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London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony Drummers

Ralph Salmins, Paul Clarvis, Mike Dolbear

London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony Drummers

The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics on the 27th July was a spectacle for the eighty thousand people within the stadium and the estimated  four billion that watched from around the world. Danny Boyle, Artistic Director for the ceremony, wanted drummers to feature heavily throughout the event and so used one thousand of them to add drama, movement and intensity to the telling of the history of Great Britain. Many of those drummers were volunteers and some had never even played before.

The task of auditioning and training the drummers was given to Ralph Salmins, Mike Dolbear and Paul Clarvis, as well as 21 drum captains. To tell us more about the event from their different points of view I interviewed Mike Dolbear, Nick Marangoni, a professional drummer who was one of the drum captains, and Gillian Bennet, who moved to the UK from Brisbane, Australia last year and was one of the volunteers.

How did you become part of the Opening Ceremony?

Mike - Ralph Salmins was originally approached by Martin Koch, who was the Musical Director for the whole of the Olympics. Within the second meeting Ralph felt the job was to big for him on his own and put my name forward to coordinate the drummers, which I agreed to be involved. I didn’t really know what I was getting into because of the confidentiality.

Nick - At the beginning of March Mike told me that they had some drum captains who had dropped out. Most of them got together in November and they did the auditions for the volunteers and went to the stadium to test the sound.  In March all the dates of the rehearsals were given out and some captains couldn’t commit to them. At the end of March we were supposed to do some meetings with Paul Clarvis to practise the patterns, just for the teachers. Mike knew that I’m a teacher and I do some percussion groups with my students so he asked me if I wanted to be involved. For me it wasn’t the same as it had been for the others because I was filling in when someone dropped out.

Gillian - I first heard about it in November at a Christmas party because a friend I work with said, ''I got in. I'm going to be in the opening ceremony'' and that's all he could tell me. I thought I had missed my chance to be a part of it and at the end of January, on the last date you could apply to get an audition, I heard someone in the office say, ''They're looking for male drummers''. I quickly went online and I thought if they only wanted male drummers I''d go for something else.

Mike and Danny Boyle at rehearsals

What made you want to volunteer, Gillian? Had you done any performing before?

Gillian - I'd always done music so hearing the drumming enticed me. I used to play flute and piano and in my community band my music teacher at the time got me on drums, percussion and timpani. I've only been here a year and I've struggled to make friends cos I came over by myself. Knowing I could be a part of something so unique that I could make a good friend base out of, and have the experience to share with other people, was what really enticed me to do it.

What were the auditions like?

Gillian - There were two auditions. The first one I did on a Saturday in the middle of February. It took three or four hours and we went in, we got processed and got measured. We all got given a number and the first audition was seeing how we moved. They gave us some acting movements and then we learnt simple dance movements. Really they were looking for people who were enjoying themselves.

The next morning I had an email saying I had gotten a second audition and I had to take the afternoon off to go out to Three Mills. That's where we met Mike and Ralph. The first part of the audition was hitting our chest and tummy doing rhythms to show if we could do it in time and how we were marching.

Then we went to another room and we were given a drum, which were the ones we used for the opening ceremony. We had Ralph in front of us as well as the drum captains, Mike and Rick Smith (from Underworld, who arranged and composed the music). I was concentrating a lot harder than I needed to but I hoped that if I could stay in time then I would be picked.

Rehearsals at Dagenham

Mike – Back in November we saw about 1500 people over the period of three days. We were in separate warehouses and I had a twenty-minute routine where they would come to me in a group of one hundred people at a time. Our instructions to the drum captains were that we’d go through the audition process and their job was to go round with clipboards and mark them all. 

By the second day of auditions I’d had enough. I felt that the standard wasn’t high enough and some people didn’t have the correct concept about the drummers. My condition always was that I would only get involved if it was right; a few comments were made to me within the organisation; they thought anyone could play the drums. When we did the third set of auditions the percentage of people getting through wasn’t very high.  That’s when things started to change for the better - the artistic team took over a bit more, to the extent that Rick Smith, the composer, got a lot more involved. I suggested we did some more auditions and put the audition details in the drum magazines and drum websites including mine. My name wasn’t to be connected to it at this stage.

On the second set of auditions at the beginning of the year the standard was much higher with more drummers turning up. We weren’t looking for just drummers because we knew movement was going to be involved but everybody needed a good sense of time and teamwork.

We had other issues to deal with; in LOCOGs (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) experience from previous Olympics we knew there would be people who would drop out so we had to have more than a thousand drummers. We knew people might not be able to cope and we needed ways to deal with that. We also needed to be aware of the secrecy. Early on in meetings and before volunteers were notified I know that two newspaper reporters had got through the audition process so they had to be thrown off - we were aware of the media attention.

Rehearsals at Dagenham

What were the processes involved in deciding what drums would be played?

Mike - Paul Clarvis was brought on board around February because his experience in playing multi percussion instruments was important to the team and he had worked with Rick before. Danny Boyle had decided that he wanted to use buckets because it was the Industrial Revolution scene and it would look authentic for that period of time. It wouldn’t have looked right if we’d gone for a thousand shiny new drums.

We’d already been in the stadium with various percussion items and a 1000 drums were just going to be too loud; even though there was a million watt PA system going to the stadium it would have blasted everyone’s ears. We had to work out the sonics of the buckets and record them, which we did at Abbey Road. When we went in to the stadium we found the plastic buckets were OK but we needed more sound sources and some bottom end.

I worked with the props team who did an excellent job to make whatever was suggested happen. We needed the buckets to have different tones so they worked on two different surfaces for the small buckets so we now had two different sounding small buckets, high and low in pitch. We also wanted a high pitched drum that sounded like a marching snare drum so we went with some metal buckets that had rivets down them which were played on the side. However, the sticks were too coarse so we designed some multi rods out of garden cane. I came up with the idea of using medium and big sized bass bins for the bottom end. When they were played with a stick there was too much of a tap and not enough bottom end so I came up with an idea to put a tennis ball on the end of a drumstick. The props department went away and played with that idea.

The buckets had to have harnesses made for them. The buckets had foam attached to one side to push them about 10 to 12 inches away from your stomach and they had a harness around the centre and the top. This was to get them into a comfortable playing position.

We then had sections of 20 drummers with two big bass bins, two medium bass bins, six metal buckets and ten plastic buckets per group. This gave us the correct tone and sound balance we needed overall.

A portrait of Mike, Rick Smith and Ralph

How did you teach the music to people who had never played before?

Mike - Paul came up with this concept of vocalisation, like ‘Bosh’ as a single note, ‘rumble’ would be a drum roll.  We had various other phrases like ‘Play the drum so your mum can see you on TV’ and ‘I’m in need of a drink’. We had to teach them to move in time as well.

We decided rehearsals would be in groups of 250 so we had four groups. Somebody would lead the group from a stage and then the captains could get in amongst them and help anybody who needed it. Once we started to play all together,as one thousand, all the drummers were fitted with in ear monitors and myself or Rick could then talk to them directly into there ears, so it was very important that they learnt early on to listen to instructions.

We never taught them the structure of the 17 minute song but would just count to them the changes in their ears. This also gave us the flexibility to be able change the length of the track without anybody having to know, which was important as it was going to be live TV and anything could have happened on the night.

The 25 professional drummers on the bell stage with Dame Evelyn Glennie were given a different set of instructions in their ears.

Mike with the drum captains

Nick, how was it for the drum captains to teach such big groups of people?

Nick - It wasn’t difficult because the key of all the process was the movement; the most important concept of it was to keep everyone moving together. With the movement we didn’t have to talk much; the approach was very dynamic and in order to teach them the patterns we didn’t use any written music because we had to deal with some people who had never played any instruments. It was like a workout because we had to keep moving.

During the breaks we got to speak to the volunteers, share some information and get to know them a little bit. When you do a couple of rehearsals you realise that the volunteers start bonding and knowing each other and then they start to create a social element where people start to reach out and really to enjoy the process. We did all these rehearsals and it was never like the volunteers were under pressure because we kept it on a fun level.

Did you find the vocalizations that Mike and Ralph did quite easy?

Gillian - Mike made it very simple for us because we had sayings and they told us what words in the phrase to emphasize. The commands were simple and we got to the point where we knew automatically where everything fell.

Gillian marshalling the athletes

How did you prepare the drummers for playing in front of such a huge audience?

Mike - Motivation is the biggest thing. If you can’t motivate a thousand drummers by saying, ‘You’re about to go out and play to 80,000 people, your country, all your friends and family and the biggest TV audience of all time’ then you’re in the wrong job! They were absolutely buzzing. They wanted to be part of it but the rehearsals were tough; eight hours standing in a car park in Dagenham on broken up concrete, carrying drums in the rain. Some of the players were getting blisters but they never, ever, complained.

At the end of every rehearsal we stood by the door and said goodbye to everyone, Danny Boyle included. The emphasis was always on the volunteers and Danny and Rick Smith always stressed that those were the people making it happen. You heard these stories from people, ‘I’ve come down from Edinburgh’ or ‘I come from Lincoln’. One family told me there were three generations of them involved. It really was life changing for some volunteers.

Two weeks before the show you were told that you were going to be in charge of calling the drummers’ throughout the Athlete's Parade. Tell us about that, Mike

Mike - Danny was adamant from his early plans that he wanted drummers to be a big part of the whole show so in the Athletes’ Parade, which was 1 hour and 45 minutes; he wanted drummers to keep the whole thing moving. Up to a couple of weeks before it wasn’t working; I wasn’t involved with it before then, the drummers were playing whatever they wanted along to the music. I was asked to bring some sort of uniformity to that section but keep the pulse going and driving along.

We never knew how long the piece of music was going to be, even on the night, because we didn’t know how many athletes would turn up for each country. It had to be completely live and because the drummers had all been used to forms of instructions I gave them those in their in-ears and told them what to play to the music. I never knew when the music would finish because it wasn’t structured; it could be three minutes long or thirty four bars long. It was very interesting but they pulled it off really well.

It was pretty intense; I had to watch everything from the control room, which was really busy. While I was talking to the drummers other people in the room would be talking to the people who were bringing the athletes out. I was aware that an hour and 45 minutes is a very long time and those drummers would get tired so I tried to put in sections where they could rest a bit.

Evelyn Glennie on the bell stage

As this was all going on we had eight drummers who would come out behind each country and their job was to move the athletes along. I couldn’t just have them playing a basic two and four; I had to change their groove slightly so it was driving that whole section along. The hardest thing for me was thinking ahead and given the new instructions four bars before they were needed.

It was bizarre. I was looking for particular athletes or countries but I was so involved in what I was doing that I missed them. The drummers did extremely well and I think we only had three rehearsals for that bit. Every time we did it the music was slightly different.

There was also some extra pressure that week because you weren’t well, were you?

Mike - I got unwell the week before; I got this throat infection and cough and I was really aware of that in the control room. The Industrial Revolution 17 minute feature was in place and by the Monday night it was clear I would be able to perform on the bell stage while Rick Smith was in the control tower, although we had pre-recorded his instructions for that section anyway.

I was losing my voice and I knew I had to talk to the drummers live from the control room for the 1 hour and 45 minutes during the athlete’s parade. The control room had about eight people in there and it was high pressure; I’m sure none of them wanted to get ill a few days before the opening. I went to the hospital on the Monday and I felt like a real faker but I just couldn’t afford to lose my voice. I had to tell the doctor what I was doing and she gave me some antibiotic’s to help it clear quickly – that’s our good old NHS. I was very aware of not coughing down the microphone into the drummer’s ears!

A lot of people didn’t know I was ill but I said, ‘There must be no handshakes or man hugs’ because I was paranoid about passing it on.

Nick Maragoni in rehearsals on the Bell Stage

Nick, you also performed on the bell stage. What was your role in that?

Nick - We didn’t have long to go through our patterns because we had to do some variations, which we had to learn quickly. We were there to support Evelyn Glennie because we went in at the same time as the volunteers. When we did the dress rehearsals I remember Mike saying that the volunteers could see us so we had to be really focused on the movements. The opening was such a big event for TV so apart from the playing, which was important, all the visual side of it was very important too because we were in front of the cameras.

What was the atmosphere like in the stadium when you came out?

Gillian - I don’t know if I could ever find a word to describe it. I don’t think I realised until the morning after the ceremony that it was really over because I was used to feeling that that was my day job! Even though I knew it was being transmitted around the world I don’t think I realised that until I watched it later on. As soon as we were in our dressing rooms people turned on their iPads to keep watching the ceremony while we were getting dressed because there were parts we’d never seen before. It was overwhelming.

It showed at 6am in Australia and my mum didn’t sleep the night before. My grandmother’s been bragging to everyone about it! They’re very proud.

Mike - The one thing I noticed was the amount of camera flashes that went off when we came out on stage. It certainly felt like eighty thousand people all taking photos at the same time. The impact that the Industrial Revolution section had was incredible, and when the drummers first appeared and the Olympic rings appeared the crowd went wild.

In the control room, talking to the drummers

What was the experience of the night like for you, Mike?

Mike - The hardest job I had on that night was keeping people calm. There were a lot of excited people and I did a little speech and told them it wasn’t about the TV cameras; anyone who was seen on TV would be forgotten in five minutes, but it was about memories and going out there and soaking up everything and the experience would be life changing and something we would all remember for a long time. I was really pleased that I’d made it onto the bell stage with Ralph, Paul, Dame Evelyn and the other 21 captains and it was great to soak up the atmosphere from there after all the work I’d put into it.

I stood at the back of the bell stage; I could see everything that was going on and it was incredible. It’s special as a parent when your kids do something that you’re proud of so can you imagine what it would be like with a thousand drummers who you have trained and worked hard with? You’ve seen these people go from absolutely nothing and they’ve gone out there and done everything you’ve asked them to do and they’re all incredible! I was really, really proud of them.

But I also had a lot of running to do on the night, from the bell stage I had to change and get to the control room which was high security, mainly because the Queen was just in front of us and her pathway was the back of the control room, so I need to make sure I was in the right place at the right time; if I wasn’t there they weren’t going to hold the show! When I came out after the Athletes Parade I had to change again and run up to the other end and be ready for the lighting of the cauldron where I was also performing.

The night for us was probably the dress rehearsal on the Wednesday night because we did it in front of all our friends and family; we got tickets for them to come and see. That was very special for everybody because the audience were incredible that night. By the Friday night we had done it so many times that it was just a matter of going out there and soaking up the atmosphere. It wasn’t until after walking home at 3.30am that I realised what I had been involved in.

Mike at the end of the night

What have you gained from the experience?

Nick - I gained the social element of knowing people I didn’t know before and also seeing all these volunteers; their commitment, passion and effort they made in order to be there. It feels great because you see a thousand people being together for the same result.

The fact that we used these systems with the movement and the patterns, that was such an important element. When you play or teach you can generate more energy if you move and you feel what you’re doing. You can really give something more than just sound.

Do you think it has changed things for you in any way?

Gillian - It has definitely shown me what my true passions in life are, where I would like to go and definitely what I would like to become as a musician. I always said to myself when I applied that if I could perform in front of the world I could do just about anything so now I feel like my powers are endless; I can do whatever I want and I’ll be fine!

Olympic Funky Drummers

Do you think you will do any more drumming?

Gillian - I really would like to. I have a plan for music; I want to do jazz piano but I struggle to read rhythm and the language that drummers understand is so different to everything else. I would like to learn all the different styles so it’s something I would like to continue with.

And did the Olympics do what you hoped? Have you met people and made friendships from it, Gillian?

Gillian - By the third rehearsal our little group known as the Olympic Funky Drummers slowly recruited a private Facebook group where we communicated to arrange where we would meet just before rehearsals. Towards the end we would go out and socialise. They were from all over the UK; Wales, Sheffield, Cornwall… a huge variety of people. I really feel now that I do have mates and a bit of a family over here who I know I can rely on.

In the last rehearsal at Dagenham we got in a circle and some people were crying; it is sad that that moment in our lives is over but our friendship is all just beginning. It brought us together as a group and we will continue to see each other. We’ve already booked in the 27th July next year to watch the opening ceremony! I’m very excited to see our friendship grow and all the new adventures we will go on.

Interview by Gemma Hill


This piece is dedicated to the memory of Clare Turner, a young drum volunteer who will be sadly missed.

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