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The Percussion Section in the Concert Hall

by SCPO(Ret.) Guy G. Gauthreaux

  • Introduction/
  • Washington Post/
    The Chimes of Liberty
  • The Florentiner March
  • Conclusion



In November of 1996, members of the United States Navy Band percussion section presented a clinic at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Nashville, Tennessee. We discussed many percussion performance issues, centering our presentation on performing excerpts to demonstrate concepts and techniques. This article is based on the first half of that clinic, and is a general survey of marches and the challenges they present to the percussion section.


Why marches? Being a percussionist in a military band, I receive more questions about marches than about any other percussion performance topic. The basic function of keeping time is the percussion section's primary role in a march. Because of this, some percussionists may view marches as the most elementary form of music. To keep time accurately and in a manner that is stylistically and artistically correct is a crucial and sometimes difficult task, but one that is essential to the successful performance of the piece. Some special techniques and insights can go a long way toward achieving a musically satisfying performance while building a strong percussion section.


A good foundation in rudiments, especially rolls, drags, and flams, is essential for the snare drummer. Should rolls be played open or closed? This is probably our most-asked question, and the answer is not so simple. When playing outdoors on field drums, use open rolls. This practice may have evolved from the use of traditional field drums, which had calfskin heads and were tuned with much less tension than today's marching snare drums. The drummer had to work harder to get the sticks to bounce, thus producing measured or open rolls.


A more plausible reason for using open rolls on the field drum is the predominate use of the right-hand-lead style of snare drum playing in which most downbeats are played with the right hand. Open rolls make the right-hand-lead style work with all rhythms and rolls by insuring the return of the right hand to the next downbeat. It is interesting that there is no left-hand-lead style of drumming, perhaps because most marching units step off on the left foot. Stepping off on the left foot makes the right hand naturally move forward, much the same as it does when walking. If you attempt to play with the left hand while stepping forward on the left foot, your body will sway in an unnatural fashion. I first learned about this from Pistofilo's Il Torneo (The Tournament), written in 1627. Although this book deals primarily with jousting tournaments, several pages are devoted to drum beats of the era, their specific stickings, and how they relate to footsteps.


When performing indoors, the decision to play open or closed is not so distinct. The style of music and the size of the drum are important factors to consider. For martial music played on the field drum, open rolls are appropriate. When using concert snare drums, either closed or open rolls may be suitable, but take care not to let open rolls sound too measured. Open or closed, rolls will (and should) remain an issue of personal taste. After all, a roll is nothing more than a way of sustaining the sound of the snare drum. Perhaps the question should actually be, What quality of sound do you want? Do you want a snare drum roll to have a pulsing quality like a machine gun, or a tight, constant sound like radio static?


John Philip Sousa's Washington Post March, written in 1889, is an excellent example of a standard 6/8 march. It is played slower than most cut time or 2/4 marches, usually about half note equals 112. At this slower tempo, the dotted quarter and dotted half note rolls work well when played as 9- and 17-stroke rolls, respectively.


Band directors will frequently ask for accents to be added to marches, especially in the bass drum and cymbal parts. Navy Band conductors and percussionists routinely add many accents. Sousa himself frequently added accents or cymbal crashes, and he was known to be unpredictable and spontaneous. Although the eighth bar of this march does not have anything written for the percussion section, it is traditional to place a cymbal crash or accented bass drum note on the first beat.


Washington Post/The Chimes of Liberty

The last strain of the Washington Post March presents a sticking challenge for the snare drummer. The issue here is the execution of the drag at the beginning of each measure. An acceptable sticking for the snare drum figure in the last strain is LLR R L R.



The Navy Band percussion section normally uses a pair of 18" medium-heavy crash cymbals to perform standard marches. We have recently begun to double the snare drum parts at our conductor's request, using a 6" X 14 " snare drum with cable snares and a 12" X 14" field drum with gut snares. Our concert bass drum (34" X 16") works well for all types of music. When called for in the score, we use timpani and steel orchestra bells. In the Washington Post March and in most marches, the cymbal player should play along with the bass drummer when the part is simply marked "Drums." You may wish to omit the cymbal part in the trio to provide contrast, and leave out the cymbals in the softer strains until increased dynamics or intensity warrant additional percussive support. It is also important to give young cymbal players a break.


Written in cut time, Henry Fillmore's Rolling Thunder March is always played prestissimo and calls for very fast snare drum playing. Don't be fooled by the easy-looking snare drum part; at half note equals 152, this cut time march really moves. The march was written 84 years ago, but many bands today use the 1982 Carl Fischer Edition, with percussion parts edited by Frederick Fennell. In case anyone is counting, without repeats there are 172 cymbal crashes in this 85-second march! The use of pads to cushion the cymbal player's hands and fingers while crashing is an issue that is frequently and passionately discussed. In my opinion, if it hurts to play cymbals without the pads (and it may on this march), use the pads. This may not produce the most desirable sound, but it is the most practical approach.


Most of us at some time will run across a mallet part written out of the range of the instrument. It is amazing that this occurs so frequently, since standard mallet ranges can be found in nearly every orchestration book in print. One example of this problem is The Chimes of Liberty March, written by Edwin Franko Goldman in 1922. The challenge occurs in the trio, where the chimes are the featured solo instrument.


This excerpt goes up to a G above the staff in measures 14 and 26 of the trio. Since most chimes have a range only up to the top line F, the part must be edited. The most common solution is to play measures 14, 15, 16, 26, 27, and 28 of the trio down an octave. Even though the uppermost G is the only note out of range, playing these six measures down an octave will keep the melodic line somewhat intact. Keep in mind that this is a chime solo. Even though the part is marked piano, I like to use a pair of acrylic hammers to allow the notes to easily project without overpowering the woodwinds.



The Florentiner March

The Florentiner March was written by Julius Fucik in 1906. As is the style of most Italian marches, this one is played at a fairly slow tempo, usually around quarter note equals 100. The percussion parts call for a few techniques that deserve special attention. The four-stroke ruff, which has been used extensively in snare drum music for hundreds of years, can be difficult for young performers to execute properly - they just can't move their hands fast enough. While more advanced players would use a hand-to-hand sticking for this figure (RLRL or LRLR), younger players may have more success with double stickings, such as RLLR, LRRL, RRLR, LLRL, or perhaps either RRLL or LLRR.



Another interesting technique I like to refer to as the incomplete five-stroke roll,



is notated as a pattern of an eighth rest followed by an eighth note roll, often with the entire figure repeated. This occurs several times in the Florentiner March, including the first seven bars of the first strain. This figure should be played as a five-stroke roll without the last note.



When practicing this figure, play the last note of the roll in the air as a "ghostnote". Closed rolls should always be used when playing incomplete five-stroke rolls.

As in all marches, careful attention should be paid to note values in the bass drum and cymbal parts. An understanding of what the wind instruments are playing is essential. In the second strain of the Florentiner March, the eighth notes should be allowed to ring, matching the longer note lengths of the low brass.

Moving out of the standard march genre, we come to First Suite in E-Flat for Military Band, in which the third movement is a march. Written in 1909, it is one of the earliest military band works by Gustav Holst. Scored for snare drum, bass drum, crash cymbal, and timpani, it requires a four-person section and is a fine example of band music from this leading British composer. The percussion scoring is certainly similar to many standard marches, but Holst did not relegate the percussion to just keeping time. We begin to see more snare drum passages that mimic both melodic and rhythmic lines. In this march, the snare drum plays the same rhythm as the trumpets. The role of the bass drum and cymbals has also expanded beyond that of time keeper. Holst used them in support of the low brass' harmonic rhythms, and occasionally even made them the solo instrument.





From the percussion section's perspective, the playing of marches is not an exact science. Rather, it's an art that requires technique, musical understanding, and flexibility. Anyone who has heard military band concerts in the United States or abroad may have wondered why there are so many ways to play the same march. Each military band has its own personality when it comes to performing marches - a phenomenon traceable to 16th century Europe where armies marched to drum patterns unique to each country. I hope this article has provided some insight into the personality of the conductors and percussionists of the United States Navy Band, and how we begin to approach the broad subject of marches.