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Improving Marching Percussion

Thomas Bough | June 2011

   A marching band director is ultimately responsible for all the music performed by the group, including the drumline. Although a percussion instructor or drumline coach can be a great asset, the band director should make final decisions regarding the music performed on the field or in the street. This responsibility may require directors to increase their knowledge to teach drumline and front ensemble players. Based on my experience as a judge and clinician across the United States, here are the five most common areas of difficulty for drumlines.

Pulse Control
Control of the tempo or pulse is the most common problem in marching band. The drumline plays a key role in keeping time, but all musicians on the field have an obligation to play in time and maintain the tempo when performing. Many bands now use an amplified metronome as a regular part of their rehearsals. Metronome use can help when used strategically; abuse of the metronome occurs when it is used for every moment of a rehearsal.
   Find a balance between using the metronome to establish the pulse and build muscle memory of the correct tempo versus rehearsing without the metronome to verify that players have internalized the pulse. The ratio of metronome use will change during the season. At Northern Illinois University we generally use the metronome as much at 70% of the time when we are first learning music or drill. Once we are comfortable with the music or drill, we may use the metronome only 50% of the time. That number might drop to 20% as the performance approaches.
   As indicated on the field chart below the center of the pulse should generally come from the back and center of the field. Sound travels relatively slowly, so it is difficult for performers in the middle or back of the field to react to the echo of the players in front of them. Thus, players in front must listen back to the musicians behind them and align their sense of pulse accordingly. Because of this, if you use an amplified metronome on the field, it must be placed in the back of the field. It is even better to have someone carry the metronome and PA system around in the drill behind the drumline. This reminds the ensemble that the drumline almost always forms the center of the pulse on the field, not the field conductor, soloist, or anyone else. Train the conductor to watch the feet of the center snare or drum captain and to stay in time with what they see, not what they hear.

   Regularly rehearse your show music while standing still or marking time. If the band cannot play the music standing still, it will not improve while moving. Bret Kuhn, former caption head and percussion arranger for the World Champion Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps and drumline instructor at NIU, says “adding drill will not enhance your chances for music success.”

Front Ensemble
   Most front ensembles are placed on or near the front sideline, within a few feet of the drum major podium. The proximity to the conductor creates musical problems because light travels much faster than sound. To stay together with the battery players staged out on the field, they must listen back and delay their sounds to align with the musicians staged behind them. At the same time, they can look at the drum major to produce the illusion  of being visually engaged in the show while not actually following cues from the conductor. As with everyone else in the front third of the field, front ensemble players need to listen back.
   The director will need to listen to the band from a variety of vantage points to help the front ensemble determine how far behind the visual ictus of the conductor they will need to play to align the music properly by the time the sound reaches the audience. Invest a little time in your front ensemble during rehearsal by standing down among them while the band is playing. Even educated ears can have difficulty with the conflicting visual and aural stimulation that high school front ensemble players have to face daily. Use your musical experience and training to help students learn “how wrong the music has to sound in order to be right,” to quote Bret Kuhn. It takes a great deal of rehearsal time and musicianship to address these problems appropriately. Timing and pulse problems between the front ensemble and the rest of the band are among the most common problems at every marching show. Many of these issues could be resolved by teaching the front ensemble that they have a greater responsibility to listen than to watch the conductor.

Balance and Scoring
   Balance between the wind and percussion is also a common problem in marching shows. It is often necessary for the director to determine, restrict, or increase the volume level for any section of the band during a performance. The field percussion battery can easily overwhelm the winds, so the director must be willing to make adjustments to dynamics. Too many directors pass off responsibility for guiding the drumline to a percussion coach and are unwilling to ask for a needed change in volume. As the director, my job is to set volume for each section and produce a coherent sound.
   A full score, which includes all percussion parts, is critical in balancing the ensembles. If a director does not know what every musician is playing, then nobody knows. The various sound levels for the music should be established while the group is standing still. Determine whether the proper levels for melody, countermelody, bass line, any ostinato figures, and the rhythmic counterpoint are all represented in the appropriate proportion.
   Once the band sounds good standing still, focus some rehearsal time on maintaining this musical balance while in the context of the drill. Some sections may need to play louder or softer based on their staging on the field. At the next stand-still musical rehearsal, retain and review the dynamic changes made to the balance. You might say, “trombones at letter C in the opener, make sure you bring out your countermelody, due to your backfield location in the drill. Play that section a bit louder now than you would normally to remind yourself to bring that part of the music out in the drill.” As always, help students understand their music role in the ensemble. For instance, “bass drums, please play the running sixteenth-note figure at letter A much softer so we can hear the melody in the woodwinds. Your section becomes the focal point of the show four measures later, when you can play as strongly as you like.”
   Many balance problems can be corrected by changing mallets. Front ensemble players can use mallets that are harder or softer to make dramatic changes to their dynamic level and degree of projection. Be careful to avoid damaging the bars of an instrument by using mallets that are too hard. Likewise, battery layers can pick up brushes or smaller sticks or use softer bass or tenor mallets to help produce the appropriate balance. Members of the Northern Illinois University bass drum line each have a mallet rack mounted on their drum to allow them to make these changes quickly.
   Most balance problems between the drumline and winds can be solved by creating more musical percussion arrangements in the first place. Encourage your percussion arranger to think in terms of supporting the musical whole instead of merely focusing on the drumline. Depending on skill level, the percussion arranger should be able to transpose from a full band score to develop front ensemble parts.
    Directors should stay involved as the percussion arrangements are designed. It helps to attend percussion sectionals or rehearsals over the summer to understand how the performers handle the music and to identify lurking trouble spots. Evaluate the percussion arrangement and how it might unintentionally overwhelm the winds at times. This type of problem should be resolved before parts are distributed to students.
   There are musical elements common to any good band score, whether for the concert hall or the marching field. First, there should be moments of pure tone color. In marching band that could include moments of drumline alone, front ensemble alone, as well as moments for winds or brass alone. Second, look for obvious balance problems. A flute solo cannot be heard over fortissimo rim-shots. Either the solo or the rimshots should be cut. Third, look for contrasting texture between voices. If the winds are playing whole notes, it is appropriate for the percussion to be more active and vice versa. Finally, look for counterpoint in the front ensemble writing that complements and contrasts with what the winds and brass are playing.

Heads and Tuning
   Quite simply, better drum heads produce better sounds. However, even the best drum heads will not produce good sounds unless properly tuned. Better heads hold pitch better, last longer, and produce a more pleasant sound. In many ways, good heads are analogous to good reeds and are worth the money.
   Drum heads with large dents or that have been stretched out too far due to age and excess lug tension will not sound good regardless of who is playing. Different heads work best in different musical applications. Thick sailcloth heads sound great on a field snare but would produce the wrong tonal palette indoors on a concert snare. Select your heads to fit the type of music played and the type of sound desired. The websites for all the major head makers contain helpful information about the products available.
   Once good heads have been selected, the drums must be tuned correctly. The goal of tuning is to produce a full and resonant sound and a characteristic tone color. Most people apply tension too quickly to the lugs when turning a drum head. Jim Bailey, former percussion caption head of the Cavaliers, suggested only using a quarter to a half turn of a drum key per lug while tuning.

   Whenever I work with a band in a clinic, I look for a few basic items. If multiple bass drums are used, each drum should be turned to produce different pitches. Split bass drum parts do not make sense if three out of the five drums produce the same frequency. I also confirm that each snare produces the same pitch at both the top and bottom head, and that all the snares used on the field have been tuned to produce the same pitch. Snare drum rolls will not sound correct, even if played accurately, if the drums are not carefully tuned to match each other. Third, confirm that each size of tenor drum produces the same pitch from one set of drums to another. At all times, trust your ears. If something sounds wrong, get down on the field and check it out.

Instruments and Equipment
   High-quality instruments will produce better sounds, require fewer repairs, and last long. Craftmanship becomes increasingly important as instruments become more sophisticated. Whatever savings come from purchasing a truly inexpensive instrument will be lost in repair costs and frustration. It is also essential to invest in good cases to protect the investment.
   Train all percussionists and parent volunteers on the proper ways to move and store percussion instruments. A timpani can be quickly pulled out of tune by putting pressure on the head while moving it, rather than moving it by the legs. Xylophone or marimba bars can be damaged or destroyed by careless handling. Create a climate where proper care of percussion instruments becomes a way to show school pride.
   The key to a better drumline is to keep learning every year. There is a wealth of great clinics, instructional videos, and qualified percussion instructors who can help. If you learn a few new things each year, your marching band will continue to improve by leaps and bounds.