An interview with arranger Larry Kerchner, part 1

Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff

Publisher’s note: This four-part interview began with this segment, published in the December 2006 edition of Drum Corps World. The content covers not only Larry Kerchner’s involvement in the drum and bugle corps activity, but his other musical endeavors that include Broadway, nightclubs and the circus!

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For many years, I have enjoyed the musical charts written by Larry Kerchner and I’m sure I am not alone in my belief that he is one of the best.

When I went to my first camp with Bridgemen in April 1979, I was extremely disappointed to learn Kerchner was not on staff. Bridgemen played Pigliacci and Spanish Dreams in 1979, but those were not Kerchner arrangements. Thankfully, he came back to write Bridgemen’s brass charts in 1980 which proved to be their most successful competitive campaign.

For nearly two years I’ve tried to get a list of questions together for an interview with Larry. He has become increasingly active in the alumni drum corps activity. We recently made the connection that produced the following session of questions and answers.

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Harry Heidelmark: Before we go forward with questions, could you first please list your musical experience with instruments played, along with where and when?

Larry Kerchner: I’m a keyboard player, but, if you’re talking about drum corps instruments, I played French horn, contra and mellophone with Blue Rock in Wilmington, DE,, the only corps I ever marched with. Uh oh, I’m in trouble already (laughs)!

I just remembered something. I once played a gig in the Boston Common with the Princemen when I was in college and that was on baritone. Then there was the contest in Bridgeport, CT, where I went on with the Caballeros as their drum major, Jimmy Russo, wasn’t at the previous rehearsal when I taught a couple of major musical changes. Do those things count?

HH: How about a list of corps or marching bands which listed you as a member of their staff?

LK: Considering that I’ve written for — or taught — over 130 drum corps and over 300 bands in my life, that’s a tall order. I’ll list a few that come to mind. Bands at the University of Alabama, U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, University of Tennessee, Temple University, Notre Dame, West Chester University, James Madison University, University of Massachusetts, Penn State, Rutgers, U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, University of Illinois, University of Delaware, University of New Mexico, University of Nebraska, Brigham Young University, University of Texas, West Virginia University, University of Kentucky, Oregon State University and so on. Then there are countless high schools.

HH: And a list of any musical education you have beyond high school?

LK: Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory of Music, New England Conservatory of Music

HH: Who were your favorite musicians/groups when you first became involved with music and which groups and musicians would you say are your favorites now?

LK: I was introduced, by my parents, to the big band music of their generation — Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, et al. It was Duke Ellington’s song, Satin Doll, sung by Ella Fitzgerald, that drew me to jazz. My favorites are still the “masters” of the golden age of jazz. There are few musicians today that have achieved and sustained the level of the true greats.

HH: Who do you believe had the most influence on your own approach to musical arrangements?

LK: I’ll give you three —

Henry Mancini was a wonderful arranger/composer and influenced me the most. I was lucky enough to have had personal discussions with him about arranging and extremely honored that he came to an ASCAP Songwriters’ Showcase in Hollywood where three of my songs were being presented. His critique and support was invaluable.

Stan Kenton was another musical genius who influenced me. He would give impromptu classes at Berklee when he was in town. How lucky were we?

Maynard Ferguson was another giant whom I admired. His virtuosity needs no explanation.
These three men were so important to me that they’re listed under my picture in my high school yearbook as my “idols.”

HH: Which style of music presents the biggest challenge when it comes to transposing or composing charts for drum corps or marching band.

LK: Anything that requires a rhythm section in its original context. Sections like the low brass have to do “double duty” by establishing both the harmonic progression and harmonic rhythm.

HH: Do you recall the first piece of music you arranged for a drum corps or marching band?

LK: Don’t quote me on this (even though you are), but I believe it was the title fanfare from “Ben Hur.” I arranged it for Blue Rock. The corps’ director, Ted Sciarra, must have seen something in me and gave me the opportunity at a very young age. I’ll be forever grateful to him for giving me that chance. It gave me the confidence to continue writing and the vehicle to grow and learn by trial and error.

HH: I once asked you what your most popular or most requested arrangement was and I believe you said In the Stone, which Bridgemen first played in 1980 and are playing again as an alumni corps. Over the 26 years since Bridgemen first played it, numerous marching bands from middle school to college level bands have played it. Is it still your most requested chart and why do you think that is the case?

LK: I’ve certainly had many requests for In the Stone over the years, but My Favorite Things has it beaten for the most requests and for the number of times bands and drum corps have played it.

In the Stone is rhythmically complex and harmonically interesting, plus, it just plain grooves! You can’t go wrong with Earth, Wind and Fire. (Okay, there’s a favorite group!)

I’ve been told that my arrangement of My Favorite Things was “trend-setting” and that it “raised the bar” in drum corps arranging. I don’t know if any of that is true, but I sure remember having fun writing it in my head on the New Jersey Turnpike on my way to rehearsal in 1972 (I wrote it down later). I suppose its appeal lies in the many settings into which I managed to cram an otherwise corny waltz.

HH: Personally, my favorite arrangement of yours is My Favorite Things that Bridgemen first played in 1973. Do you have a favorite chart?

LK: Thank you. I’m glad you like it. I still like it, too, but asking me to pick a favorite chart is like asking me to choose between my daughters, Lauren and Caitlin. They’re all my “babies!”

HH: Which is more challenging? Writing a chart for drum corps or marching band and why?

LK: They each have their challenges. A marching band has the added colors of the woodwinds and saxes to consider, thus adding elements to the complexity of the score. On the other hand, it’s the lack of any other color than that of bras that makes writing for drum corps such a challenge.

HH: Did the introduction of three-valve horns and/or any key instruments make a big difference in the charts written for drum corps?

LK: Absolutely. It made more keys practical and allowed more use of modulations. It helped the players’ intonation and gave them alternate fingering possibilities. Mostly, it took A-flats out of jail, where they had been held prisoner by Tony Schlechta. [This is an esoteric reference, but those who get it will love it!]

HH: Has there ever been a piece of music you were unable to compose or transpose for a marching musical group and, if so, why?

LK: If there were a piece of music that I was unable to compose, it wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t know that I was unable to compose it, would I (laughs)?

By “transpose,” I suspect you mean “transcribe,” but I’m going to stick with “transpose,” because there are songs like Beyond the Sea and Mack the Knife that are so identified with modulating up a half-step every chorus, that they would be quite a challenge to perform. Groups have tried either not changing key or making fewer and different tonal shifts, but the result is usually unsatisfying.

HH: Do you believe the average person can tell the difference between a drum corps horn line using three-valve G bugles and a marching band’s brass section using B-flat horns and why?

LK: The average person? No. Not by virtue of the instruments’ keys at any rate. The average person could probably tell the band from the drum corps because of the sound of the woodwinds and saxes, or, if they were taken out of the equation, by any glisses played by trombones. Other than those sorts of things, everything else being equal . . . again, no.

HH: What if both horn lines were playing B-flat horns?

LK: They would be even less likely to tell the difference. Today’s drum corps that use B-flat/F instruments are quite literally bands without woodwinds.

HH: Besides instrumentation, what do you see as the biggest change in drum corps when comparing corps of the 1970s to today’s corps?

LK: The changes in instrumentation in both brass and percussion had such an impact during that time span that it’s hard to dismiss them, but, if I have to, I’d say the visual programs have become SO much more aggressive and the guards’ importance has risen dramatically.

Show concepts have gone through a metamorphosis, too. Don Angelica spearheaded the “total show” concept in the early 1970s when he went out to work with the fledgling Santa Clara Vanguard. Over the following decade, many if not most corps were following suit. Today’s shows are almost exclusively “total concept,” although they rarely use that term any more.

As a footnote, there are many out there who miss the “variety” concept, but I don’t see a return to that style show in the foreseeable future, even though I do see an aesthetic danger in “cookie cutter” show programming. That’s all I’ll say on that subject.

HH: Judging systems have changed a lot over the last 35
years since you first started teaching drum corps. What do you think of the current methods, DCI and/or DCA, and what do you think could be done better?

LK: You’re right, there have been many changes over the years in methods of adjudication — more subjective, less compartmentalized. Some see it as doing away with a system of “checks and balances,” where individual accountability could change your placement from show to show.

I don’t think that we’ll ever have a perfect means of adjudication. Judges are, after all, asked to compare apples and oranges, or, with the cattle-like sameness of shows and writing, Macintosh and Delicious.

HH: Do you think there is a way to base part of the score on the audience’s reaction to a show or do you believe it already is by way of the general effect judge?

LK: Pepe Nataro thought that all shows should be judged by the audience’s response. He even suggested that corps use an applause meter to determine a winner. His dream became a reality this year in Rochester, NY, where the audience voted on the three most entertaining alumni corps and the single most entertaining competing corps for the Pepe Notaro People’s Choice Award. The three “winning” alumni corps each received $2,000 and the competing corps was awarded $4,000.

Most of the alumni corps were distraught about this. After all, it goes against the alumni philosophy of performing without the element of competition. Most of these groups don’t do a drill, so how can they “compete” against the ones that do? Guess what? The three “winners” did drills. Oh, what a surprise.

Yes, I teach two of the three winners, and yes, they are entertaining and deserve tons of praise and adulation. But I’m proud of all the corps I write for and to have forced them into a competition they didn’t ask to be in wasn’t really fair. The audience’s job is not to act as judge and jury, but to show their appreciation for all the performers’ hard work and dedication.

The General Effect judges may be influenced by audience response, but only peripherally. They rely on their personal reactions and tastes to determine each corps’ entertainment value.

HH: Do you think the judges on the field need to be that close to the musicians or should they be able to do just as effective a job evaluating musical and/or marching techniques from a spot on the sidelines or in the stands?

LK: I mentioned the term “individual accountability” a few minutes ago. In an idiom where attention to detail is paramount, the judges need to be in a position to evaluate even the slightest detail. If the judges are moved to a spot where the individual cannot be scrutinized, we’ve diminished the need for that attention to detail for which we’ve strived.

HH: Do you believe the changes in instrumentation have made it easier to start a drum corps?

LK: I don’t know if it’s any easier to start a drum corps these days, but I do know that the switch to B-flat has made it easier to entice players who have grown up in a B-flat world.

HH: This year you formed Music Express in Cinaminnson, NJ, a mini-corps which performed at several of the indoor concerts this past spring. How did that come about?

LK: The Music Express is not a mini-corps. It’s more like a “sit-down-with-music-stands” ensemble. Its founder is John Pugliese, who asked me, in the fall of 2004, if I would be interested in getting involved with this sort of group. I thought it was a great idea and jumped at the opportunity to write music that’s “off the beaten path” in drum corps circles.

Some who’ve heard TME say that they’re a “breath of fresh air” and “sound like a big band” — definitely music to my ears (laughs)! Readers in the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware area who might be looking for an outlet to have some musical fun and to be good, should come check it out. The Web site is

HH: In addition to The Gypsy, what other original arrangements have you written for Music Express and have you written any original charts for other groups?

LK: The Music Express has a few originals of mine in its repertoire. In addition to The Gypsy, there’s a 12-bar blues I call Bloogle Blues, along with some old drum corps “classics” like Freak In.

I’ve written lots of original compositions for corps and bands though the years. My first original composition I wrote for Blue Rock when I was a kid. Aghhh! I can’t think of the name of it! Sorry. Some others were Epiritu del Toro, written for the Muchachos and played by them in 1972 and 1973. In 1974 and 1975, the Muchachos also played an original of mine called Pictures of Spain.

Others that come to mind quickly are Portrait of a Dying Matador, which was the Caballeros’ opener in 1974, and Knighty Knight which I wrote for the Geneseo Knights in the early 1980s. I also wrote Casals Suite for the Knights and Emerald Eyes for the Bushwackers. That should hold you for now.

HH: You are involved with several of the alumni corps. Why do you think so many of these corps have emerged over the last 10 years and what do you think makes them so popular?

LK: The alumni movement gives those players who can’t — or choose not to — compete any longer an opportunity and a place to still    perform. To some, it’s a place to reminisce and enjoy the camaraderie of old friends. The only thing that could kill this activity is to force them to compete like DCA did in Rochester this past September. Enough said about that.

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Publisher’s note: in part two, Larry Kerchner talks more about the alumni and mini-corps movement, as well as about some of the musical projects he’s worked on outside drum corps and marching band.