Behind the Lyre: Rex Jamieson, Drums, Fifes and Barbershop Quartets (Part 3)

On 14th October, we had the opportunity to speak with Rex Jamieson. In this interview, Rex discusses the instruments he played on in the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, as well as his involvement in music, such as singing in barbershop quartets, now that he has retired from playing with military bands.

The previous two parts of this interview can be found here and here.


What type of drums did you play on, Rex?

We used exact replicas of the rope-strung drums that they used in colonial days…metal drums we use today didn’t exist 250 + years ago! They were all handmade and hand painted. Very expensive for one of those drums. I’d love to have one! There are a couple of different people that specialise in colonial drum making, but you pay for it because it’s very detailed and specialised. They have a crest on the front of them, which is the crest of the old guard of the army.

Rex playing the drum with fifer Don, both had retired from "The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps", but ran into each other accidentally in Fairfax County when Rex had been singing with his barbershop chapter, and Don had been playing his fife for the crowd (photograph property of Rex Jamieson)
Rex playing the drum with fifer Don, both had retired from “The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps”, but ran into each other accidentally in Fairfax County when Rex had been singing with his barbershop chapter, and Don had been playing his fife for the crowd (photograph property of Rex Jamieson)

What about your fife, Rex?

If you buy a typical fife, it only has six holes, three for your middle three fingers on either hand. This means you’re limited to one key. Now this is my fife [hold fife up to the screen]. We have 11 holes – two thumb holes and one double hole for your right hand. We can play in several different keys on these. Of course, these are handmade specifically for the Fife and Drum Corps. Anybody else who wants to pay the price for a real good Fife will need to pay $125 a piece today. I think this one was made by a guy named Trout in Arizona. I got mine in 85 when I switched over from drums to fifes. So it’s been what, 35 years?!

Do you get to keep your instruments when you leave the Corps?

Well, when you retire, you lose your instrument, then pay for it. I paid $50 for it back in those days, when it probably cost about 75 or 80 bucks. Unfortunately, you can’t do that with your drum. I would love to have had one of those ropes string drums, but they’re just so darn expensive

Rex (back, left) singing with his Church Choir in 1996 (photograph property of Rex Jamieson)
Rex (back, left) singing with his Church Choir in 1996 (photograph property of Rex Jamieson)

I understand you’re involved in several barbershop quartets now? Are you still heavily involved in anything else musical?

Yes, we have a community band here in Prince William County where I live and we have quite a few players who have retired from military bands. I sing in the local barbershop chapter, and a chorus of men, which breaks into quartets. I’m the Assistant Director right now.

Rex (snare drum on the left) playing drums with the Shenandoah Sound Drum/Bugle Corps, a civilian unit, after retiring from the U.S. Army, before switching to baritone bugle in 2011 (photograph property of Rex Jamieson)
Rex (snare drum on the left) playing drums with the Shenandoah Sound Drum/Bugle Corps, a civilian unit, after retiring from the U.S. Army, before switching to baritone bugle in 2011 (photograph property of Rex Jamieson)

What kind of music do you perform in your barbershop quartets?

One of the things we like to sing a lot in barber shopping are barbershop arrangements of all the well-known Christmas carols, and other secular Christmas songs. One of them is Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer, which has a very bland ending. At the end of barbershop songs we have what’s called a tag, which is where the arranger uses the real juicy chords and makes a much fancier ending than you expect to hear on the average song. I wrote my own tag for Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer – the tenor goes way up to a high C!

Are there any other “seasonally busy” times for Barbershop quartets?

We barber shoppers also sing a lot in February for Valentines Day. One of the highlights from my singing has been singing with an international winning quartet from 2006. My wife and I went on a Royal Caribbean cruise line last year, and there were five international champion barbershop quartets on this one cruise! That’s why I wanted to go. They would list the songs, and if you knew your part, you could go and sing with them. There was a group called Vocal Spectrum that won in 2006, and I got to sing with them on this ship.

Rex and his barbershop quartet performing “singing valentines” on February 14th where they go to the location of the recipient to sing two love songs and present a rose and a card from the sender, then take a pic of the recipient in the centre of our quartet as a keepsake. It raises funds for the local chapter, to cover rent, buy music, buy uniforms and pay the musical director [photograph property of Rex Jamieson]

So you’ve covered quite a few bases – cello and guitar from the strings, fife from the winds, drums…

Of course I’ve done a lot of singing all my life. I’ve always sang in Church Choir and Madrigal groups in college. That’s one of the best thing that really happens in college. The voices are young and the blend is just wonderful. I even organised my own barbershop quartet in college, seeing as I had access to all this music through my dad and my church choir director who had a barbershop chapter. I remembered being fascinated by my Dad’s barbershop quartet rehearsals when I was real young.

The men that had such a great influence on Rex's musical development - his Church Choir Director and Father (photograph property of Rex Jamieson)
The men that had such a great influence on Rex’s musical development – his Church Choir Director and Father (photograph property of Rex Jamieson)

What voice did your dad sing in barbershop quartets?

He was the baritone. In barber shopping you have the melody line, then you write as the bass part to compliment it. That’s why most barbershop quartets will stand with the lead singer and the bass part next to each other in the middle. The next part you write is the tenor part, which is usually floating above the melody line. Usually the baritone part gets the leftover note in the chord, making it one of the hardest parts to sing because it does a lot of jumping around. Usually the leader of the quartet is the baritone.

So I assume you were a baritone in barbershop quartets as well?

Yes, and I’m in two different barbershop quartets now, which I lead. Of course, my degree is in music, so that’s part of the reason. My quartet sings a nice arrangement of California Dreaming which I really like, but Lida Rose is probably one of the most requested songs that a barbershop quartet will get here, in the US.

“Lida Rose” sung by the Buffalo Bills, the 1950 International Champion barbershop quartet, in “The Music Man”

Well Rex, that music recommendation sounds like a good point to end on. Thank you so much for sharing such an interesting and diverse range of musical experiences with us today!


Get Involved in ‘Behind the Lyre’

Would you be interested in sharing some of your experience working within or with a military or marching band? If so, we would love the opportunity to speak with you.

We’re looking for people from all countries, of all ages and abilities, who play all sorts of instruments! We’re also looking for those who are a little further behind the lyre. This includes educators, directors, agents responsible for sourcing musical instruments, the instrument manufacturers themselves, and many more. We would love to share your important role in military and marching music with the rest of our community.

To find out more, or to schedule an interview, please email hannah.williams@bbico.com.

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