The History of Percussion


One of the earliest reasons for drumming at all in the first place, was communication. In Africa, large talking drums could be heard miles away and different patters represented different words in the dialect. This idea was carried through the centuries to the military regimes in Europe and America. By the Revolutionary war and the Civil War in America, there were always a group of drummers to keep the armies in good form and to signal their friends. Sometimes at night, the Three Camps call would be played by one drummer and then repeated by the drummers in the other camps to make sure they were still alive and alert before bed time. From these calls came the rudiments, which are a set of patterns every drummer learns and are analogous to scales. These rudiments are perhaps the most important thing an early drummer can learn, and are also the foundation of marching percussion. Marching bands and drum corps alike are all based off of military backgrounds and the drumming, albeit contemporary, is still in the open-roll style of the old days. Below is a slightly more detailed look at the the primary battery marching percussion instruments.


The standard marching percussion section has 5 areas. Snare drums, tenor drums, bass drums, cymbals, and a pit (an area on the sideline with just about anything these days). These instruments have undergone many changes in the last few years and the current result is a set of instruments that are extremely loud, cutting and durable. Drumheads have changed to accommodate the extreme tuning demands which broke under high tensions. Most programs use snare heads made from Kevlar and Mylar in today's marching percussion section. These bullet-proof (!) heads are nearly indestructible, are waterproof, and don't stretch at all like plastic heads. Cymbals tend to be very brilliant in color to provide visual appeal on the field. Bass drums have gotten much smaller, some being only 16" in diameter (2" larger than some snare drums!). Tenor drums used to be grouped in 3's and 4s (trios, quads) but now, quints and hexes are standard. The writing demands have gotten extremely difficult as well and many composers are arranging orchestral works on the marching field. These parts are often executed with great practice and authority and just about anything one can imagine happening in the orchestra hall can be mutated into field-use as well (however, many orchestral percussionists would disagree as the marching percussion area tends to be the least respected).

The Snare Drum
The current models of snare drums generally have a loose term called "free-floating" applied to them. This simply means that the tension of the head is not exerted on the shell itself, but rather a metal ring the same circumference and diameter of the shell that sits on top of the shell. This means that people can tighten heads as far and as high as they please without worry of collapsing the drum shell itself. They have gut snares on the bottom although they usually should be rather loose or else the little snare sound there is gets lost. The drum is worn on a harness in front of the player and is usually played traditional grip. Sometimes, cymbals or other "toys" are mounted to the drum but this is not a common occurrence.

The Tenors

Tenor drums are grouped in a number of configurations but the available sizes are generally 6", 8", 10", 12", 13", and 14". A set of hexes usually has 2 spot/spock drums which are simply the 6" drums and then 4 other drums of varying sizes. They are usually tuned in thirds or fourths and use Pinstripe style heads. The drums are quite heavy, even with the light-weight carriers offered today. Some drumlines like to add cowbells, splash cymbals, and other toys to the tenor section since their setup is most conducive to being added to.

The Basses

The bass drums section is one of the most melodic of the battery instruments. Each voice plays its own part in the music although unisons always exist. Many drumlines use felt and puff mallets alike for different passages, depending on the musical needs. Most bas drummers used to simply be the "guys and gals with less chops" however, as one may here in these cadences, bass drummers in high-school level and up drumlines need to have all the chops of a snare drum player. Some drum corps actually have the top bass play the snare drum parts to add bass [frequency] to the snare line. ALthough not always physically challenging, the basses share something unique to the marching ensemble in that there is only 1 person per part - there is no cheating or hiding behind another player. Memorization tends to be difficult in this area due to the sporadic playing. The sizes of drums range in diameter from 16" to 34" and most lines today use 5 drums. Some may only march 4, and some have marched up to 9!.