of late, with an over abundance of runs that makes you feel like you've entered the Twilight Zone. Still, for those moments when they are used correctly, it is pleasing indeed. Well, this has been incredibly self-indulgent and egocentric of me, but once in a while you just gotta' get it out. Mark: I totally agree. And if you don't talk about it, who will? Bob Inch marched Cavaliers in the mid to late 1970s, playing timpani in 1977, my last year as a mallet player in the corps. I had to laugh when I read your article on pit instruments. As soon as you started in on the timpani, I was rolling. [Bob: Were you aware you just made a very bad pun?] You know, had it not been for my one-year stint on timpani (and constant out-of-pitch berating from you!), I would have been destined for the NBA. I'm 6'3" now, but would certainly have been 6'9" had it not been for the timpani! And what was with the bracing back in the dark ages? We could put men on the moon and make milk last for days, but to have bracing made of bent steel, 2-by-4s, foam padding up the wazoo -- and slings? Awww, come on! Well, anyway, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, right? It is good to read and finally know the rules pertaining to some of the instrumentation back then. I now understand why I carried a chime on my back (using a snare sling -- go figure!) for the 10-strike solo with the piccolo soprano in "Porgy and Bess." Paul Milano contributed the Fanfare column from July 4, 2003 on David Kampschroer, "Beyond the Call of Duty," and was the inspiration for the March 12, 2004 column, "Determination: Believing in the Midwest Combine". He originally posted an shorter version of the following on Drum Corps Planet in response to "Pit Stop: A Front Ensemble Primer," and gave permission to print his more extended memories here. Yep, I was a "cranker" (hard to really call myself a timpanist!) my rookie year in the Cavaliers (1970). It was the first year the corps marched timps. In fact, the timps we used had been purchased from the Troopers two years earlier, but never used. (Just a little drum corps trivia.) We had two guys in our four-man timpani line who were decent musicians, and a third who could read drum music. I was a darn good rudimental drummer (had only just turned 16, so I couldn't beat out all the vets in the tenor and snare lines, and the "booby prize" was weighing 85 pounds and getting to carry a 40-pound drum! I couldn't read a lick of music and wasn't a "musician," either. We carried those stinkin' drums in every parade; including going up Casper Mountain in 104-degree heat, and the five-miler in Miami in August! Two snare slings and a leg rest were all we used to strap on the drums. Quite frankly, many early timpani lines were used almost like a second bass drum line, versus really taking advantage of what a timpani section might do for the music. Other than a few glissandos here and there, we just beat on the drums! The funniest part of marching that year was the "tuning" gimmicks we used. Our poor instructor carefully tuned each drum for our first notes of the show -- using a pitch pipe and gently tapping the sweet spot of the drumheads, etc. Then we'd walk out on the starting line and watched the evening's humidity dump an inch thick layer of "dew" on the drumhead. The equipment guys would walk up and towel down the heads, completely "untuning" them! Once the performance started, we had to march, play, and crank in a delicate -- if not obviously clumsy -- ballet of sorts. Eight steps forward, two quarter notes, three and a half cranks up, four steps backward, a half-measure roll, one crank down -- ad infinitum. Of course, we'd be horribly out of tune by the end of the first song, desperately hoping the field judge wouldn't spot our lead timpanist sneaking his pitch pipe out for a brief "sound check." Alas, our more reliable "system" of tuning precision would always win out. That "system" involved looking to the sideline, where our timpani instructor was standing. He would hold up one, two, three, or four fingers, indicating which of the timpanists he was "signaling." Once we nodded our comprehension (all the while marching, pounding, and cranking!) we then watched for his "thumbs up or down," indicating which way we needed to adjust our pitch. Soon we'd be close to the right pitches for another song or two. But heck, who would have known, except for a rare featured note or two that might be just too nasty to miss? The other highlight of being a marching timpanist back then was the "trooping the stands -- macho display" that each different timp line would try to develop. Instead of just marching past the stands with our drums strapped on, each line would try to outdo the other by either carrying the drums upside-down over their heads, or holding them by the rim with legs pointed forward, etc. The Kilties usually had the best variations, but our smallest timpani (the 23-incher) was also carried by our strongest guy, naturally. One night he grabbed a leg of his timp, at the very bottom tip, held it out straight-armed, and walked off the field with it. The other three of us looked at him like he was nuts. No way we could have done that, so we just all pointed our sticks at him instead and tried to look cool! Ah, the good ol' days. Now you understand why all four of us became snares the next year. There was plenty of motivation not to ever have to wear those suckers again! More timpani stories: The very first parade we ever marched with the timpani was in November of 1969. We had no idea how heavy they would be. After about a mile, we were all completely exhausted. Remember, we were some of the youngest drummers in the corps that year, or we would have had enough sense/clout NOT to be carrying timpani! As our four-man timpani line slowly lagged behind the rest of the drum line, eventually wandering/limping/groaning back into the ranks of the color guard, management "pulled the plug" and had us take our drums off. They stuck them in the back seats (legs up) of the convertibles that were carrying the "snow queen and her court of princesses" in the parade. What a sight to see four cars driving by, with a princess in the front seat waving, and timpani legs and a young Cavalier in the back seat looking pretty embarrassed! Or, how about when we had to paint the shells, changing from the copper-like tan to black? Being the young geniuses we were back then, we set out a large square of newspapers in our rehearsal hall, placed the timpani in the center of the paper square, and spray-painted them with a couple coats of black paint. Of course, when we picked up the timps and newspapers a couple hours later, the whole WHITE tiled floor was now gray, except for the white square where the papers were. Yes, we scrubbed it all down with about 10 minutes to spare before the "vets" in the corps came by to inspect our work. Then there was our first public, full show (well, almost full show) performance with the timpani -- opening day ceremonies at the Chicago Cubs Wrigley Field in April of 1970. As we approached the "starting line" to do our drill (actually, somewhere out in left field), the bleacher bums were yelling obscenities at us and throwing coins and cookies at the timpani for entertainment. I even heard a voice yell out, "The Kilties kicked your ... " A great first time to be wearing the famed green satin blouse and doing the show! Last was the infamous five-mile parade in Miami at the 1970 VFW Nationals. It was an evening parade and our drum major decided we would be the only timpani line to carry the drums for the entire parade, which was easy for him to say. To no one's surprise, around the four-mile mark, none of the four of us had any feelings left in our arms. The two snare slings holding up each drum seemed to cut off all the blood to our arms. Then our sticks actually fell from our hands, because we could no longer feel them with our numb fingers. So, when it came time for me to play the four-count tempo-setting intro to the song, the drum major signaled for my "brothers" in the timp line to come to my rescue. We each swung our arms in sequence, plopping one at a time onto our drumhead (almost in tempo, as I recall) in order to play the four-count intro. A strange look from the drum major up front was the only indication he had caught on. 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.

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