Part3 — An interview with percussion arranger Dennis DeLucia

by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff

This segment of the interview originally appeared in the June 22, 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 4).

Harry Heidelmark: For a little over two years now, you and Larry Kerchner have been working with Bridgemen’s alumni corps. What has it been like to work with Larry again and how has the experience been overall?

Dennis DeLucia: First of all, let me tell you how great Larry Kerchner is and how much I’ve learned from him and enjoyed working with him. He’s the only arranger I’ve known who can take a piece of “pop” music, or jazz, and turn it/them into drum corps classics. Think about it. My Favorite Things, In the Stone, Free, Land of Make Believe, Harlem Nocturne and so many others for the Bridgemen; plus Pictures of Spain [an original composition] and Cowboys and Indians for the Muchachos; Quiet Village/Baby Elephant Walk for Blue Rock; Home on the Range for the Sky Ryders; Blues in the Night for Spirit; When You Wish Upon a Star for Star of Indiana. I could go on for pages.

His arrangements in the 1970s were one of the most significant reasons that drum corps “grew up” and emerged as an American art form that has had an enormous impact on music education programs and bands everywhere.

His education [Berklee, New England Conservatory], coupled with his innate talent and passion for drum corps, have made him one of the very best EVER. I’m basically a street kid who is fortunate to have written with and learned from Larry, Jim Prime and other great writers.

The Bridgemen Alumni Corps was started in 2005 by the new Bridgemen Alumni Association, spearheaded by talented and dedicated people like George Lavelle, Nancy DuCharme, Claire Kronenfeld, John Riccardi, Gary Karpinski and many others. It’s set up to be an ongoing corps, not a “one and done” phenomenon, and in 2007 will field 70 to 80 horns, 32 drums and 28 in the guard. It’s been great to work with and hear those great Kerchner charts again, and to re-write my drum charts to hopefully improve upon the originals.

The corps is extra-special this year because my daughter Chelsea is playing bass #2. Very cool! She’s good, too! Plus, I met my wife Rene when she came to teach the corps from 1979-1984.

HH: Have you ever been tempted to don a yellow jacket and perform with the alumni corps?

DD: [laughing] No way! I can’t play what I write anymore, so I’ll leave that to the “younger” guys and gals.

HH: Other than Bridgemen’s alumni corps, are you involved with any other corps?

DD: I’m not involved with any other corps and I’m involved with every other corps as a result of my role on the broadcast on ESPN and Regal Cinemas. Working with Steve Rondinaro, Tom Blair and Michael Cesario since 1994 has been an exhilarating experience that I hope continues for many more years.

HH: And why do you think the alumni corps movement has become so popular?

DD: Alumni corps are fun — a positive way to stay involved or get involved with drum corps. They provide a social base and an artistic outlet, in a family environment, for relatively little money or time commitment. Perfect!

HH: At last year’s DCA “Alumni Spectacular,” the audience was asked to rate the corps according to their entertainment value and the highest-ranked corps won the “Pepe Notaro People’s Choice Award.” Several alumni corps members have told me they didn’t know this was going to take place and wished it hadn’t, because they do not want alumni corps to be competitive. How would you feel if the alumni corps became competitive?

DD: It’s always good to remember Pepe who, along with guys like Carl Ruocco, Clarke Williams, Jim Prime, Bob Dubinski, Pat Scollin, Ron Dolce, John Yurkin and so many others, represents the best of what this activity is all about. Having said that, I hope that alumni corps never become competitive — we’re having too much fun. Besides, who wants to follow all those rules again?

HH: When Bridgemen Alumni Corps began rehearsals, I sat in on what seemed to be Percussion 101. Despite having many experienced percussionists in the classroom, you began with the anatomy of a drum stick and went on to discuss the mechanics of drumming. With so many experienced percussionists in attendance, why did you feel it necessary?

DD: Well, there was a wide age range in the room and many people that I had never seen before. And I believe in everyone getting to the same starting point together and at the same time. Besides, it seemed to relax everyone, knowing that I was not making ANY assumptions. So they all heard “DeLucia 101” from DeLucia.

HH: Does it make you feel old that you are instructing some of the same drummers who were part of Bridgemen’s hey day?

DD: Absolutely not! If I have aged 25 years, then they have aged 25 years as well. Besides, there are many other ways to feel old.

HH: Did Bridgemen win three consecutive high percussion awards?

DD: Yes — 1980, 1981 and 1982.

HH: In 1981, you achieved what some have referred to as a “Triple Crown” when Bridgemen, Fantasia III and Sunrisers all won top percussion awards at their championship competitions. How special was that and are you the only one to ever achieve it?

DD: The term “Triple Crown” was coined many years ago for a series of clinics I was doing. It is often misunderstood. It does not refer to winning the trophy three years in a row, but rather, to winning the trophy in all three classes of drum corps in the same year. To my knowledge, it is the only time it’s been done.

HH: Do you believe one style of gripping drum sticks is better than another?

DD: No. Match grip is easier to learn and has the benefit of having the physiology be identical in both the left and the right hands and arms. Traditional grip seems to have some advantages in certain styles of playing — the great drum lines in the U.S., Switzerland and Scotland all play “traditional” and the great jazz drummers of the last 80 years play “traditional” at least some, if not all, of the time. So it depends on the style of music, the setting and the player’s upbringing and early instruction.

HH: How important is it for a percussionist to learn how to read music?

DD: How important is it for a first-grader to learn how to read words? The answer to your question and mine is identical. It’s very important.

HH: The reason I asked is because I can remember when not all members of a drum line could read music and those who could worked hard at teaching the other members of the line. This took place in all levels of drum corps.

Similar situations existed among horn players who not could read music, including yours truly. We learned our parts by ear with help from others who would write the valve positions above each note on the charts. I get the impression that only music students can march with corps now and the kid on the corner is no longer able to fit in with the activity. What is your take on this ?

DD: You’re right. Reading music became important in the 1970s. In fact, when I started with the Muchachos in 1970, fewer than half the drummers could read. We embarked on a reading education program that paid huge dividends. Ditto with the Bridgemen in 1976. By the time Bob Dubinski and I went to Star in 1985, everyone could read music well.

Today, the bar has been raised dramatically in regard to the quality of music education in schools and, unless the current government ruins that, too, it will continue to grow. Since most kids who join corps come from band programs [unlike the old days], they are much better prepared to absorb, learn, perform and “perfect’ the music and movements that are created for them. The days of joining a corps to learn how to play a drum or horn — or to spin a flag or rifle or sabre — went away with the demise of “local” corps that existed on an entry level.

While it’s awe-inspiring to see and hear what today’s corps kids can achieve, it’s depressing to know that you pretty much have to be an all-star to even GET a spot.

When 1,000 corps existed, there were 20 that were “elite,” leaving lots of room for beginners to join the party. Today there are only 60 [junior] corps and there are still 20 that are “elite,” so the percentages are dramatically different.

HH: Over the last 20 years there have been considerable improvements in how drummers carry their instruments on the field. What do you see as advantages or detriments to the carriers used on the field now? Have you endorsed any particular brand of carrier?

DD: Well, the carriers of the early-1980s were bulky, heavy and inflexible. Today’s carriers are much lighter, flexible and more functional and comfortable. I was never pleased with drummers who had to play “traditional” grip playing on a drum that was perfectly flat — it just did not “feel” right. The newer carriers allow for the drum to be held on a slight angle, the way slings used to. I’ve endorsed Yamaha drums and carriers since 2001.

HH: Another change I’ve noticed is the number and types of sticks each member of the battery now carries. How important are the various types of sticks?

DD: Sometimes they are very important and sometimes they are irrelevant. Brushes and brush-type implements can actually be more significant than two models of snare sticks because the timbre can change dramatically as the player changes from sticks to brushes.

HH: Have you endorsed any brand of drum sticks?

DD: Yes, I’ve established a wonderful relationship with the Pro-Mark Corporation, based in Houston, TX. They have given me the opportunity to design five models of sticks