It’s mid-October, more than halfway through the marching band season, and I’m still not able to wrap my head around why the snare break in the second song is dirty, a saying we in the marching band world use to denote drummers who are not playing in time with each other.
After the band breaks to go back to the top of the “Battle,” a section in the second song named for its similarity to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme, I confront Bradley and Evan, the two snare drummers on the Stafford Senior High School Tribe of Pride drumline this year.
Receiving only excuses from the two, I pull them aside and have them play the lick for me at half its original tempo. Within the first two counts, I can already identify the problem: they still do not have the chops to play the egg beaters, a very complicated drum rudiment. I give them a short exercise that works on strengthening their triple strokes and send them back to play with the band.
As a drumline technician at Stafford, this is just a small part of the daily routine that consumed my time with our five-person drumline this past marching season.
As far as drumlines go, Stafford’s small compared to other schools. Your average high school line is comprised of roughly three to four snare drummers: the most prominent voices of the line, one of two tenor players, the middle voices and four to five bass drummers, the low voices. At Stafford, we had two snare players, one tenor and two bass drummers, down from three after our middle bass drummer quit in the middle of the season.
As an instructor, it was important for me to stress to my students that, just because we had a noticeable handicap, it should not impact our drive to be the absolute best we could be this past season.
This is because, in drumline, how your line looks is just as important as the notes it plays. With a smaller line, each member has more responsibility placed on him or her, as there are less of them on the field to draw attention.
Sure, horn or flute players have to hold their instruments at a certain angle and march with good form, but there is no way to tell who is actually playing their part versus just marching around.
With drumming, however, what you see is what you get, so I often see when a drummer messes up without even listening to them.
This was a frequent issue with our two bass drummers, who often looked like they were wandering around the field like sheep separated from their herd, with their heads darting every which way and their hands playing closer to the rim of the drum than the center, where they should be.
This is one of the ways music and visuals complement each other; when a bass drummer’s hand droops down from the center, it affects the quality of the sound that comes from the drum. So when Nick, my bottom bass drummer, says he is playing at a nine inch height, but I hear a thin, quieter sound, I immediately recognize the problem without even having to look.
Similarly, our lone tenor player has a bad habit of having his arms pushed too far forward when he plays, meaning he plays in the center of the tenor drums. The proper beating spot is close to the rim. Playing in the dead center does not allow the sound of the drums to carry, and when your one tenor playing is not putting out sound, he might as well not play at all.
I do not want to sound as if I am only being negative about my students. When I did drumline in high school, I had an instructor that would just tell us to “play better” and not give us any real criticism, so it is important for me to be able to identify these specific problems.
But these five drummers, plus the three in the front ensemble, have given it their all ever since June, when we assigned them to their respective instruments, to the first weekend in November, when they rounded off a great season by taking second place in a competition in Virginia Beach against bands from across the state.
This year was my second teaching the Tribe of Pride drumline, and, should I still be in the area after I graduate in May, I look forward to coming back again, as next year’s line looks very promising.