If you played in the Ohio State Marching Band during any point of its history, and you’re still living to tell about it, the same age-old questions bring conversation as to the band then, and now. There have always been issues; there have been pros and cons, and questions without official answers. But not anymore. On the eve of another Ohio State football and band season, read some perspective on ‘time and change’ with former director, Dr. Paul Droste.
(Ed. Note: Originally published last August, our interview with former Ohio State band director Paul Droste drew one of the largest reader responses for the year, including many former bandsmen. But if you missed it then, perhaps you might enjoy an encore presentation now…the truth about the Ohio State marching band, then and now, and the irony of how former director Jon Waters his job.)
There’s no question about it. Since the fifth grade, when I spent $50 of my own money to buy my cousin’s old Conn cornet, I wanted to be a part of the “sound” that I first heard on a copy of the band’s Volume 2 album, recorded in the late 50s under then director, Jack O. Evans. There were a few school songs, yes, but what really captured my imagination was the band’s ability to play classic military band literature with its unique all-brass instrumentation. That sound….!
Needless to say, I practiced, I dreamed, and when I got there in the fall of 1970 I nervously waited to get the word after three days of September tryouts. It was the first great accomplishment of my life when first-year director Paul Droste shook my hand and welcomed me, with about twenty other freshmen, to the band.
I played lead trumpet in the band for three seasons, two Rose Bowls, and countless other band engagements…and I know mine is more miraculous than any other bandsman’s story; because during that same period I was also a varsity starting pitcher on the Ohio State baseball team. And, never once in my three years did I attend more than one day – one day – of fall baseball practice. Finally, before my senior season, the baseball coach called me in to tell me that if I didn’t show up for fall practice there would be consequences. Being hurt for much of my junior season I had to compete for a job. So I moved on, eschewing my senior year with the band.
Always, during my four years of college baseball, Dr. Paul Droste was a constant supporter from the stadium band room, from the School of Music (where I was an education major), and a frequent attendee at Buckeye baseball games when I pitched.
On bus trips, or Rose Bowl flights, Droste and I would often sit together and talk about baseball. Paul was a huge fan of the Cleveland Indians, having grown up there, and told me over and over about the Indians and the 1948 World Series against the Boston Braves.
He told me stories about Bob Feller, Gene Beardon, the left-handed, knuckleballing rookie phenom of that ’48 team – stories of Al Rosen, Lou Boudreau, and other standouts from his memories. Frankly, baseball was his happy place, and perhaps a better one than his position as director of the most recognized college marching band in America.
In the forty five years since I was a member of the The Best Damned Band In The Land (TBDBITL) there have always been conversations amongst old members about the band then, versus the band now. Because, it’s not the same band – not by a long shot.
Instrumentation is different now. It’s co-ed now, compared to the all-male band with which I marched. It’s bigger, it’s more culturally in tune with the musical preferences of modern society, and frankly, to my trained ear…it just sounds different.
Generationally, there are many who say the band then was better than the band now; and they have their reasons. Some even say the band fell victim to political correctness with the firing of popular director Jon Waters prior to the 2014 season, for reasons given that the band had become a sexualized culture that promoted harassment within the individual members of the band. Some took the allegations seriously, while others laughed at it, recalling similar behavior and activities dating back to the band’s beginnings.
Paul Droste is a good friend, and in my view…the finest ‘musical’ director in the band’s history, combining an appreciation for both the organization’s tradition and evolution. He’s been a frequent correspondent with me, and a mentoring figure to many who knew him as director during their band years, and in their post-band years as alumni band members.
So when I asked him last spring to sit down with me for this interview – to discuss the questions frequently debated, about changes in the band and whether they were good, or even necessary, he eagerly consented.
To those who are still peeved over the Jon Waters firing, this piece is not about that and will not bring you closure of any kind. In fact, during the better than two hours that we talked, Droste had little to say about Waters’ firing.
No, this is more about nuts and bolts, tromboniums and slide trombones, style and substance…my questions (and perhaps yours) over the band then, and now. It’s long, I admit, but so is the history of…The Pride Of The Buckeyes. Enjoy!
SF: First of all, is there anything that you want to say about Jon Waters, his dismissal, and information that most have not been privileged to hear. And frankly, here in the summer of 2017 I can’t even tell you who the current director of the band is. That’s how removed I am from the story, then and now.
Droste: Well, the current director is Chris Hoch, who was an assistant under Waters. And ironically, the people who were there with Waters at the time is a bit like Nixon and the people who were around him during ‘Watergate’. They were all there with Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, John Dean, and so on, and they were a team. So were the people that were there with Waters, and they had to be aware of the issues in question that were a part of the band traditions and reputation.
Frankly, when I was still director Dave Meeker, who was director of the School of Music at the time, called me in more than once to tell me there was a problem with the band, to solve it, “and if you don’t solve it you’re all gone.” Now that was Dave Meeker speak, but I didn’t doubt that there was pressure from somewhere. I took the warnings seriously and tried to deal with the issues as they occurred.
But they were all there with Waters, and yet Waters was the one who gets fired while the assistants remained. My biggest concern over how it went down is how they fired him first…then they did the investigation. It would seem that you would investigate first and then give Waters and his staff a year to fix the problems, as necessary. But that’s not how it happened. Isn’t hindsight wonderful?
By the way, I don’t believe that Chris Hoch and Jon Waters have had any direct communication since his firing. Waters feels abandoned and ignored by his associates in the band and the School of Music. Waters was invited by the Alumni Band to serve as an assistant director after his firing and before being hired at Heidelberg. He was a big help to the band and this action was not opposed by anyone at OSU.
SF: It was always my observation back then that the band became popular as ‘the marching band’ under the direction of Charlie Spohn, who preceded you as director. And then, after you took over for Charlie in 1970, I thought the band sort of came of age ‘musically’ under your watch. Do you agree with that?
Droste: Charlie was a guy who always wanted new things. He was the guy here when Hang On Sloopy and some of the other pop songs had their debut in the mid 60s. He came along after Jack Evans, had been an assistant under Evans, and frankly Jack had sort of groomed Charlie to take over the job; and he stayed a couple of years extra to make sure that Charlie was the man who got the job. Hang On Sloopy was the first rock and roll song the band ever played, and some people were upset with it. They thought it was degrading because the band had always been a ‘military’ band, playing marches and school songs. But Charlie cut through all that and played a lot of pop music during his days as director. As the times were changing, with the Vietnam era and free speech, Charlie played music that catered to the culture.
It was a strange time on campus with student protests. Charlie caught the beginning of it and I caught the end. Even things like Homecoming were questioned. People started asking if it was even necessary? Of course it was a nice tradition and it’s survived all these years, but it was questioned back then. And we actually did a Vietnam era show in 1966 that featured (former Marine) Barry Sadler singing his hit recording, The Green Berets, accompanied by the band. That sparked some controversy with students who objected to the war…and objected to our paying tribute to it as a show theme.
When I took over I put my own stamp on some things. I thought the style of play had gotten too choppy, and I set about having the band play through dotted eighth notes and things like that…less of a staccato style to give a fuller sound. Like Jack Evans, I was more of a traditionalist. I liked marches, and I programmed many of them, especially for concerts. But the band has always evolved with the current culture of music.
I was very fortunate to be director during a time when there were some very good musicians in the band. There were a lot of music majors at that time, and over the years we always had a lot of music majors in the band, even though support from the School of Music kinda’ came and went at times. There would be instructors that had different opinions about brass players and the impact of marching band on their ‘embouchures’. But generally, that depended on who was calling the shots from Hughes Hall. So yes, I was very proud of the sound of the band and always tried to program music that showed not only our ability to perform, but our versatility, as well. Fortunately, at that time we had arrangers like Dick Heine, John Tatgenhorst, and Ed Montgomery, and they provided that uniqueness to the sound with everything we played.
(Ed. Note: In 1973 the band changed from one of its oldest traditions. It became co-ed; women were permitted to try out for the first time in history. And at the time, there was a lot of discussion among some members about whether to play another year (for those in grad school), or to move on with the satisfaction of having played in the last all-male band. My own choice was not that tough – it was go to fall baseball practice or lose my roster spot. But for years the debate among past members was…was the band better for the fact of going co-ed, not that it had any choice. It was mandated by the university.)
SF: In 1973 things changed significantly because the band, for the first time became co-ed. I know there were some who left because they wanted to say they were in the last all-male band. Some said they feared a change in the personality of the band. But the question as it pertains to the history of the band is…45 years later, is the band better for having made the change?
Droste: Yes. A definite yes to your question. I think we would have had more women if there had been woodwinds in the band, but the fact is that the first year there about twelve that tried out and I think we kept five. There were always qualified women in the school of music who would have been wonderful assets to the marching band, assuming they could march. And there are women athletes who would have been great assets assuming they could play a B-flat scale on their instrument. So we upgraded, both marching and musically, by having the group of women that came in those first years. We told the squad leaders during tryouts, we wanted the best marchers and the best players, regardless of gender. And the guys who kept a level head over things would always say, “Well, we marched with them in high school, and they were fine. Why can’t they come here?” The hard-heads would make the case that they couldn’t carry a bass drum or a sousaphone. They’d make some excuse as to why they couldn’t cut it. And, we cut those that couldn’t do it our way.
But where we really benefited was their addition to our alto horn section. The altos were always a dumping section. And there were years when we had too many trumpets and some of them had to move to the alto horn row or risk being cut. But when the women came in a lot of them had played French horn in their high school band and learned easily to play the alto horn in this band. So our altos got better, and I’d say our baritone section got better, too…because women gave us the extra depth. And eventually we had women throughout the band’s entire instrumentation, even some Sousaphone players, and good ones.
SF: How did the personality of the band change after 1973, if at all?
Droste: Well, it was different, of course. The all ‘macho’ was gone for the most part, but I’d say that it was a ‘better’ different. Some of the off-color, and macho, if it wasn’t stopped completely, went undercover. I was never in the role of being a policeman, before women or after, Title IX, or whatever. I wanted to put the best product on the field. I wanted good, efficient, well-run rehearsals, which we had that. And I wanted them to be well-dressed and well-behaved when they were in uniform. When I had them as a group I felt everything was under control. But what went on during bus trips, and what went on behind closed hotel doors, or on High Street at midnight on Saturday…I don’t have the foggiest idea. If someone reported an abuse I tried to follow up and see what we had to do to fix. But so much of what went on was simply ‘under the table’.
And Betty Montgomery (state Attorney General), in her interviews after the Waters firing, said as much – that there was a lot of stuff under the table that no one sees. What happens in the band stays in the band. But it happens, and of course there’s alcohol when you have college kids celebrating or having a good time. But you take those two things away and we’re a pretty clean-cut band.
But there was never a doubt, speaking of band spirit, whether it was raining or snowing or 100 degrees outside, no one ever came in and asked if they had to go outside and march. That part didn’t change from the old band to the band post 1973. That was the ‘plus’ side of the macho thing.
Put it this way, none of us, Charlie Spohn, myself, Jon Woods, or John Waters inherited a Sunday school class when we became the director of the Ohio State marching band. So as to what you hear about any abuses or atmosphere within the band, it depends on who you talk to, what they tell you about it, and how the stories are told. As to people’s interpretation, it’s a matter of where you draw the line. There were a lot of funny things that went on years ago that I’m not embarrassed to tell to any group today. But today, where attitudes are concerned, this is a day of zero tolerance. I hope that answers your question.
SF: One of the biggest complaints I hear from former members today is that of instrumentation of the band, and the changes in the band’s sound. I personally don’t care for the current snare drum sound, because I always thought the percussion sound that Steve Sheridan and the drum row put out during my time was executed perfection. What happened to the “great” snare drum sound?
Droste: The sound you speak of is gone. Because, the snare drums today are ‘torqued’ so high in pitch they don’t sound like field drums anymore. And when you play a Sousa March or Buckeye Battle Cry with the ramp entrance they SHOULD sound like field drums.
SF: But that sound could come back, if I understand you. You could go back and recreate the better sound from 1972, right?
Droste: That’s right. But the staff chooses not to, and the current percussion instructor (Mark Reynolds) prefers the new sound. You understand that since Jon Woods there has been a steady increase in the ‘corps’ band influence (drum and bugle corps) on the OSU band. These guys are corps background guys so it sounds like the pit percussion of a corps band. Now I’m not trying to be the ex-director looking over the shoulder of the current director, but it’s almost like we should use the ‘field drum’ sound in the pre-game for the ramp entrance, Script Ohio, and that stuff. And then when they do the halftime music, the current stuff, switch back to the new drum sound. We’ve lost the great traditional drum sound and Reg McGovern, from FSR sound recordings, was adamant against our using the duo drums back when they came along. He always said, “Paul, it messes up the sound for the marches.” But the fact is, in today’s band, we’re not doing halftime shows that are full of marches anymore.
SF: That’s unfortunate, because the new drum sound is too much like a high school sound – a far cry from what once was the signature Ohio State percussion sound.
Talk about the duo drum business, because that’s another point of dislike with alumni. First, they look unwieldy. And sound-wise, they don’t add anything, at least to me; and I think I know something about it. I’ve got a music degree from Ohio State University. It sounds like a flat, thumping sound.
Droste: The duo drums came in with Jim Moore, when he was the percussion instructor. He wanted them, and while he was around we went from the duos, to the trios, to the quads, and in recent years I think there’s quints. But you’re right, in terms of maneuvering they’re a problem. They’re often put in the middle of the field and the rest of the band marches around them.
SF: But to the point of the sound. One former bandsman described it as an animal in the road that gets hit by a truck – thump!
Droste: Well, it’s the contemporary corps sound, and we – you and me – are traditionalists (laughing).
SF: I also miss the tromboniums, not only for the different look of the instrument, but for the more mellow sound that they produced. Again, they sound better on record – to me – than the more brassy sound of the slide trombone.
Droste: But the problem was they didn’t make enough sound on the field. For years I urged, and asked, and even demanded, more sound from those tromboniums and they just couldn’t do it. And in fact, the traditional slide trombone simply cuts through the noise in the stadium much better than the tromboniums.
When we made the switch in the late 70s, on the first ramp we ran I was standing on the sideline listening to the band come down the field. And I said to myself, “Oh, my God.” That’s the sound we’d been missing in the middle of the band. We always had a strong top with the E-flats and the first trumpets; we always had a strong bottom with the baritones and Sousaphones, but we were missing the middle sound. Fleugelhorns, alto horns, and the tromboniums simply couldn’t produce enough sound. The old horns were nice to march with, but we had our heads in the sand for forty years trying to make them work, and frankly, Jack Evans and Charlie always said they were a tribute to Eugene Weigel, who was still alive then. But I don’t think anyone wants to go back to them now. And thanks to the teachers we have currently in the school of music, we’ve got some pretty rambunctious trombone players now. They’re capable of matching the trumpets.
And frankly, the bell-front melophones have been a good move, too, because they make more sound, and a better sound, than the old upright and bell-front altos.
SF: The band, when I played, marched 120, and I think in my final year, 144. Now it’s 192, and do you like the bigger band?
Droste: Well, I wouldn’t want it any smaller because we’re already one of the smaller bands in the Big Ten. Chris Hoch talks from time to time about enlarging the band, but then you’re into economics – more uniforms, more buses for trips, more hotel rooms, and bigger charter planes for long bowl trips.
SF: Let’s talk about music you don’t hear anymore. We had the greatest fanfare entrance ever written for a fight song (Across The Field) – part of the signature sound of the band – and it hasn’t been played in forty years. Why?
Droste: Part of it is that it takes too much time. Typically, we would get a sixteen minute block of time for halftime, and if there was a visiting band you split that in half. If there was no visiting band we’d do about twelve minutes. So, we’d do an eight minute show with a ‘Script’ on the end. A fanfare coming on the field would cut into that time. And these days, with all the presentations they do at halftime, that all cuts into the halftime show.
The other thing is…the fanfare for Across The Field is out of touch with today’s music culture. Again, they’re not playing that much traditional military style music today as the band and the shows have evolved. The majority of what they play today is the pop stuff, and the majority of the kids come from high schools where they haven’t played very many marches, either.
Actually, there’s a lot of great music from the past that’s no longer played – Beautiful Ohio Fanfare, Round On The Ends, tunes like that – because they’re too cute, not as complex as literature of the modern band culture. Those old songs, and the marches you and I love, are not part of our tradition anymore.
SF: But the cynic in me has to ask. If they had to…could today’s band cleanly play The Chicago Tribune March? Anything but a very accomplished ensemble would struggle with that composition.
Droste: Well this may come as a surprise, but the caliber of player in the current band is actually higher than the caliber of the player you remember when you were in the band…with the exception of John Harner. John Harner was the best trumpet player, probably, in the history of Ohio State University and went on to play with Stan Kenton’s band. But the leadership is different now, too. Back then Jack Evans was the director, he loved marches, and he insisted that we play them right. He was a mean, old nasty man when it didn’t sound up to his standards. I tried to be the same way. Charlie Spohn wasn’t. Jon Woods wasn’t. Today, there’s different priorities and playing marches is not one of them. But musically, yes, if they were asked to they could play The Chicago Tribune.
SF: There’s a hundred questions that could be asked, you understand, but not enough space in this column. But let me ask you this. Did you get as tired of directing Hang On Sloopy as we bandsmen did playing it back then?
Droste: (laughing) More! Worse! When I came in as an assistant in 1966, a year after it was introduced, we were playing that thing ten or twelve times a game – pre-game, halftime, in the stands, and post-game. So I decided in 1970 that I was going to rein that in, so I’d wait until the stadium got kinda’ nasty about it, “We want Sloopy…We want Sloopy”, and when they’d start throwing things I knew it was time to play Sloopy. I cut it down to twice a game, and I saved the tune, in my opinion…because it was over-played. The band was tired of it, and I can’t speak for audiences, but I think they were, too. Now it’s something that’s uniquely ours, like the ‘Script’, and I’m glad it’s still around and popular.
SF: The river, on Mondays after practice. We used to toss people into the Olentangy for mistakes made on the field the previous Saturday. I can’t imagine that it was tolerated after 1973.
Droste: Well, the river simply outlived its usefulness, and then for the fact of it being a safety hazard. There was a pollution issue, and of course there was always a concern of someone landing on a rock, or glass, and getting hurt. I don’t remember it ever happening, but when I took over the band I was called in by the head of the health center and the chief of police, and they said, “You can’t do this anymore.” They just laid down the law because of the pollution. When the rowing team was out there and upset a boat, as soon as they got to shore they had to go to the health center to be checked out. So we tried a fire hose for a while, and a penalty drill – march up ten, back five, and so on – but nothing ever replaced the river with the same uniqueness and spirit. The river, for all those years, served its purpose.
SF: Final question. I was so fortunate in my three years as a bandsman to play the works of arrangers Richard Heine, John Tatgenhorst, and Ed Montgomery. Their music provided the “brand” that defined the band in terms of sound. You knew it was a Heine arrangement, a Tatgenborst, or a Montgomery when you heard it. Is that uniqueness missing with today’s band?
Droste: In their day they were the best, there’s not doubt about that. Heine did all the fight songs, the Star Spangled Banner, and some other great arrangements that were for years traditional favorites. ‘Tadge’ did all the rock stuff because Heine wouldn’t touch that. And Montgomery did all the traditional Americana tunes. They were ultra-traditionalists. They wrote for the times, and frankly, Dick Heine’s style now would sound pretty tame compared to the complexity of today’s music. ‘Round on the ends and high in the middle, don’t you think that’s a cute little riddle?’ Well, not any more. It’s the times, and Heine, for his time, was ahead of the times. But he would not be today.
Tatgenhorst was always a step ahead, and Ed (Montgomery) was just Ed. There was nothing like him, in a lot of ways, and there still isn’t.
Today, Jim Swearingen’s arrangements are as close to the middle-ground influence on the band as those three were…because he was influenced by Heine, but he can do the goin’ stuff, too. It’s just a different society now, a more complex society, and there’s a different set of priorities, especially with music, and even with a marching band.
SF: Dr. Droste – Paul – this has been fun. Thank you!
Droste: My pleasure.