Cutting Drummers is a Bad Idea

Cutting drummers on competition days is one of the most controversial subjects in the pipe band drumming world--everyone has an opinion. In the world of competitive pipe bands, many lead drummers cut members of their drum corps on the day of competition, sometimes even at the line. In my opinion, for a developing program, this is a very bad idea. Putting a winning product on the field using only your best players is NOT the most important aspect of pipe band competition. For me, the most important aspect of competition in a developing program is the DEVELOPMENT of my drummers. This development cannot be achieved unless all my drummers are playing in every contest. When a drummer competes, they tend to get better at competing. If a drummer is cut, their growth is stunted. Of course, if you play in a grade one band you are not in a development program. Cuts in grade one are a necessary part of maintaining a ridiculously high standard where the stakes are high. Most players understand that their first year or two in a grade one drum corps involves getting cut--it's a rite of passage. However, for any other grade level cuts are unnecessary and can be avoided by implementing several key strategies. Let's talk first about the negative aspects of cutting.

 

  • Confidence: Obviously a drummer that has been asked to step out will lose their confidence to some degree. Being cut has sent them a message that they are not performing well. This damage to their confidence will affect them again in subsequent competitions and will become a distraction as they wonder if they will be cut at the next contest.
     
  • The Impact on Other Corps Members: Seeing a member of the drum corps get cut affects the other players in the corps as well. Other drummers will start to wonder if they will end up in the same situation and will start to doubt themselves. If the "cut" drummer makes a scene or shows signs of being visibly upset it can affect the focus of the whole group.
     
  • Mistakes Become Big: If making mistakes is a reason for cutting the stress level in the corps will rise dramatically. Every mistake will become bigger and will inevitably lead to other miscues as drummers worry more about messing up than the most important part--the music!
     
  • Resentment: Corps members who get cut will resent it, especially if they have worked hard all year. This resentment can have big repercussions after the fact including losing drummers and damaging friendships. Jealousy, anger, frustration and regret (all stemming from the resentment of being cut) have no place on the competition field.
     
  • Unnecessary Travel: Cutting a drummer who has travelled a long distance to a contest is completely unfair. No one should have to spend hundreds of dollars only to be denied the chance to compete. I have seen and heard about this happening numerous times--even when a band has travelled from North America to Scotland--and it is terrible thing to witness.
     
  • Sense of Team: Every drum corps is a tight knit group. When one member is excluded from competition it adversely impacts the sense of camaraderie that is a part of every good team's success.

 

So, how can cutting be avoided? Using the following five strategies can help take cutting out of the equation for your drum corps. Implementing them however takes foresight, advanced planning and organization but the extra effort is worth it to preserve the emotional health of your drum corps.

 

Focus on the Rudiments

Focusing on improving the rudimental prowess of your corps can solve so many problems before they happen. In my own drum corps I have noticed a huge improvement in everyones ability to execute our scores correctly since we implemented a rudiment-centric program. From September to December the three drum corps in our organization work on rudiments for at least 50% of their practice time. The improvement in unison playing, especially in our lower grade bands, has been remarkable. It is no coincidence that every great drummer is a master of the rudiments!

 

Focus on Technique

So many unison issues can also be solved in advance by working on technique. I have found large technique classes to be very useful as a place to discuss rebound, stick heights, dynamics and other technical issues. Large class sizes make learning more fun and drummers don't feel isolated and alone in dealing with their technique issues. In a large class it's easy for drummers to see that they're not alone and that others are experiencing the same difficulties they are. Improving technique improves facility and facility improves a drummers ability to corps well with their lead drummer. Improved technique also leads to better stick control which improves a drummer's ability to play softly and very loud.

 

Focus on Reading

The ability to read is the most underrated aspect of a pipe band drummer's education but is definitely one of the most important. A drummer that can read is one who can begin working on scores right away--even in August (when most lead drummers are taking a well-earned vacation). The sooner a drummer can begin working on the music, the sooner the music can be memorized. The ability to read a score can give a drummer a head start and can sometimes provide an extra month to learn the music--a huge advantage!

 

Set Challenging but Achievable Standards

Setting standards for a drum corps can be a daunting task. First off, if you are a lead drummer, you need to figure out what those standards will be. Most likely, the standards you set will involve the following criteria/musical elements:

  • Avoiding note mistakes
  • Executing dynamics
  • Committing the scores to memory (including chips)
  • Playing good unison
  • Understanding and implementing a "swing" feel
  • Understanding musical phrasing
  • Playing with a steady tempo
  • Using appropriate stick heights

 

To set standards successfully for your drum corps it is very important to be specific. As a lead drummer I know I have been guilty of spouting these not so helpful comments...

  • "Play the march faster"
  • "Stop making so many mistakes"
  • "Play more dynamics"

 

These comments are not standards, these comments are vague and are only mere suggestions instead of concrete goals. With a little thought and planning, and through the use of more specific language, these unhelpful comments can be transformed into achievable goals that your drummers can aspire to reach!

  • Play the march at 72 bpm
  • Make less than two errors in the strathspey
  • Identify all important dynamic sections in the reel on the sheet music

 

Evaluate to Check if Standards are Being Met

Once you have come up with a set of standards/goals for your corps it is now possible to evaluate whether or not your drummers are reaching those standards. My favourite way to evaluate my own drum corps is by using a performance rubric. A rubric lays out in plain language what the standards are and also what each drummer needs to do to meet those standards. Here's an example of a performance rubric I use with my drummers. I use this rubric to evaluate each drummer's performance for every drum score in both our MSR and medley. 

 

 

In order to make the cut, all drummers had to pass an individual formal evaluation at the end of March (our competition season starts in early July). To pass this evaluation, each drummer needed to achieve the "Good" standard for every competition score in our MSR and Medley. Only one player passed on their first attempt but everyone passed on their second. This evaluation showed me every drummer's strengths and weaknesses and provided a great deal of motivation for the entire corps as no one wanted to fail and thereby miss the opportunity to play with the band for the upcoming season. An unexpected  benefit of these evaluations was the support corps members gave to each other during the process. If someone failed their evaluation they would inevitably get texts and messages of encouragement to keep working. It ended up being a great team-building exercise as it put everyone in the corps on an equal footing--they'd all done the work to reach the same standard and they all BELONGED!

 

In closing, the biggest benefit I have seen, when the possibility of being cut is eliminated from a drummer's mind, is that the focus on competition day is solely on the music. After all, it's always about the music!

 

As always, questions and comments are always welcome. I'll be putting a Microsoft Word version of the rubric (as well as a detailed list of expectations) on the site for subscribers. Thanks for supporting PipeBandDrummer.com and happy drumming!

2 comments

  • Bruce Baxter

    Bruce Baxter Utah

    On two occasions, I have had to cut a drummer or two. The first happened when a drummer had not been coming to practice, shows up to compete and is completely out of sync with the corps. A weak player anyway, this person's standard wasn't anywhere near our corps standard. The second occasion was a small games a few weeks later and I could not get the piper head count from the pipe major. We are marching out to the field with six pipers and six sides, I had to cut two drummers, one because the same guy was not up to speed and the second because I didn't feel burying the pipe corps was a good idea. This pipe major had been making poor musical decisions for some time and this was the last straw for me. I moved on.

    On two occasions, I have had to cut a drummer or two. The first happened when a drummer had not been coming to practice, shows up to compete and is completely out of sync with the corps. A weak player anyway, this person's standard wasn't anywhere near our corps standard. The second occasion was a small games a few weeks later and I could not get the piper head count from the pipe major. We are marching out to the field with six pipers and six sides, I had to cut two drummers, one because the same guy was not up to speed and the second because I didn't feel burying the pipe corps was a good idea. This pipe major had been making poor musical decisions for some time and this was the last straw for me. I moved on.

  • Pipe Band Drummer

    Pipe Band Drummer

    Hi Bruce, I don't know of anyone who hasn't experienced issues with attendance. It is one of the hardest issues to deal with as a lead drummer. Sometimes, your strongest player is the one with the worst attendance! This issue is frustrating for many reasons but the one I find most difficult is that the absent player misses changes to the score, dynamic changes and myriad other comments/suggestions putting them at least a week or two behind. Then, when they return to practice I have to repeat everything I've said the week before to help them get caught up wasting valuable rehearsal time. Where cutting because of numbers are concerned, I find that communication is the key. Letting drummers know there is a possibility they'll be cut in advance is important as it gives the player time to process the fact he/she may not be playing. On the other hand, if the pipe major has not communicated piping numbers to you in advance of the competition day, this makes your job much more difficult. It sounds like a wise choice that you moved on :-) I don't judge others for cutting or not. Every lead drummer knows their corps (and their issues) much better than someone on the outside and obviously any decisions made are ones that work best for your own personnel.

    Hi Bruce,
    I don't know of anyone who hasn't experienced issues with attendance. It is one of the hardest issues to deal with as a lead drummer. Sometimes, your strongest player is the one with the worst attendance! This issue is frustrating for many reasons but the one I find most difficult is that the absent player misses changes to the score, dynamic changes and myriad other comments/suggestions putting them at least a week or two behind. Then, when they return to practice I have to repeat everything I've said the week before to help them get caught up wasting valuable rehearsal time.

    Where cutting because of numbers are concerned, I find that communication is the key. Letting drummers know there is a possibility they'll be cut in advance is important as it gives the player time to process the fact he/she may not be playing. On the other hand, if the pipe major has not communicated piping numbers to you in advance of the competition day, this makes your job much more difficult. It sounds like a wise choice that you moved on :-)

    I don't judge others for cutting or not. Every lead drummer knows their corps (and their issues) much better than someone on the outside and obviously any decisions made are ones that work best for your own personnel.

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