The truth is cleaning a drumline is not a fast process. It takes a long time crockpotting hundreds of hours of practice and rehearsals during the course of a season, especially for college bands who perform multiple shows and a large quantity of music including warm-ups, cadences, pregame, halftime, stand tunes, features, and cheers.

At Clemson, the process we use to clean such a large quantity of music is based on three steps: learn, memorize, clean. Our philosophy is we cannot clean music that is not memorized and we cannot memorize music that is not learned. Before our preparation even begins, we begin with the end in mind and work backwards.

This post will focus on the first phase of the process – learning music. The learning phase is the fastest way to put your drumline in a position to succeed in terms of memorizing and cleaning, since it is often overlooked and taken for granted. Of course this assumes your drumline members have good reading skills and can handle all the music thrown at them during the season.

When I first starting teaching, I had memorization deadlines – target dates for all music to be memorized so the drumline could focus on listening to each other, watching the drum majors and their drill, and most importantly earning confidence. I noticed many students, however, who tried to memorize their music before they could play it with the music in front of them. This quickly led to many gaps, or lapses, in their memorization and ultimately their minds “breaking” during performance.

It occurred to me that the memorization deadline should not be the first deadline, but the second deadline in our preparation process. So I inserted a new deadline first – to have the music learned – which we referred to as playable. We then implemented a playability deadline, which preceded the memorization deadline. Playability is the ability to play your part correctly using the music. This includes the entire part – rhythms, stickings, dynamics, and special instructions – no matter how easy or advanced. Failure to meet the playability deadline resulted in having to pass off your music for the instructor, and failure to meet the memorization deadline meant being benched for that performance.

In 2009, I published Marching Bands and Drumlines, a book revealing the secrets of success from seven of the best college drumlines in the country. From that research, I discovered seven factors influencing excellence that included culture, staff and student leadership, rehearsal time, number of shows, competitive auditions, attendance, and weather, with the last two being added after the book’s release.

Where does playability fit within the seven factors? It is part of our culture in the Clemson Drumline. There is buy-in for the process of learning the music and meeting the playability deadline, memorizing the music and meeting the memorization deadline, and cleaning the music and becoming confident with the show, drill, and mindset of our performance.

Excellent drumlines do not happen by accident or turn it on all of sudden on game day. There is no magic, luck, or switch to be flipped. Excellence is the result of a process – a process which contains thousands of details and little things that most people will never see. Over the years, one of our biggest “little” things has simply been having our music playable – first.