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Off Beat Empire #4: Drumlines

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A weekly round-up of B1G Marching Bands.

Photo by Tom Lynn/Getty Images

Drumlines

I figured that I would spend a bit of time today on the one group of the band that a lot of you who don't otherwise have any musical talent think you could do (no, you couldn't), a group that somehow avoids most of the negative stereotypes otherwise associated with "band geeks" (I assure you they're just as socially awkward as the random clarinet player), and one that is usually a crowd favorite no matter what style of music is being played. I'm talking of course about the drumline.

There is something primal about beating an object loudly with a stick. Everyone can relate to it. Everybody likes a bit of rhythm to keep them going. Everybody likes to feel the boom of a drum in their chest rather than just listening with their ear. There is a reason why there will be at least three guys outside Wrigley Field this week beating an upside down garbage can rather than playing an accordion.

What makes a good drumline? Well, it isn't anything that you would learn in the actual movie "Drumline" (although saying that it is the "pulse of the band" isn't too far off). What it takes is remarkable precision... 25 or more people who are completely in sync with each other and doing their part in a way that you would think it was a single individual playing. There is no room for improvisation or solos or extraordinary individual talent. The entire group is only as good as the worst player and all it takes is for one person to screw up to completely ruin the whole effect.

How do they get things so precise? Well, they practice... a lot. Usually more than any other group in the band. They're like the pitchers and catchers in spring ball... most groups have a mini-camp at least a week or two before the rest of the band shows up. Throughout the season, if the band is getting together for practice, I almost guaranty you that the drums have been out there 30-60 minutes early to do their own warm-ups. On top of that, they have a lot of work to do maintaining their equipment. We won't even talk about the weight of the drums that they need to carry - it takes strong backs and strong arms (cymbals) to play in a drumline. Overall, it's probably the hardest working group in the Band.

Drumlines generally include four distinct instrument groups (unless you’re Notre Dame and marching with a xylophone, in which case you are a horrible, horrible person). First, you have the cymbal players, who crash, sizzle, scrape or crush (thank you Wikipedia... I had no clue what most of these were called before looking it up) their parts often in unison, but sometimes varied depending upon the sound of a particular instrument or for a cascading effect. Because a little cymbal goes a long way, they tend to have little stretches of free time at various points in the music, which is why much is asked of them in the form of showmanship... either flashing their cymbals for a visual effect or engaging in some form of acrobatics to accompany their performance. They will also often mosey over to the snares in order to replicate a high hat or crash cymbal drum set effect. Each cymbal usually weighs between 5-7.5 pounds, which doesn’t sound like much, but if you have to carry that weight, smash it together, as well as continually raise it over your head, well... it’s probably more of a workout than most people realize. Don’t arm wrestle with them.

Next on the totem pole comes the bass drums. Now, if you haven't payed close attention in the past, you may have missed that bass drums are tuned to different notes. The 5+ players aren't always playing on the same beat... they're usually actually forming a musical bass riff. If you've never done it before, it is extremely difficult (at least for me) to play only one part of a five-note musical sequence and make sure that it is in perfect sync with what the other bass drummers are doing - especially if you have a nice little fill-in that you are trying to execute. To me, this is what makes or breaks a truly great drumline - snare drums get the most attention and are more active, but it's really a solid bass drum riff that is going to tell me if everything is truly clean and in sync.

Next comes the largest group, the snare drums. There is just a lot that snares can do musically that is going to add flair and carry the rhythm. About 80%-90% of percussion music is going to feature the snares in one form or another. They are the Kings and Queens of the drum section and keeping things perfectly precise is their hallmark. It's not enough to just play your part on snare drum... you need to make sure that you are using the same hand as everybody else in doing so. When you lift your hand, you make sure to lift it to the same height as everyone else. When you twirl your sticks, you do it the same as everyone else. If you do everything right, you get a really nice, clean sound with equally clean visuals to match.

Finally, you have the quads (called that even if there are five or six of them), or tom-toms. A lot of groups will feature only 2-5 of these at a time. They have all of the activity of the snare drums, but because the heads are tuned to different notes, you have the added ability to express a multi-tone musical phrase. Despite being able to do more than a snare drum, these instruments are usually featured less. With the exception of significant fill-ins, only about 10%-20% of drumline music will feature quads and the rest of the time they act more like a counter-rhythm to the snares.

In the B1G, we are spoiled by what are probably some of the best drumlines in the country. Yes, people get excited about traditional swing schools in the SWAC who bring a lot of flash and innovation to what they do with percussion - which is all very good and very entertaining. However, in my humble opinion, the technical skill and clean musicianship on display throughout the conference is the pinnacle of what can be done with with drums. Following is a brief excerpt of MSU's drumline - a group that I personally consider to be one of the best in the conference, if not the country:

Links to performances from drumlines for all of the other conference schools are as follows: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan,Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State (OK, I'll also give some props for the mascot being able to play a snare), Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, and Wisconsin.

Halftime

Penn State

Before I get started with this week's performances, I want to apologize to the Blue Band for missing their performance last week against Indiana. They put on a nice little show featuring movie music ranging from Star Wars to Dirty Dancing. The light-saber was a really nice little feature in the opening piece and we get reasonably good drill and sound for the first and third pieces. I've been told to expect park n' bark for the middle piece throughout the year, which is really a shame, but I guess the Blue Band isn't alone in doing so. Overall, another nice performance.

Wisconsin

in addition to Penn State's delayed show, video just recently popped up for Wisconsin's September 30th show, in which the Badger Band played tunes from West Side Story. The Badgers turned in a typical Badger performance, which means to say that they used a lot of lower body motion to add energy to the show, otherwise kept drill very simple (lots of yard lines, half yard lines, and blocks), and showcased their size and volume. Music opened up nicely, but the show got a bit away from them at points. I waiver back-and-forth if this (and Rhapsody in Blue a few weeks ago) is the right kind of show for Wisconsin or not and it's a shame that I don't have Northwestern's version, yet, to compare and contrast styles. It felt like the show needed a bit more finesse to work well. I would rather see Wisconsin play things like Carmina Burana, Mars, Handel's Messiah, the Firebird Suite Finale, or Conan the Barbarian... tunes that are bit more strident and aggressive on downbeats that would fit well with their marching step. However, after listening a second time to this show (without viewing the video), I'm maybe being a bit too tough on the Badgers... some of the brass hits in the first two songs in particular are quite good. I guess I just want some smoother melodies to counter-balance the big blasts, and I'm not sure that Bucky does that well.

Congratulations to the Director, Mike Leckrone on being inducted into the Badger hall of fame. Forty-Eight years on the job is something remarkable. I had the privilege of playing under John Paynter, who fulfilled a similar role as Director of Bands at Northwestern for 43 years (and tragically passed away within a year of retirement). Therefore, I know from personal experience that when it comes to maintaining traditions, there is no substitute for having a solid leader who has been doing it week-in-and-week-out for decades. I love that he apparently still hands out fines for swearing to be donated to charity - we should all just give him a jar and let him roam the student section during "Eat Shit, Fuck You" and all of this nation's problems will be solved! I understand he had double bypass surgery earlier this year, and we're all happy to see him in good health and back on the job.

Indiana

Now, for this past weekend's shows. For the game against Charleston Southern, Indiana featured music of Fleetwood Mac, including Tusk (negative points for mentioning USC's marching band), Go Your Own Way, and Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. In the spirit of this week's topic, Tusk had a nice little drum break toward the middle... I just wish there was a close-up camera angle to get a better idea as to what the section was doing during that time frame. Similar to Penn State and prior shows, it seems like the middle song for Marching Hundred shows is going to be used to "feature" the dance squad (i.e. park n' bark). Otherwise, drill was simple but effective at times and found a way through simple counter-marches and brief expansions and contractions to look a bit busier than it really was. Musicianship was pretty good throughout - Indiana has a nice clean sound particularly in their high range trumpet hits. Aside from maybe a few moments toward the end of Go Your Own Way, the tempo stayed very steady throughout and cohesiveness was pretty good. Another solid performance by the Marching Hundred.

Unfortunately, Indiana embeds their videos into a player that doesn't seem to play nice with SB Nation, nor easily open as a separate video. A link to the show can be found here (halftime referenced is in the playlist as the Oct. 7th show that is 7:29 in length).

Michigan and Michigan State

For halftime of the Michigan vs. Michigan State game, we got a somewhat rare treat in that the two bands combined to play a complete single halftime show. It's not unusual for visiting bands to join for perhaps a song or two (usually while parking n' barking), but this was full drill involving a total of 700 members from the two squads. Music included classical favorites such as Mars from Holst's Planets series, In the Hall of the Mountain King, Rhapsody in Blue, and the 1812 Overture. Usually when you put a group this big on the field it invites disaster, because neither band gets to practice with the other one until the day of the game and sometimes you get bands playing at cross-purposes to each other. However, for the most part, the Wolverines and Spartans pulled the show off with flying colors (In the Hall of the Mountain King lost a bit of musical cohesion at times). Nice job.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes this week gave us their usual, incredibly entertaining story of a boxing match between Brutus and the Michigan Wolverines. This story is proof positive that Boxing today is a rigged sport... there is no way that Brutus would have lost anything to Michigan in Ohio Stadium (at least, not unless Luke Fickell was somehow coaching again). As usual, you have great moving figures, in this case stick figures fighting it out or training. The music was solid as always. The story was cute. Overall, a solid performance and probably my favorite of the week.

Everyone Else

Unfortunately, there are several bands where online video hasn’t quite caught up to their current performance. I know from seeing it first hand that Northwestern did a nice rendition of Leonard Bernstein music (mostly West Side Story), but I'll have to wait for the video to be posted to review. Unfortunately, Nebraska and Maryland have been difficult to get video on for the entire year, and I'm missing several weeks of material for each (although only Nebraska was was home this particular weekend). Iowa and Purdue were the other bands in action. I usually eventually see something for the Hawkeyes, but there is nothing out there quite yet. I'm also usually able to get snippets on Purdue as well, but will have to wait. I'll catch up on both schools if / when something is posted.

Overall

We got caught up on a late movie with the Blue Band. Wisconsin showed us their version of the Mambo (high step) and honored a long-time fixture of the Badger Band. Indiana never stopped believing, which isn't all that hard when you're playing Charleston Southern. We saw Michigan and MSU join forces to bring us some classics. Ohio State knocked us out with their excellent boxing show. A whole lot of other bands are either hiding from us or taking their time to post fresh video.

We'll close with a very talented group of snares and bass drums in Switzerland (somebody needs to find a way to incorporate those sound-activated lights into the conference, pronto).