A competitive pipe band is a very strange thing. You work hard with your band all year improving the fundamentals, learning music, improving reading skills, battling attendance and other personnel issues until the summer comes and your season begins. Then you take all your vacation time to stand in a field and play your best, often under adverse conditions, and judges scribble furiously picking apart your performance. After your play you have a short conference that, depending on what transpired on the field can be either positive or downright awful, then you head to the beer tent to wait for the results. Then the results come in and these results generate a different reaction for everyone in the band. Some people are happy with a win because it's a win, plain and simple. Some people aren't happy with a win because they made three mistakes. Some people are happy finishing in the middle of the pack because the band played great. Some people are disappointed about finishing in the middle of the pack because the band played great and should have gotten a better result. The results, and band members' reactions to them will always be part of the competition process, but these are not the results that matter.
During my education degree I leaned a ton about teaching and classroom management but the one skill that has stuck with me is that of reflection. Reflection is the process of looking back at what you've done and evaluating it to see what worked and what didn't.
When I reflect on a season as a lead drummer I consider the following factors:
- Have my drum corps members improved individually?
- Has our unison improved?
- Are we able to correctly execute more difficult scores?
- Have our dynamics improved?
- Is morale still high?
If the answer is "yes" to the majority of these questions, it is clear that our season was a success. If "no" was the answer to any of these questions then it becomes a priority for the next season. Let's discuss these questions individually:
Have my drum corps members improved individually?
The easiest way to document individual progress is to evaluate the speed and facility of a drummer's rudiments by tracking their progress from year to year. The numbers don't lie. If a drummer can't play drag paradiddles and then the next season they can, you know they're improving. Another way to evaluate individual progress is by having your corps members compete solo. If they advance a grade level you know they're improving. If they finished near the bottom of the grade the year before but now they are winning consistently, it's obvious they're getting better. Also, as their competition scores get harder and they can still execute them, that's another sure sign of improvement.
Have we improved our unison playing?
When I get a judging sheet back after a contest, I always appreciate the blunt comments. Sometimes those comments sting a little but in the end I always appreciate them the most. To help gauge if your unison playing is improving, record your drummers as often as you can. Recording a corps is equivalent to receiving a series of blunt judging comments. Recording can sting A LOT! However, the entire corps can hear the problems with the unison and it's easy to zero in on any passages in need of attention. To figure out if your corps is improving their unison from year to year, simply listen to recordings from past seasons and compare them to the most recent. Any improvement/slippage will be obvious.
Are we able to properly execute more difficult scores?
Before answering this question it is important to know the meaning of the word "execute". The word "execute" simply means to "carry out a plan". Therefore, when judges write "problems with execution" on your score sheet it is clear that they recognize what you're trying to do with the corps while at the same time noticing that everything is not going according to plan! The problem with playing difficult music is that it's much harder to execute properly--notice the emphasis here. Executing something "pretty well" is completely different from executing it perfectly! Examining your players' technique and fundamentals will help in this regard. However, the best way to evaluate if your drummers can play more difficult scores is to get them to slow them down to 60 or even 50 bpm. At this slow speed it is obvious if the corps has control issues and any small timing issues are greatly magnified. If your drum corps can properly execute a difficult score at slow tempo you know they're ready for more challenging music.
Have our dynamics improved?
I find dynamics easiest to evaluate using video. If everyone's stick heights are the same for a particular passage it follows that their volume level will be similar. For large crush rolls, if everyone's sticks start up around their eyebrows you know you've achieved a pretty solid "CRUSH!!". "Visual dynamics" are just as important, sometimes more important, as "aural dynamics". If you look at a corps like Inveraray their visual dynamics and stick heights are EXACTLY the same and they achieve monstrously loud highs and whisper-like lows. Evaluating visual dynamics is the easiest part. What I find much more challenging is trying to figure out the amount of "force" my drummers are playing with. In an ideal world, every drummer in your drum corps should be playing with the same amount of downward force. Dynamics are then achieved mostly by stick heights (visually). Unfortunately, most drum corps contain a few drummers that play with more force and compensate for their lack of stick height by pushing harder into the drum. It is always a battle to get a "forceful" drummer to play lighter but if you can it will extend your dynamic range on the quiet end by quite a bit.
Is morale still high?
This, to me, is one of the most important aspects of competitive pipe band drumming. Morale can remain at a high level if the corps enjoys each others' company, believes they're getting better, and if there's enthusiastic "buy in" to an established system to promote continued musical growth. Good morale can act as an "armour" against poor results on the field and can also be a powerful motivator within your corps to "stay the course" or "follow the system". The best sports teams on the planet always talk about playing for their teammates first. It's the same thing in a drum corps. If being a drummer in your corps is fun, and if everyone feels like a valued member of the team, that's what people will remember and appreciate the most. Evaluating your drummers' morale is easy: Are they still members of your corps? Do they look forward to getting back to work in September? Does everyone get along? Yes? Then keep doing what you're doing!
This year I answered "yes" to 4 out of 5 of these questions when evaluating my own corps. I count that as a great result, and really it's the only result that matters to me. The question to which I answered "no" is firmly placed at the top of my "to do" list for the coming year. Now the research begins into how I can improve our corps in that area before the season next year. And so it begins...
As always, questions/comments are appreciated. Please feel free to send an email or comment on the post below. Thanks folks and happy drumming!