Dr. Scott Harris

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Administering a Marching
Percussion Section

by Dr. Scott Harris
Assistant Professor of Music
SFA School of Music
[email protected]


Most important: If you are not a percussionist - hire someone to help!

  • Full-time: combined teaching position typically with other band/percussion duties (usually a state teaching certificate will be required for full-time employment)
  • Part-time: regular day-to-day instructor through the season; occasional appearances throughout the season; or only for band camp; may also include writing
  • Only to write the book/music
  • Contact a local college/university for personnel or helpful contacts

If paid staff is not available, developing strong in-house leadership is essential to success!

  • Drum Captain - over entire section, reports to director, can assist with writing
  • Section leaders (sd, bd, tenors, cyms, pit) - reports to, and assists, drum captain
  • Student leadership should be in place even with a paid staff member but the bulk of rehearsal/writing duties should be delegated to the paid staff


  • Battery (or instruments ON the field):
    - Snares, Tenors, Bass Drums and optional Cymbals.
    - Also includes carriers, cases, stadium hardware, and straps/felts for cymbals (dealers will usually sell packages that include the drum, case and carrier).
    - Multiple sticks/mallets can be employed but each section should use the same stick/mallet for any given musical passage.

  • Pit - Keyboards and other Concert Percussion (OFF the field):
    - Many rack systems are available for keyboard instruments which will allow you to add cymbals/accessories to the same ‘set of wheels’.
    - Multiple and appropriate sticks/mallets should always be used - Given the outdoor weather conditions, synthetic material is a good substitute for rosewood keyboard bars (xylo/marimba).

  • Tuning: consistency and clarity are most important, think about m3rd’s-P4’s for tenors and basses, all drums are tuned higher than relative concert drums (esp. important for basses) and foam dampening (weather stripping) is typically used on basses to get that clear, articulate tonal bass quality.

  • Care and maintenance!
    - Is imperative for long-term use of marching percussion equipment - Cases need to be required for all battery percussion (and pit where applicable; cymbals, small drums, and accessories).
    - Consistently check lugs/bolts/screws for rust, tightness and damage.
    - 2-3 replacement heads should always be on hand (1 for bass drums) - Change heads at least once a year (bass heads may last longer) - Use drum covers in rehearsal (brandname or homemade), they help take care of the drums and add a ‘hype’ factor on game/show day when they come off - Getting wet is ok (except for felt material in pit) but everything must be dried thoroughly ASAP.
    - Have a stocked toolbox available at all times: extra lugs, nuts/bolts, drum keys (have more than one!), pliers, screwdriver, vaseline, rags, foam (for basses), string/nylon for keyboards, lighter, electrical/duct tape, stick tape You will probably want to purchase new (or update) drumline equipment every 5-7 years. The industry is constantly coming out with new products and innovations. To be, and stay, competitive you have to keep up.

Teaching / Rehearsing:

  • The drumline is unlike any other area of percussion (concert, drumset etc), therefore students need an appropriate amount of additional time simply to become accustomed with the instruments.

  • Learning music in smaller sections is a VERY effective approach to utilize time.
    - Each section should have ample sectional time, and then put the music together as a drumline, and lastly with the band - The drumline generally cannot read music as quickly as the rest of the ensemble and should not be expected too. Make sure they have their music early and have ample time to rehearse it before getting together with the band. Not only will the music come together faster but there will also be a great sense of energy and excitement when the drumline enters the room!
    - Sectional time can also be effective in drill learning and cleaning.
    - Warm-up time should be separated from the band.
    - A solid 30min music rehearsal (after an hour of sectionals) will always be more successful than 90mins of labored music learning with the entire band.

  • Communication (director – staff – drum captain – section leaders):
    - Absolutely essential for a successful band/drumline.
    - Specific daily, weekly and long-term goals should be identified, discussed and adhered to by all parties (meaning the drumline cannot shift gears as quickly as the rest of the ensemble, proper lead time must be given for effective full ensemble rehearsals).

  • Auditions/personnel:
    - Snares drums tend to be considered the ‘coolest’ instrument, but today the tenors are actually the most difficult to play.
    - Traditional vs. matched grip for snares? Matched grip is better for pedagogy and transfer value to other percussion instruments but traditional grip ‘looks cool’ and the visual element is very important in this medium.
    - Bass drummers must be able to COUNT! esp in the middle drums where many syncopated 16th passages will be played.
    - Woodwind players do in fact make good pit players (generally because they already know how to read – be very careful here, don’t neglect teaching percussionists to read well because you can bring in some ‘ringers’).
    - Hannum’s four A’s: Attendance, Attitude, Mental Ability, Physical Ability.
    In order of importance for a successful drumline/band (Thom Hannum has been teaching marching percussion for 25yrs teaches at the University of Massachusetts and is a member of the DCI Hall of Fame).


  • Most contemporary marching percussion is written in-house for the specific band/ensemble, generally by the paid staff.

  • However, many stock parts today are written by professional percussionists and are quite good. They usually include: snares, tenors (usually quads), cyms, and multiple BD parts (i.e.: a separate part for 2, 3, 4 and 5 drums). Pit parts, however, are generally limited to two mallets and 1-2 auxiliary parts.

  • Utilize your leadership for simple writing assignments (be very careful and use discretion - young writers believe that the more notes the better when actually LESS is MORE). Good for exercises, cadences and stand tunes.

  • Any and all music/parts must be understandable esp. if the arranger is not present! Make sure there is a key/legend and everyone understands the notation.

  • See resources for websites/companies that sell quality cadances and percussion features, with or without winds.

Drill Design:

  • The drumline’s job, like any good drummer, first and foremost is to KEEP TIME!

  • All drill design should reflect the music, both in concept and performance. Keep the above statement in mind at all times! This thought also reflects how well the ensemble can play with the drumline. This is very important when considering where sections are on the field (phasing!).

  • How much the drumline moves should be directly related to how well they play STANDING STILL. Play well - move alot, don’t play well - park on 50/back hash and use elevator drills.

  • In general, keep the drumline together as a unit:
    - When writing drill consider each section as a unit (ie: snare drums) rather than a number of individuals.
    - Avoid meshing the winds/guard with the drumline, unless they are very secure both musically and visually (applies to both the drumline and winds/guard).
    - The larger the step size, the more difficult it is to play. Keep busy/featured music (drum solos/features) simple in the drill.
    - Drums should generally face front at all times. Bass drums face the endzones so the drumheads face the audience. Consider this, and whether they are crabbing or not, when writing difficult maneuvers.
    - Stronger/older players should be placed in the middle of each section.

Specific Considerations:

  • Snare Drums:
    - 1.5 to 2 steps apart (1 step for any drum-to-drum playing).
    - If players do need to be farther apart remember to simplify the music.

  • Tenors:
    - 2.5 steps apart (a must to make room for the drums).
    - If players do need to be farther apart remember to simplify the music.

  • Bass Drums:
    - 3-4 steps apart (again to make room for the drums).
    - Bass drums do not generally play in unison. Therefore it is absolutely essential that they do not separate on the field. If separation is required unison parts should be employed.
    - Bass players are facing a different direction and are carrying a VERY large instrument. A 6-5 forward move is much harder for the basses than the rest of the line/band.

  • Cymbals:
    - 2-4 steps apart (must have room for large crashes and visuals).
    - Do the snares use them as ride cymbals? If so that needs to be noted in the drill design.

  • Pit/Front Ensemble:
    - Generally the pit is set up around the center podium off the front sideline in the designated area (different states/competitive organizations have different rules and pit boundaries).
    - That being said there are many setup options depending on number of players, instrumentation, and sound/musical needs.
    - Keep in mind how the instruments get on and off the field, esp. if there is a time limit. Helpful options include putting everything on wheels, using ATV’s with trailers, and many extra hands (band parents etc).

  • Music should always come first! and should determine how the drill is designed to be most effective.

Random Thoughts:

  • Discipline is an essential and exciting ingredient to being in a drumline, again refer to Hannun’s four A’s. Generally speaking members of the drumline LIKE a sense of seriousness, commitment and dedication – foster and develop this and many discipline problems will take care of themselves.

  • Cymbals on the field or not?
    - Cymbals are very visual on the field, but much of the sound is lost.
    - If the snares (or others) need to ride on the cymbals, being on the field is a musical necessity.
    - Cymbal sound is much stronger in the pit, but you will lose bodies on the field and some visual effect, many times you can augment or double the field crashes with pit crashes (pairs or suspended).
    - Many drum corps do not march cymbals anymore.

  • The Authority of Time on the field:
    - Drum Major directs the drumline (eye’s should stay with center snare and his feet). This implies that the drum major is intimately aware of what the drumline is playing (and how it fits with the horn book). They must study and know the drum book as well, if not better, than the horn book.
    - The drumline plays together as a unit by listening to the center and playing with their leadership – not as individuals, even if the guy on the end is right with the drum major but not with the rest of the line he is wrong.
    - The band then plays with drumline (they must listen, know where the pulse is, and depending on field placement know if they should play in front, right on, or behind what they hear). Of course the drum major can help with this but listening should come first – remember how drill design should reflect ability level.
    - The pit plays with band/drumline. The Pit NEVER watches the drum major! If they do their sound will always be early and ahead of the rest of the ensemble. The one exception is when the pit is playing by themselves. This is also dangerous, esp. when the drumline/band comes back in – plan enough rehearsal time to work this out.

  • Be aware of what DCI (Drum Corps International) is doing!
    - Go to shows, BOA, etc.
    - Get there early and hang out in the parking lot. You will learn so much from watching these groups warm-up and get ready for the show. Not only the drumline but the winds and guard too.
    - Remember that for 10mins of music, drum corps have an enormous amount of rehearsal time. While you can get many great ideas from what they do, be careful not to compare yourself to them, or expect your band to do exactly what they do.

Resources (get on mailing / email lists):


The Texas School Music Project is a source for ideas and information concerning pedagogical practices in the music classroom or rehearsal hall.
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