Emotion in Motion

In 1979, I stepped onto a stage in Birmingham, Alabama to compete in my second DCI individual snare drum competition. Only one year prior I had competed in my first DCI I&E and taken 6th place. This was to be a different performance with a much different outcome. Just twenty four hours prior to my solo performance the Crossmen drum and bugle corps were shockingly eliminated from the DCI finals. It was a day that brought much anger to me and yet I believe, to this day, deep in my heart, that it was just the edge I needed to give the performance of a lifetime. Although the emotional part was the “icing on the cake” so to speak, there were a lot of other elements that went into the playing and performing of that solo. In the follow story I discuss my thoughts, my fears, the discoveries and developing of techniques that would bring to me the 1979 DCI individual snare drum title.

One of the things I discovered throughout my days of solo snare drumming was that a lot of the people viewing solo snare performances, although in awe of the pure speed and sound, have no idea what is being played. They have no idea of the difficulty of certain patterns and the amount of time it takes to master them because they only see hands and sticks flying around with no appreciation of intricacies and what is being laid out before them. In most cases, I wasn’t going to worry about the average Joe having complete understanding of what I was playing or attempting to do. For them, the pure spectacle of a world class solo snare drummer was enough in terms of entertainment. But when it came to my peers and ultimately the guys who were deciding my score and where I finished in a competition, you better believe I wanted to make clear the content of my solo. At one point, I discovered that by exaggerating my motion on certain strokes I would come to not only execute better with a smoother playing style, but also allow the viewer a better chance to appreciate the nuances within my solo.

Now I’m going to be honest with you. I didn’t just wake up one day and decide that creating a new motion in my playing style was going to help me win championships. The process would be one discovery followed by another and would actually begin in 1979 about 4 months after my first DCI individual snare drum competition. After talking with my father about what it would take for me to break into the top three of DCI individual snare drummers, we both agreed that I needed some guidance from someone who had been there. It was at that time that another member of the Crossmen snare line, Ed McColly, told us of Steve Chorazy. Steve had won the DCI individual snare title two times; back to back in 1974 and 1975. He was from the west and had been a part of the best percussion programs in the country. He would come to the Crossmen to teach in 1979 and also write my new solo. Believe me when I tell you that I never thought I would be able to play half the things that were written on those two pages. This was a style of drumming that I had never been exposed to before. This was a journey that I was about to embark on that would open up a whole new thought process in drumming and force me into discovering new methods of approach in all areas of my playing.

I basically had the solo in my hands by January of 1979. I knew I had plenty of time to work on it and being the procrastinator that I am I sort of dabbled with parts of the solo throughout the winter months and into the spring. I must say that this kind of approach does work for me. I know that I sometimes put things off until the last minute . . . OK, all of the time. But I like to take baby steps with new things. I like to understand the mechanics of what I’m doing inside and out. To step away for a time and let the information find its proper place. It really helps me to do a better job in the end. It’s like that for me with most everything in life not just drumming. So in my attempt to learn these new patterns, I needed to break it down. Because there were so many new concepts to deal with, such as inverted rudiments and hand to hand flam patterns, it was necessary for me to be very methodic in my approach. In order to understand and execute what I was playing I needed to literally start at the beginning again. One stroke after another I would watch, listen, and experiment with different feelings in my grip in order to get the best results. A very big part of my approach was accentuated motions of my strokes. These motions really helped me to understand the new patterns I was working on and store the process to memory. I can tell you at the time I was working on all of this, I had no idea of what I was doing, where I was headed or if I would even get through the solo in time for the DCI championships. But as with many things in life when you enjoy what you’re doing you find a way to get it done.

While this methodic approach was good for the learning process of my solo, I would eventually have to tame some of these motions a bit because of the necessity to gain more speed and increase tempos. But the seed had been planted for not only a technique of learning, but eventually a way for me to demonstrate, more clearly, the real art and content of rudimental snare drumming. This process would also help me later on in my career as a teacher. As 1979 began to unfold and the weeks got closer and closer to the DCI championships, I was combining sections of the solo together and the time I had spent on motion was really paying off. The first part of my solo was a section of flam patterns that included flam drags, flam taps, hand to hand Swiss triplet flams and hand to hand 16th note straight flams. In order for me to play through this section and have it recognized for difficulty and musicality, I needed to constantly accentuate the nature of each one of these patterns. They were happening quickly. Not just in a tempo but one measure could contain three or four different rudiments all with a different stroke approach. Some of these strokes were more relaxed rebound type strokes (flam taps) and others were clearly downward forceful type strokes that required a precision grace note execution. (Hand to hand Swiss triplet flams)

After making it through the opening flam section of the solo, my focus would shift immediately to a speed roll section that would also move in and out of 16th note triplet patterns with various stickings. Once again it was important to let the viewer see and recognize the various patterns and degrees of difficulty that were going on. I liked my rolls to be full in their sound. Fast, yes! But also fast with substance. Kind of like the difference in sound between a Honda Civic and a Dodge pickup truck with a hemi, both rolling down the highway at 100 miles per hour. Both are visually impressive but one also sounds impressive. Playing rolls was a strong point of my early days in drumming. I guess it was that machine gun sound as well as the feeling in my hands and in my gut that made it so appealing to me. It was one of the main roots of my playing that would eventually come together with the concepts of this new solo and work together in bringing me my first DCI Individual Snare Drum title.

In those days we also had to break down a roll as part of the competition requirements. So aside from all this focus on my motion and development of sound quality, I also needed to play a great roll. I did this with what I refer to as endurance training. I would head out to a track that surrounds a football field and start rolling. This was not to be a walk in the park, trust me, as I viewed it like a weight training session. The focus became that of playing until my arms were ready to fall off. Burning and cramping were almost a guarantee while doing this type of training. But once again, the hard work would eventually lead me to the right place. During the days of Mylar (plastic) drum heads, there were many methods that taught to play through the drum head (in theory) as opposed to on top of the head. It was a great way to build your chops and your sound quality. These days, with Kevlar drum heads, you wouldn’t last a month with that approach as the surface is less forgiving to your downward thrust. It has been well documented about the change in approach that took place after many injuries in the early stages of Kevlar drum heads. I feel lucky in many ways to have grown as a drummer in the age of Mylar heads. The technique I was able to use in those days allowed me to truly become the drummer I am today. I have played a number of years now on Kevlar drum heads and I can tell you that it only took a minor adjustment for me to get used to this surface but the benefits of my training and playing on Mylar heads are the foundation of my sound. For without it, I would not be the drummer that I am!

So on we go into the next section of my solo which I commonly referred to as the “Orchestral” section. In the 1970's, rudimental drumming was appreciated but looked upon by many schooled percussionist as un-educated or lets just say, non musical in its nature. OK . . . I can buy that. I have witnessed some of the finest orchestral percussionists in the country and they do have a style and technique that puts them in a category of their own. So while many rudimental drummers of the 1970's were attempting to further their knowledge of percussion, it became popular to incorporate some of these more musical or sensitive passages into the very aggressive and flashy rudimental solos. In my experience, I noticed that it was coming mainly from the west. Guys like Steve Chorazy and Rob Carson, who were under the influence of Fred Sanford, were studying with the likes of Anthony Cirone at San Jose State University. Tony Cirone was the author of one of the most widely used snare drum method books of our time, “Portraits in Rhythm”. It was from this very book that Steve Chorazy pulled some of what made up the middle section or “Orchestral” section of my 1979 solo.

OK . . . Now I’m really in trouble. My experience in orchestral percussion was little to none at this point. So with that in mind I tried my best to get a crash course in orchestral drumming. I went to see the Philadelphia Orchestra perform a couple of times that year. Alan Able was the principal percussionist back then and I watched as he performed beautifully and gracefully and filled the theater with a warm, precise and inviting snare drum sound. The influence I gained from these shows along with my limited experience in high school orchestra was just enough for me to realize the difference in style and the contrast that needed to take place in this part of my solo. The ironic part of this whole thing was that the exaggerated motions I had incorporated to separate complex rudimental patterns would now come into play as an expressive aid in a slower more dynamic “Orchestral” type drumming. Not only did these motions help create the dynamic contrast that I needed to pull this section off musically, but it also became a visual enhancement to the solo. It would become one of my favorite sections in the solo for two reasons. One, I was learning to express myself in a different way and two; it was a chance to breathe before I unleashed a litany of explosions that would be the second half of my solo.

Coming out of the Orchestral part of the solo, I would transition with a stick toss section that was very difficult. The tossing of the sticks was only a visual to an ongoing rhythm that was increasing in note value as the toss neared the end. Once again, a true understanding of motion and how it applied to this section was critical to the success of the stick toss. I would spend hours going over and over the motion of one hand before I would actually release the stick. I dropped my sticks many times during practice but because of the time I spent understanding each motion and release, I knew in my heart that I would never drop a stick while performing in a contest. I suppose, in some ways, you could call it a “toss of faith”. But I always felt like it would work. I never doubted for a minute that I wouldn’t successfully get through this section. I know that I have heard this from champions of many different activities. You work hard and tireless at your craft and never doubt for a moment your ability to succeed. I know I felt those things when I would go into competition.

As I entered the next part of my solo, it was important to stay loose and stay focused. Out of the stick toss came another series of fast rolls and 16th note triplets. I liked to transition with those patterns because I played them well. The next section was a multiple bounce section. Basically multiple notes on one hand or the other. This required a lot of technique work to get this section to a good tempo and maintain that tempo through the passage as I added more notes to each hand. A lot of feel and experimenting took place with the fingers and thumb. I have seen it referred to as “push and pull” technique. As with everything in your playing, you are constantly working together with your rebound to create the different looks, sounds and feels of solo snare drumming. This was certainly no exception. In this section my motion was very much a visual aid. The hand that wasn’t playing was moving upward in an almost conductor type motion. The more notes that were added to the hand playing, the longer and more dramatic were the sweeping visuals. These were the things that the audience really enjoyed. I was giving them a show. People love drama and lets face it, a snare drum solo without a little drama, although appreciated by the experts, is going to be a little boring to most viewers.

Now it was on to the back sticking section. Initially this section was one tempo all the way to the end of the solo. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. No ... just kidding, but really... It happened the night before the competition. First let me tell you that the back sticking section was primarily made up of ratamacues. At the beginning of the section it was just one turn here, one turn there, but as I moved on I was ripping back sticks every third and fourth note. They were flying around like pigeons in the windy square. Here the motion of the sticks had to be consistent as to not hit the rim of the drum. Also, because a back stick can lose volume just from the obvious stroke difference, I tried to turn the stick and get a stroke out of it as well. Not easy!! It took a lot of work and understanding of motion within the stick path. So here’s what happened the night before the competition. Out of nowhere, during one of my many runs of the solo that night, I got to that section and froze. I don’t know what happened but I just stopped and then started in on the back sticking section at half the tempo it was suppose to be played. I started to speed it up and continued an accelerando all the way to the end. It was a mistake but it worked!! And now I had a back sticking accelerando. What a concept. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me over the years and told me how much they loved that section. I would always say thank you and smile just a bit because of the way it came about.

The end of the solo coming out of the back sticking was fast and furious; 32nd note paradiddles, a reprise of the solo introduction, more paradiddles, more rolls, quick two beat ritards followed by fast singles to the end. The last stamp I put on my 1979 solo was all about the emotional part of it. It was during my performance in Birmingham, and totally spontaneous. On the last pattern of singles to end the solo, I started moving to my left like a crab. I hit the last note and shot my stick into the air and flipped my body around as to put an exclamation point on the end. FINE!! I knew I had done a great job. I could feel it in my body and I could see it in the face of the audience. It was a very emotional performance, and one I will never ever forget. Emotion in Motion! That was my 1979 DCI individual snare solo.