Army fife and drum corps steps to the beat at clinic


Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

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Michael R. Schutz, an instructor at Longwood University, plays on a five-octave marimba during a session with students at Project:Percussion.


Stick tricks aren't the first thing you expect from a Colonial-attired fife and drum corps.

But they're one of the things you get with the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

The rat-a-tat-tat of snare drums was accompanied by some visual flash when the group gave a clinic yesterday at Midlothian High School as part of Project: Percussion.

Clinics during the seventh annual program ranged from world percussion to musical drum set concepts, from mallet percussion and cymbal concepts to military drumming. Performances featured percussion ensembles from Virginia Commonwealth University, Longwood University, Powhatan Middle School, Powhatan High School and Midlothian High School.

A "Fastest Hands" competition allowed amateurs to see how closely they could match the speed of the professionals. Old Guard drummers generally keep a tempo of 96 to 104 beats a minute, but soloists may reach 115 to 120 beats per minute.

The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps was making its first festival appearance for a clinic and two performances, which had the audience of fellow percussionists riveted.

The four-man front line clicked sticks, twirled sticks, lifted sticks; looked to the side, looked down; drummed the air and drummed the rim; all in precise formation and without missing a beat. Backing them up were three bass drums. For the performances, they were joined by five others on fifes and bugles.

Even in Colonial times, drummers made references to back beats, said Master Sgt. Robert Simpson, the group leader and a 15-year veteran on the bass drum.

"Drummers were 13or 14-year-old kids who were too young to carry a rifle. I imagine they were doing whatever they could to impress each other," he said.

  As the best of the best among fife and drum corps, the Old Guard can impress just about anybody. It's one of four premiere bands in the U.S. Army.

At events like the weekly Twilight Tattoo in May and June, the audience may be Washington tourists who don't have much of an attention span. At military ceremonies, the big brass may have seen it all before.

"If we stayed traditional, people would get up and leave," said Master Sgt. B.J. McAllister, who's played the snare drum in the Old Guard for 23 years.

"We entertain people," added Master Sgt. Richard Ruddle, who plays the drum and acts as a spokesman for the group.

One of those people this week will be Pope Benedict XVI for whom the Old Guard will perform during welcoming ceremonies as the pope visits the United States. Today, a 22-person group will march in the National Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington. Inaugural parades get a full 50-member troupe.

Performing for celebrities is exciting, but Project: Percussion has its own excitement because the audience hangs on every word.

During the clinic, the band members demonstrated the difference between Swiss and Scottish styles of drumming and talked about how they'll combine the styles for the Twilight Tattoo. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays from May 7 through June 28 at Fort McNair.

"The production staff figures out how to put the styles together and come up with something new," said Sgt. 1st Class Mark Reilly, a five-year performer on the snare drum. "No one wants to see basic, basic things. They want to see something."



Article appeared in the Metro and Business section (page B2) on Saturday, April 12th 2008
Photo: Dean Hoffmeyer (copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch, used with permission)

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