Six Steps to Building a Sustainable Drum Corps

In an age of instant gratification, myriad distractions and short attention spans it can be very tough to run a pipe band organization.  With so many different hobbies, sports and other activities to choose from these days it can be difficult to recruit and retain potential drum corps members. In my own experience I have found that the following six concepts have helped me tremendously as I've worked to build a sustainable drumming program.

Grow Your Own Players:

As any successful sports team knows "growing" players in the minor leagues within a team's own "farm system" is the best road to sustainable success. It also requires the most sweat equity on the part of management. Even though the development process takes time it comes with a big advantage: the developing player becomes familiar with the way things are done within the organization. For a sports team it is very important to establish a "culture of winning". A successful winning culture can include everything from dress code and expectations for punctuality to learning the organizations'  playbook. If a developing players learns the specifics of an organizations' winning culture early on in their career they will be able to slide in seamlessly when invited to join the top team. Some sports teams swing for the fences making big trade after big trade only to deal away all of their minor league talent.  While a big trade is always enticing and can sometimes yield positive results, the long term health of the team always suffers.

In a pipe band, growing your own players also requires a great deal of sweat equity. Pipe band drumming is complex and requires lots of practice to achieve even mediocre results. As with a sports franchise , it is important to establish a winning culture and sense of team early on with your developing players. Expectations for drummers should be defined clearly along with the consequences for failing to meet them. Expectations for drummers will vary slightly from band to band but should include standards for attendance, work ethic, respecting other players, punctuality and practice habits.

Besides establishing a set of standards for your drumming program, it is also important to establish a strong sense of team. This process begins at the beginner level as new drummers join the organization for the first time. The big secret: group classes of no less than four students. In my experience one on one "classes" lead to students feeling isolated and uninvolved. Everyone wants to belong and group classes immediately establish this sense of belonging. Kids work best if they're in their own beginner class. Adults work best if they work with other adults. Group classes create a sense of community and camaraderie that can keep players coming back if only for the social aspect. And, if players keep coming back, they can eventually be convinced to join the band! Classes should be fun, entertaining and informative and should always finish at the end of the year with a group performance--best bonding experience ever!

Develop a Winning Program:

When I played basketball as a kid our team wasn't the best. I always looked at the teams fielded by the powerhouse schools and longed to play for them. In short, I wanted to win! If the bands or drum corps within your organization have success on the competition field word will spread and people will want to sign up. If the band continues to win new members will want to stay. Sustained competitive success for any organization (even the top bands in the world) can be extremely difficult to maintain but winning should always be the goal. As the saying goes: "Everybody likes a Winner".

That being said, I feel it is important to win the right way and NOT at any cost. Cutting players on a competition day creates resentment and animosity and leads to the cut player feeling worthless and undervalued. In this situation nobody wins. In the case of a grade 4 or grade 5 band, absolutely no one should ever be cut on the day of a competition. Learning how to perform under pressure is a key element in the development of lower grade drummers.  Depriving your developing players of this opportunity will hurt your organization in the long run.

Set Standards: 

It has become apparent to me over the last few years how important it is to set standards for each level in our organization. For entry into our parade band, all members must learn our parade music along with a short list of 15 rudiments played ten times in a row to a specific speed on the metronome. If a student is able to reach these standards they are welcomed into the parade band with open arms. To move up to grade 5, the number of required rudiments increases (as does their speed with the metronome) and students are expected to learn a march medley for competition. For grade 4, the standards increase again and then again for grade 2. Having standards in place lets students know where they stand and what they must accomplish to advance to a higher level.

Within my own organization, we have recently taken steps to better organize how drummers progress through our system. The simple graphic above illustrates how our drumming program is structured.  It begins with beginner classes (separate classes for young students and adults if possible). At the end of the teaching year, students are assessed and either return to a beginner class or are promoted up to technique class. The technique class is larger than the beginner classes as it is composed of both young and adult students from beginner classes. In the technique class, progression up through the bands is discussed and the skills needed to join a band are taught and practiced. If a student works hard, it is possible for them to skip a step as they progress up through the ranks of the organization. All students realize this and it has proved to be a positive motivator for many of them.

Value All the Bands in Your Organization:

If you have several bands in your organization try to make sure they are all supported equally. Every band in your organization deserves to have excellent leadership, top notch music, decent uniforms and high quality instruments--not just the top level band. If members from all bands feel valued, they will stay in your organization and gradually work their way up the ranks. If members feel undervalued they will leave--it's that simple. Playing in a grade 3 band should not simply feel like extended purgatory or a stepping stone as a player bides their time trying to make it up to grade 2. Instead, the grade 3 band should feel like a viable destination where the player feels challenged, appreciated and encouraged.

Choose Good Leaders:

If your organization has multiple bands you will need to choose lead drummers with excellent leadership skills. Some traits I look for as I make my choices for lead drummers include patience, even temperament, sense of humour, humility, enthusiasm, interpersonal skills and honesty. If your instructors are good folks, their students will want to keep coming to lessons. It is also necessary to choose leaders for your lower grade bands that have bought into the overall drumming curriculum. It is important that all instructors are essentially teaching the same things the same way to maintain continuity throughout the program.

Communication, Respect and Support:

Communication, or lack thereof, has been the downfall of many pipe bands. Keeping an open line of communication with your fellow teachers, musical leaders, students and their parents is of paramount importance. Communication should always be honest and respectful and should happen often. Expectations of teachers and lead drummers in your program should be laid out clearly and well in advance of the start of the year. All lead drummers and instructors should feel supported and respected in the work they do--it's not just students and beginning drummers that can be lost to a negative experience. If a teacher doesn't have the support or appreciation of an organization they will leave and a good teacher is always difficult replace.

Following these six steps has helped guide me toward my goal of creating a sustainable drum corps. Whether you are a beginning student, corps drummer or lead drummer, being part of a solid, sustainable pipe band is an amazing experience. It is a ton of work but luckily it's a labour of love! As always, questions and comments are always appreciated. Happy drumming!


  • Mark Humphrey
    Mark Humphrey Pittsburgh PA
    As a long time instructor and L/D I have followed these same rules. It works.

    As a long time instructor and L/D I have followed these same rules. It works.

  • Pipe Band Drummer
    Pipe Band Drummer
    Thanks for the comment Mark. Glad these rules have worked for you over the years :-)

    Thanks for the comment Mark. Glad these rules have worked for you over the years :-)

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