“10 musical drummers and 110 frustrated plumbers” – TBDBITL

“10 musical drummers and 110 frustrated plumbers”

Fifty year anniversaries seem to be popular right now.  The 2012 OSUMB did ’50 years of the Beach Boys’ and ’50 years since John Glenn’s orbit’, and in 2013 ’50 years of the Beatles’.   Recent TBDBITLetters have stories of 50 years of the red beret , the T-row Tail (I didn’t remember that one at all), and bus “commodores”.  And almost 50 years since the first air trip is noted in the new 2013 Script Ohio.  And about 50 years after I was in the OSUMB I’m moved to offer a reflection on director Dr. Charles Spohn’s provocative comment as quoted in both the new 2013 Script Ohio (Tradition of Excellence) and the 1989 one (Time and Change):

“It was a standard thing that the band was 110 musicians and 10 drummers.  In my time there that got turned around so that there were 10 musical drummers and 110 frustrated plumbers.  The quality of the drum section far exceeded the quality of the rest of the band.”  The 1989 Script Ohio book suggested there was a bit of hyperbole in that comment, but said it was perhaps acceptable given Charlie was the percussion instructor in the School of Music and proud of the development of the section.

That phrase had first been devised in 1954 according to Darrell Cottrill (bass drum) and written on a large piece of paper displayed, however briefly before being destroyed by raiding ‘plumbers’, at Skull Sessions at little Rehearsal Hall on Neil Avenue.  It was probably no coincidence that that was shortly after Dr Spohn had come to OSU.  Paul Workman (snare) remembers helping construct a more permanent oil painted banner for the 1957 skull sessions in St John Arena and I remember seeing it when I was in high school.  I don’t know just when Charlie thought the section had attained the lofty status of the phrase but when I first made the band in 1960 (as a simple snare drummer, not a music major) it was at least well on its way.  Charlie had been Ohio State’s first percussion instructor (1951) and had been recruiting promising percussionists.  With his interest in the marching band he must have encouraged them to try out.  In my time typically half the section was comprised of percussion majors in the School of Music.  (When else has that been the case?)  At least one on bass drum and one on cymbals for musical leadership and perhaps three of six snare drummers was common.

Before I go any further I should say something about the nature of the music played by the band at that time and in particular the drum parts.  It was simpler music than what is asked of the band today and it could be said the written drum parts were often even simpler.  Charlie must have seen the limitations of the parts and could envision something more musical and interesting but it never appeared he had written or rewritten them himself.  What Charlie did was give us guidelines as to what percussion should add to the music and expected us to apply those guidelines ourselves.    Charlie always saw the band as a “learning experience” for the members and this would have been one of the means.

What I hear as description of the role of percussion in the brass band world today is ‘emphasis’.  Percussion can accentuate the character of a composition or even take a leading role in crafting that character.  I would suggest this is different from the role of the drum section in a ‘drum and bugle corps’.  As that name suggests, there are two soli sections of nearly equal soli importance.   In a band the percussion section will only occasionally take its turn as a soli section but will always have the role of providing emphasis.

I don’t remember Charlie using the term ‘emphasis’ but it probably encapsulates what he taught us.  In practice it meant adding accents, syncopation, and crescendos to drive the rhythm and craft the phrases as appropriate for each piece.   And also pay attention to dynamics and not play too many notes which could clutter the sound of the band.   His percussion majors caught on quickly and even a “musical drummer” like me contributed.  After all, to a music lover ‘it’s all about the music.’

These simple guidelines were applied to all our music, but most evidently so in the school fight songs, Buckeye Battle Cry and Fight the Team.  The parts as we developed them at that time introduced some new elements of emphasis and those parts remain virtually unchanged today in 2013.  It is also evident we applied them to all other marching songs and dramatic pieces.  Listen to the recording ‘Saturday Afternoon at Columbus’ by Dr. Spohn’s band (1965) which mostly contains fight songs from around the Big Ten and the Pacific Coast to hear how that worked.   The snare drums are consistent in this throughout, but in this recording the section is led by the bass drums (headed by Denny Wenger) and cymbals (headed by Geary Larrick) who present quite a bold and personal application of the basic principles.

It would usually require only one time through at the first rehearsal of a show for us to take most of a piece in.  What appropriate emphasis we hadn’t intuitively added while sight reading would soon become evident.  One look at the squad leader for direction, with anyone else free to add a suggestion, and we mostly had a consensus that quickly.  The chemistry was so good that for most shows I was able to memorize all the music by the time we went out for marching practice on Tuesday.

I expect the interpretive and creative abilities of his young men are what impressed Dr. Spohn the most.

As a post script I’d like to say how taken I was with the 2012 season of the student band as recorded by ‘mbandfan2’ and others on YouTube.  The percussion parts added much musical emphasis to already wonderful brass arrangements.  And they did so in some ways we never did, the band having brought over years ago elements from the drum and bugle corps such as the use of quad toms.  While I think there will always be a need to consciously keep the corps ‘soli’ tendencies under control, I have to say I was impressed in 2012.  The only thing I would ask about is how the drum parts for the opposing school fight songs are devised.  I don’t hear the same ‘drive, drive, drive’ as on Battle Cry and Fight the Team.

October, 2013

Richard Keller

Wellington, New Zealand

OSUMB ’60-‘64


2 Comments on ““10 musical drummers and 110 frustrated plumbers” – TBDBITL”

  1. Bill Roy says:


    Enjoyed your article and sent the link along to my two TBDBITL sons. Just spoke to my brother who is excited about his February-March visit to Turangi where he plans to hike three volcanoes. The Band had a memorable season! Take care.

    Bill Roy mandfan2

    • Hi Bill,
      If your brother comes to Wellington for a rest (and see if he can experience an earthquake while here), he should get in touch with us if he wants to. You can give him my e-mail. Our phone in NZ is 04-387-2662.

      Glad you liked the article.

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