Interview with Thom Hannum

Cover of Percussive Arts Society's "Percussive Notes" magazine. This interview is reprinted from Percussive Notes, Journal of the Percussive Arts Society, Vol. 37, No. 1, February 1999 and was conducted by Chad Wyman.

Changes in Marching Percussion

Q: What would you say has changed the most about marching percussion from when you were performing?

A: This is a tough question because it’s certainly not any one thing. Really, there are a number of areas. Let’s face it, some time has elapsed since I last played in drum corps. However, one of the things I see is the drill demands for the percussionist are way off the map by comparison to my marching days. Chad, you’ve marched some of the contemporary style drills. But when I marched we moved straight up and down the 50 yard line. Backing up in half-steps was a major challenge for us! Obviously this falls far short of today’s drill demands. As a result, the physical conditioning is far more important nowadays, and the groups need to factor this aspect into their training routines. Let’s face it, the physical endeavor of contemporary drum corps and marching band is just far greater.

The other thing I see that’s very different are the musical selections. To put a time period on things, I last marched in 1978. Although I was in drum corps for quite awhile my last years as a player were with the Crossmen from 1975-78. Back then the shows seemed to be more of a variety show type format. It seems more groups now are playing what I would term “serious literature”, often from the same source. Along with this the tempos of the music have increased. Basically, you see a lot more faster music being performed nowadays. Probably brought about by the Garfield Cadets of the mid-1980’s, where fast movement became a big part of the visual palate. Naturally this occurred because of the changes in the musical palate.

For many people they might say the most notable change is the addition of the pit, or front ensemble. This has translated into a whole wealth of sounds that were unavailable to us when I marched. In addition to the standard battery instruments, we now have any type of percussion instrument to choose from with the exception of electronic devices. I’m sure in time you’ll see amplification and electronic equipment as part of the pit setup. Marching bands have already incorporated these into their programs very, very effectively.

Certainly, the tuning ranges are higher these days. Much of this can be attributed to the continued development of the instruments. Actually all the products… the heads and drums in particular, are able to withstand far greater tension. The percussion industry has kept pace with the desires of the marketplace in this regard.

Lastly, the indoor percussion activity has exploded over the past few years. Competitive circuits exist all over the country. The number of groups participating and the quality of their programs is incredible! The creativity is staggering at times!! Winter Guard International (WGI) has created a national stage for these ensembles, and again, the percussion industry has taken notice. Products are being designed specifically for use in the indoor environment. Whereas the indoor ensemble used to be the training ground for the marching band season, it’s quite possible for some the opposite is now true. This activity is only beginning realize its potential and scope.

Changes in Tuning & Instrumentation

Q: Speaking of tuning, could you cite some specific ways that it has changed over the years?

A: Again, the tuning ranges are generally higher now. For a long time the capabilities of the drums and heads placed certain limitations on tuning. Assuming everyone was using some type of plastic head for the top and bottom of a snare drum, the general mentality was to tune the drum as high as it could go without breaking the heads. We developed the “crank it” mentality. If you were out in the sun for long periods of time with plastic heads they would naturally stretch and go down in pitch. So you were constantly trying to bring the pitch back up to a desired range. In many cases you would wind up breaking heads, especially before performances. The heads just could not withstand the constant, extreme changes in tension. As the drum companies and music manufacturers became more involved, some organizations were fortunate enough to have certain quantities donated for free, or they could purchase their heads for a reduced cost. So, to some extent, finances effected the differences in sound from corps to corps. If you were one of the fortunate ones, you could risk breaking heads more than a corps that did not have this benefit. This accelerated the “crank it” mentality to the next stage. Always looking for a higher pitch we began double and triple hooping the top and bottom heads. This practice lengthened the life of the drum head and in many cases enabled you to tune it to a higher pitch. Still not enough!!

Now the innovation of the kevlar drum head. A great idea except these heads are made from the same material as bullet proof vests and would tend not to pull out or break. The drums did!! Only problem was the standard wood shell drum could not withstand the tension we were able to generate from the kevlar head. The result was collapsed shells. Once again the manufacturers responded and we have the free floater snare, complete with a metal ring on the top. Virtually an indestructible drum. Now we can tune to our hearts content. Plus… we introduced a 13″ snare drum! The pitch range is now in some cases so high that the drum possesses little to no resonant quality. As I see it, we never quite adapted our thinking away from the “crank it” mentality. Rather than blending with the other instruments and creating an ensemble sonority, the snare sound oftentimes is so pointed it actually sticks out of the ensemble. Although this degree of clarity may be desired, the relationship to the other instruments still needs attention.

With the multi-tenors and bass drums the tuning schemes should be relative to the drum sizes. Over time the drum sizes, especially for multi-tenors, gradually got smaller. To me this has had the biggest impact on tuning. As the drums got smaller the pitch went higher, sounding more in the alto range. Although there was a period of time when I believe we tried to tune the multi-tenors higher than their capability, it seems we have a better understanding of tuning in a range relative to the size of the drum. I think the same is true for bass drums. As we’ve added smaller bass drums, the basic register of the bass drum section sounds higher (16″ and 18″ drums are not at all uncommon). Actually these drums tend to sound more in a tenor register with a shorter length of note. Naturally, there are notable exceptions to this trend. However, with concert bass drums and timpani often stationed in the pit for lower resonant sounds, there may be a conscious decision for some instructors to separate these sounds from the marching bass drums. This might be a reason why people are comfortable with the register of bass drum sections continuing to get higher.

Having said all that it’s important to mention that I was removed from competitive drum corps for 3 years, from 1994-96, so my viewpoint has been formulated from afar. It seems we’ve now arrived at the point where some people are sensing that maybe the drum sound is high enough. More instructors are tuning for the specific needs of their group, creating a sound more suitable to a musical style, or the technical demands of their particular writing style. I am beginning to hear more variety in the tuning schemes. This is very refreshing! Remo has been conducting experiments with different types of snare batter heads. We used these at the Crossmen and they were easier to tune in a lower register. It seems we’re searching for that “next sound.” Keep your ears open! Something is going to happen!

Kevlar Heads & Playing Snare Drum

Q: Have the Kevlar heads effected the way the snare drum is played?

A: I think so… absolutely. There’s been a lot of talk and concern for players getting carpel tunnel syndrome from playing on kevlar. Consequently some instructors have made a conscious decision to use a lighter touch …..less velocity on the stroke. Full, rebounded strokes characterize a lot of today’s approach. You see this quite a bit in basic warm-ups. Personally the kevlar head has not effected my playing, or my approach to teaching technique. At the Crossmen and the University of Massachusetts we try to teach a natural approach to playing based on relaxation. Use the arms, wrist, and fingers together to develop a smooth stroke motion. Produce a good, open sound. It’s a method that continues to evolve as I learn more each year. Different aspects get emphasized. Hopefully this approach can apply to all percussion instruments. To me it’s just good basic percussion technique. One that can translate to many percussion instruments.

The other factor that impacts the kevlar sound is stick choice. As I understand it, Ralph Hardimon was instrumental in helping develop this head (Falam head) along with the folks at Remo. It makes sense then that Ralph would have a good idea of the playing characteristics of the kevlar head. Currently his signature stick, manufactured by Vic Firth, is probably the most popular model on the market. In fact, I think many players associate Ralph’s stick as the stick of choice to play on kevlar. It’s somewhat light and quick, and produces a high pitch. To me (the playability and feel are the most compatible) it is the stick that is known to the kevlar generation. It captures the ideas Ralph had in mind.

I have been doing experiments with Vic Firth Inc. to develop a stick based on sound quality. Obviously feel and playability are factors, but I tend to be more motivated by sound characteristics. Hopefully we can produce a stick that will produce a warm resonant sound. One that can blend easily with the other voices of the percussion section. I am looking forward to seeing where this leads us. By the time this article hits we should have something in production.

Kevlar Heads & Writing for Snare Drum

Q: Have the Kevlar heads in any way effected the way you write for a snare line? If so, how?

A: For me they really haven’t, although I’d like to offer some observations. On the kevlar head I find that quicker figures and faster parts are able to articulate more readily, and perhaps, more effectively. Depending on how the head is tuned, the kevlar head can offer more rebound and a quicker, more defined response. Very compatible with the faster tempi which is common in the music today’s groups are performing.

However, I do find these heads to be less versatile compared to the plastic battery heads where the 3 basic playing areas (center—1/2way—edge) have a very distinct difference in timbre. The plastic head is great for achieving changes in the sound of the snare voice. On kevlar the difference in timbre from playing zone to playing zone is less pronounced. It minimizes what the listener perceives in the way of contrast.

How Front Ensembles Changed Marching Percussion

Q: We could go on for days about how the front ensemble, or “pit”, has changed marching percussion. Could you hit on some of the major points as you see them?

A: First of all, it has allowed for more players to become involved. Those students with orchestral training, or strong skills on keyboard percussion, now have a place in the marching percussion ensemble. In a way this has helped to legitimize our activity to a greater number of percussionists, especially those who are less familiar with marching percussion. Many times I wish I had played in the pit during my marching days so I could have become more proficient on keyboard percussion.

From an arranging perspective the pit is very comparable to a concert percussion ensemble. The instrumentation is similar………all the keyboard percussion, timpani, chimes, gongs, suspended cymbals, hand cymbals, crotales, concert toms, snare drums, concert bass drums, etc. Now the percussion voice can offer melodic and harmonic content to the musical texture. As world music increases in popularity the addition of hand drums and other specialty instruments continues to expand our capabilities. We have such a wide range of sound color! So much so that our arrangements are much closer to legitimizing the sounds heard in original compositions. Musically, the development of the pit is the most significant change I’ve witnessed in my drum corps/marching band career. It has really added a whole other voice to the marching ensemble palate. I call it “the added dimensionÓ. In a nutshell, our percussion arrangements are now more musically driven and less technically motivated.

As you might expect there are some side effects. I think the pit voice has contributed to higher tuning of the battery instruments since extremely low sounds can be achieved up front. We are continually striving for a “separation of sound” as we seek better ways to achieve ensemble definition and clarity. Concert bass drums, timpani, and large specialty drums can handle the dark, low register of sound and big impacts the music requires. Also, it has contributed to the de-emphasis of cymbal lines. More and more people are comfortable creating their cymbal sounds in the pit.

Another big change is the increased involvement of mallet keyboard manufacturers. The marching medium is a tremendous outlet for showcasing product while developing name recognition. Some companies have really embraced the potential of this market. And truthfully, with their support and contributions we’ve been able to create sounds that were previously not possible. Educationally speaking, the impact is far reaching.

Drums Corps & Cymbal Lines

Q: Over the last few years many drum corps have opted not to march a cymbal line. Why do you think that is?

A: Numbers and use of personnel. Open Class drum corps are limited to 128 marching members, so how they use the personnel to create their most effective program is critical. Some groups have taken the 4-6 members of the cymbal line and expanded the size of the color guard for an increased visual impact. For others the growth of the pit is important, and this area has benefited by the infusion of additional numbers.

Musical reasons have impacted this choice as well. Due to the generous support of the cymbal manufacturers we have the ability to generate virtually any cymbal sound in the pit. Why take up spots on the field when you can accomplish the same effect from the front ensemble? Star of Indiana was my first hands-on exposure to this rationale. At first I was reluctant since I spent a great deal of time studying cymbals while pursuing my masters degree at the University of Massachusetts. During the 1980s we made great strides with regards to cymbal playing with the Garfield Cadets. Over time, however, I did see the benefits utilizing the pit to create the cymbal sounds.

Naturally this is different for those groups that have ride cymbal, or hi-hat sounds which are indigenous to the music. The Crossmen are one of those groups. We play jazz type selections. So for us the music dictates that we continue with a marching cymbal line.

Advantages of Cymbal Lines

Q: What are the advantages of having a marching cymbal line?

A: Musically speaking it seems most of the essential sounds of the score can be achieved up front. However, the marching cymbal line does offer an expanded palate of sound color to explore as well as greater dynamic capability. Hand cymbals offer a unique visual aspect unmatched in any other area of the musical ensemble. A clever arranger can take advantage of these options.

The thing about marching cymbal lines that I’ve always liked is they provide an opportunity to participate! It offers a place for those who may not be prepared, or lack the experience, to play elsewhere in the percussion section. Even the least experienced student has a chance. Maybe this is not the highest priority for the top drum corps where effect is paramount. But for those where it is not, having a hand cymbal section gets kids in the program. From here they improve their physical coordination and marching skills, and hopefully wind up moving on to different instruments over time. For these reasons I’d encourage all groups that have available space to invest in a marching cymbal line. At UMass this has helped us get a different type of student involved in the marching percussion program who otherwise might not have felt they had a place. They often turn out to be excellent members.

The Art of Arranging for Marching Percussion

Q: How has the art of arranging for marching percussion sections changed from when you first started writing?

A: Since 1979, when Chris Thompson and I first started writing for the Crossmen there have been some large scale changes and some less obvious developments. The most notable change…the music is different. Nowadays there is much greater diversity to the musical selections. More groups are playing Wind Ensemble pieces, Symphonic Band music, and Orchestral literature. Plus they are able to handle it more effectively. The development of the front ensemble has opened up a whole different aspect to what is possible. With the addition of these instruments we are more able to emulate the original music more closely than ever before.

Tacit and other issues regarding space are more widely accepted than before. You hear more space in the arrangements. A simple case……..the pit is featured, so the battery will rest. The development of the percussion instrumentation has created a more diversified palate of sounds. It is no longer necessary for each section to play in such a continuous manner.

With the addition of the pit voice and the expanded instrumentation of the percussion section, an obvious change is the use of more than one percussion arranger. It is rather common to have one arranger for the pit and one for the battery. In essence we are in the age of specialization within the percussion family.

As I mentioned before music is being performed at rather fast tempi. This is huge!! The first lesson I learned teaching the Garfield Cadets was how to write for tempos of 184, 192, and 200 beats per minute. This is completely different than the era I grew up in where we generally played music at a cadence, or march, tempo of 112-120 beats per minute. As you know this allows for a lot more to occur inside the beat. Actually it’s a whole different style of part writing. With the faster tempi you must be very careful to consider the quality of sound at all times. Sometimes the difficulty of the part (rhythmic density, sticking, or movement) is not conducive beyond a certain tempo. The arranger must determine where these cutoff points exist. The ground rules are clearly different at extremely fast tempi!

Another huge change is the impact of drill demands. This is as big as any of the other considerations we’ve discussed. Contemporary drill design enables you to create a variety of enhanced musical effects. Especially sound source effects where the battery elements are split and positioned at a considerable distance from each other. The successful arranger must consider playability issues. Does the part project given the staging and field placement? Can it be performed consistently given the movement responsibilities? Less obvious is voicing within the drill presentation. As a writer, what do you do when the drumline is in the back of the formation? How do you write so the percussion is audible when positioned on the back hash? Or even further backstage? To me this is totally different than how you would write if the battery is positioned in the front third of the field. So… the impact of drill staging is immense!

To say the virtuosity of the multi-tenor and bass voice is vastly improved is an understatement. From a technical standpoint these performers are as proficient as snare drummers. Audiences are continually wowed by the audio complexity and visual appeal of multi-tenor drum combinations and cross over patterns. This has developed to the point where books and articles are devoted to this specific topic. Tenor playing has become somewhat of an art form in and of itself. With the bass drum section, anything is possible. All rudiment combinations are being utilized. The nature and complexity of divisi parts is overwhelming.

Overall I think the writing style is somewhat less rudimental than it used to be. There are more orchestral influences. Percussion features tend to be part of an entire musical selection rather than an independent production which only showcases the percussion section. This change is driven as much by visual considerations as musical. However, it has become increasingly common to incorporate overt technical displays as part of the program layout. The challenge now is for us make sure these segmental features are incorporated within the context of the musical line.

Lastly there is the influence of the current judging system which evaluates achievement rather than the “lack of error.” This is a major shift in emphasis from when I first started writing. Achievement tends to be more musically driven and easily viewed from an ensemble perspective. As a result the arrangements are clearly more musical and require a higher degree of ensemble skill. As I see it, the only unfortunate spin off is less proficiency in the snare voice with regard to small details. The pure execution has suffered somewhat. That undeniable clarity of sound produced by the “lack of error” in a performance is not as apparent. Can we “achieve” both?

Drill & Movement vs. Music Writing

Q: How big a role does the drill play when you write?

A: In the end it’s huge! And those writers who know how to manage drill considerations ultimately produce much better shows. Movement and position on the field effect playability and projection. With today’s drills there is increased opportunity for segmental scoring, particularly when planned in advance. In the best of worlds a prepared, and coordinated, moment will more often produce a much greater effect……..and take less time to teach, perfect, and maintain. In these instances the musical orchestration and visual presentation are inherently coordinated.

I learned a great deal about this topic during my years with the Garfield Cadets from 1983-1988. The staff at Garfield had many truly outstanding individuals. George Zingali was the drill writer and smack in a phase where he was changing the face of visual design for the marching music activity. Through all the various discussions and experiences, my writing scenarios seemed to break down as follows:

  1. Effects, or moments that were discussed and figured out before I wrote the percussion music. These are usually the easiest sections to write and the most effective since the overall objective and parameters are predetermined. Often this involved some visual segmentation of the battery elements. Sometimes it’s as easy as…when the snares play everyone rests, and so on. I distinctly recall numerous examples of this with the Cadets in the 1983 and 1984 programs. The result was overt and clear voicing, both musically and visually, with the intention of maximizing the overall general effect of the piece.
  2. Drill that was figured out after the music was written. We would break down the counts and determine who was the lead voice, brass or percussion, for each phrase. Then within each particular phrase, we determined who was the lead voice in the brass section and who was the lead voice in the percussion section, and how they matched or related to each other. George Zingali’s job was to put the right people in the right place at the right time. For as spectacular and crazy as his drills looked, they we’re impeccable in their visual staging of the musical elements.
  3. The final level was those moments where the tradeoff was the visual effect. With someone like Zingali, you just gave him the ball and allowed him to create. Then after you put it on the field, you might need to rescore things in order for the percussion voice to work. If the effect or contrast was worth it, I would gladly rescore for the benefit of the total show.

In the end most of our change was done to facilitate the construction of the program. But there was quite a bit of small scale change to facilitate the mechanics of the drill move. What is being played at the end of a phrase? Is the intended dynamic level achievable considering location and movement demands. Is the part compatible with a change of direction? Stopping or starting a drill move? These areas of the music are critical to developing a consistency for the performer. As a writer you are balancing their musical and visual responsibilities so the combination of the two is consistently achievable. Experience will guide you with these decisions.

Writing for Indoor Drumlines

Q: What factors should you take into consideration when writing for an indoor drumline?

A: The most obvious consideration is acoustical. Performances will now take place inside rather than on a football field. The dynamic capability of the hall has a tremendous impact on the clarity and definition of the arrangement. At a certain point you reach the acoustical limitations of the environment. A simple alternative is more segmental scoring with the battery elements. Indoor performance is conducive to exploring the low end of the dynamic spectrum. Say from mezzo-forte on down to the most subtle of pianissimo sounds. Although you are using a marching percussion instrumentation, particularly for the battery, the treatment, in my mind, is entirely different.

The primary musical objective is projection and clarity of all melodic and harmonic ideas. You must be able to hear the tune! Therefore the pit becomes more of the audio focus. Battery scoring should reflect this objective and volume levels will be softer. Naturally there will be certain points where a “tradeoff” occurs. You may want a visually flashy section, a more densely scored passage, or a section which demonstrates the upper end of the dynamic spectrum. These are choices…but you are always accountable musically. Try not to be distracted by the excitement of the visual design and movement. Close your eyes and listen. What do you hear and what does it sound like? This is always a good check point.

Having written a number of indoor programs the length of sound is a fundamental consideration. Tuning can help this area but dampening techniques and how they are managed in the written score is crucial. The arranger must take particular care with cymbals, gongs, timpani, bass drums, and other resonant instruments. Always consider where the sound stops. Especially with a hand cymbal section. Neglecting the dynamic balance and articulation of hand cymbals can really mask the content of the arrangement. Worst case scenario is when the cymbal dynamic is so loud the material is at times unreadable. More typical are those points where the pitch definition of the pit voice is masked, or the snare voice lacks clarity due to the similarity in timbre between the cymbal sound and snare voice. Keep an open ear and listen for these situations in your arrangements.

My sense of sound production for the indoor setting was heightened through my experience with the Star of Indiana and Brass Theater from 1994-1996. We did use both battery and pit instruments inside. Having the opportunity to listen to the percussion voice in places like the Lincoln Center, Tanglewood, Ravinia, and the Hollywood Bowl helps to shape your idea of what constitutes good sound production, tone quality, and appropriate dynamic settings for a given venue.

If we want the indoor percussion activity to be considered a musically viable art form, then we must have music that is arranged specifically for this acoustical setting. It is a completely different sound than the outdoor environment. There are some things that can be borrowed from the outdoor performance venue that naturally serve as building blocks. And there will be times where you choose to tradeoff the musical clarity of the arrangement, opting for an outdoor treatment which may have more energy or could produce a higher level of excitement. This may, however, cancel out the melodic or harmonic content. These are choices you make as an arranger. I would hope over time we can learn how to massage these instances so all the voices are clearly audible. Who knows? We’ve certainly accomplished a great deal in the percussion world that many never thought possible even a short time ago. You never know how things will develop and evolve. I would certainly hope we could arrive at the point where everything which is played is heard. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Indoor vs. Outdoor Drumlines

Q: Should you approach the tuning of an indoor drumline any differently than an outdoor line? If so, how?

A: I think so. The ability to produce a shorter note length is important. Investigate muffling schemes and dampening devices that shorten the decay of the sound. Implements are being developed specifically for use in the indoor medium. I wouldn’t be surprised to see manufacturers modify our standard instruments so they perform better indoors. However, when it’s all said and done, the biggest impact on tuning should be the musical style, or medium, you are trying to portray.

Talent & Ability Level

Q: Has the ability level changed at all from when you were performing?

A: This is a tricky question…but I think I have a fair answer. To me the difference in tempi and tuning have created a comparison of what I would describe as an open style versus a closed style. When I played, and before my time, things were somewhat slower and more rudimental in nature. We were influenced by the old rudimental masters. They played with a very open sound and a very open visual appearance. And an exaggerated use of the arms was typical of their approach. Not many buzz rolls or textural sounds. Nowadays we have much quicker tempi and more orchestrally influenced writing. More buzz rolls and smooth, sustained sounds. Even the hybrid rudimental figures currently in vogue tend to have a much more closed, flashy sound. Overt high sticking moments have become standard. The vocabulary has evolved considerably.

I feel today’s groups are more musically proficient from an ensemble perspective. I’m not certain if the individual expression of the player is as developed. Again the musical selections tend to direct the style of parts being written and played. It’s just different. Better or worse? I’m not sure. Just different.

Since the melodic aspect of the percussion section was very underdeveloped when I marched it’s obvious that the pit personnel of today’s groups is infinitely superior. To me this is a direct reflection on the quality of student being produced from high school and collegiate programs. We have some truly outstanding school ensembles that are on a par, or better, than most drum corps percussion sections. These programs are requiring students to perform both soloistically and as part of the ensemble curriculum. As a result drum corps is attracting a more musically rounded percussion student.

Where things go from here I’m not exactly sure. I do, however, think the opportunities provided by the indoor circuits and the music we choose to play will help pave the way of the future. Remember…always strive to define “the sound.” The possibilities are endless. Keep your ears open. It should be a fun ride!

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