May 13, 2015
THE DEVILS YOU KNOW: An Interview with Scott Johnson
Scott Johnson is the director of percussion for the Concord Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps. He first joined the Blue Devils in 1976 and became the organization’s Director of Percussion and Percussion Arranger in 1994. As part of the Promark “Built to Compete” campaign and for the 2019-2020 master educator catalog, Director of Marketing at Music & Arts, Renier Fee, interviewed Scott to catch up with the legendary Blue Devil himself.
Percussion has been a life calling for you. You started at the age of four and it has been your career ever since. What is it about percussion that grabbed you?
I started drumming when I was four, and haven’t really stopped yet. I have three sisters, two older, one younger, and my two older sister twirled baton when they were young. I grew up in the pageantry world, and I was on mom’s hip at all the parades, with my two older sisters twirling their batons, and it was either start drumming or start twirling a baton for me. My mom has a photo of me with two hot dogs in my hand sitting at the lunch table pounding on the plate, and they figured, he’s going to be a drummer. So from the age of four, I started taking private lessons from the local guy who was running the drum and bell corps back in those days. And that led to pretty much where we are today.
The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps is an elite marching organization. What is the audition process like for the Blue Devils?
At Blue Devils we get drummers who know how to play everything. Drummers who can play all the hardest stuff flock to here because of what we’ve done in the past and what we’re doing now. So there is a lot of talent, but for us it’s more about sound quality. As a drummer, you think about marching percussion, a snare drummer, you’re playing on a one pitch instrument. Tenor drummers you have maybe four, five or six drums. Bass drummers, it’s all tonal so you have five people splitting up rhythms. But it’s all about the quality. Everybody that walks through our door has to have a good sound quality in order to be part of this organization. We put so much on the individuals to be extremely talented that their sound has to blend when we put the whole ensemble together.
What are the most important traits you look for when hiring support staff?
I usually hire people that I know. People that have come through the program, because they know what to expect, and people that I think will do a good job. When you see a certain person that’s in your drumline whose in there for two to three years, you keep your eye on that person and realize this person’s going be a great teacher. Just by the way that person reacts to the other members, the information they give them, those are things I really look at. I keep hiring extremely talented teachers, and I’m really lucky at that, and they make me look really good. And they’re a lot younger than I am, so they make me look really good because they’re the ones that have to get out there and run around with these guys all the time. So, I’ve been very blessed with amazing friends, and my staff.
What are your preferred instruments for your corps?
The gear that we use for marching percussion has changed so much. When I marched we had a strap around our neck to hold a drum that rested on our leg. We could not do the physical things they do nowadays because there was a drum attached to your leg and it was hard to run around. Then we started to get drum carriers that went over the shoulders and held the drum out in front of you so your legs were free. These made it easier to move, and that was, for drummers, the kiss of death because that meant you’re gonna move a lot.
But then drums became heavier; they became tanks. We were trying to fly around the football field and run all over the place so we needed strong drums that could last several seasons. That meant we had to have strong people to play tenors, and bass drums because they were heavy drums.
We’ve been very fortunate the last couple years with the Blue Devils, we have our System Blue line of drums that we actually developed ourselves and use. The main priorities for System Blue are to be lightweight and not lose sound quality, plus be user friendly for the body. We want your body to be healthier by the time you get rid of your playing days as a marching percussionist.
And what are your preferred instrument accessories?
We use a combination of System Blue drums, Evans drumheads and Promark drumsticks. We developed the System Blue snare head with Evans and it has a great feel to it, great sound quality and the maintenance is really good. With our System Blue line of Promark drumsticks it’s all about having a good sounding marching percussion stick for the drumheads we play on, which are Kevlar based and have a hard surface. We want a stick that is going to project and feel good in the hands, not vibrate, that way it’s more of an extension of your arms. The fact that we worked together in designing the sticks and the drumheads has been awesome and the sound quality has definitely improved year, after year.
You’ve won fourteen D.C.I. High Percussion titles and countless gold medal championships. You were inducted into the 2012 class of the DCI Hall Of Fame, the 2012 WGI Hall Of Fame, and the 2015 World Drum Corps Hall Of Fame. How do you continue to challenge yourself with new goals?
You know, we get so much information out of the Blue Devils members. Every year I set the members down, the drum line for example, and I say “What are you looking at? What is the best drum line in the world doing today?” And the information they give us we use. We use it in designing the show, because they’re the ones who are doing it. And I think that’s going to be the legacy of the Blue Devils, a lot comes from within, from the members who help us, the staff members keep us fresh, current and pushing the activity. In that way, we keep trying to define ourselves every year. We don’t want to get stale and do the same cookie cutter show like we’ve done in the past, so every year it’s something different, something new, and I think that’s why we keep doing this thing.