The baron of backsticking

by Joe Marrella

This article originally appeared in the December 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 15), mailed to subscribers on Thursday, November 15,

Year after year, generation after generation, we seem to move on to “bigger and better”.
But do they really?

Have you seen those Web sites that depict what life was like during past generations? You know, the ones that show fashion, television shows, commercials, toys, cars, candies and gasoline that cost .25 cents a gallon that are now all extinct.

It’s obvious from viewing those sites that trends come and trends go.
But do they really?

In August, I attended the DCI World Championships in Pasadena, CA, as a member of the DCI Hall of Fame. After three days of watching some of the best drum corps in the world, it struck me that one snare technique, after all these years, had survived. I was amazed that the majority of all the corps’ snare drummers still used it. It is one trend that just will not fade away. It’s a trend that was started and has stayed with us for 50 years.

Believe it or not, BackSticking was developed in 1938 by its creator as a method to improve a drummer’s left hand. The first BackSticking exercise was accenting triplets. The technique was first taught to the Air Force snare drum section in 1958 by my dear friend, my mentor, my instructor, and the person most responsible for my success in drum corps, as well as scores of others.

His name is John Dowlan. To me, he is the “Baron of BackSticking”.

To have created a technique that is still valued after 50 years and to have written a book on the art of BackSticking might be sufficient accomplishments for most drummers.

Not John Dowlan. Not by a long shot.

Please consider these accomplishments:

National Individual Snare Drum Champion for three consecutive years.

He was both the Individual National Champion Snare Drum Champion and a member of the National Champion Brass Quartet, as a soprano bugler . . . IN THE VERY SAME YEAR! Please read that again!

Selected to be the drum instructor for the famous U.S. Air Force Drum Corps, he served four full years where he developed and taught the BackSticking technique for the very first time to the Air Force Drum Quartet. This further exposed the technique through performances all over the world. They were always highly regarded and emulated.

John was the drum instructor for junior corps such as the Vasella Musketeers (National Open Champion Drum Quartet), Bracken Cavaliers, Osmond Post Cadets and more.

He took Vasella’s quartet to the next level by inserting many additional complicated patterns and by expanding the BackSticking, while accelerating it to three different speeds for an awesome climax — so intense that nationally-recognized drum judge John Flowers wrote on his score sheet, “The greatest climax of a solo I have ever seen”.

“Vasella’s quartet made history as we beat every corps in the country and it was all thanks to John,” said Vasella snare drummer Ed Gibbons. “It was an honor for my brother Joey (rudimental bass) and I to learn from the very best.”

Dowlan instructed several senior corps as well. They were the Reilly Raiders, the Archer-Epler Musketeers, the Pittsburgh Rockets and the Yankee Rebels.

He also was the editor and publisher of Bugle & Drum Corps Times, one of the very first drum corps publications in 1948, which focused on the community of Philadelphia drum corps. He also wrote regular columns for another early drum corps publication.

“I enjoyed it all. I never did it for the fame. I did it because it was fun,” John said recently. Anyone who knows him knows this very well. There is no other drum corps person that has more humility than John Dowlan.

He is idolized and admired by all who have crossed his path. Nationally-recognized judges such as Larry McCormick (DCI Hall of Fame), Rod Goodhart (DCI Hall of Fame and World Drum Corps Hall of Fame), John Flowers, (World Drum Corps Hall of Fame and Founder of APDRC), Michael Kumer (BOA Hall of Fame) and Eric Landis (World Drum Corps Hall of Fame) are just a few of the drum corps enthusiasts who revere John Dowlan. The full list is too long to print.

Rod Goodhart is not shy about the effect Dowlan had on his life as an instructor and as a person. He said, “John Dowlan not only set the example for me as a person and instructor, but more importantly, is truly a fine and special human being. John Dowlan and Truman Crawford are the two most important influences in my life.” High praise indeed, but also universally felt by so many.

According to Michael Kumer, “John exudes an attitude of sincere humility, seemingly at odds for one with his amazing record of accomplishment. He is a dear friend to anyone interested in improving the human experience.

He began his playing career at 10 years old when he heard “the sounds of drums in the distance” and watched a drum corps, Osmond, parade by his house. At the very same time,he was sitting next to his friend and neighbor, Lee Wolf.

The irony is that neither one of them would ever have guessed that they would both be inducted to the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame years later.

After playing with Osmond, he joined the Boy Scouts Drum Corps. It was here that he learned to play the bugle and qualified for a merit badge in bugling. “They didn’t have one for drumming, so I tried playing the bugle,” he said matter-of-factly. He was always around music at home, as his mother played trombone and his sister played piano.

After enlisting in the Army and serving his country in WW2 in the Philippines for the duration of the war, he returned home and soon was found at Osmond’s rehearsal. While there, he noticed several young women and asked to walk home with them after practice.

He focused on one named Dolores. As with many things in his life, once he made his mind to do something, he accomplished it.

John and Dolores have been married 58 years and have three daughters. He will be the first to tell you that Dolores was always the rock for the family and the reason he was able to succeed. He always had Dolores’ support.

I first met John when he began teaching the Vasella Musketeers. It was John who first asked me to teach rookies for the Haddonfield Royaleers.

He reminded me recently that I was reluctant to accept the position. He told me, “I know you can do it.” He then recommended me to the Belles of St. Mary, where he taught horns and I became the drum instructor and also met my wife, Ruth, there. He also gets credit for that introduction.

My favorite story about John’s ability and talent occurred when he was marching with the Reilly Raiders. Vasella had just finished competing for the Pennsylvania State Championship for junior corps and I went to see John and let him know that we had another excellent show.

Just as John was marching into the stadium to compete with the Reilly Raiders, he yelled to me, “Joe, give me your sticks, I left mine behind.”

All drummers will tell you that competing with sticks you weren’t familiar with in a State Championship will cause you to feel very uncomfortable. Not John, not the “Natural”. He could use anything and it wouldn’t matter.

In fact, John said that he went into the National Brass Quartet competition as a soprano bugler without his own mouthpiece and they still became National Champions. Incredible!

During the Air Force (Bowling Field, Washington, D.C.) drum corps’ 45th Anniversary celebration several years ago, their drum quartet gave an exhibition. Dowlan played rudimental bass (placed horizontally on a stand). He played every figure as well as BackSticked some throughout the performance on the horizontal bass.

Both John Flowers and Eric Landis had the very same reaction regarding his playing ability. “John has the fastest hands I ever saw.” By the way, John was 75 years old during that performance. Eric added emphatically, “Could you imagine what he was like when he was younger?”

Bob Zarfoss, a member of the renowned Air Force Drum Corps proclaimed, “As fine a drummer as John was, he was always a finer gentleman. Thus, he was not to be an instructor who was forgotten. Rather, he was a teacher who taught one to be a better drummer, but also a better person.”

It was John’s support and encouragement that not only changed my life, but many others as well. Many of us believe John Dowlan was our mentor. He was our role model. He was who we all wanted to be. Unfortunately, there can be only one John Dowlan.

John (now 81 years Old) and Dolores currently reside in Weekie Wachie, FL. He still receives calls, e-mails and visits from the people he has influenced and he always will because people like me owe John so much. We will never be able to repay his talent and his encouragement.

I truly dread to think what my life would have been like without drum corps and John Dowlan . . . The Baron of BackSticking.