January 14, 2019

FTV: Joe P, Smebs, and Me

    Looking back, there were a lot of great teachers in my life who got me interested in a variety of things, many of which I am still interested in today.  By far, one who added the greatest value to my education was my first band/music teacher, Joe Patterson. When we took our ‘band test’ in fourth grade, my piano lesson years had already supplied me with the basics of reading notes and keeping time.  The ‘band readiness test’ came after I had gotten my first dose of the sound and feel of a drumline marching down the street that fall. Piano became even more of an afterthought (I could play but wasn’t much for practicing – the age old piano teacher’s lament) and the thought of playing the drums in the band made me absolutely bug-eyed.  There was no hesitation on my part when answering the questions. “What instrument would you like to play?” Drums!

    The first time Joe P and I met was at the beginning of fifth grade.  Sue Anderson, John Thompson, and I had been told to pick up a pair of drumsticks and the Thompson Beginner‘s Percussion book for our first meeting.  Our lessons were conducted as a group in the little nurse’s office next to the gym and to our surprise, we didn’t practice on a drum or practice pad.  We played our lessons on a formica table top with our books laid out in front of us. Joe P showed us the basics: how to hold the sticks (beginning drummers in those days used the standard grip and not the matching grip favored by most teachers these days) and how to hold the sticks with a loose enough grip to let them to bounce back from the table top.  We reviewed quarter notes, half notes, sixteenth notes and how to do a simple drum roll. As the year progressed, we began learning other rudiments like flams, paradiddles, triplets, and drum rolls of various lengths (like five, seven, or nine stroke rolls). Joe P had a habit of ‘singing’ the drum parts along with us so we got used to hearing him hum along with us:  “ Brup, Brup, Brup, dada dada dum, burrrrrup!”

    We never did practice with any of the other instruments that year.  My first public drum performance was with Willie Peterson in Mrs. Zeeman’s fifth grade class.  Willie played the trumpet and I played the red sparkle plastic drum my folks had gotten me for Christmas.  I want to say we played America the Beautiful.  My practice book didn’t have any songs in it so I just played along from Willie’s score and faked my way through it.  If there are two things in my drumming career I can trace back to that first year, they would be learning how both to fake a part when needed and to be able to play drum parts that sounded right, even if they were not exactly rudimentarily correct.  Joe may not have known it at the time, but I found it easier to replicate the drum parts he sang to us by sound than it was for me to learn them from scratch from the lesson book. I maintain to this day that I didn’t progress very fast in piano because once I plunked out a tune a couple of times, it was easy for me to replay it from memory.  Certainly I had to learn how to follow the drum score, but I learned that making it sound right didn’t necessarily mean I had to play it exactly like the rudiments said they should be played.

    Sixth grade proceeded in much the same manner with three notable differences.  First, we did occasionally get to gather with the other sections and hack our way through some real songs.  Second, near the end of the year, we were bussed over to Graveraet Jr High after school one day to play with students from the other elementary schools in town.  This served as both an introduction to our future band director, Mr. Smeberg, and as his introduction to his incoming seventh grade band members for the next year.  Lastly, we were given the opportunity to sign up for summer band lessons which for me meant a weekly trip two and a half blocks up the street to the brand new Marquette Senior High School band room.  There was a feeling of awe that walking into the band room inspired then that I can still remember to this day. I may not have been gung-ho at practicing my piano lessons, but the drum lessons were a different story.  Some kids hated the summer music lessons, but this kid would bound out the door with sticks and lesson book in hand.

    Mr. Smeberg’s band directing style was new to us and because we hadn’t spent a lot of time playing as a whole band, we had to learn how to pay attention to the director.  We did a section tryout, but the important drum lessons I learned in seventh grade came from the eighth grade drummer in the band named Mike Burk. He showed us the ropes but the biggest revelation was what I previously mentioned:  if the drum part sounded correct, the band director wasn’t going to make us play it exactly by the book. Mike was a good mentor for all of us, but after he departed for the high school, I never saw him again. Joe P greeted me with a little surprise on my first day of summer band lessons after seventh grade:  “Oh good,” he said, “I was hoping I would have at least one drummer in summer lessons.” He was a little disappointed when he learned that I was going to be in eighth grade the next fall, but at the end of the summer, he wished me luck and reminded me, “I won’t see you for lessons next summer but I will see you for marching band practice in the beginning of August.”

    Eighth grade proceeded pretty much as expected.  There were several seventh graders for us old guys to mentor.  My buddy Jim Soderberg and I took up residence as the dynamic drum duo and were happy as clams when we got picked to play pep band music when the teachers played a grudge match with the eighth grade basketball team at the end of the season.  We also got to do a mini recruitment tour of concerts at the various elementary schools and we made our first trip to a JH band festival held a the Phelps School in Ishpeming. By the end of eighth grade, I was a full year into playing my newly acquired silver sparkle Ludwig drum set so there were very few days  that I didn’t have a pair of drumsticks in my hands. June and July seemed to creep along and it seemed like the August marching band practice sessions would never arrive.

    When the letter arrived announcing the practice schedule for marching band, I was in seventh heaven.  I didn’t realize that the drum line came in a week ahead of the rest of the band. We met Joe P in the HS band room and he already had our line up set.  There were two senior drummers and five freshman. The seniors, Steve Vanderburg and Mike Gustafson were slated to be the bass drummer and the first snare drummer/section leader, respectively.  Sue Anderson got tabbed for cymbals and the rest of us became the other snare drummers in the line. There were no single, double, or triple toms in our lineup. The band’s oboe player would play the lyre shaped marching bells, but she didn’t come to the first week of drum line work.  Joe P ran us through the different cadences and roll offs the first day, then we went outside and learned how to march in step lugging our surprisingly heavy marching drums. We spent the next four days marching up and down the parking lot until we could do it in our sleep. The one badge of honor the snare drummers earned was a very large bruise on our left thigh.  The parade snare drums, as I said, were pretty heavy. They had a curved leg brace that helped keep the drum in a playable position, but they tended to bounce up and down a lot as we marched. By our junior year, we had upgraded to newer drums with springier thigh pads with a strap that kept the drum from banging and bruising our legs, but that didn’t help us much during those first two years.  We beamed with pride when the whole band showed up the second week and Joe P told them, “Watch and listen to the drum line. They will keep you on time and they know how to march. If you follow their lead, you will look good.”

    As marching band practice wound down, we spent a couple of rehearsals at Memorial Field so Joe P could show us our pregame and halftime formations.  Pre-game found us forming up in two long lines with the cheerleaders so the football players could run between us taking the field. Half time was a simple block formation.  The drummers played the cadence to march the whole band on and off the field, but we stayed put as we ran through several numbers on the field. Just prior to our first home game, Joe P threw me a curve saying, “Steve can’t be at the first football game so I want you to play bass drum this week and at the game.”   To say I was disappointed would be a vast understatement, but leave it to my dad to snap me out of feeling down about it. Dad said, “Well, I am pretty sure he wouldn’t have asked you to do it unless it was important. Isn’t the bass drum the thing that keeps everyone else in time?” It made me feel better and no one else heard me say anything negative about it, but I was happy to be back playing snare at the next game.

    Seeing the drum line go by during a homecoming parade when I was in fourth grade was the catalyst that made me want to be a drummer.  That fall, when we turned the corner from Lincoln on to Magnetic Street, I took a peek at the spot I had been standing five years earlier.  It made me smile to think that one moment like that can resonate in time many years later. It became one of my yearly fall rituals to pick out that spot on the curb during the homecoming parade.  Every year it gave me the same feeling I remembered from fourth grade: chills!

    Before summer band started prior to my sophomore year, Joe P reminded me that with the two seniors gone, he expected me to step up and be the section leader.  He may have been pulling my chain a little when he laughed and said, ‘Shoot, I was ready to have you take over the section when you were taking summer lessons after seventh grade,” but a little voice in my head said, “Well, there you go.  Be the only drummer who takes summer lessons and look what happens.” Sophomore year was more routine because we all knew the drill. Football games, homecoming parade, NMU’s annual band day, pep band for basketball games, concerts, and band festivals were

on the menu.  Jim and I were not best buds yet, but we were again the dynamic drum duo and the fun and games would only get better.  For example, the drummers were sitting on the lowest row of bleachers during a basketball ball game when we were on the way to actually beating the Menominee Maroons.  It is a clear memory because we won all of 3 games that year and besides winning this game, it was especially memorable because there was a power failure and at that time, there were no emergency lights in the MSHS gym.  For some reason the clarinet player behind me in pep band began screaming at the top of her lungs and beating me with her clarinet. When the lights came back on, all she said was “Oh, sorry,” but one doesn’t easily forget being assaulted with a clarinet!

    During the spring semester, Joe P played violin for the pit orchestra for our high school musical Bye Bye Birdie.  Mr. Smeberg played trombone but was located down at the other end of the pit.  It was interesting to spend rehearsal time playing drums in the orchestra with them while vocal music teacher Bill Saari conducted.  Not long after Birdie closed, we were asked to march in a parade up Third Street to help Bishop Baraga High School celebrate their Class D State Basketball championship.  I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but when the parade got about a block down Third Street, Joe P handed me his whistle and said, “I can’t walk the parade today so wait a block and blow the whistle, do the roll off and the band will play the next song.  I will see you at the end of the parade.” I am not sure what was ailing him, but a few weeks later he was hospitalized and passed away. We were all shocked at the sad news.

    A good number of the band students donned their uniforms to attend Joe P’s funeral.  My only previous experience with funerals was as a nine year old when we buried my dad’s mom and it was a confusing affair for me.  I avoided funerals for twenty years and no matter how I felt about Joe P, I couldn’t bring myself to attend. My thinking on funerals changed with age and I am comfortable with attending funerals these days.  Strangely enough, there are no regrets for not attending Joe P’s because that is just how I dealt with things back then. As a matter of fact, there is a certain uplift I get when I think back to those events of fifty plus years ago and say to myself, “Joe P probably knows what a profound effect he had on my life and I am pretty confident that he is okay with me not attending his funeral.”  Maybe not going to his was the thing that helped me get over my own phobia about funerals. I may have only known Joe Patterson for seven years (and Mr. Smeberg for two) but my time spent with them has paid me back many times over. Thanks Joe P and Mr. Smebs!

Top Piece Video:  Okay, this is a LITTLE fancier than the Marquette Senior High band drum line . . . but if you have never watched the Edinburgh Tatto . . .  look it up – this is the Top Secret Drum Corp from Switzerland.