Drumming in the Dome
Scott Brown and Michael Lynch

In this article, Brown and Lynch discuss the challenges faced when translating marching percussion concepts from the field into the arena. Their article suggests several techniques that provide the required nuances of indoor playing, while preserving musicality.

This article originally appeared in Percussive Notes in August of 2004. For more information on the Percussive Arts Society visit www.pas.org.


As the popularity of indoor marching band competitions increases, a growing number of band directors and percussion instructors find themselves dealing with balance and clarity problems that they had never noticed before or expected to deal with. The normal reaction is to coat the drumheads with foam, tune them higher, and tell the drumline to play softer for the next performance. Although this may take some of the “boom” out of your next performance, it may also adversely affect the tone quality and depth of sound of your percussion section and cause rhythmic clarity to suffer as young performers make adjustments to a well rehearsed technique. Advance planning on the part of the directors, instructors, and arrangers can help alleviate some of the problems associated with indoor performance while allowing the marching percussion section to provide a musical contribution to the ensemble with confidence.

As we begin to plan the marching percussion program at Lassiter High School, we put a good deal of thought into the locations of the seasons primary performances and the impact they can have on the end product. Although most adjustments are made in connection with the battery section some venues can affect the visibility and sound of the front ensemble. The following suggestions are not intended to be comprehensive with regards to arranging, tuning, or rehearsal techniques. They are meant to provide practical advice and methods for preparing your percussion section for a successful experience with indoor performance.

 

During the first stage of planning, you may want to look at your instrumentation for the coming season. Keep in mind that the more performers you add to the field, the more density you add to the sound. You may need the players to provide impact for a large band, but if you can get the necessary punch with a smaller group, it might be advantageous. Also, if you have a variety of bass drum sizes, consider using a smaller set. You will be able to tune these drums within their appropriate range providing proper resonance and tone quality while eliminating much of the “boom” often associated with larger instruments. Several percussion manufacturers are producing sticks, mallets, and drums specifically designed for indoor performance. These instruments and implements are meant to improve clarity inside and are primarily intended for use with “winter” drumlines such as those participating in Winter Guard International.

They can be useful for indoor performances with marching bands, but understand that they cannot fix balance problems caused by a poor arrangement or inappropriate technique, and they may not be capable of providing necessary power if you have a large band. Keep in mind how much volume you will need from your ensemble for effective impacts and how soft they will need to be able to play as you plan your instrumentation and choose your sticks and mallets.

The second and possibly most important stage is the arranging process. Depending on your approach, you can either compose a highly effective musical product or create problems with regard to ensemble clarity and balance that will complicate a dome performance. The first and most obvious compositional error is the use of rim shots for volume and power exclusively rather than approaching them as a color device. In outdoor performance the duration of a rim shot is minimal. Inside a dome, it can cover a significant amount of music and tends to be more distracting to the listener. When writing for the snare line in particular, approach rim shots as you would any other color device, and use them sparingly. Place full shots during short rests in the wind parts or at the end of a phrase when you want them for power and use ping shots at the edge when you want their color. Again, use them sparingly as they can become quite distracting in a dome. Another important consideration lies in the density of the score. Due to the increased duration of notes associated with inside performance, active parts in all sections tends to create a muddy ensemble. There are several practical approaches to this situation that can provide a readable presentation while allowing the technical demand to remain competitive. The first is the concept of segmenting, or showcasing one section while the others rest or play a supporting role. This is often accomplished by simply mirroring the wind score. For example, the snares may maintain an active part as they follow the contours of a melody in the upper brass and woodwinds while the tenor and bass lines follow a less active part in the low voices. The point is to be able to hear a single musical line coming from the battery section. Another approach for creating a thinner texture with a higher level of ensemble clarity is to arrange the parts in a linear fashion. This creates similar parts in the snare, tenor, and bass voices to give a full ensemble sound that is readable in a dome. When writing phrase endings, be careful not to utilize a stream of fast syncopated or 16th note patterns or repetitive rim shots as they will bleed together, lose clarity, and minimize the impact. Often, straight forward, open patterns of 8th notes or triplets played in unison will provide not only a clear punctuation, but a solid kick into the next phrase giving the band a firm boost. Also experiment with using various implements to strike the drums. There are an immense number of possibilities from brushes to jingle sticks which can completely alter the color and texture of the ensemble, providing a musical impact without raising the volume level of the percussion section. Always think in terms of the musical effect desired and be creative in finding ways to accomplish it with clarity indoors.

It is very important that you understand the scoring system by which you will be evaluated. If you are competing for a drum trophy, especially if that score is included in the total, you should definitely take a few opportunities to showcase your abilities in good musical taste. In the Bands of America system, there is no individual percussion evaluator or score. The percussion is sampled by the music performance judges throughout the program with special attention paid to solos. The percussion score is included as a sub-caption on the music performance individual judge’s score sheet and added to the brass and woodwind numbers for the total. With the exception of the individual judge, the music adjudicators are evaluating the percussion section as it contributes to the whole rather than its technical prowess.

 

 

In this situation, a drumline may receive credit for a complex part if the field judge samples them at that point, while the other evaluators may be distracted by the same section as they consider it too “busy”. A thorough knowledge of the evaluation system will help you choose your battles.

As a percussion instructor or arranger, you must constantly be working to create the most musical package for the band, and not put all of your effort into cleaning a drumline. As you listen to the band in rehearsals and performances, identify the intended focal point of the music. If the percussion section is at all distracting or commands attention when it should not, thin out the music, lower the dynamic level, or cut the part. You can also experiment with using different zones on the drumheads. As the performers play closer to the rims, the drums take on a light, thin texture which can be desirable when a similar texture exists in the winds. If the drumline interferes with the clarity or musicality of the ensemble when executing their parts correctly, the fault is in the arrangement. This can be distracting in normal performance, but will be devastating in a dome. You may want to have the band play in a gymnasium or indoor facility. This will often magnify potential problems so that they can be addressed before a major performance. Also, pay close attention to the staging of the percussion ensemble. Use your knowledge of the domes or seek out the advice of someone with experience to make any necessary adjustments ahead of time. In the “mini-dome” at East Tennessee State University, for example, a ten foot wall surrounds the field in close proximity to the side line. Many experienced directors stage their front ensemble on the field or elevate them to keep them from becoming musically and visually obsolete. Also keep in mind that with any large stadium, the closer battery percussion is to the back stands or wall, the more pronounced the echo. In this situation, stay away from rim shots and heavy bass patterns.

As the event arrives, be practical in your decisions on altering the equipment right before or in-between dome performances. Do not change anything to the degree that the students will be uncomfortable in their performance! It is unadvisable to use different equipment, such as a smaller set of drums, than what the performers are used to. If that drastic a change is necessary, the arrangement is probably at fault and the unfamiliar equipment can only harm the students execution. Do everything in moderation! If you need to add foam or pads to bass drums, don’t take it to the extent that you eliminate the drum’s tone and resonance, they should still sound like musical instruments. If you choose to raise the pitch of the instruments, be careful not to crank the bass drums into the tenor register and so forth. This will eliminate the depth of sound and balance necessary in a musical ensemble and affect the blend of the segments making it difficult to differentiate between the voices. It is also helpful to keep in mind that tuning the snare drums extremely high causes them to cut through the ensemble more. This is probably not the correct direction to take them in a dome setting.

Again, this article is not intended to be all-inclusive. The hope is that these suggestions will provide assistance for those preparing for indoor performance. These are ideas that we have developed through our work with Lassiter and other bands and they may not work in every setting or solve all problems. Use your ears, musical judgment, and trial and error to find what works best for you and your program.

 

Michael Lynch is Director of Percussion Studies at Lassiter High School and Assistant Band Director at Simpson Middle School in Marietta, Georgia. While percussion instructor at Lassiter the percussion ensemble performed at the 2000 and 2002 Bands of America National Concert Band and Percussion Festival and the 2001 and 2003 Georgia Music Educators Association In-Service Conference. The percussion ensemble has performed with the following artists: Michael Burritt, Steve Houghton, John Lawless, Lalo Davila, and The Atlanta Percussion Trio. The Lassiter marching band has won the 1998 and 2002 Bands of America Grand National Championship and five Bands of America Regional Championships.

 

Scott Brown received his B.S. Ed. From Western Carolina University where he studied marching band techniques with Bob Buckner and percussion with Mario Gaetano. He was a member of the Carolina Crown Drum & Bugle Corps and an instructor with the Spirit of Atlanta Drum & Bugle Corps. Scott is currently the assistant band director at Dickerson Middle School in Marietta, Georgia and serves on the instructional staff and as co-arranger for the percussion section of the 1998 & 2002 BOA Grand National Champion Lassiter High School Band. He has also worked with BOA National Finalist Kennesaw Mountain H.S., WGI World Championship Finalist Enterprise H.S., and was the Percussion Director and arranger for BOA Regional Finalist North Buncombe H.S. Band.