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1968  Risks & Rewards

A car loaded with teenagers went to see VFW prelims in August of 1968 at Belle Isle Park, in the middle of the Detroit River.  Late by an hour, we saw the empty parked busses of "the big boys" in the afternoon block. The large prelim area was already filled ten deep with people. I sat on the right side 45-yard line about ten steps from the front chalk mark, excellent seating, especially when Royal Airs wiped everyone out of the end zone with their powerful horn line passing the finish line.


The greatest number of changes in outdoor percussion competition occurred in 1968. The size, voicing and adjudication of competitive marching percussion changed. Arranger’s talent covered wider tonal spectrum now, some experiments better than others. This was the year percussion exploded.  Horizontal double tenor, triple bass, and marching machine timpani, departed from single tenor and vertical bass drum support.  Tuning, pitch separation and intersegmental “trade-offs” gave each drumline original signature. Tonality helped define accent patterns, separated rudiments and supported volume changes - more interesting and discernable mathematics - supporting longer phrasings, shorter ones more poetic. Arrangers searched for maximum density without clutter. After all, it was competition.  Would the judging system handle these changes?  It did – for the moment.  Multiple pitched bass drum sections – vertical or horizontal - could mimic melodies better than drum set players using just one bass drum,  Tenors were pitched in minor or major thirds for ensemble voice separation and readability, akin drum set tuning.  The small three-point difficulty caption came under pressure. Tenor and bass instruments needed arrangement space, reducing extended rudimental snare soloing previously relied upon such as Reilly’s Gray Ghost and the demanding 1968 Connecticut Hurricanes. 


Chet Doboe (Hip Pickles): “In ’68, when I was in Sunrisers, the Connecticut Hurricanes were big at that time.  The ’68 season was a total explosion.  All of a sudden, parts became busy.  It was detracting for the snare lines.”


Drum trophy winners at the 1968 and 1969 V.F.W. finals were the Kilties, who used two different deep-voiced triple bass sets coupled with smaller tenor voices and 4 machine timpani, perfect for music such as MacAurthur Park and Chattenooga Choo-Choo.  Comparable 3-3 or 4-4 snare/tenor lines existed with similar rudimental difficulties, low tacet times and similar arrangement complexities. Judges had to change position frequently, forcing them into quicker sampling techniques; no longer could the entire percussion section be heard well from one location. Drumlines were stretched wider.  The trade-off involving execution (tick system 1/10 a point per error, more for bad mistakes using a unit penalty), and difficulty now became paramount to accurate adjudication.  Two judges rotated “sampling” the drumline, individually missing some of the exposures, but in position to theoretically catch them all.  As with the 1957 plastic drumhead, tonal changes and shorter phrasings were accepted as positives, enhancing the presentations, offering many more drummers a chance to compete, twenty or more, large for one judge. The invention of more complex training exercises for symmetry, coordination and endurance immediately followed.  


One could easily overwrite, especially if bass drums pitches interfered with the new marching tunable timpani.  For the first time - if you exclude the Cavaliers hollow bowl models of 1967 and the Hawthorne’s 1961 Latin section – durmline’s had a wide variety of effective tonal instruments, complicating both arrangers and judges responsibility.  This was the start of mistrust between the two, pushing and pulling for the next two decades. There were now five segments to consider, three of them with multiple pitches foreign to fife and drum. In addition, there was brewing friction between corps managements and service organizations that sponsored the national championships, precursor to a five corps “Combine” in 1971 and Drum Corps International in 1972.


Phrasings of new music genre were assimilated. The proven eight measure fife and drum phrasing shortened to allow tenor and bass voices to create tonal interplay instead of just supporting snare accents.  Flam coordination rudiments increased, displaying more demand in less time. Judges still demanded technical reads. While Pratt and Markovich wrote as difficult as they could, McCormick began arguing creativity was more important than performance. The conflict between artistic creativity and competition criteria began in 1968, intensifying for years. Musical form, technical function and percussion originality combined to market rudimental drumming to a curious, excitable paying public. Corps bought these new instruments in the winter, readying for the ’68 season.  Ludwig Drum Company revved their manufacturing.  The first trio of timp-toms were carried on Memorial Day in 1968 by Des Plains (Illinois) Vanguard member Tom O'Neill, instructed by John Therion. 


Joe Wormworth (Syracuse Brigadiers): “We didn’t have a lot of problems with all the new double and triple drums in the late 1960’s.”

Jeff Collins (Capitol Freelancers): “The first guy to play singles around tenor drums was Ron Minky in 1969.  He would take single 7’s and split them up.  Gerry Kearby, Fred Sanford and Minky went to a Bay area rock concert.  They saw a drum set guy play some singles down the tenor drums and said, “Dude! Let’s do that!”  Fred wrote a piece called “4/4 For Four” that was Santa Clara’s solo in 1970.  It was for singles around the drums.”        

Bobby Craig (Blessed Sacrament): “In 1964 and 1965, there was no semblance between Vasella Musketeers, Blessed Sacrament and the Midwest.  We were close to fife and drum. It was a much different approach than the Cavaliers and Royal Airs; we were going in different directions. They didn’t play like the fife and drum corps. The Midwest drummed that way for the next ten years then it changed again with Santa Clara. Drumming was changing in 1965 and ’66.  It was 1968; we were a little bit late with the tonal writing.  Drumming was heading toward tonality more than the 26 standard rudiments. Blessed Sacrament was the last bastion of rudimental drumming as we know it….. For example, they were getting away from the Ratamacue. They stopped writing certain rudiments.”


Drum corps now won in the media. The Fall 1968 issue of the "Ludwig Drummer" features two-pages on Detroit’s national contest featuring Norwood Park Imperial bongos and Madison Scout machine timpani. Local judging associations sponsored larger and more frequent “mandatory attendance” clinics, allowing transfers of information. Instrument manufacturers jostled for attention, eagerly catering to this rising drum corps economy and its instructional power, beginning a dance between education and marketing.  Rudimental drummers were way ahead, attracting an audience. University of Detroit stadium was packed to a 12,000 capacity. Drum corps had earned a huge audience.


This creative maelstrom left educators and marching bands completely behind, hearing original arrangements they had no access to, voicing and phrasing from many different genre and instructional techniques far in advance of their short college percussion study – if they had one.  Band became percussively obsolete, without technical ability, arrangements, organization or score sheets to give chase. 


1970 Execution Sheet - Drumming 20 points (17 ticks – 3 exposure to error)

INSTRUMENT POSITION: Height, Angles, Slinging

IMPLEMENT POSITION: Position, Hold, Height of Rise, Arms Up & Down

EXECUTION: Attacks, Releases, Rolls, Singles, Diddle Rudiments, Flam Rudiments, Drag Rudiments, Taps

ENSEMBLE & TEMPO:  Uniformity of Patterns: Breaks, Segments not Playing Together, Tempo not Sustained, Balance

Difficulty 3 points


Judging opinions now widened and would never compress again as difficulty was measured with more instruments. The organizational discipline of Olympic tick judging and forays into strict rule interpretations immediately began to fray.  This was corps director’s chance at organizing drum corps physically and monetarily – which they did – but, more importantly, it was a test of philosophical judging integrity. What was the purpose of the score sheets?  Were they for the staff (creators), or the performers?  What was to be marketed - competition or creativity? 


Mark Petty (Plymouth Fife & Drum Corps, Glassmen):  “John Therion's rule of thumb was weighted 3 to 1 execution to effect; you had to risk three tenths in execution to get one tenth in effect. I judged one show in 1968 and more in ‘69.  I realized that CSJA was where it was at.  I attended many of their meetings and conventions.  I learned much about rules, judging, design, etc., there. McCormick was already phased out of judging because of his business, but he was always pushing for more effect credit. I also had a great time at the Rules Congresses meeting people outside of CSJA.  Shellmar was pushing for more effect credit, too.”


            In 1968, the buzz around packed University of Detroit stadium was "You can’t pick from the top five corps.  They are all that good!"  Kilties won but Troopers, Des Plains Vanguard, Royal Airs and the Cavaliers could easily have as well.  After the show, Arsenault, Thompson, Tuomey and others from fife and drum’s core concluded tonal voicing had not tarnished the competition. There were new rudiment combinations and larger drumlines.  Styles had not changed. What worked for single, worked for double tenors even though the drums had to be carried higher.  Each corps now had distinct tuning timbre and voicing that – combined with new rudimental variations - made for good music.. The base of that “corps sound” had widened.  It was not fife and drum, but the beginnings of tonal maturity and horizontal writing with interesting voice trade-offs. The explosion of 1968 was not just in percussion, it was in ticket sales allowing more national competitions to form. The product was now unique.

©  All Rights Reserved  "The Perfectionists - A History of Competitive Rudimental Snare Drumming"

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