Hi guys, hope you’re well! I’ve finally managed to get sat down for a bit and get another interview typed up for you! I’m currently in the USA enjoying the LA weather as I listen back to the chat I had with Kelly Flickinger of the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Drum Line.
Kelly is the Head Percussion Instructor for the UCLA Bruin Marching Band. In addition to working with the drumline, he also teaches Percussion Methods classes, and is Assistant Band Director at UCLA. Kelly has traveled around the world touring with many drumlines as well as instructing the bands.
Kelly was kind enough to meet with me back in April to chat about the famous UCLA Drumline and Marching band, tell me all about strange hybrid drum rudiments, the band’s extensive practise schedule and the cool appearances it has made in movies and on stage with many artists.
So tell me abit more about the drumline at UCLA.
“Currently, the instrumentation we have in the drum line here is 9 Snare Drums, 6 Tenor Drums, 6 Bass Drums and 8 Cymbals. The numbers vary a little bit each year, but that’s what we have now. The meat of everything happens in the Fall; starting in September we have band camp which is a couple of weeks. Preparations start before that. People send in audition tapes, etc. Students must be admitted to the University before they can audition for
the drumline. They can’t just get in on Drumline scholarship.”
Are most people in the drumline a music scholar or music student?
“The percussion section has possibly the most music majors of any section in the band, with only four. At UCLA there are currently only around 5 undergraduate percussion majors, so a high percentage is in the band.”
So what sort of level do you have to be at to be in the drumline? How different is it from playing the snare drum part to the tenor part to the bass drum part?
“It’s been pretty competitive lately. We try to find a place for everyone within the group. Sometimes we have alternates, so they might not be in particular shows. At this level, I like to think that each instrument is on an equal footing. We have players with extensive training in each section, from snare drum to cymbals.”
Wow! How many techniques are they on a marching cymbal?
“A lot! We have an instructor who comes in to teach 40-something different techniques to the line. Yeah, you can really get into it. It’s not just the regular crash. They are many effects, and it gets pretty visual.”
Technique-wise, surely the Snare Drum and maybe Tenor parts are the most difficult?
“The snare drum and tenor drum parts, technically, are about the same. The bass drum is more about timing and syncopation. There are snare drum and tenor drum parts that the bass drums have too, but it is usually split up between all six bass drummers.”
The pieces that you play are quite long and very intricate; everything is different throughout the piece. How do you go about learning them without having sheet music when you’re performing? Are there any systems that you use to remember all of it?
“We try to get the music out to the members as early as we can. We have a pre-game show that we do for every home football game, and a different halftime show for each home football game. There are usually 6 home games a year, which equals a lot of music. Most new members are used to doing one show per season and maxing it out, so trying to learn a lot of music in a small amount of time can be a challenge. We’ll be preparing for shows that are a couple of months away at the same time we’re practicing the shows that are that week. Memorisation is something that we try to push from the beginning. The goal at band camp is to get through all the music in about a week and a half! Some of the days are from 9am to 9pm. It’s a big time commitment!”
What’s the average practise regime?
“As a full band, we practise 3 times a week for 2 hours once school starts, and then each section will arrange their own sectional rehearsal as well.”
How important is it that everyone plays the exact same sticking?
“Very! Not only for musical uniformity, but visual uniformity as well. “
What about left handed players to right handed players?
“I’m left handed, so I dealt with that. All the sticking is the same and it’s usually written in. Everything is defined; sticking is defined, stick height, everything. The system we use for heights is 1”,3”,6”,9” 12” and then vertical, which also correlates to dynamics, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, etc.. Everything is defined in sectional rehearsal.”
Do you have any exercises that you go through?
“Our exercise routine is similar from year to year, with the main focus being the quality of sound we are getting from the drum. We usually work on developing a nice relaxed legato stroke, alternating accented an unaccented notes, a variety of flam rudiments, and our double stroke quality.”
Kind of like a Moeller technique would you say, or do you try and stay away from it?
“We don’t try and stay away from it necessarily. We focus mainly on letting the stick do as much of the work as possible and producing a good sound. Because there’s so much music to learn, we do not have the time to really dive into a technique program too extensively during full band rehearsals. We just try and sneak that stuff in whenever we can. We do a little bit of our exercise routine at each rehearsal and then focus more time on it during sectionals.”
Is there any particular double stroke technique that you look into with respects to grip? Obviously, there’s the French grip, Moeller, traditional grip, etc.
“The Snare drums play traditional grip. Tenors and basses play matched grip. We don’t play French grip too much. We try to work on building a strong second note of the double stroke by doing what we call the ‘down up’ technique or the ‘open closed’ technique, where we’ll start with the wrist turned back and the back fingers closed. When the wrist goes down, the fingers open up to allow the stick to rebound. To get the second note, the fingers are closed. Basically it is one wrist stroke, two notes.”
Do you personally have any favourite drum rudiments?
“I’m a big fan of the Flam Drags, Paradiddle rudiments, Book Reports, Cheeses . . . the list is endless. I realize that the names are ridiculous!”
What are book reports and cheeses?
“A Book Report is essentially a Paradiddle with a double stroke on the first note, a flam on the third note of the paradiddle, and then one more double stroke on the last note. A Cheese is just a flam with a double stroke for the main note. Once you have the basics down, you can play around with all types of variations and start to ‘grid it,’ or move the rudiment around within a musical example.”
So a ‘grid’ is basically moving the accent along each note?
“It can be. In a simple four note pattern, you could start by accenting only the first note for a certain amount of repetitions, then only the second, and so on through all of the notes of the pattern. You can really grid anything. It doesn’t have to be an accent. It could be a flam, or a cheese, or whatever you want. The possibilites are endless.”
So where do most of your performances take place?
“We do the majority of our performances for football season at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. We’ve been there a long time and it’s great to play in front of as many as 90,000 plus people every week. For basketball season our performances are inside Pauley Pavilion on campus, which requires a smaller drumline. We usually use two snare drums, a bass drummer, a tenor drummer and a cymbal for basketball.”
All the pieces that you play are choreographed. At what point do you bring that into the equation?
“Right away! We call it the drill! Everybody will have their own coordinate sheet, which tells them where they should be on the field and how many counts it takes to get there from the previous coordinate. As we’re learning the music we’re learning the drill at the same time. Usually when we’re starting to learn the drill, we can’t play through all of the music yet. It’s good to learn them at the same time so that you build up the connection between what you’re playing and where you need to be. It’s not easy when you don’t know the music or where you’re going. That’s why we try to push memorisation of the music at the beginning. You can’t put the music on your drum and try to figure out where you’re gonna go.”
What stick do you use? You’re endorsed by Vic Firth, right?
“Yeah, we use the Ralph Hardimon”
Why is it that marching sticks are always so thick?
“To push enough air through a large drum to get the desired sound, you need a heavier stick. You get a much thinner sound if you use a thinner stick, to the point where if you’re playing softly with a light technique and light stick, you won’t even engage the snares on the bottom. Some of the indoor drumlines use thinner sticks because of volume, but we don’t really play indoors. Our Tenor drummers will sometimes switch between sticks with nylon tips and the Corpsmaster MT1A-S Marching Mallets. It is important to also note that the snare drums are at a very high tension. I believe the first high tension heads were made from Kevlar, the same material used for bullet proof vests. Other similar materials are also used now.”
Don’t the drums have snare under the top and bottom heads on marching drums?
“The majority of university drumlines just use bottom snares. Our drums do have top snares, or “guts,” but the only time we use them is for a special effect. Playing heavily on a drum with top guts can be a really aggressive sound, while playing with a soft touch can create a very crisp, light sound. They are very popular with Scottish pipe bands.”
What’s been the highlights of the UCLA Drumline for you?
“The trips and extra gigs have been most memorable. Playing with the band Linkin Park. We did a Superbowl performance with Paula Abdul. There have been various movie shoots: 500 Days of Summer, The Waterboy, Road Trip. There are lots more, many of which are on the band website. I’ve been to Hong Kong and Japan with the band. For Japan we had to design a whole show for large parade, which I will never forget. And then just playing in the Rose Bowl every week.”
UCLA Drumline with Linkin Park – 3min 50sec
UCLA Drumline with Paula Abdul
When did you first learn to play the drums?
“I started out learning to play the Piano at the age of 5, then guitar, and when I was about 10 or 11, I picked up some sticks, as my brother was in marching band at school. I used to play on his Tenor drums and that’s what got me hooked really, the marching stuff.”
It’s been very interesting learning about a whole other world of drumming that is out there and to what extent they go to make it all happen. It’s nice to know that drumming is taken seriously, the fact that the drumline has the most music majors out of the entire band shows how much drummers want to be educated and take the instrument as serious as a career.
Thanks to Kelly for taking the time to talk to me and give us an insight to what goes on behind one of the USA’s biggest drumlines. Check out some of the links to the Vic Firth website for some great resources about rudimental playing.
Thanks for reading I hope that this has enlightened you, as it has myself about a completely different side to the drumming world we most commonly know.