"Game Changers" - One At A Time

As the quintessential “line drummer” during my days as a drum corps snare, I always marveled at those who entered individual solo contests. Though I entered a few in my earlier days of drumming, before I made it to “A” corps, I did not compete in a solo contest again until dared to do so by my young sons when I was in my 50s. It was a somewhat scary, but ultimately very fun and very satisfying experience that I recommend to all.

Part of what inspired me to enter a solo contest after nearly 35 years was having seen a number of I&E videos on rudimentaldrumming.com. I was amazed at the combination of speed, showmanship, skill, power, creativity, and bravado that was being displayed. It got me to thinking . . . whom among the many, many soloists of the eras were the “Game Changers?”

We can all pick our own favorites, and it makes for passionate discussions and great memories. For me, I count myself fortunate to probably be one of only a few folks who may have seen many of the “game changers” due to a confluence of geography and timing.

Here are my thoughts on those whom I personally saw perform “game changing” solos . . .

I think that the above criteria that I defined for a soloist – speed, showmanship, skill, power, creativity, and bravado – evolved and combined over the decades. I was able to see the great Frank Arsenault (1950s soloist) play as an older gentleman but still without peer for his genre. He came out of retirement and worked with our Cavalier drum line in 1974 and played solos for us from time to time. Frank had power and skill like few before him, and the added element of clarity of sound with each of his strokes that may not have been heard before him. He was an undefeated, three-time national champion and his recording of the 26 standard rudiments kept many of us in our rooms listening to our record players and off the streets for years!

A decade later, Mitch Markovich became another three-time national champion while with the Cavaliers. He was not technically a student of Arsenault’s, who stepped down as instructor right as Mitch was joining. But Mitch was highly influenced by him and did get to know him personally. Mitch added to Frank’s power, skill, and sound with the element of complexity. His sticking choices and flam patterns made him the “gold standard” for a generation . . . and beyond. Mitch played his iconic solo “Stamina” for his fellow Cavalier alum snare drummers at a reunion in 2004 when 55 of us gathered spanning the years 1954 - 2004. He hadn’t lost a thing!

Another decade later came a young man, Rob Carson, of the Santa Clara Vanguard, who if you made the mistake of considering him a “cute, young kid” you were destroyed before you even played a note. Rob, like all good “gunslingers” had an air of quiet confidence that caused you to whisper as he walked to the stage “That must be Carson.” even if you’d had never seen him. That is certainly what I thought when I saw him win his last championship in 1978, though he made his mark, so to speak, even a few years earlier though not always as the winner. Rob changed the game with his addition of speed to the equation. Less power than Arsenault and Markovich, since the times now dictated something new, Rob combined complexity and speed beyond what had been achieved beforehand.

Speaking of “gunslingers,” the next entrant evolved the art form with an intangible not previously considered by a contestant in a musical display – pure fury! Ken Mazur was, to be sure, an amazing solo drummer. He competed in solos with several corps, most notably winning it all while with the Phantom Regiment. Speed, power, and complexity had now been displayed by one drummer at one time when I saw him win DCI I&E in 1976. Though a proponent of lower stick heights than the majestic/bombastic Arsenault and Markovich, Mazur still achieved a powerful sound through the sheer force of nature that he was. You were almost afraid for his drum as you watched him perform, though you ultimately relaxed and realized you were witnessing a musician of the highest order as well. And, for an added benefit, “stick tricks” that were never considered before to be of significant merit in a drumming competition, became sincerely applauded and appreciated by his peers and adjudicators.

Where could it go from here? Had all the elements been achieved? Were we “done?” That is what we who could not do might have thought, but those who could do did more! Enter Danny Raymond, he of several senior corps. The stick heights and power of Arsenault and Markovich, the speed of Carson, the bravado and “tricks” of Mazur were all on display as Danny began a solo. But the “game change” was in the composition of his solo. All at once you felt you were witnessing a symphony, or an opera, as the grace and elegance of his solo put you in another place and time. Danny changed the game years earlier, but I witnessed him for the first time in exhibition at DCA in 2003. Old school and new school combined as only a true original could achieve.

My final “eye witness” soloist extraordinaire . . . Rick Beckham of rudimentaldrumming.com himself, as well as the Garfield Cadets, 27th Lancers, and several senior corps. Power, speed, complexity, bravado, tricks, composition all in one place. And that place was typically on the winning podium, as it was when I saw him in 2003 - 2007 at DCA, winning almost a half-dozen national championships. Doing all that with MATCHED grip made it all the more unique. Truly amazing!

Yes, there exist many other great soloists, some of whom, arguably, should be on my list of “game changers.” But many I have only seen via youtube clips. And, truth be told, I don’t know if they would have met my “game changer” criteria though I am open to being proven wrong. So let me at least acknowledge Scott Johnson, Steve Chorazy, Steve Campbell, Nat Barouch, Scott McCoy, Javier Morales, Charlie Poole, Bobby Redican, Gary Pagnozzi, Mike Lorenz, Jim Middleton, Jeff Prosperie, Jeff Queen, Robbie Robinson, Pat Fitz-Gibbon, and others from eras past and current.

Today’s modern soloists have my admiration as well. I witness speed, power, complexity, tricks, bravado, composition – and quite frankly things that move by so quickly they don’t even register with me! My shako is off to all of you brave and talented souls who have brought so much enjoyment and breathtaking memories to this old “line drummer.”