DRUMLine Live was created to embody the soulful, high-stepping style of the HBCU–Historically Black Colleges and Universities–marching band experience. What we call HBCUs today were institutions created after the Civil War specifically to educate the African-American community. Some of the earliest college bands came from HBCUs such as Kentucky State, Florida A&M State and Alabama State.
HBCU bands are in a category of their own in the marching band world today. Huge crowds attend college competitions like the Honda Battle of the Bands and high school competitions such as the Contest of Champions at Middle Tennessee State University. These bands continue the traditions of historical marching bands, with large repertoires of music; from classical, to Top 40. The HBCU marching band style continues to attract people of all backgrounds and ages. DRUMLine Live recreates the sights, sounds, feelings and attitude of the HBCU marching band showdown.
About the actors/musicians
The 40 members of DRUMLine Live include a drum major, a host, five dancers and 33 instrumentalists–including drums, woodwinds like the clarinet, piccolo and alto sax; and brass such as trumpet, trombone, euphonium and tuba.
For most musicians, the highest level of marching band is during college, which might include a small stipend, but only for a limited time. Professional, paying positions for marching band performers do not currently exist, except for a small number of professional stage shows, such as Blast and STOMP. For the cast of DRUMLine Live, turning the marching band experience into a career is a dream come true. The opportunity to perform marching band professionally led performers from across the country–some were college students, now on sabbatical, while others gave up full time jobs to join the cast of DRUMLine Live.
What exactly is a drumline?
The drumline is the heartbeat of the marching band. It is responsible for keeping the band in rhythm. Occasionally, the drumline has the responsibility of beginning and stopping sections of the music. During performances, drumlines are frequently featured in solo sections, which highlight the virtuosity of the performers. Individual drummers can also be featured in solos.
The number of people in a drumline can range from three to well over 20. There are typically four different types of instruments in a drumline:
- Snare Drum–The standard drum in a band is the snare drum. They produce a single sharp sound–or pitch–which sounds like a pen tapping on a book.
- Tenors–A tenor player has four, or sometimes five, smaller drums harnessed together. Because of the number, they are sometimes called “quads” or “quints.” Each drum has a slightly different size and pitch.
- Bass Drum–Bass drums range substantially in size from other drums in the line. They produce a much deeper sound, similar to tapping a plastic trashcan with your knuckles. There can be between one and six people on the bass line. Each bass drummer plays a drum of a sequentially larger size, giving them each their own pitch.
- Cymbals–Cymbals look like giant brass pot lids and make crashing noises. While not exactly a drum, they are still a percussion instrument.
Creating DRUMLine Live
Two members of the artistic-team, Slater Thorpe and Brian Snell, wanted to bring the HBCU marching band experience to the theatrical stage. While Drumline was in theaters, the idea for a stage show took form around the movie. DRUMLine Live was co-created by Don Roberts, who was also the Executive Band Consultant for the 2002 movie Drumline. For the film, he was responsible for training the actors, writing the marching drill and rehearsing the band. Roberts’ band credentials come from his experience as a band director in Georgia. His bands received superior ratings from the Georgia Music Educators Association 15 years in a row. One of his greatest accomplishments was having his band, the Southwest DeKalb High School Panthers, perform at the Opening Ceremony for the 1996 Olympic Games. Roberts’ Panther band starred in the movie Drumline as the protagonist band.
Marching bands are traditionally accompanied by a color guard. In its military roots, this meant one man marching with the flag (colors) of the organization. In collegiate marching bands, the color guard – called majorettes in some places – consists of a group of dancers who visually express the show. By spinning and throwing flags, rifles and sabers and using props, the guard adds an additional visual element to a marching show. Color guards often dance during shows as well, especially those featuring more modern music.
Marching Band History
American marching bands existed as early as 1738 in Virginia. Free black men and Native Americans were required to join the military but were forbidden to handle firearms. They became fifers, trumpeters and drummers for the marching band. Early military bands were used as a way to coordinate orders and to raise morale of troops. At night, drummers from nearby friendly camps would play a specific pattern to each other, making sure that the other camps were still well.
When the United States Marine Corps was formed in 1775, a Marine band was also created, with one drum major, one fife major and 32 drums and fifes each. By the end of the American Revolution, there were as many as 5,000 African Americans serving in military marching bands.
At the beginning of the Civil War, one of the first actions taken by the military was to recruit instructors and find instruments for military bands, which would be largely African American. By performing in parades and in public, bands were able to recruit more African-Americans. There were more than 185,000 African Americans serving in bands and other military positions by the end of the Civil War.
By the end of the 1800’s marching bands had become integral to American entertainment. Ex-military musician bands were in every town in America and performing at political rallies, picnics, circuses, carnivals, dances and nearly any occasion where people met in public.
After Emancipation, many colleges and universities dedicated to educating African-Americans – HBCUs – began popping up throughout the South. Some of the earliest college bands were organized at Kentucky State University, Florida A&M State and Alabama State. They created marching bands as a recruitment tool and fundraiser. In the early years, band directors were often Northern whites who preferred European classical music to modern American styles. Marching bands at this time played music exactly the way it was on the page. It was only after black musicians began directing marching bands that contemporary styles such as ragtime were added and embellishments became more common.
Football’s rise to popularity played the next important part in marching band history. Because the bands were so loud and they coordinated their movements, the football field was the perfect stage for marching and playing. The field also gave bands room to try new formations that had nothing to do with the military. School logos and names were among the first new formations to be tried. Modern marching bands do any number of formations, from squares and squiggly lines, to specific and detailed pictures.