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The Cavaliers' Front Ensemble: Out of the Box by Megan Arns

Aug 1, 2014, 00:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

The Cavaliers
Photo by Sheri Garza-Pope

The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps is pushing the boundaries this season by taking the pit “out of the box.” Rob Pastor, one of two front ensemble instructors for the Cavaliers, sarcastically posted on Facebook, “Go ahead, you try playing marimba while running around and spinning at 200bpm. Good luck finding your notes or not dying.” If you haven’t caught the Cavaliers’ 2014 show, “Immortal,” yet, you can catch a very close shot by watching a DCI cam attached to a marimba.

Rob took some time out of his busy Cavaliers DCI tour schedule to chat with Rhythm! Scene about the challenges and rewards of taking the pit out of the pit box and integrating the ensemble as a mobile component of the marching show. 

Rhythm! Scene: How long have you been with the Cavaliers and in what capacities?

Rob Pastor: This is my tenth year with the Cavaliers. I spent three years as a member and have now been a front ensemble technician on the instructional staff for seven years.

VIDEO: The Cavaliers' Front Ensemble

RS: What is your role as the Cavaliers’ front ensemble instructor? What are some of your responsibilities? 

Rob: Joe Roach and I share the responsibilities and our role is twofold. First, it our responsibility to enhance the musical, technical, and performance skills of the front ensemble members. This is accomplished by instructing hours of rehearsal each day. Second, we are in charge of making sure our guys are where they need to be at the right times for rehearsals and at performances. This also includes making sure the members are equipped with all the materials they need to do their jobs, such as having replacement string for the instruments, extra mallets, appropriate spaces to rehearse, etc. As a front ensemble technician, there are a lot of logistical concerns to keep everything organized and running smoothly throughout the summer. 

The Cavaliers
Photo by Sheri Garza-Pope

RS: Who else is on the front ensemble team?

Rob: Mike McIntosh is our percussion caption head, Alan Miller is the front ensemble arranger, Tom McGillen is our electronic sound designer and Cristian Good is the sound engineer on tour for the summer. Joe Roach and I both teach the front ensemble.

RS: What is a typical day like for the members of the pit?

Rob: In drum corps, members have their days planned out for them “to a T.” Typically, they wake up when the drum majors wake them up in the morning, have breakfast, and start rehearsing. A lot of mornings we’re fortunate enough to start with at least a couple hours on our own somewhere and then join the rest of the group for percussion ensemble, music ensemble, or full ensemble. Sometimes we have two rehearsal blocks with lunch in between, and other times we have one large 5-hour rehearsal block before heading to a show. 

RS: It seems your hashtag for the summer is #marimbasonthefield. Can you tell us about this? 

Rob: This year the design team of the Cavaliers and Alan Miller wanted to take a step outside our comfort zone and try something new—something that hadn’t been done before. We have six different setups for the front ensemble throughout the show. Therefore, we’re constantly asking the members to play in many environments, each different than the other.

In the second movement, an arrangement of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre,” we have three different forms we play in. One of them includes ten marimba players on five marimbas spread 20 yards apart. The far-right marimba player is on the 25-yard line, while the timpani player and the rest of the pit is on the other side of the field on the 35-yard line. This, by far, has been the most challenging part of the show.

There have been many things we have heard for the first time this year, such as “Marimbas, check your dots.” Yes, we have dot books in the pit this year. We actually contribute to the visual score and the visual program throughout most of the show. There was a funny time in pre-tour when we were trying to figure this stuff out, when a visual person said to the pit, “Hey, you’re supposed to be twelve from the front!” and they responded “Twelve what?” The visual person said, “Twelve yards!” That’s when the visual people, of course, put their hands on their faces and shook their heads. The players have had to learn about the dot system and figure out which wheel of the marimba to put on each dot and how to make it consistent each time. 

Cavies marimba setup
The six different setups of the Cavaliers’ front ensemble

RS: Is the pit still amplified? How is this done with such a great distance between instruments and changing setups?

Rob: Yes, the marimbas have wireless microphones that we set a delay on to make the sound come through the speakers at the same time as the rest of our equipment. Depending on where the speakers are and the farther away from the speakers you get, the more of a delay you actually have to input to the sound board to make the sound come out right when it’s supposed to. We have had to figure this out so everything is in actual real time and there is not a delay between the actual acoustic sound of the mallet striking the board and when it is coming through the speakers up front.

In one setup, the marimbas are in a circle and the members are spinning around and switching places. Even then, each marimba has to be set to something different to account for the millisecond delay. This is all programmed into the board, so when you switch the scene, the appropriate delay will be added to each marimba so it comes through the speaker at the right time. 

RS: I would imagine this to be a very challenging listening situation for the players in the front ensemble on the field.

Rob: It’s totally new territory for players who have primarily been in front ensembles their whole life. They’ve been playing in a pit box for many years and have gotten really good at it. Now we’re taking them out of their comfort zone and putting them off in a completely different territory that they’re not familiar with. For example, in the opener the back marimba player is pushed back and standing on the field. If they’re actually playing with each other in time and you’re standing by the back marimba, everything sounds almost a sixty-fourth note off. And that’s how the whole opener sounds to him!

Normally the front ensemble stands in a straight line or a curved line fairly close together and uses their ears to play in time. We can’t really use our ears for a lot of the show this year. There are a few of the six setups they can do that in, but not many. Sometimes the two players in the back are actually just using their eyes and trying to play with the person in the middle, but they’re totally just using their eyes. It’s been a challenging process that the members, instructors, and the design people have developed. Exercising patience has been key!

RS: What instruments are in your ensemble this season in addition to the five 4.5-octave marimbas?

Rob: On the left side of the 50-yard line, as you’re looking at it from the audience, we have what we’ve actually started to call “percussion proper” simply because they’re in the proper pit place. There we have four 4.0-octave vibraphones, a glockenspiel, a xylophone, two synthesizers, timpani, and two multiple-percussion setups including instruments such as tom-toms, cymbals, a table cajon, djembe, and an udu drum. 

The Cavaliers
Photo by Sheri Garza-Pope

RS: How many trucks do you need to carry all of that?

Rob: We use the space of one-and-a-half semi-trailer trucks for the equipment. We put all the sound equipment and keyboards in full form into one truck. The other truck is shared with the hornline and drumline, but houses our timpani and concert bass drum. 

RS: A week and a half away from DCI Finals, what are your priorities for the front ensemble? 

Rob: My priority for the front ensemble is to keep on pushing. I tell the guys every year that in drum corps, you’re on the road for nearly three months and it’s a marathon. I want to make sure that we don’t see the finish line and start to slow down. We’ve got to put our foot on the pedal and increase our percentage of doing things at what we feel is the highest level. It’s just like any other year for a Cavalier ensemble; we do our best to finish strong every single year.

RS: You said you’ve been involved with the organization for 10 years. What personally keeps you coming back to the Cavaliers organization?

Rob: The main thing is definitely the opportunity to work with the guys in the front ensemble, trying to maximize their potential every single season. You get to take great players and help them improve even farther than the high talent levels they come in with. I find the process of guiding them to become better musicians, better performers, and better people to be extremely gratifying. And, of course, I love the Cavaliers. I marched here for three years, and sometimes I have tunnel vision focusing on our goals as a front ensemble, but I love the moment when you’re sitting there on finals day and you hear the brass play “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” our corps song, and you remember, “This is still really special to me.” So I keep coming back for two reasons: I love teaching and I love it here at the Cavaliers. 

RS: Do you have any advice for young percussionists who are interested in playing in a DCI front ensemble? 

Rob: Yes. I always tell everyone who comes to auditions to have a sponge-like mentality. Open up your awareness, using your ears and your eyes as your brain, and soak up as much as you can. Learn from the people standing in front of you and from your peers standing next to you. Never stop striving to improve.

It’s also important to note that some DCI front ensembles play with an aggressive style and technique due to our outdoor environment. We remind the members of the Cavaliers front ensemble every year that they have to adjust their techniques when they go home to play in their wind ensembles, orchestras, percussion ensembles, etc. This ties into using your awareness to eventually become a mature, responsible, and professional musician. 

Keep an open mind! Understand that there are plenty of DCI front ensembles that play with different techniques, types of music, and styles of writing. No one group or one person does things the “right” way versus another doing it the “wrong” way.

Finally, don’t be afraid to try out for the group or groups that you would like to be a part of. Don’t let feeling like you might not be good enough hold you back from trying. The great Wayne Gretzky said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Know what you want to be a part of and go after it!

Learn more about the Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps

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