Ah, the famed marching band drum set. So beloved by some, just as reviled by others. The debate over the merits of including a drum set is perhaps one of the most polarizing in the marching world. So, what exactly are the arguments?
The arguments for the inclusion of a drum set center around the unique and versatile sound it can add to the ensemble. The arguments against contend that the sound and function of the instrument are not suited to the context of marching band.
Now, let’s take a deeper look at some of the arguments for and against the inclusion of a drum set.
1 – Provides a unique flavor to the marching band
Probably the most commonly cited reason for including drum set in a marching band is the unique sound it brings to the ensemble.
When it is included, it’s often only used in certain movements or sections of music. This can allow some creative freedom for the arranger. Drum set can help add more of a jazz or funk feel to a certain section of the show.
2 – Helps with gettin’ into the groove
Tying in with the sound, drum sets can really help to set (no pun intended) the tone of a section. In addition to bringing to mind certain genres, there’s an energy that the drum set brings which is hard to replicate otherwise.
They are often used in jam sections, where some or all of the band members are standing in place and rocking out. Drum sets can really help get the audience moving along with the group!
3 – Helps with keeping time in the front ensemble
From a practical perspective, drum set is one of the best instruments for simply keeping time. Because of this they are often used in drum line rehearsals, particularly in DCI groups, to help the line feel the groove of the music. Having one actually play with the front ensemble can help serve this purpose (to an extent) during shows as well.
Of course, it’s still no excuse for not listening back! Only the front ensemble generally can listen to the drum set for time.
4 – Creates an educational opportunity for students
Particularly for high school marching bands, helping your students improve their musical skill is just as important as the sound of the ensemble. Drum set is an incredibly important instrument for any percussionist to know how to play, so having one in your marching band can be quite beneficial for your students.
In addition to being a learning opportunity for the drum set player themself, all the students in the front ensemble can get used to the way the drum set sounds and feels.
5 – It brings a novelty factor
Although drum sets are becoming somewhat more common in marching bands these days, they can still be something of a novelty for the audience.
Most people still don’t think of a drum set when considering the sounds they are likely to hear at a marching show. The wow factor can never be underestimated, especially with a really talented player! People love going wild for a drum set solo! We are in show business after all.
1 – Maybe a bit too novel
The biggest argument against the drum set is that it’s too gimmicky. Many people are of the opinion that the sound just doesn’t really fit with the style of marching band music.
It takes a lot of skill to incorporate less common instruments into an established style, and when done poorly it can come off as somewhat corny and out of place. A badly written drum set part, similar to a badly written synth part, can easily sound like an arranger trying to make up for a poorly executed piece with flashy toys.
2 – Can cause vertical alignment issues with the full marching band
Anyone who has played in or instructed a drum line knows how difficult it can be to get everyone sounding tight and in-time with each other. Adding a drum set can complicate this process even further.
Musicians on the field may be tempted to listen forward to the drum set more so than any other front ensemble instrument because of its appeal. This can be especially distracting if the drumline is not playing and providing the beat for the entire marching band. And this can be treacherous if the winds are playing with the drum set, but the battery is not playing.
If the winds listen forward to the drum set, the sound will arrive at the audience late and make it sound like the winds are dragging the tempo down. On top of that, the drum set player will feel they are being dragged down and may slow down to get with the winds, causing a vicious cycle.
Drum sets function best as a part of a front ensemble when they are listening back to the drumline.
3 – Drum set players steal the drumline’s thunder!
Another practical reason to avoid using a drum set is that your drum line will probably hate it. Not to generalize, but the battery is a proud section, and they often get annoyed at the idea of someone up front infringing on their role as the band’s heartbeat.
It’s your band, of course, but no one wants to deal with unhappy drummers! (On a more serious note, while show design take precedence, it is nice to keep the feelings of your players in mind when making changes to the ensemble.)
4 – Dealing with equipment setup and transport
Drum sets can be a pain to deal with. Lots of pieces and a time-consuming set-up means that some sort of wheeled platform is basically a necessity.
The kit needs to be set up and ready to go long before you make it onto the field or there won’t be nearly enough time to get everything together. The multitude of parts and little pieces also means that the potential for losing an essential part of the instrument in transit is higher than for most others.
Other Controversial Instruments
Synthesizers often mirror the drum set debate to an extent. They can add effects and sound that can’t really be found elsewhere in the band, but can also easily overpower the group and ruin the sound.
Experimenting with the sound of an entrenched form is always a bit risky. It can just as easily sound disjointed and incoherent as exciting and innovative.
But that doesn’t mean you should be afraid to try!
Electric bass is another instrument that many feel doesn’t fit the marching band style, though it is perhaps less discussed than drum set or synthesizer.
As a somewhat more muted instrument, it is a bit easier to blend in with the ensemble, and so carries a little less of the cheese factor.
Drum sets can be quite an interesting addition to the marching band when used well, but using them well can be quite difficult. They can add an interesting flair, get the audience moving, and make your ensemble stand out among others.
However, when handled with less skill, they can often come off as a corny gimmick. Ultimately, the choice comes down to your confidence in the ability of you and your ensemble to handle something a bit out of the ordinary.