Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Evans Blog Consolidation

In order to offer our percussively-diverse group of blog subscribers the best content all in one place, we will be closing down the Evans Marching & Concert Percussion Team blog to consolidate into the primary Evans blog: Evans Percussion.

We hope you will subscribe to the RSS feed and join us in the discussion. Also, be sure to visit the Evans Facebook Page and become a fan!

Thanks and happy new year!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Evans Artist Spotlight - James Campbell (Professor of Percussion, Univ. of Kentucky)

Evans Artist - James Campbell
AGE: 55
CURRENT JOB(S): Professor of Percussion at the University of Kentucky, Principal Percussionist with the Lexington Philharmonic, music industry consultant.


THE EARLY YEARS: I grew up in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago and have a BMME and MM from Northern Illinois University.

ONE THING YOU ARE PRACTICING RIGHT NOW IS: A new multiple percussion solo that I’m writing.

MY PLAYLIST OF “TOP (5) SONGS” WOULD INCLUDE: My current mix includes Buddy Rich, Tony Bennett, Wilco, Ginastera, and Sergio Mendes.

QUICK PRACTICE TIP: Slow, accurate practice with large, fluid motions lead to an expressive interpretation.

WORST NON-MUSIC RELATED JOB, DESCRIBE: I worked for the Northwest Mosquito Abatement District during my college summers and spent a lot of time trudging through the “muck and mire” looking for mosquito eggs and larva to eradicate!

HOBBIES INCLUDE: Golf, cooking


My primary college teacher, Al O’Connor (at NIU) opened my ears to listening to the sound of my instruments as I was playing and not just paying attention to the accuracy. He helped me focus on the concept of producing a quality sound as fundamentally important to developing musicianship. He also created an atmosphere of trust, support, and teamwork that is so important in a percussion studio where everyone must share resources.


Learn how your instrument works. Take it apart, see how it’s made and put it back together. Be curious about the history and development of your instrument. Ask yourself questions and seek their answer: What important developments and design improvements have taken place since my instrument was first introduced? Who are the important composers and performers on my instrument? What accessories and resources are available that would help me sound better on my instrument? Listen to recordings of music that features your instrument and go to live concerts that feature your instrument(s).


Take every gig you can. Experience is the best teacher, so you should always be on the lookout for opportunities to work with other musicians and perform in public. Get as much experience in all facets of music as you can from performing and conducting to arranging and composing. Seek and expert teacher in your area and get regular private instruction. Join community music groups outside of your school. Go the extra step to create opportunities for yourself rather than wait for someone to contact you.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Anatomy of an I&E Solo - Scott McCoy

Every year at DCI and DCA Championships individuals from various corps let their hair down and are put into the spotlight as individual soloists or members of a smaller ensemble. They still represent their corps but this is the time for them to showcase their individual skills. It’s the Individual and Ensemble competition, or most commonly known as “I&E”.

Judging the marching arts can be very subjective which includes I&E. Armchair quarterbacks like to watch YouTube videos of various solos and proclaim “so-and-so should have won!” Debates on what the I&E competition is about, or should be about according to some, can be found on internet forum’s like Should a solo be a stale display of rudimental prowess, or should it be constructed to entertain the room? What about simply playing a blaze of unrecognizable notes to show mastery of speed? Tricks… gotta have tricks, right? RIGHT?! Well, the short answer is… yes… to all of that. How’s that for riding the fence? ;-)

The fact is I&E is a competition and if you want to place well you need to put your skills in the best possible light for the judges and the crowd. This means stay away from things you can’t pull off very well and concentrate on the things you do well. If your rudimental repertoire isn’t that great you’re going to have a tough time putting a solo together that isn’t repetitive so it’s best to learn some new things to give you more places to go compositionally. Sometimes that means learning a cool trick or figuring out how to backtstick inverted chillysickles off the left hand (kidding, don’t try that... you’ll hurt someone). What you want to avoid though is learning something so obscure that when played for an audience the difficulty is not apparent. Remember this is a competition, so unless you simply want to learn something challenging and perform it because you like it, the effect must contain a bit of the “wow” factor to the viewer and remain accessible. They have to have at least some understanding of what it is you’re attempting. Case in point... the Cavaliers’ snare line played the Casey Claw all summer in 1994 but no one knew what we were doing therefore no love from the green shirts. Fast forward to 1995 and suddenly we were getting credit for the Claw because the judges finally knew what it is we were playing and were dumbfounded nine dudes could play it together cleanly. However, it’s your solo and you can play whatever you’d like. Your goal may be to simply have fun playing in front of people, push the creative envelope a bit or maybe you lost a bet. I dunno.

Now let’s talk about General Effect. GE is a little smoke and mirrors, obvious mastery of your instrument and showmanship all wrapped up into one. In other words, a Jedi Mind Trick. A Jedi has skills so I’m not inferring that someone without skills can trick the judge or audience into thinking they’re a good player. Instead, I’m talking about selling the effect by way of setup and delivery. Some licks kill when lobbed up like a softball but when it occurs at an awkward transition or sandwiched in the wrong place, the effect is lost and the Stormtroopers aren’t fooled… those are the droids they are looking for. The key here is to record yourself or practice in front of the mirror and if you think it looks uninteresting it probably is. ScoJo’s motto is right on: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong!” If the audience doesn’t see that you’re having fun, chances are they won’t be having any fun either. Sometimes a simple facial gesture or flair to how you nailed that rimshot makes all the difference in the world. A good example, check out the 1:56 mark of my DCA I&E solo from last year. Easy lick of a low triplet roll into fast three-stroke roll. Nothing special until you add a phat rimshot with flair followed by a stoic stance proclaiming I own the room at that moment in time. A bit egotistical? Absolutely, but part of the game. Projecting inner confidence is just one way of incorporating some showmanship into your solo.

The most difficult part of creating an I&E solo is the actual composition itself. Some cats write out every single note of the solo while some have a vague idea what they’re doing and ad lib most of the solo. I’m somewhere in between but it’s all personal preference. My most successful solos have been the ones where I keep a little of the organic ad lib process while knowing for sure about 80-90 % of what I’m going to play. This works for me because I sometimes find my zone and I go with the flow while also thinking ahead to a pre-determined outline I’ve created. This may not work for you though.

Regardless of how you actually compose the solo you’ll want to pace it so the judge and audience are engaged as close to 100% of the time as possible. Am I able to do this in all my solos? Heck no, but that’s the goal. When putting licks together find ways to transition in and out that not only feels good in the hands but also serves a purpose. The term “musical” in rudimental drumming is often misunderstood as being orchestral, soft or even unchallenging. Not so! A musical idea may consist of some of that but only if it serves the purpose of a phrase’s direction. Each phrase needs to be assembled to sound good but also lead to the next musical idea. You need to ask yourself if a particular section is meant to build excitement or perhaps you’re bringing it down from a high for something more subtle. Think of your solo as a rollercoaster ride where there are ups and downs. Always find places for the audience to catch their breath as well as give your hands a rest should you be fatigued. Chances are you’ll be playing your solo about 5-10 clicks faster than you would normally practice due to adrenaline so you might suddenly find you’re out of gas at the wrong time. Know your limits. Besides, I can’t tell you how many solos I’ve been bored to tears watching because it is wall-to-wall notes. Sure, the endurance it takes to pull that off is impressive but that risks being boring with a capital “B”.

These aren’t hard and fast rules but rather observations and the results of learning through participating in the I&E process. Also, what works this year may not work next year as the activity evolves. That is glaringly obvious by watching I&E videos from the 80’s then watching something from last season. Solos 20 years apart are apples and oranges and cannot be compared, but I encourage you to watch solos from a wide range of years and take the qualities you like to put something together that is your own.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The WGI Effect - Scott McCoy

Within the past decade we’ve seen the marching percussion idiom transform dramatically into something I feel is completely amazing. There are, of course, many influences contributing to the evolution such as quality of percussion instrumentation, more exposure via the internet and the percussion element no longer being an afterthought in the design process. Marching percussion has always been extremely engaging and a powerful experience, but we’ve seen something happen in which most of the credit can be traced back to something I call “the WGI effect”.

Winter Guard International (WGI) is an unlikely source for evolving marching percussion if you haven’t been following the winter percussion activity. Indoor percussion’s roots go all the way back to the mid-70’s in the midwest where the ensembles would basically perform as they did on the football field but simply indoors. Programs were written on a smaller scale to accommodate the smaller venue but movement and playing styles remained largely the same. College ensembles such as Michigan State University and the University of North Texas were instrumental in pushing the activity through the 80’s and early 90’s but the evolution was slow going. Even in the early years of WGI running indoor percussion shows the activity hadn’t really settled on solid ground. Some groups were sticking with the established formula for programming an indoor percussion show while other groups went the complete opposite direction of more movement and less drumming. Due to the latter paired with the roots of WGI being visual we saw a paradigm shift of what kind of movement was possible while carrying drums. Groups began experimenting and trying to find ways to push the envelope visually without sacrificing what we love about marching percussion… the drumming.

With increased visual demand having become a staple of indoor programming, attention was returned to good ol’ fashioned aggressive drumming. The catch now… moving like a marching ensemble never moved before with the percussion writing becoming more dense again. Listening environments changing by the count with an abundance of personal accountability placed on each individual performer pushed the competitive aspect further and further each year.

Amplification and electronics were also experimented with and refined to where you could hear lush, warm sounds from the front ensemble that were usually covered by the battery behind them. That alone changed the landscape of marching percussion as the front ensemble could be utilized in new ways never thought possible. This allowed percussion arrangers the freedom to explore about any musical or theatrical idea they could think of using existing material or even composing something completely original.

With all this happening in the WGI world it was bound to expand into the summer drum and bugle corps activity. Before the indoor boom, drum and bugle corps was the main influence for the marching arts with winter indoor activities acting as a supplement. In the early to mid 2000’s we started seeing more of the indoor programming styles seep into drum corps shows as design teams recognized new possibilities. With many members playing all year round in both WGI and DCI we also saw skill levels in the battery and front ensemble climb, which did not go unnoticed by drum corps staff. They wanted to take advantage of what the members could do musically and visually and for many corps like the Concord Blue Devils it has paid off in spades.

Outside of the competitive marching arts, you’ve probably also noticed countless drumlines appear in professional sports stadiums and arenas in recent years. Basketball and football fans across the country are being entertained by some of the very same things born from WGI arenas. Becoming a mainstay for entertaining sports crowds is perhaps the best evidence of how far-reaching “the WGI effect” continues to be. It’s an exciting time to witness what is happening while also wondering just how far it’ll go.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Geeking out over Gear

Like most of you, I tend to geek out over the latest drum gear and want to learn which groups are using what. Heck, the 2009 DCI season was barely over and the internet was buzzing with the rumor of the Concord Blue Devils switching to Pearl/Adams equipment. It turned out to be true, but is a perfect example of geeking out over gear. Perhaps an even better example is scouring the internet for pictures of new drums as the corps receive them around June each year. C’mon… you know you do it, too. ;-)
It started upon seeing my first drum corps show in 1985 when I took note of how many corps were using certain brands of drums. I used to collect catalogs and look through all the pictures studying what made each brand different from one another. I used to pride myself by sitting in the nosebleed section of a stadium like Indiana University at the old DCI Mid-America show and lean over to my dad to say something like “those Yamahas the Blue Devils have this year [‘89] look awfully similar to the Premier’s that Star uses.” Low and behold, I found out later Yamaha had purchased a large stake in Premier which explained why those prototype Yamaha snare drums resembled Premier HTS snares.

I suppose my curiosity stems from taking in all the eye candy of drums but also my fascination with how they work. Shiny objects have always been a distraction for me (someone say chrome?) but since the first time I hooked on what seemed like a gigantic Slingerland TDR I wanted to see what made the drum tick, so to speak. My first year of drum corps with the 1986 Guardsmen Cadets seems like a lifetime ago but learning how that drum differed from the concert drum I had at home intrigued me. I was full of questions like, “Why do they call them guts?”, “What are the screws for on the butt plate?”, “When the A corps gets new drums can we use their old drums?”. Before I graduated high school I had marched six different models of snare drums and I think I could still tell you each and every unique difference between the drums.

In the summer of 2008 I had the honor of playing in the Cavaliers Anniversary Corps and marched among the 16-man snare line that played on fully restored Rogers Dyna-Sonic marching snare drums. Talk about geeking out… these drums looked incredible but what was truly unique was the snare strainer system. Rogers had developed something that was way ahead of its time and concepts in the design can be found in modern marching snare drums of today. Even the reinforced bearing edges are something that’s resurfaced in modern equipment. Forgetting for a moment a time span of roughly 40 years, it’s just as fun to drool over a 70’s vintage Rogers Dyna-Sonic as it is a brand new custom Emerald Mist Pearl FFXC with chrome.

While we see new materials and gizmos on the drums like carbon fiber layers, top snare units and venting systems, a good portion of the innovation and evolution of marching percussion sound can be attributed to the drum heads and how they’re made. New products continually change the way we think about the application of marching percussion which allows us to geek out in entirely new ways.

Have any favorite ways you geek out over gear? Leave a comment and share!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Taking the Mystery out of Tuning a Marching Snare Drum

A question at which I am often asked by students or see on internet forums is how to tune a marching snare drum. The good news is there isn’t any black magic to get a good sound but there are some steps that may be overlooked or even undervalued by some. Let’s take a look at some of the higher-level points in getting that good snare sound we all love to hear in the parking lot and stadium.

In a perfect scenario we’d be starting with new heads not yet put on your snare drum. With the heads off start with making sure the top and bottom bearing edges are free from debris. Especially if a drum is used outside you’d be surprised how much dirt and grass may collect around the bearing edges. I like to start by putting the bottom (resonant) head on first. If you are using a drum with a completely free-floating shell such as the Pearl FFX, make sure the snare bed cut into the shell is aligned with the strainer before putting on the bottom head. (Tip: If you align the front badge in its proper place you’ll be good to go.) As with any new heads you don’t want to over-tighten on the initial install regardless if it is a plastic or an aramid fiber head. Bring the head up to a good, even tension. Eventually you’ll want to bring your bottom head up quite high once it has had some time to seat itself. There is some debate about just how high, but let’s remember that for a snare drum to produce a snare sound the bottom head must resonate to vibrate the guts. A marching snare isn’t going to resonate or push as much air through the cylinder as a drum set or concert drum. This means we’ll need to make the bottom head hyper-sensitive to resonation and vibration by tuning it very tight. Again, don’t over-tighten on the first install. The bottom line is (no pun intended), the resonant head on a snare drum requires a lot of maintenance, and especially if it is an all-plastic head such as an Evans MS3. Many people like the aramid fiber heads, like the Evans MX5, not only for their sound preference but also because they require less maintenance. Food for thought.

After the bottom head is on and has begun the seating process go ahead and put the guts on. Don’t turn the tension knob on the end of the strainer real tight but put enough tension on the guts so that they are all taut. Leave the strainer in the “off” position and slide a pencil under the guts all the way to the end towards the butt-side of the strainer. This lifts the guts off the head so we can more clearly hear the pitch when they are plucked or strummed. The process of tuning guts is tedious but I strongly feel is the single most important thing you can do to make the drum sound good. The tension of the bottom head follows closely at number two. Using a screwdriver to adjust the gut tension, pluck each gut and tune them to the same pitch. There are theories of tuning the guts to a specific note or even tuning the guts differently based on location in the strand. I like to keep it simple and feel the uniform pitch/tension of each gut is more important than what specific pitch to which they are tuned. By having the guts all the same tension it allows us to better dial in the snare response with the overall tension knob on the snare strainer.

Now with the guts tuned remove the pencil, turn the strainer in the “on” position and adjust the height of the guts using the vertical adjustment knobs on either end of the strainer. This is where I see a lot of drums choked off by making the angle at which the guts touch the head too steep. An excellent trick is to start with the guts not touching the head and tap your finger on the guts at the end of the strainer. You’ll hear a distinct snapping sound. While continuing to tap, turn the height adjustment knob slowly to bring the guts closer to the head. The moment you stop hearing the snapping sound stop turning the height adjustment knob. The guts are now the perfect height and are completely touching the bottom head. Be sure to do the same process to both ends of the strainer. Since the gut tuning process probably took some time you can probably tweak the bottom head tension a little as it has probably settled some by now. You can now use the tension knob on the snare strainer to adjust the overall tension to your liking.

Tuning the top (batter) head is no different than the bottom in that you don’t want to bring it up too high, too fast. At this point we all want to play the drum so we get real anxious to crank the top head but resist that temptation where possible. In the marching world we don’t always have the luxury of allowing a head to properly seat because we’re busily changing heads during a dinner break or you have to be at the gate in 5 minutes. In a perfect world you’d be putting on new heads well in advance of a drum needing to be played on but obviously that’s not always possible. Just how tight you tune the top head is also a point of debate but the current trend, and my personal preference, is to not tune the top head to the stratosphere. This not only makes the drum more comfortable for the player, but also promotes more resonance of the drum which results in a better quality of sound.

You now have a good baseline from which to work where can tweak the overall gut and head tension, apply tape or muffling to the heads if desired, or whatever your preferences may be and situation requires. I prefer to leave the drum free from any tape or muffling for individual playing but that may not always be appropriate. There are other tricks out there like spraying your guts with acrylic, for example, but whatever you want to try be sure to not stray from the basics of tuning a marching snare drum. They will always apply.