In a modern marching band, the drumline (or "battery") is often joined by a stationary percussion section called the "pit," containing melodic and concert percussion. If a band is large enough to support it, having a pit, or expanding one, has a lot of impact. Together with the battery, it will create a well-rounded percussion section. There are many well-known and high-quality percussion brands to check out, including: Ludwig, Pearl, Yamaha, Zildjian and Sabian. Pit brands include Adams, Musser, DeMorrow, Grover, Meinl, LP and Treeworks.
Since the pit, like the marching battery, will be playing outdoors, look for materials that can stand up to inclement weather. For instance, opt for synthetic instead of rosewood bars on the xylophone and marimba.
Without a doubt, the highlight of any marching band is its drumline. The percussionists in this section are performers as much as they are musicians, and in order for them to put on the best performance, it takes drums that are up to the task. Here's an overview of the key instruments.
Snare drums, and their likely ancestor, the tabor, date back to medieval times and have a military background. Before the days of radio and loudspeakers, they were used to broadcast commands and messages through the ranks and around soldiers' encampments. Snares have come a long way since those beginnings, but military-style demonstrations are still a big part of their resume.
The snare drum gets its name from the 'snare' attached to its bottom drumhead. This is what gives the drum its signature rattle. Modern snare drums have louder, clearer snares than their ancestors, and marching snare drums are physically deeper and often wider than their stage and orchestral cousins. One of the interesting things about the snare is the variety of different sounds it can produce, especially when paired with different kinds of beaters ranging from traditional sticks to rutes to brushes - changing these can make a huge difference in the instrument's sound.
When choosing snare drums:
Although they may not have the same 'cool factor' as the snare, tenor drums are actually the most challenging instruments in the drumline and they'll provide plenty of opportunity for a musician to show off his or her skill. They're the alto/tenor voice in the battery, which makes them very important from a musical perspective. And just like snares, their sound can vary wildly with the different types of mallets and sticks used to play them.
One of the reasons for the tenor drums' flexibility is the number of sizes and configurations available. Generally, they're arranged in a rack of 4-6 individual drums and each one can be as small as 8" or as large as 14" in diameter. Smaller drums may be considered for lighter players, but as a general rule, it's best to stick to larger drums (10"-14") because they deliver better resonance and improved blending with the band's wind section.
Another option the tenor drums offer is to add one or two 'shot' or 'spock' drums to the mix. At only 6", these are smaller than the smallest standard tenor and can be tuned high for special effects or lower to simply extend the range of the set. These drums are excluded from the standard numbering of the tenor set, which runs 1-2-3-4 from the smallest drum to the largest.
When choosing tenor drums:
For any instrument in the battery, it's important to choose the version specifically made for marching as opposed to a stage version. This is doubly important for the bass drum, because marching bass drums are significantly lighter than their concert relatives. Their dimensions also make them much easier to play while marching, and a good marching bass drum makes all the difference in whether its player makes it through a long parade or performance without becoming fatigued.
The biggest differences between marching bass drums often come down to simple design tweaks. For instance, compare the Pearl Championship Series to the Mapex Quantum Series. Pearl offers a variety of sizes all with excellent build quality. The Mapex models are also well-built, but they set themselves apart with specially-placed air vents that give them a unique tonal character. Either brand is a fine choice, but it's worth listening to them both to hear the subtle differences in sound before settling on one or the other (and don't forget there are lots of other brands to consider, as well).
When choosing bass drums:
In marching bands playing on the field, cymbals are generally considered optional. This is because very little of their sound will actually reach the spectators. However, they're a visual treat, so you may wish to include them simply for show. If you do want the cymbals to be clearly heard, consider locating them in the pit instead of the battery. Or, you can choose to "double up" with paired cymbals or suspended cymbals in the pit as well as on the field, to get the best of both visuals and sound. You might also decide to have the snare drummers ride on the cymbals during the routine, in which case it will obviously be necessary to place at least some of them on the field.
If you are including cymbals, there are three attributes to take into account: bell size, hammering and lathing. Here is a brief primer on each one:
When choosing cymbals:
Assembling a drumline and pit is only the beginning of outfitting a band's percussion section. The next step is to put together all the accessories needed to take full advantage of each instrument. There are three main types of accessories to look into: percussion mallets, carrying accessories and instrument modifications.
These are especially important for the snare and tenor drums, where the widest array of options is available. Sticks and felt-tipped beaters are par for the course, but you can expand the acoustic possibilities with brushes and rutes, which create softer, more dynamic sounds. Where the bass drum is concerned, you'll find that most beaters are similar to one another - however, the size, core material and covering of the tip can vary quite a bit, and those can make a big difference in the drum's sound.
This category can refer to on or off the field, and as far as carrying the instruments themselves is concerned, most band percussion manufacturers include something basic bundled with the initial purchase. For transportation and storage, there are marching drum cases. And for supporting the drums during use, there are slings and carriers. While the stock hardware is generally adequate, these are things that you can consider upgrading to make for an easier, lighter-weight carrying experience, to achieve better comfort during performances, or to get a lower-profile harness if your band's style is to wear the uniform jacket over the carrier.
Holders for sticks and mallets make up a sub-group of the carrying accessory family. For example, marching bass drums may include a mallet holder that allows the drummer to swap mallets on-the-fly for quick sound adjustments between songs or even individual passages. If you'd like to plan a routine that requires different sounds from tenor and snare drummers over its course, you should also look into similar holders for those drummers to allow rapid changes on the field.
Modifying an instrument doesn't have to mean getting out the power tools - although some drummers will go to great lengths to rebuild their carriers for a personalized fit. But when it comes to the drums themselves, the most effective way to modify and customize is simply by swapping out parts. For instance, you can change the snare on a snare drum to create a whole different kind of sound, or swap in a different kind of drumhead on just about any drum.
You could also improve your drums by adding something new. Some good examples of accessories like this can be found in virtually any manufacturer's catalog. Evans, for instance, makes a Marching Staccato Disk which attaches to the inside of a marching snare side head. It clears up unwanted buzzing and overtones to refine the drum's sound. Also in the Evans lineup is the Marching X-Treme Patch, which effectively creates different acoustic zones on the drumhead, delivering different tones based on the zone in which you play.
Simple modifications like these can go a long way to individualize your band's sound, so they're definitely worth looking into.
While it may seem out-of-place to discuss care and maintenance when the focus is on selecting and buying instruments, the truth is there's no better time! First, because you have the opportunity to pick up the supplies you'll need along with the instruments, and second, because it can inform your purchasing decisions when you think about what the instrumentsÕ care demands will be.
Here are some basic ground rules for keeping your marching percussion in good shape once you've added it to the band's collection:
Percussion instruments are relatively straightforward in design, so it's easy to make good choices when you're outfitting a band. Think about each role in your ensemble and the sort of sound it needs to contribute to the mix, and you're well on your way to choosing the best marching percussion.
The ideal timeline for a drumline equipment refresh is about 5-7 years. So if it's been that long since the last time your band purchased new drums, then this is definitely the time to start searching for the next generation of instruments and gear. New materials and designs are emerging all the time, so sticking to this 5-7 year cycle does more than just help your band look up-to-date; it also gives you the playability and acoustic advantages you need to stay competitive.
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