An Interview with Mike Dennis
by Scooter Pirtle
Originally published March 1993.
Mike Dennis was born in 1948 and marched with the Rebel Devil Drum and Bugle Corps of Elkton, Maryland in 1964 and Blue Rock Drum and Bugle Corps of Wilmington, Delaware from 1965 through 1968. He began instructing Blue Rock from 1969 through 1973, moving on to the Philadelphia PAL (Police Athletic League) Drum Corps in 1974.
After helping the PAL Drum Corps reach the American Legion Championships, he moved on to the Crossmen in 1975. Two years later the Crossmen won the American Legion National Championship and made it into DCI Finals for the first time.
Dennis retired for "the first of about a half dozen times" in 1977, but reentered the Crossmen organization when the corps prepared to fold in 1985.
As the vice president [and eventually president] of the Crossmen’s Board of Directors, Dennis helped oversee the phenomenal comeback of the Crossmen during the 1980s that continues today. Dennis remained with the corps until the end of the 1991 season.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dennis was a music student studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. An interest in the acoustics of music led him to take courses on acoustics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
With three different degrees in music and several graduate degrees, Dennis went on the road to perform, but found that he didn't really want to earn his living doing his music. Subsequently, he got a "regular day job" and has been working his way up the ladder ever since.
Dennis is currently Vice President of Consulting for a company called Science Center International of Philadelphia, a JapaneseAmerican joint venture that does international trade consulting. Dennis helps representatives of American firms find business opportunities in Europe and the Far East. He also brings companies from outside the United States to help them get started in America.
This interview took place on January 12, 1993.
SP: You've been into bugle alteration and modification for a very long time.
MD: What I've been trying to do is take things that ought to be made into lamps and make them musical instruments.
SP: OH YEAH!
MD: In 1968, Drum corps went from approving the G-D bugle to approving the G-F bugle. I traveled up and down the East coast of the United States with a torch and a hacksaw converting instruments from G-D to G-F. So, my affinity of tearing things apart and then putting them back together is not brand new.
SP: I guess it was almost a necessity at that time.
MD: Well, if you wanted to get something done, you sometimes had to use "creative means." I will even admit now-since it is past the statute of limitations-that in 1968, the drum corps that I was with had mellophones in the key of D. Mellophones in D have never been legal and were never "Kosher" and we only used them for one year, but we had horns custom converted in the key of D so that we could actually have a "middle voice" in the middle of the ensemble.
SP: How well did it work?
MD: It worked fine and we made it through an entire season without getting caught!
SP: Some things are worth the electric chair. What were some of the more common modifications you did to bugles during the 1960s and 1970s?
MD: Most of what I tried to do was create the ability to play another note on the horn or to playa particularly bad note on the horn a little better. It didn't matter how many notes I had on the instrument as long as I was missing a couple, it always limited me as an arranger with what key I could write or what I could do with the instrument For example, in the days where drum corps allowed you one piston valve, a rotary and/or a slide, almost all my horns had a piston, a rotary and a slide. We would buy the horns with slide adapters on them and mount rotary valves on the slide adapters. Consequently, we had an extra A-flat that nobody else had.
SP: Is there one overwhelming problem with having the entire brass choir in the same key?
MD: The biggest acoustical problem is the fact that there really is no middle voice. What we've got is a soprano voice with a bunch of different colors to it; a baritone voice with a couple of colors to it and a "tuba" voice with the contras. What we're seriously lacking, if you stop to think about it, is the middle voice. Whether you do it with a French horn or a mellophone, you're still an octave apart. If I use French horns, which could easily play in the baritone register and begin to come up out of it so we could avoid all the notes that are bad on the instrument because of acoustics. The ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth partials are the parts of the horn which are horribly out of tune. Unfortunately, those partials are the notes that end upright in the "middle" of the horn's register and end up being used the most 50, I now have an instrument where the worst notes on the horn are "acoustically" where I make them play all the time. That doesn't work.
If I could have pitched that French horn a fourth or a fifth higher than the baritone voice-so it was in the key of C or D-then I would have an opportunity to put the instrument's playing range where it would be in tune on the horn. Then I've got a "bridging" voice that goes between the baritones'3hd the sopranos.
Whether I do that with a French horn that's higher pitched than a baritone or a mellophone that's lower pitched than a soprano, makes no difference.
SP: I guess you don't think that the French horn bugle is obsolete?
MD: I've used them twice since 1968. When I was at Blue Rock, Larry Kerchner was the music arranger at the time and Red Windsor was head of the brass caption. We were one of the first drum corps ever to do away with the French horn and go with all mellophones. We were trying to get away from the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth partials of the horn.
SP: Traditionally, the mellophone bugle's design has very closely followed the design changes of the F mellophones used by the marching band community. Has drum corps reached a point where it is leading the evolution of the mellophone instead of following it?
MD: Clearly. Last week I was in New York and I happened to pick up a Giardinelli catalog and noticed they were selling mellophones. Well, the same people who are making mellophones for drum corps are the same people making them for marching band. It's DEG making mellophones for marching bands. It’s King making marching band mellophones, evolutionary instruments developed from the drum corps mellophone. Then there were Blessing and Yamaha who currently don't make instruments for drum corps, but I'm sure their instruments are relatively similar to their drum corps instruments.
When you really stop to think about it, the band mellophone in F and a drum corps mellophone in G aren't very different. In fact, there are a lot less differences between the instruments used by marching bands and drum corps than many people think.
The major differences between a drum corps contrabass and a recording tuba are the positioning of the neck, the positioning of the valves, and the fact that the bugle is pitched a minor third lower. If you take the bugle, take it to a concert band and set it in your lap, nobody is going to see the difference.
The only instrument that I think is significantly different between bands and drum corps is the drum corps soprano.
The drum corps soprano has a significantly different bell and sound compared to the trumpet. That has to do with the bell taper and the bell flare and things like that. The-mellophone bugle is two half steps from the F mellophone. All the other instruments are three half step difference between B-flat and G.
I'm sitting here in my home right now and in the room that I'm talking to you from there are trumpets, marching band baritones, mellophones, euphoniums and all kinds of other instruments, even a tuba. I could take most of these instruments and put them into a drum corps person's hand and they would never know that it was a different instrument.
SP: Well, you could probably put most things in a drum corps person's hands and they wouldn't know the difference. While we're on the subject, how do you convert a recording tuba into a contrabass bugle in G?
MD: Here's a "conversion situation." As the Crossmen were coming back in 1987, we needed additional contra basses. We were seriously thinking about buying contrabass bugles. At that time, King had basically stopped making bugles. DEG was making instruments, but they were instruments that we weren't particularly happy with and we wanted to do something a little different.
In addition to that, because of the economies of making an instrument strictly for drum corps, the instrument gets to be expensive. They're made in relatively small production runs and in smaller production quantities than band instruments. Therefore, they tend to get more expensive because of all the tooling that is needed. I turned to some of the guys that were teaching the corps that happened to be band directors and asked "What would you guys pay for a good recording tuba?" They said $1,500 to $2,000, less than half of what a drum corps contrabass was selling for at the time. We decided that maybe we should take a look into making our own. We went to New York and played about thirty different recording tubas in one day.
SP: A date which will live in infamy.
MD: I'm still in shock. We played about thirty horns and did something that a lot of people do, we pushed the third valve down, which lowered the horns into the key of G. Then we pulled the other two slides because at that time you were only allowed to have two valves. Then when we played the horns, we began to see which horns happened to play best in the key of G. After trying out a lot of horns, we settled on the Yamaha YBB-201.
We ended up getting one of these horns through a local dealer and started figuring out where we would need to cut the horn and add tubing, etc. This didn't seem to be all that strange to me because I had been "reconfiguring" horns for twenty years.
We ended up building one and liking it We ended up buying four of them from Yamaha which we converted into contrabass bugles by the following steps: We reconfigured the lead pipe so that it pointed out the side of the horn like a contrabass instead of pointing out around the bell like a recording tuba (for "over the shoulder" playing). Then We added additional tubing in order to drop the horn into the key of G.
I've actually developed a tuning "kit" so that I can pull the tuning slide out of the tuba, put this kit in, put the same tuning slide back in the other end of the kit and it converts the horn from B-flat into G (after lengthening the slides). I can do it on a "nonsoldering" basis with a convertible tuba. We're even beginning to sell those to drum corps.
Now we get the economies of scale with a horn that is produced fifty or one hundred at a time, several hundred a year. It's a good legitimate instrument to begin with. The quality and consistency of the instrument is good.
Five years later, we can do all the conversions and deliver a silver horn for less than $3,000.00. That's a significant savings over what a contrabass costs today.
SP: Very much so. Is this the same approach you take for the other voices?
MD: We've got a conversion kit for the contrabass and baritone. I can take a Yamaha marching baritone, and by adding some additional slides into the horn, convert it into a drum corps baritone bugle.
SP: That's amazing. I guess that's one of the most unique things about convertible instruments. You can switch them back and forth between their regular concert pitches and drum corps pitches. What would be some of the advantages to having instruments with this capability?
MD: Some of the small corps have rented their instruments out to some of the local marching bands during the fall months and have actually made income from horns which would normally be sitting in the truck collecting dust for a couple of months.
There's a corps in the Midwest that has purchased a set a Yamaha tubas and Yamaha marching baritones that will be converted and used during the summers and rented to marching bands during the fall.
Eventually, you'll purchase the instrument and the conversion kit from your local Yamaha dealer. The kit will come with four slides. When you receive the instrument you pull the tuning slide and the three valve slides, put on the slides that come in the conversion kit, put the original slides back on the horn. Now you've got a bugle.
SP: What are you doing with the mellophone?
MD: I'm designing the horn in G and, at the same time, designing the horn in F. The only difference between the G horn and the F horn is going to be the four removable slides.
SP: Playing wise, is the horn pretty consistent before and after the conversion?
MD: Wayne Downey asked me last year for a horn that would play consistently from the low E to the A below high C. He went past those ranges about four times during the Blue Devils show last year. At one point in the show, he wrote-in the course of an eight measure phrase-from the low E to the high C on the horn. Wayne said that he has never had a horn that in tune that consistently.
Donnie Van Doren [past brass instructor of the Garfield Cadets, Casper Troopers and now with Star of Indiana] is my next-door neighbor and he used to joke that the Yamaha contra the Crossmen had was the only "legitimate" instrument in drum corps.
SP: That's incredible. In designing a "kit” for the mellophone, have you discovered any modifications that might make it a better instrument?
MD: Many of the current mellophones being produced have more of a French horn-like bell which gives it a softer and less piercing sound. Some of the earlier mellophones made ten to fifteen years ago had a much more abrupt flare to them (much like a trombone bell) and, therefore, had a little bit more piercing edge to it, a little bit more "cut” through the sound.
What we're looking at doing right now is taking the softer, "squishier" French horn kind of sound and making it a more piercing sound by putting an abrupt flare on a "tighter" bell.
SP: Do you think that's the direction future mellophones are going to take?
MD: That’s the direction mine are going to have!
SP: Most drum corps today are trying to achieve the "darkest' sound possible, more like a French horn. Do you think the mellophone should move away from mimicking the French horn and try to claim its own identity?
MD: The request that I've gotten from the drum corps is to put a little more edge back into the instrument so it cuts a little better through the ensemble. They want to be able to separate the tonal color of the mellophone from the soprano and baritone line. It needs to be a little stronger of a voice all by itself.
SP: Hasn't most of the work you've done with corps during the last couple of years been with jazz oriented corps?
MD: Most of the work I've done during the last couple of years has been with the Concord Blue Devils, a very jazz oriented corps. I've also had some discussions with two classically oriented corps, both major DCI Finalists. We're talking about a classically oriented sound, but still providing the mellophone an opportunity to cut through the ensemble when necessary.
SP: There has certainly been a lot of emphasis placed on the mellophone during recent years.
MD: You've really only got four voices: soprano, mellophone, baritone, and contra. Since people tend to put the melody on the top, the only options you have are soprano and mellophone.
One of the major problems with have with the drum corps ensemble is the difficulty changing the tone color because you basically have one instrument. In contrast, when you go to an orchestra you've got numerous tone colors at your disposal. You can bounce around and keep things interesting by use of all of those colors.
Years ago someone said to me "You may like ham, but when you go to a smorgasbord, you don't sit there and take all you can eat of the ham, instead you want to get a little bit of everything." The problem in drum corps is we've only got four flavors.
SP: Vanilla, vanilla, vanilla and vanilla?
MD: No, soprano, soprano, soprano and everybody else. In fact, drum corps brass lines are a lot less diverse now than they were a few years ago. A few years ago you had corps that had sopranos, flugelhorns, alto horns, mellophones, French horns, baritones, euphoniums and contras. So there were seven or eight instrument types. For the most part today you have sopranos, something in the middle, baritones, and contras.
SP: Is there a reason for this lack of diversity? Many corps are "streamlining" their hornlines to the fewest types of instruments possible. Are they giving up tone color in return for intonation?
MD: Every time you design a new instrument, it is going to have its individual intonation characteristic problems. So if I've got seven different instrument types out there, I may have seven different sets of problems.
I talked with a drum corps last year that went out and bought some brand new baritone bugles. They absolutely loved them, thought they were wonderful. At the beginning of the season they thought the baritones were so good they decided to get some euphoniums to darken up the bottom of the baritone section. They hated the euphoniums.
They loved the baritones and they didn't like the euphoniums. Now you've got a drum corps that has made a $6,000.00 commitment for a section of instruments they don't like.
SP: Do you see any major changes in the future of drum corps brass? Is there something that you would like to see happen?
MD: I think you're going to see more mainstream, professional grade instruments in drum corps. Acoustic music is not a growing business; fewer and fewer people are bothering to learn to play the violin, oboe, trumpet, etc. As a result, you've got a lot of mainstream companies that are tooled up and manufacturing instruments for a shrinking market. As those markets continue to shrink, those companies will be looking for ways to grow market share by selling horns. One of the ways to sell horns is to compete in a business that they have no share in right now.
From a marketing standpoint there are only two ways to grow volume: you either have to grow the total market or steal share from someone else.
SP: That's pretty ironic when you think about it. Traditionally, the bigger musical instrument manufacturers have not been attracted to manufacturing bugles for drum corps because the market share is so small and specialized. What would you change about drum corps if you had the chance?
MD: I've been involved in the ruling that legalized G-F horns, the ruling that legalized the two valve instrument and the three valve instrument.
SP: What will be the next change?
MD: Moving something into the key of C or D to put the middle voices into something other than the key of G. I think we'll stay in the key of G and we will eventually legalize the use of another key for the middle voices.
Why are bugles pitched in G? After twenty five years in the business, I finally realized why. Over several hundred years of using a bugle as a signaling instrument in military operations, it was used to get a message to the front of a cavalry group or to get the message across a valley to someone else. That's why we play "charge" and "retreat" and things like that.
I think that distinct sound that is drum corps comes from the fact that the instruments are in the key of G and, therefore, that key sounds the loudest outside.
I think if drum corps were given the choice of any key of instrument they wanted, corps who choose to use instruments in the key of G would sound louder than corps who used B-flat instruments. Consequently, I think it makes sense to leave them in the key of G.
SP: That's a very convincing argument.