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How drum corps prepared us for careers in U.S. Military music groups

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff
by Julie Angelis Sodee

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 2).

For years I’ve contemplated writing a story about how drum corps provided the foundation for my career in the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” Recently, I compiled statistics from my colleagues in the other special bands in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

I was overwhelmed with the stories I received.   This article will share some of those stories for those of you who might wonder what you could actually do with all that drum corps experience after you age-out.

It was May 1979 when I stared in admiration as my older cousin marched around playing double tenors in preparation for Memorial Day. The next week I marched in those parades proudly crashing the cymbals that I had to polish the night before.

I spent nine years literally growing up in a little corps from Massachusetts called the Satellites in Leicester. Our “tour fee” was just 50 cents a week, nothing in comparison to what those of you who march today are expected to pay. But since my family ran it, it was a year-round activity for us.

If we weren’t practicing, marching in parades or competing, we were selling candy bars, holding tag-day sales or helping out with weekly bingo by selling donuts and coffee.

Our house became a hotel during the summer. Organizing who showered when and how much milk was needed for breakfast was not always easy. In order to get a hot shower, I woke up first, which led to taking inventory of the milk and cereal.

I marched snare with the Nashua, NH, Spartans and was timpanist of the Boston Crusaders where I learned to embrace difficult tuning on the timpani.

However, my early years were what gave me a solid foundation. Basic M&M (marching and maneuvering) once a week during the winter, sales/public relations and organization skills: three components to my job as a percussionist who sometimes marches, is a public affairs liaison and principal timpanist of The U.S. Army Concert Band — Sgt. First Class Julie Sodee
In an e-mail from MUC Todd Nix, he writes, “I was a contra player who ended up making the tuba my profession. Being head drum major here at the U.S. Naval Academy is my primary collateral duty and one that came easily to me given my drum corps background.

“The military side of the job draws striking comparisons to my drum corps roots. It certainly made the transition to military life a breeze. As you can probably relate, our classical training did not always appreciate drum ccorps as viable music-making.

“I found that at IU [Indiana University] I kept it a secret mostly because my colleagues and teachers didn’t understand the activity.”

Yet, in a statement that says it all, he writes, “I owe my professional career to drum corps.”

In addition to the various jobs available to musicians, all military bands have wonderful support staff which includes audio engineers, human resource personnel, stage hands and librarians.

Staff Sgt. Jennifer Mills, a librarian for “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, marched with Southwind from 1995 to 2001, was on the brass staff for Southwind in 2002 and Glassmen from 2003 to 2004. She has been a kitchen volunteer the past two summers for Southwind.

She writes, “I learned how to be flexible, regardless of the circumstances presented. If the bus broke down or we were too far away from the grocery store, I learned how to be creative and improvise when necessary.

“I also learned how to look beyond myself and my own needs to see the big picture: a drum corps is a machine and everyone and everything has their role in ensuring you roll down the road smoothly.”

Lots of people worry about “boot camp” or “basic training.” Sgt. First Class Kenny Rittenhouse, who plays trumpet in the U.S. Army Blues Jazz Ensemble, had this to say about marching in the 1984 Crossmen:

“It started out nice, but the middle of summer until the end of August was horrible . . . WORSE THAN BASIC TRAINING!”

Staff Sgt. Adam Lessard, a euphonium player in the U.S. Army Concert Band, said that he was in much better shape after marching with Spirit from JSU in 2001 than he was after Army Boot Camp.

One guy who sings in the U.S. Army Chorus, who wishes to remain anonymous, is probably afraid that we’ll make him march if “the band” finds out he marched in the bass drum line of the 1985 Colts. After basic training, singers don’t march! There are various singing positions in the military bands for anyone interested.

Master Sgt. William Browne, drum major of “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, played soprano in the historic 1986 Suncoast Sound. He said he learned more about leading an ensemble in drum corps than in any private lesson. He listed five things about the activity that prepared him for his Marine Corps career:

• High level of commitment to something greater than yourself.
• The ability to take and give directions.
• Hard work ethic and the ability to work long hours.
• Time away from family and friends, time on the road.
• The satisfaction of seeing your hard work pay off with a successful performance.

I was extremely impressed with how many of my colleagues taught and/or still teach drum corps. The following are just a few. Staff Sgt. Rob Marino, timpanist of The U.S. Army Field Band, taught Capital Regiment in 2004, Madison Scouts in 2006 and is currently on the staff of The Cadets.

Master Sgt. Tom Rarick from The U.S. Air Force Band was on the staff of the 1997 Cadets, has taught the Bluecoats since 1999 and the Troopers since 2007.

By far the most impressive teaching resumé goes to Chief Master Sgt. Edward Teleky, drum major of The U.S. Air Force Band. He taught Bridgemen in 1985 and 1986, Sunrisers in 1990 to 1993, New York Skyliners from 1993 to 1995, Santa Clara Vanguard from 1993 to 1995, the Japan Scrapers from 1994 to 1996 and was music director and one of the founders of the San Francisco Renegades senior corps. The staff with the Renegades was literally a “who’s who” in the activity which included: Lee Rudnicki, Scott Johnson, Murray Gussek and Frank and Shirlie Dorrite, to name a few.

While studying at Julliard, Ed Teleky was encouraged to audition to become a band officer in the Air Force. At the time he was too busy subbing for numerous shows on Broadway. He landed the gig as percussionist for the revival of “The King and I”, The show’s star, Yul Brenner, died, so Teleky reconsidered the military and auditioned for The Air Force Ceremonial Brass.

He thought he would return to New York City after his enlistment, but as he writes, “I ended up liking the job and the people, and have gotten to do some really cool things because I have had awesome supervisors.”

Of all the e-mails and voice mails I received, I’d like to share one of the most humorous. I noticed that Master Sergeant Kent Baker, assistant drum major of The U.S. Air Force Band, and Master Sergeant Jay Niepotter, clarinetist in “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, both marched in the 1981 Belleville Black Knights from Illinois.

I asked Kent if he remembered Jay and he replied, “Yes, I know Jay from WAAYYY back in the day . . . 27 years ago, when I played on a single valve/rotor French horn G bugle. I didn’t feel old until right now.”

Well, I didn’t feel old until I realized that of the 48 people who responded to my request for information, only three marched before me: Sgt. Major Myles Overton “Special Drummer” of The U.S. Army Band who played snare and was drum major with the U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps from 1975 to 1977, Chief Master Sgt. Edward Teleky, who started his marching career with the New York Lancers from 1976 to 1980, and Master Sgt. Matt Niess, lead trombonist with The U.S. Army Blues Jazz Ensemble, who wrote that he marched with the Crossmen “1979-ish.”

In retrospect, I remember my first summer away from drum corps when I played with the BUTI orchestra at Tanglewood. Until then, I hadn’t had much experience with the snobbery toward the activity that I loved.

I was surprised that percussionists who couldn’t play a flam drag or clean roll to save their lives would scrutinize the very thing that developed my skills. That was almost 20 years ago and respect for our activity has grown immensely. So many musicians who marched drum corps have gone on to careers in music. I’m proud to be among the alumni.

More information can be obtained at www.usarmyband.com. There you’ll find links to all of the other military ensembles.

I’d like to extend special thanks to Gunnery Sergeant Kristin Mergen, Public Affairs Chief for “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, for assistance in compiling her unit’s information. Although she never marched corps, she was extremely helpful with this project.

My survey results follow . . .

The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” — Ft. Myer, VA

• SGM Myles Overton, U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, 1975-1977, snare/drum major
• MSG Matt Niess, Crossmen, 1979-ish, baritone
• SFC Julie Sodee, Satellites, 1979-1987 — 1979 cymbals/1980-1987 snare, Spartans, 1987-
1988, snare, Boston Crusaders, 1989-1990, timpani
• SFC Kenny Rittenhouse , Crossmen, 1984, bugle
• SFC Christian Hinkle, Crossmen, 1984-1985, bugle
• SFC (anonymous), Colts, 1985, bass drum
• SFC Mario Ramsey, Southwind, 1988-198, snare
• SSG Brian Archer, orthern Aurora, 1989-1990, quads, Bluecoats, 1990-1991, quads
• SSG Aaron Cockson, Cavaliers, 1991-1992, French horn
• SSG Rob Moore, Northern Aurora, 1993-1994, pit, Cavaliers, 1996-1998, pit
• SSG Adam Lessard, Spirit from JSU, 2000-2001, baritone

The U.S. Army Field Band — Ft. Meade, MD

• SSG Brian Spurgeon, Colts, 1995-1997, pit/snare
• SSG Rob Marino, Raiders, 1997-1999, two years bass drum/one year snare, The Cadets,
2000-2003, bass drum

The Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps — Ft. Myer, VA

• SFC Karl Sauter, Bayonne Kidettes, 1981-1984, drummer
• SFC Richard Ruddle, Bridgemen, 1982, snare
• SSG Brian Barhart, Garfield Cadets, 1986, snare
• MSG Rusty Smith, Blue Devils, 1991, soprano
• SSG Joshua Salazar, Blue Stars, 1999, snare
• SSG Mark Metrinko, The Cadets, 1999, soprano
• SSG John Brandt, Spirit from JSU, 2002, drummer
• SSG Timothy Harkcom, Phantom Regiment, 2002, soprano
• SPC Scott Jamison, Capital Regiment, 2006, drummer

The U.S. Navy Band — Washington, DC

• MUC Stacy Loggins, Sky Ryders, 1980’s, snare
• MU1 Curt Duer, Garfield Cadets, 1986, pit
• MU1 Chris DeChiara, Boston Crusaders , 1994, pit
• MU1 Erica Schafer, The Cadets, 1994-1996, soprano
• MU1 James Swarts, Blue Devils, 1990s, snare
• MU1 Kevin Taylor, Garfield Cadets, 1980s, percussion

The U.S. Naval Academy Band — Annapolis, MD

• MUC Todd Nix, Santa Clara Vanguard, 1988-1992, contra

The U.S. Air Force Band — Washington, DC

• CMSgt. Edward Teleky, New York Lancers, 1976-1980, snare, Garfield Cadets, 1980,
Bridgemen, 1983-1985
• MSgt. Kent Baker, Belleville Black Knights, 1981-1983, mellophone/guard, Geneseo Knights,
1984-1985, Cavaliers, 1986, Knights of the Noble Callahan, 1988
• MSgt. Ryan Haines, Sunset Regiment (AZ), 1983-1985, baritone, Blue Devils, 1986
• Major Keith Bland, Sky Ryders, 1988, baritone
• MSgt. Chris Martin, Florida Wave, 1988, percussion, Southwind, 1992
• TSgt. Rob Smith, Magic of Orlando, 1990, percussion
• MSgt. Daniel Valadie, Expressions (LA), 1990-1991, percussion, Crossmen, 1992-1995
• TSgt. Nate Levy, Glassmen, 1992, percussion, Star of Indiana, 1993, “Brass Theater”, 1994
• MSgt. Tom Rarick, Cadets of Bergen County, 1994-1995, percussion
• TSgt. Randy Gorman, Magic of Orlando, 1994-1995, percussion, Cadets of Bergen County,
1996-1997, “BLAST!”, 1999-2000
• TSgt. Brandon Chaney, Star of Indiana, “Brass Theater“, 1995, baritone
• TSgt. Joe Bello, Cavaliers, 1996, baritone

The U.S. Marine Band “The President’s Own” — Washington, DC

• MSgt. Jay Niepotter, Belleville Black Knights, 1981, baritone
• MSgt. William Browne, Suncoast Sound, 1986, soprano
• Staff Sgt. Samuel Barlow, Cavaliers, 1994, 1996, baritone
• Staff Sgt. Jennifer Mills, Southwind, 1995-2001, brass
• Staff Sgt. Brian Turnmire, Spirit from JSU, 1995, alto bugle soloist
• Staff Sgt. Ryan McGeorge, Velvet Knights, 1996, baritone, Santa Clara Vanguard, 1999,
“BLAST!”, 2000s
• Staff Sgt. Amy McCabe, “BLAST!”, 2001-2003, trumpet

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Drum Corps World is published as an on-line electronic magazine by Sights & Sounds, Inc., Madison, WI. It is supported by advertising from manufacturers, service providers, corps, circuits and show sponsors. The publication began in October 1971 at the same time Drum Corps International was formed and has been produced continuously as a tabloid newspaper until April 2011 and on the Internet since May 2011. It is released monthly, as well as six additional e-mail blasts, one in late June, three during July and two in August.

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