Inside the Arc – “To Key, or Not To Key”

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-being a short anthropology of the bugle, more or less-

The following is a Fractured Fairy Tale, though many of the details are absolutely true. As for the rest…

As dawn broke in a boreal woods long, long ago, a drowsy Neanderthal trudged out of the brush and promptly tripped over an old Triceratops skull. “Cool”, he thought, and began tossing the sun-dried fossil up in the air for amusement. When it landed against a large rock, the main horn broke off. Retrieving this, he proceeded to examine it.

He looked through the larger end to a small hole at the taper, not realizing he was holding the proto-microscope. Flipping it around, he peered through from the narrow end. Had light bulbs been invented, one would have glowed above his big furry brow since he was now holding the first telescope. As it was, he only squinted, and failing to think of any practical uses, tossed the funky thing aside.

“Whoo Whoo” was the wondrous sound it made as it spun away. “Cool”, said the Neanderthal again, (being possessed of a somewhat limited vocabulary). He picked it up again and blew some air through it… Nothing. He tried again… Same result. In frustration he invented the Bronx Cheer as he held it to his lips. A loud “Bar-roooo” resulted that echoed off cliffs and trees and was heard all over the valley. “Way cool!”, yelled the hairy man, for he was a quick study.

“Sheesh!”, shrieked his mate, for it was barely daybreak and he was rockin’ the whole forest! He didn’t care, since he had just invented “Reveille”.

Fast forward a couple of million years…

The Roman general, Julius Generarius, called out the order: “Assemble the Legion!” His chief musician, Pepus Notarius, raised the cornu and blew a mighty open fifth.

“What the heck was that?”, shouted Hannibal the Barbarian. “Beats me”, replied his elephant handler, “but it’s big and red and comin’ this way with white feathers on its helmet.”

The Romans advanced, with Notarius at the head of the column. “Launch the arrows!”, commanded Hannibal, and they did, hundreds of them. One poked a hole in the big man’s cornu, but he marched on, playing ever more forcefully.

“Mark this, Genarius”, said the large one, opening and closing the hole in his horn, “Extra notes! Soon I’ll be able to play that Ricola theme!”

The Barbarian was taken aback, having never heard anything like it. “And what the heck was THAT?”, he asked. The elephant boy shook his head and answered, “I don’t know, but it just isn’t Cornu any more, and the Legion will never approve it.”

Nothing much changed for about 2,000 years, until…

Around 1800, a certain Monsieur Ophaclyde went to a party at the home of his friend, Adolph Sax. “Ophy”, said Sax, “let me show you what I have in the basement…”

Shortly thereafter, all over Paris, there appeared all manner of brass horns with holes drilled throughout, each with levers and little pads everywhere. Various (and nefarious) counter-intuitive combinations of these enabled the playing of almost any note desired…sort of.

Soon, an Irish rascal named Halliday applied this questionable principle to an old British army bugle he had won in a card game. The results were mixed, but by skillfully employing the well known millarkey factor, he was able to secure a patent and sell a ton of these to the English army,  a group always anxious to show up all the other armies.

Halliday cleverly named his new toy to honor an English duke, dubbing it “The Royal Kent Bugle”. It was a great (albeit brief) success, since it played like, well, a bugle with holes in it. Only the brave (and stubborn) tried to tame this beast, and when the less patient French and Germans invented the valve in the 1830’s, the slackers (and everyone else) began to drift away from the keyed version.

Royal Kent Bugle made by Cowlan, Manchester, UK, c. 1830 Owned by author Restored by Robb Stewart Photo by Robb Stewart

Royal Kent Bugle made by Cowlan, Manchester, UK, c. 1830
Owned by author  Restored by Robb Stewart  Photo by Robb Stewart

For sure, Ned Kendall and others continued to amaze with their skills on the instrument well into the 1860’s., thus becoming the first ever “Alumni Corps” buglers, but the horn with the holes in it was past its “sell by” date. Trumpeting (and corneting and flugeling) had moved on.

Around 1920, certain WWI veteran’s groups decided their annual parades weren’t loud enough, so they invented drum corps as we know it, more or less. Soon those events became competitive, with Post 8 ½  from West  Beanbag, IA having it out with the Silver Jock Hellions from Winnemucca on valveless bugles the likes of which those Romans would have recognized.

Then valves began to appear, though these were declared illegal immediately since they made the horns considerably costlier, resulting in the invention of dues and tour fees. Besides, not everybody knew how to use them, (Note: It can be argued that this is still true in some groups.) Corps now needed instructors, for Pete’s sake (though not even Pete was certain he supported this).

Endless battles were fought about the permissible number of pistons, where they might be placed, the length and slippage of slides, how much tubing could be used, and at what angles it could be bent.

Eventually the great war was settled by the G7 Peace Treaty, a general throwing up of hands stipulating  that everybody can do whatever they want, just like the drummers.

Naturally, this makes the Royal Kent Keyed Bugle legal again, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”, as Jerry Seinfeld would say.

“Cool”, says I. Now how do you hold this thing?

About the Author:
Frank Dorritie is one of the legends of the activity .... a performer, instructor, arranger, adjudicator, and observer over the past 5 decades. Frank has been playing the bugle and trumpet since the 1960s, and has performed with artists like Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson. He has instructed and/or arranged for the Blue Devils, Cadets, Santa Clara Vanguard, Cavaliers, Chesterton and Tenri High Schools, the Bushwackers, Bridgemen and a host of others. His audio production honors include 9 Grammy Nominations, 2 Grammy Awards and membership in both the World Drum Corps and Buglers Halls of Fame. He is active internationally as a clinician and adjudicator, holds the DCA Soprano/Trumpet/Tenor Individual titles for 2003, 2005 and 2006. Frank also chairs the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College. His popular brass method book, “Power and Endurance”, is available from The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.

Posted by on Thursday, May 8th, 2014. Filed under FrontPage Feature, Inside the Arc.