Marching to the beat of historical drummers
Young American Patriots Fife and Drum Corps -- not your typical garage band
In the four months that Anjali Ramesh has been a part of the Young American Patriots Fife and Drum Corps, she has mastered seven colonial songs on her fife.
For each song she learns, she moves up in the ranks and receives a star pin to decorate her uniform, a traditional red, white and blue outfit originally designed by George Washington.
"The more songs they learn, the more 'bling' they get added to their uniforms," said YAPs' founder Jason Giaimo with a laugh.
Giaimo was 7 when he joined a fife and drum Corps in Westfield, N.J., and is now a three-time National Fife Champion. He founded the Young American Patriots Fife and Drum Corps in March 2010, bringing the 1776 spirit of the East Coast to the West Coast and its sounds to the garage of his Pleasanton home.
"I decided to start up the YAPs in 2010 because my kids were around the right ages, and I wanted to give them the same opportunities that I was given when I was in a fife and drum corps," Giaimo said.
His daughter, Ashni, and his son, Jaiman, are among the 17 members, who range in age from 8 to 14.
YAPs is a nonpolitical parade band "dedicated to perpetuating the music, history and heritage of our nation's founding," according to its website.
"Our group is especially unique here on the West Coast," Giaimo said. "On the East Coast fife and drum groups are much more common. We are one of four fife and drum corps in all of California."
Giaimo welcomes members of all musical abilities, and they learn to read sheet music. New members are able to choose whether to learn to play the drum or the fife, which is similar to a piccolo only shriller and louder.
"When you first start playing the fife it's very tricky to blow and make a sound," explained fifer Michael Boyle. "When you start playing songs you have to get the tune right, so that takes a lot of practice. As you advance in levels the fingering gets faster and more complicated, so you have to practice even more."
Every Friday, from 6:30 until 8 p.m., Giaimo's home is transformed into a 1700s musical scene. Members sign their names on the attendance sheet using a quill pen, while traditional fife and drum tunes play in the background.
Giaimo's group lessons are centered around what he calls "the Three Pillars of the YAPs": musical education; leadership formation; and American History.
On a recent evening, Giaimo began the lesson with an hour-long musical lesson, instructed the fifers at the kitchen table, while the drummers practiced under the instruction of Anna Cucciardo in the garage.
"We are not your typical garage band," Giaimo joked.
Each group started by playing basic songs in unison. Giaimo tapped out the beat for the fifers, while Cucciardo had the drummers follow her lead. The members then broke into groups where they practiced songs of their respective ranks.
"Every week Mr. Giaimo chooses songs for us to learn. Then we go home and practice them. When we think that we have mastered them, we get tested," said Mayank Sharma, 12. "When we test we can't read our sheet music, so you have to practice a lot. If we pass the test, we move up in the ranks and get a star pin."
Giaimo visited all of the groups, giving the kids tips and helping them learn parts they were struggling with.
"My favorite part is 'free time,'" said YAPs member Mahika Sharma. "That's when we get to practice by ourselves, and Mr. Giaimo comes around and helps us with our songs."
After an hour of musical instruction, the YAPs gathered in the garage where Giaimo began with a brief history lecture and life lesson. On this particular evening, the YAPs were taught the "Five Penny Method," to move the coins as they perfect parts of a song -- a practice technique that Giaimo learned from his own childhood fife instructor.
"I like learning about the history of Pleasanton and facts about the wars," said fifer Aditya Jain. "This one time, Mr.Giaimo told us about this gun that they used during the Revolutionary War. It was huge! I thought it was going to be really small but he told us it was as long as this room."
Giaimo's lectures are followed by a "Cheesy Joke," a tradition that has been going on since Giaimo founded the group in 2010.
"Who is the penguin's favorite aunt?"
As the kids laughed at the joke, they gathered their instruments and headed outside for their marching practice.
"My favorite part about the drum is being able to march with it. I also play the drum set, but I don't like it as much because I like being able to walk and play at the same time," said Surya Ramesh.
Giaimo led the YAPs around his Pleasanton cul-de-sac as they marched along in the street practicing their many parade formations. Giaimo reminded the fifers that good posture is the key to playing the fife, while he told the drummers to continuously pound out the "marching beat."
"The drummers are to the YAPs as the heart is to the body," Giaimo said. "If the heart stops, what happens to the body?"
The YAPs practiced traditional 1700s tunes like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," while neighbors paused their activities to watch and listen. The YAPs' practice concluded with snack time, a favorite part of practice for the musicians.
"It's great to see bonds forming between the kids," said Giaimo. "I like the sense of camaraderie that they get from each other. It's really neat to see that they'll always have this support group and these friendships no matter what schools they end up going to."
As the kids finished up their snacks, Giaimo brought out a uniform to remind the kids about their upcoming events. At this practice, he reminded them of a very important performance: the United States Gymnastic Olympic Trials.
The YAPs performed at the Olympic Trials at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. After their performance they enjoyed complimentary tickets to the men's gymnastic competition, and had a meet and greet with the Olympic hopefuls.
"It was quite a thrill for the kids," Giaimo said. "The opportunities that the kids are given is why I do this. My hope is that the kids will get to experience things that they wouldn't ordinarily be able to."
Alongside the star pins that decorate the uniforms are gold and silver medals, awarded to the members during competitions. The Young American Patriots participate in two competitions a year -- one before their performance in the Downtown Pleasanton Holiday Parade, and another before one of their summer performances.
"We compete against one another since there aren't any other groups nearby," Ashni Giaimo said. "We break up into two groups: a beginners' group and a more advanced group. We then individually play songs and compete against each other for medals."
The YAPs have performed in parades and venues across the Bay Area. The Youth Music Festival, the Pleasanton Veteran's Day Parade, Dublin's Saint Patrick's Day Parade, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, the Hometown Holiday Parade, the Moscone Center and Danville's Fourth of July Parade are among their many performances.
"I like learning new songs and then playing them in the parades," said drummer Jaiman Giaimo. "We get to go to really cool places. This year we had the opportunity to perform on the USS Hornet."
Jason Giaimo and his Young American Patriots may be marching to the beat of historical drummers, but the opportunities they are given and experiences they have shared together are timeless.