Remembered by many for his humble, selfless, and laid-back style while teaching some of the top drum lines of the 1970s and 1980s, Tom Float, a highly-respected marching percussion instructor and arranger and DCI Hall of Fame member died on Monday after a courageous battle with cancer. He was 69.
Friend and former student Dan Wahl confirmed his passing on behalf of Float’s wife, Catherine.
“Float’s legendary accomplishments reach from drum corps, to film and television, to theme park entertainment across the globe,” Wahl said. “He always had everyone else’s best interest in mind and made sure he built up opportunity for those around him.”
Born in Pennsylvania, Float’s drum corps career got underway in earnest after a move to California in 1969 where he joined the Diplomats, a southern California corps in the Los Angeles area. In 1971 he followed friends to another Golden State corps, the Anaheim Kingsmen, where he’d perform as part of the snare line through 1974, a run that included the corps’ historic win at the inaugural 1972 DCI World Championship in Whitewater, Wisconsin.
After moving to Canada to work on a graduate degree in business, Float began his drum corps instructional tenure in 1976 with Toronto’s Oakland Crusaders. It was here that he began to stretch his long legs as a truly gifted instructor, able to connect with and produce results from students of all levels and abilities.
“Tom was a great teacher, as evidenced by the success of his lines over the years,” DCI Hall of Fame member Dennis DeLucia said. “He was also very competitive, as we all were.”
DeLucia pointed out that Float may have realized one of his greatest triumphs with the Crusaders in 1977. The Canadian corps’ drum line took the top score in the percussion caption during the DCI World Championship Prelims, nearly a half a point ahead of the nearest competition and the best of a field of 45 competitors. This feat came from a corps that finished in 15th place overall, three spots away from even advancing to the DCI World Championship Finals.
“Imagine that happening today,” DeLucia said.
The late DCI Hall of Fame brass arranger Jim Ott drew Float to the fledgling Spirit of Atlanta in 1978, the Georgia corps’ sophomore season on the DCI Tour, yielding a collaboration on what would become some of Spirit of Atlanta’s most iconic tunes including “Georgia On My Mind” and “Let It Be Me.”
“I loved the way (Ott) arranged,” Float said in a 2004 interview for Drum Corps International, the same year he was inducted into the DCI Hall of Fame. “That was my main reason to want to go (to Atlanta) because I thought I could arrange music for percussion that would accompany what he wrote on horns very well.”
Float worked with Spirit of Atlanta through 1981, however things dramatically changed when Ott was tragically killed in an auto accident while on the road with the corps during the summer of 1980.
“A lot of my love for what I thought I was going to be able to do in Atlanta unfortunately went out when (Ott) died,” Float recounted.
“After that, I ended up going to Blue Devils, which I felt that I was probably best suited for out of any group that I ever taught,” he said. “Because I liked the music, I liked their drive, I liked their style, and when I had a chance to go, that was pretty hip.”
Float’s time with the Blue Devils between 1982 and 1990 marked his longest tenure with any drum corps and is where he realized perhaps his greatest successes competitively. As was the case early in his time as an instructor with the Oakland Crusaders in the 1970s, Float’s presence became quickly felt with members of the Devils. The corps’ drum line won the high percussion caption award at the 1983 DCI World Championships, only his second year on the job, and went on to win another three over consecutive years.
Behind the competitive accolades, however, was a man truly focused on the students with whom he worked. Many recount his larger-than-life personality, but also his ability to connect with students of any ability level, make them feel welcome – and consequently to inspire greatness within them.
“If you ever doubt the rippling, lifelong positive impact one person can have on thousands of others, read the tributes to just one drum instructor today,” longtime Drum Corps International announcer Dan Potter posted on Facebook after learning of Float’s passing. “Not a celebrity influencer or athlete. One guy, a pair of sticks and a love for his students resulted in thousands of lives being positively changed. That’s Tom’s final lesson.”
During three years arranging for the Velvet Knights from 1992-1994, Float began to explore other performance and professional opportunities. Firmly planted in his drum corps roots, he worked with the Magic Kingdom Korps, a 12-person marching ensemble that performed throughout Disneyland in Anaheim. He also performed at Disney as part of the Trash Can Trio, a group costumed as janitors who would unassumingly roll into public areas throughout the theme park to surprise and delight audiences with their impromptu interactive performances.
“Tom wowed the guests with his percussion skills in atmosphere groups like the Trash Can Trio and Green Army Patrol,” wrote Nathan Eick, a former Disney Parks employee and published Disney historian, in memory of Float on LinkedIn. “Tom was also an invaluable behind-the-scenes consultant for Disney Live Entertainment offering his expertise in workshops and auditions to find the best players for shows and parades, and train them to be even better. The toy soldiers in ‘A Christmas Fantasy Parade,’ for example, benefitted from his amazing skills.”
Float also spent many years of his career working closely with and for a number of percussion industry manufacturers. He served as a consultant to drumhead and instrument giant Remo, Inc.; as an endorsee artist and clinician for Vic Firth, which manufactures a popular signature drumstick he designed; and perhaps most notably with Tama, where he spent a decade and a half as a marketing and product manager, playing an integral role in developing the company’s line of marching percussion instruments.
“It’s safe to say that if you have marched in the past 40 years, the design and performance of your drums, sticks, cymbals and drumheads have been influenced by Tom Float,” the Remo company said in tribute to Float on its website. “Tom changed the game for every drummer, educational event, organization, and drum manufacturer whose path he crossed.”
Float is survived by his wife Catherine, also a well-known and accomplished percussionist who he met through the drum corps activity. In their years working side-by-side, the inseparable duo fed off of each other’s creativity.
“I really enjoyed all the times that we would write music together,” Float said of Catherine in 2004. “(Especially) to watch and be able to hear it and blend our ideas and try to make one thing from two people.
“Going to DCI and seeing how happy she would be when her part of the group would do great was, I think, one of the best things that I ever got from DCI. Watching our work and being married to her, and it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for drum corps.”