I believe we started out The Beatles Year in the intermediate division, but it didn’t take long for our scores to push us up to advanced. Now we would find out if we were just a junior version of the Velvet Knights, or were we something more.
When it came to actual drummers, we had four. Total. Rick, Tom, Tim, and Joel. That was it. (I didn’t include myself because I was only 13 and couldn’t really do much yet.) Every other position on the court was filled by a horn player. Could our four drummers play? Yeah, pretty much. Blake had been working with them for a few years so he knew their limitations and could write to their strengths.
When the season started, all four drummers were on snare. But right after the first competition of the season, we lost our two tenor players. They had to leave the group, and we found ourselves with a huge gap to fill. Blake had to make a decision, so he asked Joel — who was only a freshman at the time — to step up. Blake asked him to relearn an entire show’s worth of music on a completely new instrument, and he asked him to do it in about a week.
And he nailed it.
He was scared out of his mind the whole time, I’m sure of it. But he did a great job. I bet Joel learned something about himself that he didn’t even know was in there. That was a hell of a thing.
I mentioned earlier that marimbas and xylophones, vibraphones and glockenspiels carried the melody. This area is known as “the pit,” and it also houses the other traditionally stationary percussion instruments. (Marching timpani still hasn’t been perfected.) The pit didn’t march, but they carried so much of the musical load. Their parts were written by a guy named Doug. I think he was an alum, but I don’t know. I’d write more about him but frankly, I never knew much about what was going on in the pit. I just know they were amazing. Every year.
And remember, we had no actual trained percussionists in the pit. My whole time there, I think we only ever had a handful of students who did nothing but keyboards year round. Most of our pit players were horn players in the fall and in the concert band. We were very lucky that, when indoor season rolled around, some of our best musicians were always ready to jump behind a marimba and master a new instrument. Watching these kids play, you’d never know they were basically speaking a second language out there.
The pit was a constant source of astonishment to me. Every year, we’d lose some amazing players because they were graduating seniors, and every year we’d find brand new ones ready to step in and fill those slots. The pit was crucial to our success, and like every other part of the drumline during my tenure, it got better every single year.
Unlike the dozen or so judges roaming the field and crowding the press box in outdoor season, indoor drumline had only three judges. Each one was responsible for a single category: General Effect, Visual, and Music. They weren’t equally weighed, I believe it was something like:
- Music – 40%
- General Effect – 40%
- Visual – 20%
Those numbers are probably wrong, but that’s not the point. The point is, what the hell is general effect? I mean, I get music. I get visual. Those were the two components that made up our show: what it sounded like and what it looked like. General effect, or GE, was more about intention than execution. This judge’s job was to observe the performance as a whole. He (and I say he because for some reason they were all dudes) didn’t get bogged down in missed notes or missed steps. His job was to look at what Blake was trying to accomplish with his show design, and then let him know if he did his job well.
GE was a big key to our success. That was where Blake’s singular vision made the difference. He was a really good big picture guy when it came to show design. He didn’t just pick four Beatles songs, for example, and play them back to back. He gave the show a flow the same way a good album has a flow. He created a unified visual performance, from the ridiculous outfits to the movements to the formations. Our job was to execute Blake’s vision to the best of our abilities.
In short, we always won visual because, well, we were always going to win visual. We would always struggle with music because, on a raw talent level, we couldn’t compete with the bigger schools that were packed with actual percussionists. GE, however, would become the equalizer. Our general effect is what set us apart, and took us all the way to scenic, sunny Wildwood, New Jersey.
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