The Best Drum Majors

Kevin Kastens | September 2008

    Drum majors have many responsibilities, and to cover them all, these students must be strong musicians, confident performers, experts on the band’s system of fundamentals, and good communicators. Too often the selected students are unprepared for the position, or their training is neglected during the season.
    The number of drum majors should correlate to the size of the band. A band of 40-50 members only needs one drum major, but two or more drum majors work well for larger bands. A small band does not need more than one drum major conducting, and a second drum major may be more useful assisting the front ensemble, performing as an instrumental or visual soloist, or even marching a position in the drill. When I was a high school teacher, one year one of my drum majors was an all-state horn player.     Although I missed having him on the field for the entire show I was still able to use him as a soloist in one number.
    If there are multiple drum majors, it is ideal to have a mix of ages so all drum majors do not graduate in the same year. Although I would never deny someone the opportunity to audition, it is desirable to have a mix to avoid having to retrain the entire group each year.
    Auditions should occur in spring. Students should be encouraged to audition regardless of age; this gives younger students who may have little chance to win the experience of going through the process. Auditions should begin with the band director holding clinics for the prospective drum majors. Topics should include a thorough review of marching fundamentals, basic conducting techniques, and any other areas that will be part of the audition.
    Each candidate should be able to demonstrate correct postures, horn carriage positions, and marching techniques. Commands for the execution of these fundamentals, whether given vocally or with a whistle, should have strong projection and excellent clarity and be given with correct tempo and rhythm. Because my high school drum majors would assist me in teaching first-year members how to march, I would always go through the fundamentals of teaching, pointing out the details behind certain concepts.
Conducting fundamentals should include two-, three- and four-beat patterns in a variety of tempos and such styles as staccato, legato, and marcato. The Star Spangled Banner, with pick-up notes, phrase releases, fermatas, and contrasting styles, is an excellent work to use in auditions.
    The drum major audition should also contain a showmanship component. This demonstrates potential creativity, and in a competition at which the drum major is being adjudicated, creativity is usually one of the captions. I will test this by giving each student the same three minute excerpt and seeing what they devise. This can be conducting, dancing, an elaborate salute, or anything else students can think of that fits the music. My drum major at the University of Iowa does not conduct but will frequently act with the baton twirler; they usually create dance routines.
    The director should arrange to have a small panel of judges present on audition day. These can be other music teachers in the school, directors from neighboring schools, or even other school faculty. Judges should receive an audition sheet for each student.
Candidates should have the opportunity to give the commands for and demonstrate each of the marching fundamentals. One option is to have each candidate give a series of commands to the other candidates; it may also be good to use marching band students for this if they are available. Some directors require candidates to teach a fundamental to someone who is not in marching band. The conducting portion of the audition should include a couple combinations of time signatures and styles as well as the Star Spangled Banner, which should be conducted in front of people playing or singing. By giving students different tempos and styles to conduct I can see what kind of control they have. The showmanship routine should conclude the performance portion of the application.
    The director and judges should also interview each candidate. The following questions are good examples:
• Why do you want to be drum major?
• What do you believe your role is as drum major?
• What qualities do you possess that convince you that you will do well in this position?
• If selected as drum major, what goals do you have for the band next year?

    New drum majors should attend a summer drum major camp. The school or band booster organization should pay for this if funding is available. The ideal drum major camp will include conducting classes and teaching techniques that campers can use at school in fall. There should be opportunities to practice teaching, and worthwhile electives include basic drill design concepts, showmanship, peer leadership, and handling such equipment as military maces and signal batons. Some camps may even offer help with score study. If scores for the upcoming season are available drum majors should bring a copy to camp.
    If camp is not an option, the director should schedule time every other week to meet with drum majors and work on conducting mechanics. This can start as soon as drum majors have been selected and should continue throughout the season. During the season it is important to take time at these meetings to address any mistakes or situations that are the drum major’s fault. This should not be done in front of the band.
    As marching season begins, drum majors can lead sectionals, instruct first-year marchers, and assist in teaching drill. However, drum majors should never be responsible for taking daily attendance or acting as disciplinarian; these should always be the band director’s responsibility.
    When I adjudicate it is usually easy to tell which directors run rehearsal from the same place every day. Later in the season a drum major can conduct the rehearsal while the director moves around to watch and listen to the band from a variety of positions. Poor posture, instrument position, playing, and marching fundamentals are more noticeable in the middle of the field than on the sideline, and articulations, balance, sound quality, intonation, dynamics, and style are better assessed from high into the stadium bleachers. As the drum major gains more experience and more of the director’s trust, he can take over more of the rehearsal, and the director gets an opportunity to fix things he might have missed.
It is also important that the band director work with drum majors during the season. Continue to refine their conducting and showmanship techniques, even if it means scheduling a meeting time outside of the regular rehearsal. The extra time and effort spent selecting and training drum majors will benefit the marching band and director tremendously during band camp and throughout the season.