An Interview with Wayne Downey
by Scooter Pirtle
Originally published January 1993.
Wayne Downey's involvement in music began in 1960 as a third grader in Commack, New York as a trumpet player in the elementary band. A few years later, the local Fire department organized a fife, drum and bugle corps to perform at various civic events and at fireman's parades. Wayne's next-door neighbor (a fireman) persuaded him to march in the corps.
After several seasons, Wayne became more attracted to a drum and bugle corps in nearby Smithton, New York, primarily because their horns had a valve and a slide. He marched with the Smithtown Freelancers in 1966, 1967, and 1968. In 1969, his senior year in high school, Wayne marched in the Long Island Sunrisers Senior Drum and Bugle Corps as one of their soprano soloists.
At the same time his father, who was an elementary school principal, interviewed for and accepted a job in California, which required relocation. The family departed during the summer of 1969, leaving Wayne behind to march with the Sunrisers.
Wayne planned on finishing out the season with the Sunrisers and taking advantage of a music scholarship offered to him by Florida State University. However, midway through the summer, Wayne decided it was best to join his parents in California. "After all, great weather is great weather no matter which coast you soak it up on." With this in mind, he elicited the help of friends (including Dave Shaw, Editor of Drum Corps Digest) to locate any drum and bugle corps on the West coast. Wayne was informed of a three-year old corps located in Santa Clara, California called the Santa Clara Vanguard. Ironically, his parents had moved just one block away from the home of the Vanguard's corps director, Gail Royer. Wayne marched soprano bugle with Vanguard during the end of the 1969 season, and all of 1970-72.
In 1971, Santa Clara's brass instructor Jack Meehan left the corps. Jack was replaced as brass instructor by Wayne (one of the soprano soloists in the corps) and Scott Pierson (an "age out" from the previous season), led by Gail Royer as music director and arranger.
Wayne "aged out" in 1972. During that season, the professional relationship between Wayne and Gail had soured and Wayne was politely "relieved of his responsibilities" as brass instructor at the end of the season.
In 1973, Wayne instructed the reigning World Champion Anaheim Kingsmen, and the Stockton Commodores. He was teaching the Commodores on Tuesday evenings, and then flying down to Los Angeles on Wednesdays to teach the Kingsmen. During the winter months, Wayne drove to LA every weekend to instruct the Kingsmen and finally moved to LA in the summer. After the drum corps season was completed, Wayne moved back to San Francisco to complete his last year of undergraduate work at nearby San Jose State University.
Meanwhile, the position for San Jose State's marching band director became available and Wayne interviewed for the job "just for the hell of it". The next day, San Jose State University Band Director and undergraduate student Wayne Downey met his secretary, moved into his office, and prepared for next season. For the next two years Wayne wrote the drill and the music, directed one of the jazz/pep bands, and taught a marching band techniques class. During his first week as band director, Wayne received a telephone call from Jerry Seawright, the director of the De Concord Blue Devils. Jerry expressed interest in having Wayne teach the Blue Devils. Wayne reluctantly agreed to help audition We new people for the corps' 1974 season. "There was this for incredible magnetic energy that drew me into the organization" says Wayne of his first visit to Concord. At that time, Jim Ott was the brass instructor and arranger for the Blue Devils. Wayne and Jim were already good friends from their times together instructing the Commodores and marching in the Vanguard. Ultimately, Wayne decided to take the job as brass instructor with the Blue Devils.
In 1974, the Blue Devils improved their placement at DCI Nationals from 24th to 9th place. The next year, from 9th to 3rd, and the corps took their first DCI Title in 1976, the quickest three year ascent in DCI history. Wayne was now twenty-five years old.
After graduating from San Jose State University with a degree in secondary music education, Wayne opted to work full-time for gal the Concord Blue Devils and has been there ever since.
Today, Wayne Downey has reached "icon" status in the drum corps community. He has enriched drum corps and high school and college marching bands throughout the world with his instructional techniques and carefully crafted musical arrangements. He continues to arrange, adjudicate, and instruct, and he still somehow manages to make time to consult and conduct clinics for Yamaha Music Corporation of America.
Here's information on the Dynasty of Brass DVD that was made available in 2007:
I had the privilege of interviewing Wayne on September 21, 1992.
Scooter Pirtle: When you're auditioning people for the Blue Devil horn line, what are some characteristics you look for?
Wayne Downey: The most important musical quality I listen for is the beauty of the performer's tone. Tonal production is the measure of a great musician far more than the pyrotechnics of fingers and range. Tone quality forms the basis of how I teach brass, and is the most important quality in musical performance.
As I audition different sections, there are different qualifications I listen for. In a soprano player, flexibility, slurring, and tonguing are extremely important as well as the range extension of the player. It takes at least a 2 to 2-1/2 octave range just to be considered to play the big band screaming jazz type of show I write for the Blue Devils soprano section.
In short, a great sound, great flexibility in slurring and tonguing, as well as an excellent range is desired. To be a good lead or solo soprano player, on the other hand, takes more than just having great range and technique, it takes a performer who can naturally and enthusiastically command an audience with his or her desire to be the best. One who is secure in their ability to project that personality to the people they're performing for.
When it comes down to the alto section, especially within our activity, the alto players have the same responsibilities as the alto sax section in a jazz ensemble. So the questions I always find myself asking during an audition are: "Do they have fingers and can they play the instrument in tune? Do they understand how to get the instrument to respond efficiently considering the volatility of the instruments pitch center and the width of each note?" and finally, "Can the performer play to 'E' above the treble clef staff with ease". In summary, they must demonstrate flexible fingers, a good range and the ability to play perfectly in tune with a well-centered sound.
SP: It sounds like an art.
WD: No. It's a challenge!!!
Baritone players...Baritone players have the same type of responsibilities as soprano players. All the qualifications I listen for are the same. I have euphonium players in our ensemble as well, and my expectations for that section are a bit different. They must demonstrate that big, fat, meaty bass trombone sound…open, dark, and intense.
SP: They can really darken up a line in a hurry, too.
WD: Oh yes, and that's what I like. The word "dark" is the operative word in the Blue Devils distinctive sound. That, combined with the high sizzlin' brightness in the sopranos, is music to my ears.
SP: Of course, the contra players have to look nice in the leather caps!
WD: Exactly! The contrabass players are a different animal. They must sound as sonorous as a bass trombone player, but also have "fingers and tongues of death." They have to be very flexible to perform the most incredible wailing bass lines imaginable on the field of competition.
SP: The Blue Devil mid-voice section has seen lots of changes over the years. Is it the music that dictates the instrumentation?
WD: To a certain extent it does.
The first new sets of instruments Jim Ott and I purchased for the Blue Devils were French horns and mellophones. In those days (way back when), those instruments were considered the standard instrumentation. I don't believe the music had any influence on our decision whatsoever. The French horns had the longer straight bell, not the "wrapped" concert configuration, and the mellophones reminded me much more of the "Turkey" horns of the Stan Kenton era.
When we speak of the changes in the Blue Devils' alto section over the past three decades, we must speak of the instruments that were available for our use. First of all, the French horn was, and is such an incredibly difficult instrument to play on the field. The overtones in the "mid" register are so close together that you can play practically every note with an open fingering [Laughs]. It took a magnificent player not only to play in the center of the instrument, but to play in the center of each particular note. Due to the construction of the mouthpiece--the size of the rim, the "edginess" of the rim, as well as the conical nature of the cup -- the instrument was considered "volatile" to say the least. The mellophone, on the other hand, was very unruly tonally, very easy to lose control of at the forte and fortissimo volume levels. These deficiencies in the instrument's design played an important role in the evolution of the instrumentation of our alto section.
In '79, after Jim Ott left to teach the Spirit of Atlanta, I decided we needed to make some changes in the alto section instrumentation. My motivation was mainly the instruments, not the music. I wanted a set of alto instruments that lacked that "paint peeling" tone quality of the mellophones and were easy to play in tune. So in '79 & '80, with the exception of the La Suerte De Los Tontos production, the mellophones went "bye-bye" and flugelhorns were substituted. I felt that our new flugelhorn could provide us with a "hipper and cooler" sound, darkening the ensemble as well as the alto section. After a year or two of experimentation, I realized eliminating the mellophones wasn't the answer. The alto section sounded lifeless and lacked that distinct edge that the mellophone provided. With that in mind, Jack Meehan (my new teaching partner) and I decided to combine mellophones, flugelhorns and French horns. I think the instrumentation was four mellophones, four flugelhorns, and six French horns. This combination of instruments made it easier for me to change the tone color of the ensemble in many different ways. I could match sopranos with mellophones; sopranos with mellophones and flugelhorns; sopranos with French horns or many different connective combinations with the baritones. I could practically change the color of the brass section based on which alto instruments I used in the mix. The orchestration was a by-product of how I wanted it colored (how I heard it in my head), as well as what the composition tonally called for.
After a number of years, Jack and I decided that trying to blend three different tone colors and match three instruments with different pitch tendencies was fruitless. It became obvious to us that two instruments would be easier to blend and tune. It was at that time we again removed the mellophones from the alto section and relied on flugel and French horns.
After a couple of years, the volatility and edginess of the French horns, combined with the visual demands placed on the performer, became too much to bear (running around the field as well as playing) and the French horn players were at a loss. As a result, the 1986 alto section featured four mellophones and ten flugelhorns.
SP: You did something very interesting in 1987 by streamlining your mid-voice into one instrument type.
WD: Right. In '87, Jack Meehan had this brainstorm. He wanted to design an instrument that combined the "edge" of the French horn with the darkness of the flugelhorn. Jack and Ziggy Kanstul collaborated on the design of this instrument that was closely related to a descant horn. The one-piece construction only broke at the valve section. We called it the "Meehaphone".
SP: So you used the Meehaphones exclusively from '87 thru '90?
SP: What about the '91-'92 seasons?
WD: Actually, in 1991, because of the musical selections we had chosen, we felt it was necessary to have that volatile edge on the top of the alto choir, so out came the mellophones again. The instrumentation was four mellos and ten meehaphones. In 1992 we played on the meehaphones until the first week in June, that's when the new three-valve flugelhorns arrived. These instruments were a collaborative effort between Yamaha Corporation of America and designer Mike Dennis. Mike created the flugelhorn with available parts from both the Yamaha field mellophone and student model flugelhorn. The result was a three valve flugelhorn in the key of G. It's the most "in tune" instrument of any of the instruments that we presently have. Only the fifth space "E" on the treble clef staff is a bit out of whack.
Meehaphones in 1987. Reprinted from bluedevils.org (permission pending)
Once the instrument was completed, I worked with Terry Warburton of Warburton Mouthpieces to design an appropriate mouthpiece for our new flugelhorns. Actually, we went through two to three different mouthpiece designs before we found the right one. We called the mouthpiece the "Downey BD". It was produced in combination with the flugelhorn,--a very dark well-centered sound.
Click the YouTube link below to see the Meehaphones during the Blue Devils Finals performance at Nationals in 1988:
SP: Did you keep the mellophones?
WD: Yes we did. DEG three-valve mellophones. Don Getzen and Co. was very helpful modifying their present design to my specifications and we enjoyed the sound they provided us on the top end of the choir.
That brings us up to this year. I'm presently working with Mike Dennis on a new mellophone design. My thoughts are to design a mellophone that plays with the tonal characteristics of a flugelhorn in the mid to lower register and with a brighter, more piercing quality of sound in the mid to upper register of the instrument. If all goes well, I'm considering an alto section composed of all mellophones in '93.
SP: Hey! This is quite a surprise!
WD: Yes, the everlasting search for tone color!!!
SP: In what ways do you see the Blue Devil mid-voice changing in the future?
WD: Considering the many problems we have had historically with the alto choir, I'd say we're moving toward one instrument. Although, it was wonderful to have the ability to change color with different combinations of instruments, it was very difficult to achieve a well blended in tune sound.
With that in mind, the search has begun for an alto instrument that has a distinct, clear, focused sound in all registers.
SP: That's the dream!
WD: That's the dream.
Wayne is undertaking an innovative online instructional site called extremebrass.com: