The term drum major describes several similar appointments in marching bands, drum and bugle corps, and pipe bands. In common to all these forms of marching arts is that the drum major is responsible for providing commands (verbally, through hand gestures, or with whistle commands or alternatively with a signal baton or mace) to the ensemble regarding where to march, what to play, and what time to keep. A drum major can come to hold that position by either auditioning or being appointed.
The position of drum major originated in the British Army with the Corps of Drums in 1650. Military groups performed mostly duty calls and battle signals during that period, and a fife and drum corps, directed by the drum major, would use short pieces to communicate to field units. With the arrival of military brass band and pipe bands around the 18th century, the position of the drum major was adapted to those ensembles.
Traditionally, a military drum major was responsible for:
- Military discipline of all band members
- The band's overall standards of dress and deportment
- Band administrative work
- Maintain the band's standard of military drill and choreograph marching movements
The musical performance of the ensemble was and may still be delegated to the senior or ranking drummer in the group.
With the advent of the radio, militaries no longer needed bands or drum corps as signaling units. Today, military music ensembles and their drum majors operate in a detached fashion from the rest of the military, to varying degrees.
In 1949, The first camp for drum majors was made, Smith-Walbridge Clinics, which was located in Indiana. It then moved to the University of Illinois, and is now held Eastern Illinois University. The camp is one of the most traditional and great places for drum majors. It draws nearly 1500 people a year, and also trains percussion, marching band members, and color guards.
Marching Band Edit
The drum major position is one of leadership, instruction, and group representation, but usually not administrative duties. A band director or corps director assumes administrative responsibility.
Drum majors are mostly responsible for knowing the music of the ensemble and conducting it appropriately. What is "appropriate" conducting has evolved over the decades. During the 1970s and prior it was not uncommon for a stationary drum major to do a high-lift mark time on the podium for an audible and visual tempo; with the arrival of increasingly higher drum major platforms and thus greater visibility this has become both dangerous and unnecessary. In addition to memorizing the music (between six and nine minutes of music is typical for high school marching bands, college bands and drum corps may have that much or more, up to more than eleven minutes of music) a drum major must memorize dynamics as well as tempo in order to provide proper direction and cues, particulartly in area where the drum major has some discretion, such as a ritardando or fermata.
To see one to three drum majors in most ensembles is typical. More usually indicates a group of prodigious size; conversely, no drum major may indicate a small band conducted by its director or a group lead by a horn sergeant or drumline captain. In some ensembles, drum majors switch positions during the show to allow all individuals a chance to conduct from the central podium, occasionally they may serve in other capacities such as performing a solo.
As marching bands have started to focus more directly on halftime shows and less on parades, the stereotypical staff or mace has vanished in preference of hand movements, occasionally with the use of a conductor's baton. Notable exceptions include Historically Black Colleges and Universities and traditional bands such as those found in the Big 10 Conference of college football. Drum majors have also become more elevated over the years, having moved off of the field over the course of the 1970s and 1980s and onto small podiums, which in recent years have often become some eight feet in height or larger. There may be supplemental podiums for additional drum majors, usually smaller in stature.
A marching band or drum corps drum major (field conductor) is in charge of holding the band/corps together, and directing the entire band/corps during shows and competitions. This drum major can come from any section of the performing unit: percussion, winds, or color guard. They are chosen on their musical abilities, leadership qualities, attitude, and passion for the sport. They are usually the highest ranked band participant, usually followed by the captain(s) of the drumline, then by guard captain(s), pit captain(s) and horn sergeant(s)/Section Leaders.