marching drum solos

so i’ve been doing a lot of brainstorming and designing of the TUMB’s Les Miserablés drum solo based very loosely on “Attack on Rue Plumet”, and i thought it would be worthwhile to talk about a small but significant mental shift regarding its compositional conception because of the context of the TUMB.

The general philosophy of the TUMB creative design is to find a way to make it both simultaneously fulfilling for the membership (most of which are not music majors) and to provide spirit and entertainment for the athletic crowds who go to Tulane football games. Resultantly, the shows fall somewhere between the big-10 philosophy of “easy different show each week” versus where i came from which was “learn two field shows that strive to be drum corps level and use them all season.” Typically we do three or four shows a season that try to maximize effect, deliberately choosing effect over doing anything too artsy or challenging. Not that we don’t want to push the membership, but there’s a limit of how far we can reach given that Tulane is a very demanding academic school of which the TUMB, while a one-credit course, is still considered primarily extra-curricular. We expect them to memorize all of their music and be responsible for their role in the TUMB, but our shows tend to be five-six minutes long, involve maybe 20 drill sets, and may have a challenging moment here and there but is otherwise meant to only gradually push the challenge of the individual players musically.

Les Miserablés is one of the more “Marching bandy” kinds of shows that we’re putting together and so when i was first thinking about the drum solo, i was very much thinking of it in those terms – while a drum solo that has section features is a little retro these days, i still like the idea of features and started writing a snare feature – a four and a half measure deal that could push the kids the right amount for their chops and developmental growth, something that the drumline is getting better at but still has a lot of room to grow.

The problem is, a snare feature that long is something that comes more from the realm of what a WGI show would do. Part of the GE that comes from a long feature in that particular medium is that most of the audience of that medium have at least some idea of how difficult it is to play certain licks and represent a wide range of expertise of what it means to sound clean. So when MCM or Rhythm X have an extended snare feature or tenor feature that can last 15+ seconds with little else going on, it has all of that pre-ceonceived expectation to help maximize its effect.

By contrast, the Tulane crowd generally couldn’t tell you the difference between a flam drag and a paradiddle, wouldn’t be able to have that innate understanding of what a hard lick is versus an easy one or how clean something truly is. So to write some sort of extended section feature of any sort designed to showcase how well a section is pulling off something difficult has very little GE to our audience, and if it pushes too far off the edge of what the line is comfortable with, the work has negative return – if the line can’t play it well, then the immediate audience doesn’t appreciate it any more than they would something simpler that has more effect, and the long-term audience of YouTube viewers and potential future recruits who may have a more scrutinizing ear will be hyper critical of their execution and think that it sucks.

So long features don’t fit our group – things that push the ability of the line that are exposed in a drum solo also doesn’t fit our group. In a strange way, putting the more difficult music in the background is better for us because it gives the kids a chance to grow and develop their advanced chops in a context where that lack of high exposure relieves the pressure of having to execute at a high level other than from a big picture ensemble perspective.

This year, there’s one kink in that philosophy in that we’re trying to put more effort into going to at least one local marching band festival per year of which one of the motivators is recruitment. In order to make the TUMB appeal to them as potential members, they have to be engaged with what the marching band is about overall and what their potential section is about more specifically – for the drumline this again has to do with balance – if the music is too easy, they may feel like they wouldn’t be challenged as a member. if the music is too difficult for the line to execute successfully, they won’t want to be a part of a group that plays that poorly.

All of this is running through my brain as i retailor this drum solo not only to fit within the time constraints given to me, but what the drum solo should achieve on multiple levels. Features overall aren’t out of the picture, but it doesn’t make sense for them to be longer than 2 or 3 measures at most, and the overall composition needs to have a level of effect for the football crowd that has less to do with choppy complexity and more to do with musical and emotional impact.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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