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!