Pride and preservation: further thoughts on alumni drum and bugle corps

by Gary Dickelman, DCW staff

If you have been following the alumni scene through DCW, then you no doubt read my last article, “Build it and they will come” (April 2004, v. 33, no. 1). Thanks to many readers who e-mailed your agreement with my sentiments.

Indeed, there is much more to the exciting, expanding world of alumni drum and bugle corps than reliving youth (to paraphrase a common thread in the messages). Since writing the article, I have performed with two alumni corps in the “Cavalcade of Music” (March 27), manned a DCW table and covered the event as a staff writer. These are three unique vantage points from which to further consider the meaning of the craft, which is the topic of this article.

“What are we trying to preserve?” is the question I posed to corps mates, fans and supporters from the perspective of a journalist. I was particularly interested in hearing from the drummers who defined the rudimental craft in the elite corps of the 1950s and 1960s.

I find this group generally to be humble and understated, while having almost superhuman abilities with a pair of sticks. I have spoken with members of the famous Air Force Drum & Bugle Corps (Bolling AFB) quartet that placed backsticking firmly on the drum corps map. It was this group, circa 1958, that inspired Bobby Thompson to add backsticking to his Blessed Sacrament line — one that was arguably the best in drum corps of the era.

There is a great deal of pride that these fine drummers have in their craft and the craft over which they are master is complex, difficult, musical and innovative. Generally, rudimental drumming is considered a means to an end. In corps of the 1950s & 1960s, it was an end in itself.

As we consider the details of what the alumni drum lines strive to preserve, we must bear in mind that judging of the era was based in large part on execution, vis-à-vis the tick system. A drum line started with a perfect score, then tenths of a point were deducted for errors that ranged from not playing in unison to individual execution errors, and for errors in technique.

Difficulty of repertoire played a huge role in ensuring that clean execution was not merely the result of oversimplifying parts or players being tacet. In fact, difficulty was both the great equalizer and that which underscored the extraordinary.

A number of instructors of the day, including Thompson, perfected and taught the so-called teacup grip for the left hand, in which the little finger is trained to keep both of its joints bent and the proximal phalange pulled back. It is not a natural position for the hand any more than Mr. Spock’s “Live long and prosper” gesture.

Drummers of the day trained the finger by using elastic bands, tape and other means to familiarize the muscles and tendons with the requirement. The left hand was positioned with the palm perpendicular to the ground, for a variety of reasons.

First, the stick would bounce more freely, while at the same time more firmly controlled. The left arm could relax more and the action for a clean, unison attack — a lift — was natural.

The right hand had its own discipline, starting with a main pivot formed where the thumb pinned the stick against the index finger joint (with index finger bent) and the remaining three fingers acting as a kind of cradle to control the stick. To borrow terminology from aeronautics, a rudimental drummer of the era was always in control of pitch, bank and heading if the line was to compete successfully.

Besides the 26 standard rudiments (varieties and combinations of flams, paradiddles, ratamacues, drags, ruffs and rolls), there were Swiss rudiments — Swiss triplets, inverted flam taps, pata-flaflas and the odd ducks like six-stroke rolls, staggered/syncopated diddle patterns and “air accents” that, when included in complex rudimental patterns, created interesting articulation that confounded judges while delighting fans.

With few exceptions, the maximum number of drummers in any section that could expect to execute to elite competitive standards was five, particularly for the snares. The seven or more snares in the lines of today are clean only by modern standards, but not by standards of the “tick” era — no matter how seasoned they are.

The techniques used to achieve the necessary level of cleanliness were tedious, but necessary. For example, snare drummers would practice the grace notes of flams within the constraint of a space of a half inch from the drum head; i.e., the stick would be constrained from rising any higher by a physical barrier, adding precise meaning to the word “grace.”

Two drummers would play their parts or exercises with one hand — one playing the right and the other the left — to the point where anyone listening but not looking would swear that it was one drummer.

The lines would also practice repetitive rudiment patterns endlessly, typically four loud followed by four soft (e.g., paradiddles), until one could not detect a difference of a millimeter between stick positions from player to player, and a line of five snares sounded like one.

The drum lines of the Chicago Cavaliers (Larry McCormack), Boston Crusaders (Gerry Shellmar) and Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights (Bobby Thompson) raised the bar on the craft through distinct and coincident eras.

Thompson was reared in the fife and drum tradition in Sons of Liberty from New York. He continued to play with New Jersey Field Music through the 1980s, until days before his death.
The openness of the rudimental style, the classic solos (e.g., Crazy Army, Grandfather’s Clock), and the rudimental bass drum unique to the fife and drum genre found its way into the BS repertoire, along with backsticking, dragadiddles, patafla-fla’s, Swiss triplets and a variety of “tricks and miracles” that only a seasoned and talented line could dream of mastering.

The Cavaliers introduced melodic lines into drum solos via tuned bass drums and featured technically difficult and entertaining sticking to enhance the general effect score.

The Boston Crusaders further syncopated various diddle patterns, enhanced Swiss triplet patterns, used half-rudiments and re-introduced bells to the drum line with the memorable Unsquare Dance in 7/4 Time and Pop Goes the Weasel. They also used cymbals in unique ways, e.g., to end phrases and solos.

To be sure, there is a great deal of fine rudimental drumming in drum corps today, but I would argue that it is in the process of re-emerging after an ostensibly tacet era. As I listen to and watch videos of DCI contests of the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, my gut reaction is that nothing of any consequence is being played, for the most part.

Much of it sounds very good, but close    observation reveals a lack of precision, technique and difficulty that were hallmarks of eras gone by. Yes, there are some exceptions — a few Blue Devils and Phantom Regiment lines, for example — but generally, it appeared for many years that the rigors of the art were disappearing.

In a recent conversation with rudimental performer, teacher, clinician and adjudicator Danny Raymond Jr., he pointed out that Blessed Sacrament’s practices of the 1960s are . . .

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