By Gerry Shellmer
In my opinion, listening to a drum corps percussion section is as musically boring as a politician’s campaign speech. Imagine how interesting and musically rewarding a drum corps contest would be if the instrumentation were not limited to mere drums and cymbals. The contest would evolve into an enjoyable show and therefore a more saleable product which would realize more $$$ for the corps.
Honestly, consider the amount of musical orientation drummers receive who play in even the finer lines in the nation. Hopefully they will at least learn how to read music and play in time. They learn to play with precise execution – the snare drum, the tom tom, bass drum, cymbals and tympani. Whether or not they learn to play these instruments with the proper technique is in serious doubt.
Before a percussion student is accepted into any good music college, he must demonstrate a degree of proficiency on a keyboard mallet instrument, usually the marimba. Where does he get the training? Certainly not in the drum corps!!!
It seems only fair that a youngster who devotes as much time in practice as is demanded of him to play in a good drum line should receive a more rounded musical experience. The addition of mallet keyboard instruments would help to accomplish just that. I can’t help but recall my first day at Berklee College of Music when six drummer boys left an arranging class because they had never seen a note written on any space other than the E space, bass clef. A drummer plays drums, a percussionist plays all.
American Legion, V.F.W. and the “Minute Men” decided that the range of “bells” must not exceed ten tones, and the use of chromatics would not be allowed. In fact, they ruled this “illegal”. They of course didn’t mean “illegal” in the strict sense, but for the moment and I beg you, don’t dwell upon it, but imagine if you will a set of bells being taken to jail by the sheriff and his deputy. The sheriff, of course, carrying the lower octaves (because they are inherently more in tune) and his deputy carrying the remainder. Seriously, if there is a logical or rational reason for this rule, it completely escapes me.
A tympani is capable of producing a full octave (twelve pitches) and is not considered to be a melodic instrument. On the other hand the glockenspiel is a melodic instrument, and yet, according to this inane ruling, it must not have the range of the drum.
There is not and never was a bell lyre made consisting of eight or ten bars. The instrument defined by the American Legion in 1969 as a bell lyre is nothing other than a set of bugle bells.
Bugle bells consist of a series of eight or ten metal bars producing a diatonic scale (no chromatics). This instrument functioned adequately with the old diatonic G – D bugle. However, when the tuning slide was put to use on the bugle making chromatic scales available, the bugle bells became obsolete. So obsolete are these bells that all but one manufacturer ceased production on them years ago, and can be purchased only by special order.
Prior to 1967 a bass drum was considered to be a double headed instrument carried in an upright position. In 1967, I with the Boston Crusaders introduced two single-headed bass drums joined together and carried horizontally. Today it is uncommon not to find the double and/or the triple bass drum used in this manner. Certainly if this modification of a bass drum could be accepted, it seems rather irrational that “bells” may not be carried horizontally and played with two mallets. American Legion and V.F.W. “must be carried upright, held with left and played with right hand only.” Oh how asinine!!!