Auditioning for a Drum and Bugle Corps Front Line Ensemble

Mike Lawson • • April 6, 2018

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Drum and Bugle Corps is an amazing activity for the development of mallet players.

I recommend this experience to any of your students. The musical training they will receive is top-notch and the ensemble playing experience is amazing. There are certain things that can help your student when auditioning for the front-line ensemble of a world class drum and bugle corps. I will present some helpful hints that will guide your student in a drum corps audition for the front-line ensemble.

First of all, your student needs to have an in-depth knowledge of all the major and minor scales. Proficiency in every key is very important. Have your student learn numerous scale exercises and play them in every key. Playing these exercises in sequences such as the “circle of fourths” and the “circle of fifths” is a great approach. Starting slowly and gradually increasing the tempo is very effective. Your student should not increase the tempo until he or she is playing with 100 percent accuracy and playing in the center of the bars. When the tempo gets very fast, your student can strike the edge of the sharp and flat keys in order to get a good sound.

Mastering the “piston stroke” is also an important goal. This stroke was named after the piston inside of an engine rebounding up and down. When the mallet strikes the keyboard, it needs to rebound from the instrument to pull the sound out of it. When your student masters this, the mallet will naturally come up off the instrument without much effort. This process should be fluid and relaxed. Holding the fulcrum is important.

The mallet needs to be gripped by the thumb and the index finger (fulcrum), with the other three fingers helping to control the rebound of the mallet.

The backs of the hands should face the ceiling and the mallet position should form a 90-degree angle.

Wrist strength should also be developed. The wrist accounts for almost all of the movement in a proper mallet stroke. Playing “8 on a hand” in every key while focusing on getting a full wrist stroke will help strengthen and stretch the wrists. Stretching the wrists involves playing with the highest stick height possible using only the wrists (no arms). The proper wrist motion is similar to waving goodbye. Start at a slow tempo and continue to speed it up until the point of exhaustion is reached. This will help build wrist strength and stamina for your student. When speeding the tempo up, make sure your student maintains the high wrist stroke since this is a strength building exercise.

Your student needs to be proficient in both four mallet grips. Having a knowledge and the ability to perform with both the Stevens Grip and the Burton Grip will ensure success for your student at a drum corps audition. Both grips have advantages in different situations and having this kind of versatility will be very helpful. Your student should practice arpeggio exercises using both grips. The arpeggios should be played in every single key, major and minor. Your student must know that a thorough knowledge of the keyboard means being able to play arpeggios and scales easily in any and every key at any moment’s notice.

Your student should also learn a few standards in keyboard literature. A standard college syllabus for percussion performance should include a list of standards for keyboard literature.

For starters, I recommend learning “Concertino for Marimba” by Paul Creston for two mallet development. For four mallets, a great piece for your student is “Marimba Spiritual” by Minoru Miki. Another great piece for four mallets is “Concert for Marimba” by Ney Rosauro.

Aside from keyboard playing, your student should also be proficient in percussion instruments in general. Being able to play concert snare, timpani, cymbals, and bass drum is very important. Having a knowledge of the hand percussion instruments such as claves, castanets, bongos, congas, and triangle, etc., is also crucial. Remember that front line ensemble players in modern drum and bugle corps are very well-rounded percussionists in general.

When your student shows up to audition for a drum and bugle corps, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of other students also auditioning. This should not intimate your student.

Often times, showing up at a drum corps audition camp is a wonderful learning experience even if your student doesn’t make it the first time. Showing up and getting the knowledge needed for success will prepare your student for the next year. It should be viewed as a learning and developmental experience, regardless of whether your student gets a spot in the drum corps the first time when auditioning.

In 2016, The Huffington Post called Kevin Lucas “the most talented percussionist since Lionel Hampton, Ginger Baker, and Tito Puente.” He has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards. Lucas performed with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps from 1992-1994, and won the DCI Midwest Individuals in 1994 for keyboard percussion.

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