Drum Corps International
Real men wore keyboards

Real men wore keyboards

by Michael Boo

Scott Tesar played marimba for the Blue Devils in 1979. He wrote in response to the Fanfare column, "Pit stop: A Front ensemble primer" (April 27, 2004). "I thoroughly enjoyed the article about the evolution of the "pit," and would like to share my own anecdotes about the development of marching mallet equipment. "It was the fall of 1976, and my best friend Mitch and I had just gotten cut from the JV basketball team in the last round. Because the semester had started, all of the PE classes were already full, and all of us cast-off, wanna-be jocks got put into pre-1st period PE class. "Pre-1st period PE meant that we showed up for class, changed into PE clothes, took roll, and were sent out to run laps all period while the baseball coach went into his warm office to have a cup of coffee, wake up and read the sports page, while we castoffs ran laps outside at 7 a.m. "Meanwhile, my other best friend, Phil, had taken the alternative route -- his older sister Paula had been in band for a couple of years already, was graduating, and played marching concert bells. Phil played trombone. He had an afternoon paper route and also had after-school band rehearsals. Phil asked me to cover his route for him, while he and Paula attended after-school rehearsals. "I could hear the noise from the high school while I raced around the neighborhood delivering Phil's newspapers. I was attracted to the noise like a moth to a candle flame. "Phil had told me of the benefits of band participation: You had fun in rehearsal, you traveled to competitions, you got to hang out with "Drill Team Babes" and the cheerleaders (sometimes) and best of all, you got PE credit to boot! What a deal! "Unfortunately, I played organ, and had taken lessons from the time I was 8 years old. There were no marching organs, and so there were no band opportunities for me. "Chagrined, once the papers were delivered, I'd ride on up to the school to watch run-throughs and ogle "Drill Team Babes." I was captivated -- by both the band AND the babes. "Realizing that Paula was a senior, I began formulating plans to take over her concert bell slot, figuring that my knowledge of music theory was readily transferable to the marching keyboards. "In the off-season, I requested the bells, and began a several months-long self-study where I'd take the bells into our laundry room, shut the doors to the kitchen and our game room, and begin a series of "pound sessions," playing arpeggios and scales faster and faster, until the overtones from the bells became a sonorous cacophony and almost became deafening. "Paula showed me some of the parts that she had played the year before, and I concentrated on playing the best rendition of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Hoedown" that I could, planning for my big audition. "Better yet, Paula's xylophone counterpart, Diane, tried out and made drum major, so there were two openings for the fall of 1977 campaign. I figured that a big, strapping, 6'2" guy like me would look more proportional playing xylophone rather than bells, so my summer of 1977 was spent learning rolls and other rudiments. Cheryl, the new section leader, was exceptionally patient with me, teaching me flams, flam drags, grace notes and paradiddles. Paradiddles took an extremely long time for this ol' organ grinder to master, but eventually I got the hang of it. "1977 was the last year of the cross-over straps, and my buddy Friend (his actual name) and I had a grand old time decorating the straps with shiny garland and a home-built, 12-volt, battery-powered string of miniature Christmas lights for the Hollywood Christmas parade. "My lower back muscles acclimated to the xylophone straps, and I had a super time doing all the things that Phil had promised, going to free football games, traveling to competitions, hanging out and flirting with the "Drill Team Babes." We traveled all over Southern California and finished second at the Los Angeles band and drill team finals. "The fall of 1978 introduced the dreaded Musser T-bar harness, a medieval torture device that focused ALL the weight of the keyboard on the small of your back, causing excruciating pain for the first three weeks. The COOL part of the contraption was that you could now actually play the high notes and not get the mallets tangled in the web of nylon straps that had previously supported the keyboard. Unfortunately, the new harnesses also concentrated more of the weight on your pelvic bones, and I developed some really pretty bruises on the high part of those bones (ahh, to be really slender again). "The new harnesses looked great, and you could wear them under your uniform, which was REALLY cool, because now you didn't look like a peanut vendor at Dodger Stadium -- you now had this tough-looking, heavy keyboard mysteriously extending out in front, causing ALL the "Drill Team Babes" to come over, lean on the keyboard, bat their big doe-like eyes and ask, "Isn't that thing AWFULLY heavy?" "We were smart. My buddy Eric won Paula's bell slot, so we had two macho men hauling the 35-pound keyboards around, whipping out a casual rendition of Phantom Regiment's 1977-1978 "Flight of the Bumblebee" for our percussion solo, played as fast as we possibly could. We would ask the girls if they'd mind "holding us up" during rehearsal breaks. We totally milked it for all it was worth, and got ALL the best-looking drill teamers looking us up to give our aching backs a break during all those long rehearsals. "Our band worked with Wayne Downey and patterned itself after the Blue Devils, imitating their uniforms, their sound, their look, their attitude -- everything. "Wayne and our director hit it off. Wayne came on down in June of 1979 to collaborate with our director on our fall 1979 opener. My buddy Doug (who was percussion section leader) and I (co-section leader) also worked with Wayne in planning the off-the-line, and Wayne mentioned that there were two openings in Blue Devils' percussion section. One of their tenor players had broken his wrist dirt biking, and one of the mallet players was ordered not to march due to mononucleosis. "Needless to say, we hotfooted it to make plane reservations to fly up to "Mars" for a last-minute audition. We both made it, as my blistering rendition of "Flight of the Bumblebee" was sufficiently impressive to get me in at the last minute. '"The Blue Devils' approach to mallets was much more formidable than anything I had ever experienced in band. They threw sheet music at me that had a fill written in 21/8, for crying out loud! I'd never even heard of anything written in 21/8. I didn't even know that music could be WRITTEN in 21/8. (That's the mallet fill at the beginning of 1979's "La Suerte de los Tontos.") After hours of trying to "count it out" and play it as it was written, Gary, the section leader (and now a prominent DCI judge) took me aside and had me play it "phonetically." MUCH easier! "It's also interesting to note that I marched with Scott Johnson, BD's amazing percussion caption head, in his age-out year. Scott ran a tight line, even as center snare. I never dreamed that he'd be able to make such a successful life in the activity, and he's to be congratulated for his multiple successes. "Blue Devils also had a unique approach to mallet suspension, and Ron Menke had designed the first generation of fiberglass harnesses, much similar to the v-neck, over-the-head harnesses still worn by all the batteries. These were much more comfortable than the dreaded T-bar harnesses, and we actually cut up old wrestling mats and electrical taped them to the shoulder pieces. "This served two significant purposes: 1) It made the already more-comfortable harnesses much more comfortable. 2) The addition of the wrestling mat material made your shoulders look absolutely intimidating underneath BD's already intimidating uniforms. "We went out on the field looking like total he-men. Larry (the vibe player for SCV in 1979) used so much wrestling mat material on his harness that they nicknamed him "Kong" or "Godzilla." The vibes were the ultimate objective in marching mallet-dom in the late 1970s. No one had them and they weighed about 50 pounds, so the testosterone factor was huge, and they sounded cool. (Gary had marched SCV in 1978, so we had lots of interaction between our mallet sections.) "Funniest story I recall involved limited visibility. Menke's harnesses were more comfortable, and part of the reason for the comfort was that he had engineered a suspension system that kept the keyboard closer to the body than the dreaded T-bars. As anyone who knows about levers and engineering, the farther away from an object another object is, the more torque that is developed. The engineers who developed the T-bar must have known that the long arms attached to the front of the hip-panel was going to kill anyone who wore that harness! "Menke had brought the keyboard in a good six inches, which was much more comfortable, but severely limited ones' downward visibility. Parades were dangerous things. The "road apples" were basically invisible until you were already in them. Fortunately, BD only did one parade that year. "Nevertheless, Blue Devils did a show in either Sioux City, Iowa or Stillwater, Minnesota, and we got back to the school really late that night. "We usually moved the mallets back over to the gooseneck trailer at night, but Gary took pity on us that night, and told us that it was OK to leave them on the bus overnight. We'd get them in the morning. Well, we overslept, and Gary woke us up and told us that we had to get our gear broken down ASAP, because the corps was moving on and we needed the bus bays for everyone's gear. "I stumbled out to the bus half asleep, got the marimba out of the bus bay, and began walking over to the equipment trailer, which was parked around the corner. Noodling around with the keyboard with my fingertips, I was jamming happily away, not noticing that I was on a rather high sidewalk. I then took the final step off the sidewalk. "I basically did a complete forward somersault while wearing the marimba, punching two semicircles above my knees from the resonators, and ending flat on my back, wind knocked out of myself, bleeding heavily from the kneecaps. "Some of the tenor and bass drum players witnessed my great fall and proceeded to add insult to injury with all kinds of pointed comments about style points, degree of difficulty, etc. Once I had composed myself, gotten my wind back, and got my knees to stop bleeding, I got a good laugh off of my predicament myself, but at the time, it wasn't very funny. Not at all. "Parting shot: We mallet players in the late 1970s took great pride in the macho factor that used to be involved in carrying and playing marching mallets. Sore backs were a mark of honor, and you were measured upon how fast you played and how high you played. Four-mallet technique was an extra honor, because basically your body got in the way of any serious playing, unless you were double-jointed in your wrists. "As Mike mentioned in the Fanfare column, we were prominently featured in all the recordings, since most of our drill was doing repetitive circles between the 40 and 50-yard lines, which was cool. The mallets and timpani also got to "push" through a set of tossed rifle-doubles during BD's opener. In every single rehearsal, not one rifle ever got dropped or made contact with any of us in the "push line," a testament to the skill of the 1979 BD rifle line. "We were horrified, absolutely HORRIFIED, at Spirit of Atlanta's mallet section in 1979, because they actually had a GIRL in their line. A tiny, little, petite, really CUTE girl in their line -- a tiny, little, petite, really cute girl who could PLAY most of us (well, me at least) under the table! Spirit had some really funky looking harnesses that looked like restraints you see on roller coasters. Memory is failing me on this one, but I think that "girl in Spirit's mallet line" is now Catherine Float, one of the top pit arrangers around. "In the early 1980s, those of us that cut our teeth in marching mallets in the late 1970s were dismayed at the development of the pit, and its subsequent spread along the entire front line. We hooted in derision in the stands as ATVs dragged trailer loads of Chinese Water gongs, crotales that couldn't be heard above the horn line and assorted "trap crap." I remember rolling my eyes in unison with my buddy Scott as we watched the early 1980s pit from another corps frantically fanning their crotales after striking them for one note. They'd fan those things like they were trying to start a flame from a spark of kindling wood! "So now here we are, 25 years later, and they're finally going to allow amplified gear down there. The cycle's complete. "We used to joke about high schools marching bass guitars, and that'll likely be next for the drum corps idiom. "It's been an interesting ride, watching all these developments. The level of performance has increased, but so has the hassle factor at getting all that stuff moved down to the field. "I hope you enjoyed my trip down memory lane, and thanks for the opportunity to share." 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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