The state of marching percussion today has never been healthier and more popular, with thousands of students participating and hundreds of instructors teaching at every level. Due to this undeniable passion for the activity, marching percussion arranging has become an essential part of a program’s success. In other words, it all starts with the music. Here are some of the best insights on arranging from my research and interviews in my new book, Drumline Gold.
Assessing Musical Difficulty
The top priority for any marching percussion arranger is knowing the ability level of the group they are writing for. Asking questions such as, what skills do they have, how developed is their technique, and how often do they rehearse can help define what a beginning, intermediate, or advanced ability level looks like.
Many young arrangers tend to overwrite, leading in most cases to poor ensemble playing. When a chart is overwritten, it usually means there are too many notes, the difficulty level is high, and it does not serve or support the wind arrangement as well as it could. Before they play a note, this troublesome scenario immediately puts the drumline in a position to fail, or at the very least one of stress and frustration, not to mention the musical consequences.
It is important to teach your drumline to see the big picture and understand that their top priority—and primary responsibility—is to serve the music. If an arrangement is difficult just for difficulty sake, priorities get out of whack. According to WGI designer and educator Ian Grom:
“One of the challenges with writing…and arranging music for your ensemble is developing enough technical challenges to keep the kids engaged, but not overshooting their abilities and give them something that they’re not comfortable with. We try to come up with parts that are interesting, cool, but doable and really focus on the idea that you’re going to play it with a great sound quality and it’s going to be consistent, and it’s going to be readable, and it’s going to work front to back. You’re not doing the members any justice by giving them stuff that’s outside their threshold…It’s more about performing with quality than performing the quantity of notes and all this flashy stuff.”
Dave Rodenkirch and Joe Gallegos, former instructors and arrangers for the University of Arizona Drumline, also comment on musical difficulty in Gary Cook’s enhanced edition of Teaching Percussion:
“The only limitations are that the arrangement must be technically playable by the section, fairly easily memorized, and attainable in the rehearsal time allotted. An arranger must realize that all the players in each section, not just a few, must be able to play the parts well. Granted, if the players are going to grow and improve as musicians, then it is important to challenge them with quality, demanding music; however, it is ultimately up to the percussion instructor and director to make decisions…that will produce the best overall musical product while providing a sound educational experience.”
Wisdom from Dennis
In his book, Percussion Discussion, Dennis DeLucia offers valuable insight and advice for the arranger:
“1. Use plenty of rests and space to allow the music to breathe. Never feel that you must write every instrument into every measure.
2. Write only those figures that will contribute positively to the total musical score. If the music doesn’t need it, don’t write it!
3. If there is a secondary idea, be sure that it is clear and unobtrusive. Anything else is either color (a good thing) or clutter (bad!).
4. Consider that the success of any written music is dependent upon the combination of the writers, teachers (staff), and the performers. You must accept responsibility for the potential of the performers to achieve their goal.
5. Be willing to rewrite and improve the chart after you’ve heard the full ensemble and seen the drill.
6. The arranger must serve two masters: the integrity of the music at hand and the real talent level of the players in the ensemble. If the perceived talent level is a 7.2 in terms of difficulty, write a book that is a 7.2 to 7.6. If you write a 9.3 you are serving your own ego rather than serving the real potential for success of your players.”
As you can see, there are multiple, simultaneous factors and criteria to consider when writing for a marching percussion ensemble. Many times, the arrangement will sound very different in real life compared to the MIDI recording. Thom Hannum agrees. “Don’t always believe the MIDI,” says Thom. “When humans play music, it will have imperfections and not always align as naturally as a computer-generated file might suggest. The great writers understand this difference and how they need to consider the human element.”
According to Bret Kuhn in an interview with Pat McLaughlin for Drumline Chops, “For those younger writers out there, try to always remember to go for what the music needs first, and sometimes that’s even just not playing. [Legendary drum set artist] Steve Gadd once said, ‘some of the best playing I ever did is when I decided not to play.’ [Gadd] was always subservient to the music. [Just remember,] if you own a Lamborghini and you’re driving in L.A. you’re still going to have to go slow once in a while!”
It’s no secret I am a big fan of quotes. I highlight all the books I read and spent many years compiling a three-ringed notebook filled with quotes from coaches, athletes, educators, business leaders, CEOs, authors, and speakers. I like quotes because they are memorable and relevant to what you are trying to achieve. They stick with you, resonate, and inspire when you need a little juice to get going. My students sometimes call them “Buyer-isms,” and I hope that is a good thing. I am always seeking good quotes that can help them get better as a musician and when they move on to the next chapter of their lives after college. In this spirit, here are two of my favorite quotes on marching percussion arranging.
“No one cares what you don’t play.” –Paul Buyer
This quote is about having the courage to take something out of your arrangement, no matter how badly you want to put it in. It can also be about deciding not to play a cadence, drum feature, or stand tune simply because it is not ready at that point in time.
In my Working Toward Excellence presentations, I share a story about my percussion ensemble concerts. If we start the semester with five pieces and after a few weeks we’re struggling to keep up with all of them, I will not hesitate to cut one, bringing the total down to four. While my students might be upset at first, this quickly fades after a few days as something magical begins to happen. They can breathe, their stress level decreases, and their mindset of learning, preparing, and cleaning four pieces becomes much more manageable because now they have more time. I tell them, “The audience isn’t going to sit there and wish we were playing the piece that Dr. Buyer cut. They’re going to listen to the pieces that we do play, and whatever we present to them is going to be excellent. No one cares what we don’t play.”
“You are what you sound like.” –Paul Buyer
Former Super Bowl winning NFL coach of the New York Giants, Bill Parcells, once said at a press conference, “You are what your record says you are.” He was responding to a question about a tough loss and whether the Giants were a better team than their record indicated. Parcells was not one to mince words or make excuses, so he shot straight. His team was only as good as their record, period. That was all the feedback he needed. Drumlines are the same way. You are what you sound like. Avoid excuses, reality distortion, and spin. Great drumlines play great.
This chapter features in-depth interviews with Thom Hannum, Bret Kuhn, and Matt Henley.
Cook, Gary. Teaching Percussion. Enhanced 3rd Edition. Cengage Learning. 2018.
DeLucia, Dennis. Percussion Discussion. Row-Loff Publications. 2010.
Grom, Ian and John Mapes. Indoor Percussion 101. vicfirth.com.
Halls, Brad. Deconstructing the 2017 Carolina Crown Percussion Section: A Conversation with Thom Hannum and Jim Ancona. Rhythm! Scene. 2017.
McLaughlin, Pat. “6 Dangers of Drumline and How to Prevent Them.” drumlinechops.com. 2013.