When one thinks of a marching drumline, sounds of booming bass drums and staccato snare drums come to mind. But in the 1980s, one drum corps instructor reimagined the sounds that could be created on a field—from soft scrapes on cymbals and gongs to symphonic-based percussion instruments. That creative, but unorthodox, musician was Ralph Hardimon
“As a composer and arranger, Ralph’s writing for the Santa Clara Vanguard during the 1980s is still widely considered groundbreaking,” stated Jim Casella, co-founder of Tapspace Publications and a former marching and staff member for the Vanguard. “He didn’t just write for drumline; he wrote thoughtful percussion music that was fully orchestrated throughout the ensemble, regardless of genre.”
PAS Hall of Fame member Dennis DeLucia agreed. “The thing that I love about Ralph is that his writing was absolutely incredible—so sensitive and so musical. He’s also very knowledgeable about groove percussion and ethnic and world percussion.”
MARCHING IN DRUM CORPS
One of nine children, Ralph Hardimon was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 22, 1952. The family moved to Southern California in the late 1950s. “My parents used to take us to parades all the time,” Hardimon said. “I remember this fancy unit coming down the street, wearing these cool police uniforms with gold braids and badges. They had a gigantic drumline. They were playing the theme from the television show Dragnet, and it was very impressive. They were also racially mixed, which was really important to me as a child growing up. That left quite an impression with me.”
Hardimon joined the Los Angeles Police Junior Band in 1964 and marched with them for four years. “I was surrounded by a lot of great drummers,” he recalled. “That’s when I was first exposed to rudimental drumming.”
In 1968, Hardimon joined the Velvet Knights, a drum and bugle corps based in Anaheim, where he played a single tenor drum for his first two years, followed by a year in the snare line. “That’s where I met Forrest Clark, who I consider to be my first teacher.” Clark was a percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, author of the Encyclopedia for Snare Drum, as well as being on the corps’ drum staff, serving as an instructor and arranger. “I was just a kid straight out of the ‘hood’ who wanted to play drums,” Hardimon says with a laugh.
During his time in Velvet Knights, Hardimon was also playing in his high school marching band and orchestra. He graduated from Manual Arts Senior High School in Los Angeles in 1970. Thanks to a special program for underprivileged students in L.A., Ralph was also taking college courses at the University of Southern California during his senior year in high school. While marching in the USC Trojan Band, he met friends who were also in other corps.
In 1971, Hardimon joined the Anaheim Kingsmen Drum and Bugle Corps, where he would march snare for the next three seasons. Ralph credits Don Porter, Jr. (son of the founder of the Kingsmen) and Gerry Kearby as influential teachers and mentors during these years. “These guys definitely knew what they were doing,” he added, “and they showed us how to write for the drumline.”
During his second year with the Kingsmen, the corps won the first ever Drum Corps International (DCI) Championship, as well as the “high drum” award. Hardimon also began teaching and writing for the line, along with fellow drummer (and future DCI Hall-of-Famer) Tom Float.
“Back then it wasn’t a big deal to write for the line because we all contributed,” Hardimon said in a 1985 interview for Modern Percussionist magazine. “I always wanted to get into composition, so I wrote a couple of percussion features, and they turned out pretty well. I did probably about half of the book, and I concentrated mostly on the melodies of the section, which only involved timpani back then.” This was the beginning of many successful years writing for the marching arts.
After aging out from the Kingsmen in 1973, Hardimon worked at Disneyland, playing in one of the bands. Through a connection there, he met Bob Nagle, who invited Ralph to teach an all-female drum corps in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. “While working with the Alberta Girls, I experienced my first European travel when we went to the World Cup Soccer Championship in 1974,” Hardimon recalled. While he was in Canada, he studied classical music at the University of Alberta.
After two years in Canada, he returned to Southern California and began to pick up a few gigs here and there, including some session work and jingles. “I had to take some time out to learn more to be able to move forward,” he explained. Hardimon enrolled in Cerritos Junior College. “In the ’70s, they had a very high-powered jazz music school. I was playing drum set in the second lab band and shared the chair with Pancho Sanchez, the now-popular Latin percussionist. After two years, I went to Los Angeles Junior College, which also had a good jazz program. I was still learning to play drum set; my hands were okay, but I had no feet chops because of the marching thing.”
In addition to playing with jazz bands and orchestras, Hardimon continued to pursue work in recording studios. One of those sessions, with Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, resulted in a Grammy nomination for the album East of Suez (Concord Jazz, 1981).
While visiting a friend from the Kingsmen, Hardimon fell in love with Eugene, Oregon, and found someone he wanted to study with: Charles Dowd. “Every week we had a different lesson,” Hardimon said. “Drum set and timpani one week, followed by snare drum and keyboards the following week. His timpani playing was extraordinary. I also learned how to adapt concertos and violin pieces for keyboard instruments.
“The most important thing Charles taught me was about ‘the maestro.’ A percussionist always had to have a little something in his pocket. For example, in juries, we had to play a long roll on timpani. You would start out at pianissimo with Charles’s hand as the conductor. You had to go as loud as he wanted with his hand motions, and then he’d take his time on the decrescendo after your chops were all gone, which is very hard to do. Those were super powerful lessons; you always had to be ready since you never knew what ‘maestro’ was going to ask!”
During his time in Eugene, Hardimon was a member of the wind ensemble that premiered “Musica Boema” (“Music Bohemian,” Op. 137) by Zdenek Lukás in 1977. “I fell in love with that piece, and eventually used it in drum corps.”
Hardimon graduated from the University of Oregon in 1979 with a Bachelor of Music degree. “It was pretty late in life to get my degree, but that was okay,” Hardimon explained. “I moved around so much because I was always learning from different people, some playing jazz and others teaching composition. I wanted to learn from the teachers and was not worried about getting a piece of paper.”
SANTA CLARA VANGUARD
Even when he was attending college or performing, Hardimon never left the drum corps activity. In 1975, Fred Sanford (then percussion instructor and arranger for the Vanguard) invited Ralph to attend some rehearsals in Santa Clara. “I even did some writing for Fred because he wanted to check out what I could do,” Hardimon explained. “In 1976, when Fred went to the Madison Scouts, Gail Royer [then corps director for the Vanguard] asked me to write for the corps. Here I was, a black hippie from the ‘hood,’ and I needed to get it together because this was my first, and possibly last, shot to write for such a well-established corps.”
Sanford returned to Santa Clara the following year, and the two future DCI and PAS Hall-of-Famers worked together for the next four years. In 1978, Vanguard won the DCI Championship and the high drum award, the third time they captured both titles since DCI was founded in 1972.
“That was our first year playing “Lezghinka” [from Gayne Ballet by Aram Khachaturian],” Hardimon recalled. “Something about the drum solo was extremely powerful. Fred and I did all the writing together, which was something I had never experienced before. He would say, ‘Why don’t you do the tenor part here? And the bass part there? Or why don’t you do everything from Letter B to Letter C?’ We had so much fun teaching the kids, and they loved playing that music.
“I also remember the chemistry of the kids because they had been together for a while,” Hardimon continued. “Fred and I used to have music listening parties at our house for the drum line. It was all about turning people on to different kinds of music that they weren’t familiar with or teaching people how to appreciate music they thought they didn’t like.”
When asked his favorite Vanguard show, Ralph paused thoughtfully before replying, “1987. It was a Russian-themed show, including ‘Russian Christmas Music’ and ‘Dance of the Tumblers.’ It was also the third time we played ‘Lezghinka’; even though we did it in ’78 and ’79, this was a new version. That was one of my favorite books that I had a chance to write.”
After playing “Phantom of the Opera” in 1988, Vanguard updated the arrangements the following year and won its fifth DCI World Championship and seventh “high drum” award in 1989. “It was just a blessing for me to be able to write music at such a high level and to be a part of that experience,” Hardimon shared. “I’ve always tried to be musical in my approach. It’s a very thin line between rudimental drumming and musicianship. I don’t want to say that one was good and one was bad, but it seems like there needed to be more of a mesh between the two.”
How did Hardimon differentiate his music from that written by his mentor and friend Fred Sanford? “I would say my music was passionate and sensitive, just like me!” he said with a grin. “But seriously, we also allowed our personalities to shine through. Especially in my case, when we were doing arrangements of somebody else’s music for drum corps, I would always try to put myself in the original composer’s shoes and ask the question, ‘If I was Mozart, and I was commissioned to do this work for drum corps, what would I do?’”
Hardimon served as the Percussion Caption Head and Arranger for the Santa Clara Vanguard until 1990, influencing hundreds of young musicians during those 15 years.
“Ralph’s creativity and charisma have made him one of the most respected leaders the world of drum corps has ever known,” stated Jim Casella. “I first met Ralph in 1989 when I joined the percussion section. I was studying orchestral percussion with Tony Cirone, who also taught Ralph’s teacher, Charles Dowd. I believe we had an early bond over this connection and how classical percussion ensemble music could synergistically influence the musicality of rudimental percussion.
“Ralph’s music embodied this idea,” continued Casella, who also served as the Director of Percussion for SCV from 1996–2004. “His arrangement of ‘Musica Bohema’ in 1984 is a perfect example of how the marching percussion ensemble could be approached from a standpoint of musicianship rather than compulsories.”
Another member of the 1989 championship corps was Murray Gusseck, co-founder of Tapspace, who agreed about “Musica Bohema.” “[Ralph’s] source material for the 1984 percussion feature flew in the face of what drum corps was known for by focusing on dynamic subtleties in the marching battery behind an intimate keyboard feature and Scottish-style solo snare drum part up front. Absolutely unheard of!
“As a teacher, Ralph was always about much more than just playing well,” Gusseck said. “His childlike love of music of all different kinds meant he was always interested in new sounds, new voices, new styles, new approaches, etc. He wanted to expand the ears, minds, and hearts of his students in addition to perfecting their performance.
“On a personal level,” added Gusseck, who served on the Vanguard’s staff for a dozen years in the 1990s and 2000s, “Ralph changed the course of my life. No one was writing like that for marching percussion. As a writer, he innovated. In addition to raw emotional energy, Ralph brought finesse, melody, groove, nuance, and a playful humor to percussion writing in an activity that was fueled up to that point primarily by testosterone and bombast.”
Dr. Julia Gaines, Director of the School of Music at the University of Missouri, was also a member of the Vanguard percussion section in 1989. “Besides being a very fun teacher, Ralph was an absolutely brilliant writer and orchestrator,” she said. “I loved every part he gave me, whether it was the vibraphone solo in ‘Music of the Night,’ the crazy timpani feature in the drum solo, or the duck quack in ‘Masquerade.’ He experimented with the orchestration, and we were able to help him find the exact sound combinations he wanted.
“My summer with SCV was life-changing, and Ralph was a big part of that,” Gaines continued. “In 1989, we won first place in the percussion ensemble competition, the High Drum trophy, and were the DCI World Champions. Those three things don’t happen without great students and great teachers.”
Paul Rennick, Assistant Professor/Percussion at the University of North Texas, a 2017 inductee into the DCI Hall of Fame, and the current Percussion Caption Manager for Santa Clara, met Ralph in 1989 and says he was immediately struck by his passion for percussion composition, teaching, DCI competition, and above all, the integrity of maintaining a high standard of excellence. “As a student, I remember seeing his ensembles and quickly realized his music was different than anything I had heard, on a level that constantly displayed tastefulness and a universal musical appeal. His groups played with a sense of musicianship that transcended the typical marching percussion ensemble, and he was far ahead of his time. Ralph had a serious impact on the way I thought about the involvement and integration of each part of the entire percussion section, which showed how to create a unique ensemble sound.”
A LIFE IN DRUM CORPS
Following his tenure with the Vanguard, Hardimon turned his attention to other organizations in the activity. During the 1990s, he consulted with (and sometimes arranged for and taught) corps such as The Cadets, Crossmen, Freelancers, Marauders, Velvet Knights, and even Beatrix in The Netherlands. He also coached the Air Force Academy drum and bugle corps in Colorado. He worked with Capitol Regiment (2006) and the Troopers (2008–2010). Even while he was with the Vanguard, he also worked with corps such as the Blue Devils (1974), Kilties and New York Kingsmen (1975), Oakland Crusaders (1977), Westshoremen (1984–85), and Bluecoats (1988).
For more than a decade (1990–2000 and 2011–2014), Hardimon served as the percussion coordinator for the Blue Knights, based in Denver, Colorado. “My favorite tune we did with the Blue Knights was ‘Trittico’ by James Curnow,” Hardimon recalled. “It was commissioned in 1988 as a brass band test piece. I arranged it, along with brass arranger Al DiCroce, and we played it in 1994 and 1999.”
Dennis DeLucia recalled the Blue Knights 2011 show based on British and Scottish music. “Ralph’s writing in that genre was so magnificent and so idiomatically hip.”
From 1997 until 2006, Hardimon flew across the Pacific Ocean to work as the percussion and field show coordinator for Soka Gakkai International—a Buddhist sect with schools all over Japan. He also gave numerous clinics on marching percussion around Europe during his affiliation with Paiste cymbals and Premier percussion, introducing American-style drum corps techniques and styles.
”My most memorable clinic was with the Santa Clara Vanguard percussionists at PASIC ’84 in Ann Arbor,” Hardimon remembered fondly. “I arranged one of my favorite pieces, ‘Musica Bohema,’ for the percussion feature that year. I wanted to educate people that drum corps did not play everything at fortissimo! I’m not saying that’s bad, but there are so many other sounds you can get on cymbals and gongs with different implements. And because all the kids couldn’t make it out to PASIC, I actually had a chance to play the little Scottish snare solo!”
He also participated on a marching percussion panel discussion on “Contemporary Trends in Marching Percussion” at PASIC ’87 in St. Louis and served as an adjudicator at several PASIC Marching Percussion Festivals over the years.
Hardimon brought his marching expertise to prestigious football fields, including the 1990 Super Bowl halftime show, which was a salute to the city of New Orleans and the 40th anniversary of the Peanuts cartoon strip. “I remember working with Mike Mann and the University of Southwestern Louisiana marching band, along with band members from the entire state of Louisiana,” Hardimon says. He also worked for Bowl Games of America.
In 2000, Drum Corps International inducted Hardimon into its Hall of Fame. “I never did any of the things I did to be recognized,” he said humbly. “My reward as a teacher has been the success of the students and the programs. That’s plenty for me.”
When asked about his induction into the PAS Hall of Fame this year, he paused before replying, “It’s hard for me to believe I’m on the same list with all these people,” referring to some of his mentors such as Fred Sanford and Dennis DeLucia.
“As a teacher, the Ralph Hardimon I knew was goofy and serious, laid back and intense, and critical and complimentary—usually in the same rehearsal!” summarized Julia Gaines. “You never knew exactly what you were going to get, but that made rehearsals fun and challenging. As a writer/arranger/orchestrator, his contribution to percussion writing in the marching medium is monumental.”
According to Paul Rennick, “From the nuance and clarity of the performances to the depth of his writing, it’s hard to think of anyone more influential during a time when percussion was evolving at such a fast pace. Ralph elevated the level of composition and performance quality for everyone. He inspired a generation with his recognizable sound, composing for a marching percussion group with the same care and value as a professional concert percussion ensemble. His involvement and influence clearly marks an era of distinct change in the evolution of marching percussion.”
Dennis DeLucia captured the essence of his friend: “Ralph’s presence has always been larger than life; fans, kids, and fellow competitors adore him and his warm, accommodating persona. His writing was, and is, so brilliantly musical that it helped to attract music educators, fans, and judges to the wonderful potential of marching percussion.”