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Making the Most of Drum Majors

David Semones | August 2013

    Drum majors are the hidden gems of a band program for directors who know how to use them. Often, directors who were not drum majors themselves have no idea of the extent to which this student leader can make the marching season smoother. Most drum majors want to help more, but at their age, they don’t want to overstep any bounds. Here are ways to help drum majors find that niche that makes them the most useful, both on and off the podium.

Choosing Drum Majors
    I have narrowed my selection process down to three main categories: conducting ability, musical ability, and leadership skills. Conducting ability includes conducting various time signatures, left hand coordination, and keeping a steady beat. This is the least important area for me, mainly because I believe most students can become coordinated with enough practice. Slightly more important is a student’s musical ability, including rhythm reading skills, instrument proficiency, and musicality. Drum majors should understand how to communicate musical ideas through their conducting. Leadership skills are the most essential of the three categories and include dedication, responsibility, compassion, the ability to teach, respect for all, and the ability to take charge. What makes my drum majors extremely productive is their ability to take charge and handle situations with care and compassion. This can be difficult to find in a high school student, which is why I look at drum major candidates’ leadership skills over their ability to conduct. It makes for a larger pool of candidates from which to choose.
    Although it can be tempting, avoid keeping people from being drum major because they are needed on the field. It is important to pick the best leaders, even if they are your best musicians. Some of the best drum majors I have had were great primarily because of their leadership ability; unfortunately, they also happened to be the top players in the band. Do not be discouraged if you have to move a strong player to the podium; the rest of the section will step up.

Drum Majors as Leaders
    A drum major who can conduct triple time against duple time is less important than a drum major who will step up, take charge, and lead. I remember having to take a sick day one spring as we were preparing Alfred Reed’s Armenian Dances, Part 1 for a looming performance. I left the substitute teacher the best plans I could come up with. The next day, I came back to school to learn that my drum majors were not satisfied with losing a day of practice, so they took the initiative to rehearse the band. One drum major took the woodwinds and the other took the brass. They knew what we had worked on in class the previous day, so they reviewed those concepts and then led some much needed woodshedding. They stood up, took charge, and showed the other students that the music was more important than getting an easy day.
    These students might not have conducted all the mixed meter in Armenian Dances perfectly, but they did gain some invaluable life skills, and the band didn’t lose a day of practice. This scenario doesn’t answer the question of why these two students stepped up. They stepped up because I trained them during marching season to take charge and to teach.
     Drum majors frequently end up becoming a metronome for the entire season and are given little else to do. Tell the drum majors from the beginning that the role of drum major is a year-long job, and give them responsibilities in concert band season as well. Give them opportunities to make decisions, and let them help run their band.
    Be careful about criticizing drum majors in front of the band; this detracts from their leadership. Simply correct them if needed. I have seen many drum majors become timid and disrespected because they get blamed for more than they deserve. Just like any other student, they will also tune you out after so long. Sometimes it is their fault, but instead of critiquing their performance throughout the rehearsal, correct them quietly or talk to them after practice. I have found this simple rule makes them more confident and allows them to retain the respect of the band. Drum majors should be the most confident and respected student leaders of the ensemble. If the other band members see you nagging the drum majors frequently, they will begin to do so as well. This approach will also make it more difficult to find high-quality candidates for next year’s auditions, and you may be left with the ones who simply want their name announced at performances.

Drum Majors as Teachers
    Watching a drum major teach should be part of the audition process. There are several activities that drum majors can teach on their own. Using drum majors to teach sectionals or help with the visual block is a great way to have an extra staff member. The band director need not do this alone.
If you need help setting drill, teach drum majors how to read a drill chart and give them a section to set. The first few times might be disastrous but they will catch on quickly.
    Drum majors also work well as a note-taker or an extra set of eyes. Give them an assignment during rehearsal, like keeping a list of struggling students, sections of the music that need work, or something as simple as fixing a straight line in a section. Listen to the drum major’s suggestions; they might be great.
    Be careful not to assign too much teaching responsibility; they are still students themselves. It is extremely important to talk to your drum major about this before giving them an assignment. Remind them they are also students and cannot speak to the band as you would. However, they still must accomplish, to a degree, the duties of a staff member. Furthermore, always make sure supervision is nearby when they are teaching. After rehearsals, you may choose to critique their instruction briefly but constructively.
    Perhaps the most gratifying characteristic of drum majors I have had in the past was their ability to lift me up in a crisis. There were several times while teaching high school that I felt downtrodden, and they noticed. They encouraged me to dust myself off and keep trying. This meant more to me than anything, and in those moments I knew I had selected the right students back in the spring. That is why moral leadership and compassion should be considered in auditions as well.

Drum Majors as Employees
    Drum majors are not psychics. Give explicit instructions and make sure they follow through. I train my drum majors to line off the field, take attendance, lead stretches and exercises, and take charge of some on-field instruction. They should also bring things to the field, such as the amplification system and microphones, their podium, scores and drill books, and extra coordinate sheets.
    Do not be afraid to use drum majors as personal assistants to handle whatever is not absolutely necessary for you to deal with. If you tell them what you expect at the beginning of the season, they will not get angry when you ask them to do it. Have them type up a bus or packing list (make sure to check it over) and teach them how to use the copier’s advanced functions so they can help you with such tasks as minimizing music for flip folders. My drum majors even knew how I liked my coffee (with two packs of sugar).
    If you make sure these assignments are done correctly and accurately, these traditions will continue from year to year because other students will already know what is expected of a drum major before they audition.

Drum Majors as Learners
    Perhaps the biggest oversight that occurs with drum majors is when they are not still treated as learners. Teach drum majors to conduct competently. Conducting is more than keeping a steady beat; it is an art form that requires passion, enthusiasm, and an ability to convey emotion through music. Everyone plays better under the direction of a passionate conductor, and there is no reason to believe that a student conductor cannot have the same effect on an ensemble.
    Nothing is too advanced for a high school conductor. No teacher would tell trumpet players not to play Clarke studies because they are too hard or tell woodwind players to avoid extended scales because the sound is less good in extreme ranges, so be sure to teach drum majors how to be musical conductors rather than simply a metronome. Drum majors are members of the marching band just as much as winds, percussion, and auxiliaries are.

Drum Majors as Performers
    Drum majors should have a checklist of things to do in performance:
• The drum major should be the first one onto the field and the last one off.
• The salute should be kept simple.
• Drum majors should acknowledge the audience at both the beginning and end of the band’s performance. This is a sign of appreciation to the people who have come to watch the show, as well as to the judges.
• Drum majors should smile. Music is meant to be enjoyed, and everyone should see that the drum majors enjoy their role and love their band.
• Drum majors should feel comfortable enough conducting to come out of the box a little, especially with expression.  By conducting with feeling, the band will play more emotionally.

    Drum majors can be the greatest asset to the marching band if permitted to use all of their abilities. Teach them the way you want things done. It might be a little strenuous for the director the first couple years, but the tradition of great work ethic will filter down from year to year, and eventually go on autopilot. Try these tips, and I believe your marching season will run more smoothly.