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  • Brian Blume

How marching arts can help shape better percussionists

"What are your plans for this summer?" I was a freshman percussion major at Indiana University, when my teacher, the legendary Tony Cirone, asked me this question.

"Well, I'll be marching another season of drum corps with the Glassmen."

"Oh, man. Seriously? You shouldn't waste your summer doing that. You need to be going to a music festival or performance camp."

My decision had already been made, and I went on to march my second season with the Glassmen as a snare drummer. About a year later, a similar conversation ensued in my lesson with Mr. Cirone. This time, I asked him, "Have you seen a show lately?" He had not seen a drum and bugle corps show for decades. Based on this conversation and others, I was convinced he simply had no idea what happened in a 21st century drum corps percussion section.

Glassmen 2005

Glassmen drumline, 2005

After sharing with Mr. Cirone that some of the folks I marched with were percussion students at Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, and other reputable music schools (including another IU student who studied with him!), I convinced him to attend a show. My parents (how awesome are they?!) bought Mr. Cirone a ticket to the DCI Indianapolis regional that summer. Demonstrating his humility and willingness to learn, he attended. Upon returning to IU that fall, Mr. Cirone expressed his surprise and delight at how musically and technically advanced the percussion ensembles were, especially the pits ("They're all playing with four-mallets!"). Cirone's respect for the marching activity began to grow as he saw the connections between what happened on a drum corps tour and the progress students made as performers and musicians.

Perhaps the number of educators who find little to no value in the marching arts has decreased in the last 10–15 years, but many certainly remain who may not understand the immense benefits of a well-led marching activity––marching band, drum corps, or indoor marching ensembles. While the following list is not exhaustive, I hope to highlight a few ways the marching arts can shape better all-around musicians.

DISCLAIMER: All of these may be learned and developed entirely outside of the marching arts, but in my experience, they rarely are developed to the levels that are achieved by students who also participate in marching ensembles. I also recognize there may be negatives associated with the activity, but here we focus on the positives.

1. Listening. Of course listening is a part of all music, but nowhere in my life have I had to focus my listening more than while marching in or teaching marching ensembles. I believe excellent listening skills may be learned outside the marching activity, but the large number of musicians who participate in marching programs each year merit giving careful consideration to this important curricular goal and musical skill. The listening skills developed during marching activities––clarity, balance, rhythmic accuracy, timbre, blend––can then be applied and reinforced in a chamber ensemble, band, or orchestra setting.

2. Awareness. Related to listening, the level of awareness encouraged and taught in the marching activity is important to consider. Is the center snare set and silent? Then I need to be set and silent. Does the trumpet section leader bring her horn up on count three? Then I need to bring my horn up on count three. Does the drum major tend to start that accelerando a couple beats early? Then I must be aware and go with him. Awareness of details is highly valued in this activity, and it's a great place to teach it to students who have not often had to think about such things. This awareness transfers to indoor musical ensembles when a student takes notice of small conductor cues, the sounds of another section, how a principal player bows a passage, etc. I also believe this awareness can extend to daily life. As students become more perceptive in interpersonal interactions, they may become more aware of the needs of others and find themselves with opportunities to demonstrate greater empathy.

3. Chops. The ability to control and use your implements at a very high level (for percussionists), or play with volume and control for long periods (for winds), is a prerequisite for participating in a high-level marching ensemble. Students continue to develop even greater strength, stamina, consistency, and control throughout the course of a season and marching career. The competitive nature of the activity continues to drive technical skill levels higher, and when good teachers help students translate the technical skills/chops they develop in the marching arena to the concert stage, the result is an ever-increasing ability of students to meet high musical demands. When I see what middle school and high school students are doing, and how much more technically advanced it is than just 15-20 years ago when I was in high school, I cannot help but think the competitive nature of the marching arts has something to do with this advancement.

Center Grove HS, 2011

Center Grove HS, 2011 (photo: John Simon)

4. Tempo control. I would guess a student who marches drum corps hears more metronome beeps in a given summer than a student who does not. That marching student learns how to internalize the pulse and occasionally move around it, adjust to it, feel it in their feet or entire body, and memorize exactly what that tempo sounds and feels like. I have taught many students who had little understanding of how to work with a metronome, and others who come to me saying, "My worship leader at church is making us play with a click track now, and it's really weird!" If these students had participated in marching band or drum corps, it is likely they would have been more comfortable working with a metronome or click track. Through techniques implemented in rehearsals, students may also learn how to move away from the metronome toward performing click-free. For example, instead of setting a metronome to sound on every beat, one may set it to click every other beat, every third beat in ¾ time, or every fourth beat in 4/4 time. This requires students to maintain the pulse between clicks, but it keeps them from wandering too far from a consistent pulse.

5. Understanding the process of achieving excellence. The nature of a competitive marching ensemble is such that students rehearse in great detail, repeating and refining, over and over again, with constant feedback from teachers who guide their practice. In his book, Peak, leading researcher in expert performance Anders Ericsson asserts that “having students create mental representations in one area helps them understand exactly what it takes to be successful not only in that area but in others as well.”[1] A mental representation is a structure held in a performer’s mind, much like a map, that becomes increasingly detailed and sophisticated through practice. “These representations allow [expert performers] to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation.”[2] Ericsson claims (and I agree) that “generally the only students who do develop such representations are those who are pursuing some skill outside of school––playing a sport or a musical instrument, for instance.”[3] As the marching arts are a fusion of sport and music, they provide opportunities to learn the high-quality practice habits of planning, execution, and evaluation of performance. A good teacher can then help students transfer and apply these skills to other areas outside the marching activity.

6. Rehearsal/practice habits. A student participating in the marching arts might learn what to do and what not to do in terms of rehearsal habits. One may learn how to use a metronome in various ways to help with rhythm, or that a segment isn't really ready for performance until it can be executed well 10 times in a row. A student might discover that performing a run-through with minimal rehearsal that day is a good indicator of where you stand with that segment, or simply that getting good at something takes many hours and lots of disciplined work. These are things I learned from my marching experience. I also learned that rehearsing too long without a mental break becomes counter-productive. Efficiency and quality are far better than quantity.

7. Teamwork. There are many many opportunities to develop teamwork in life (sports, other musical activities, school groups, etc.), but for many students, marching band might be the only one they ever get involved in. Working in a marching ensemble (with perhaps hundreds of other students!) to create a meaningful musical and visual experience for an audience is a powerful thing. Spending hundreds of hours with your section mates can be trying, but rewarding, as you learn to work with diverse personalities and respect those in leadership positions. I remember my corps director telling us we didn’t have to like everyone in our section, but we had to get along with them, respect them, and work well with them. That's a good lesson for students to learn, and it prepares students to be better suited for life as a professional.

8. Performance experience. A member of a drum corps might perform publicly 40+ times in a summer. What an opportunity to grow as a performer! What other opportunity allows high school or college students to perform in front of thousands of fans four or five nights a week for an entire summer? The sheer number of times students perform in front of people is extremely valuable. In a high school marching band or indoor percussion ensemble, students may perform as many as 20 times through the course of a season (e.g., parent performances, football/basketball games, competitions, etc.). Students learn to handle pressure situations, control nerves, and perform at a high level night after night, even when they don't feel like it. They learn to dig deep and find ways to express themselves through the music. The many benefits of frequently performing under pressure in a marching ensemble may also transfer to the concert stage. Performers who participate in the marching arts often develop confidence and a strong stage presence, which may help mitigate the effects of performance anxiety both within and outside of musical events. I have certainly witnessed somewhat reserved students develop a more confident demeanor through the course of a season, and I have also seen that confidence manifest in their daily lives and personal interactions.

Again, I do not wish to say that I believe the marching arts are the best thing in the world or that they are superior to other musical experiences. In fact, there are certainly opportunities for improvement in the culture and practices of the marching arts, but I'll save that discussion for another time. For now, I hope that considering these benefits will encourage you to make the transfers from what students do in a season of marching band or indoor percussion to the stage. The experiences gained through the marching arts can elevate participating students to new levels of musicianship, discipline, awareness, teamwork, etc., ultimately shaping better all-around musicians.

[1] Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), p. 255.

[2] Ibid., p. 62.

[3] Ibid., p. 254.

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