The tidy brigade of fife and drum recruits glides along in step to the steady clicks of the instructor’s drumsticks. They execute a U-turn without breaking rank.
But then, as soon as they’ve smartened up on a straightaway, a hiccup. A bend in the line.
“Halt!” David Baker commands.
He singles out a recruit and asks what she did wrong.
Comes the humble reply: “I went around the poop.”
There were a few muffled snickers, but all of these young people know her dilemma well; they’ve considered the unpleasant squish their next footfall might bring. That’s because there’s a dirty little secret about the historic streets in Revolutionary City. Horse-drawn carriages adorn the Revolutionary City and with all those draft animals comes—well … their business.
So what are marching colonial musicians to do when such a pile is in their path? Step over it, if they can do so discreetly without swerving or losing step.
And if not? Well … splat. It’s the fifers’ and drummers’ burden.
“There will always be poop,” says Baker, a Fifes and Drums alumnus-turned-instructor. “I assure you.”
This teachable moment adds a bit of levity to an otherwise no-nonsense lesson, but in reality, it’s about more than soiled shoes. What these recruits are learning, step by step, is the discipline that makes the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums so respected a corps of musicians.
The Fifes and Drums is no intramural, come-as-you-please, after-school program. There are high standards and strict expectations. Military-like discipline is woven into the very being of the Fifes and Drums.
The Senior Corps, clad in red regimental uniforms and composed of older adolescents, portray the musicians of the Virginia State Garrison Regiment raised to protect the commonwealth during the American Revolution. The younger Junior Corps sports the hunting frocks often worn by soldiers of the Virginia militia in the 18th century. The modern Fifes and Drums are expected to exhibit the bearing and precision of their historic prototypes.
Much of the Fifes and Drums’ military influences owe to the corps’ first director, George Carroll. After founding the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, Carroll brought his military expertise to Colonial Williamsburg in 1961. Among his accomplishments during his 10-year tenure was a system of earning points and gaining rank based on individual deeds and achievements. Another was beginning practices with a roll call while fifers and drummers were at attention.
Indeed, well-established routines that echo the military origins of the corps have grown from the formal foundations Carroll brought to the Fifes and Drums. Address is by surname only: Mr. Baker, Mr. Stulen. Mistakenly call a recruit by her first name and the others look around quizzically with little notion of to whom you’re referring. Responses to instructors are proper, too: “Yes, sir; No, ma’am.”
Practices are not optional and punctuality is mandatory. Roll call for a 10 a.m. practice will not begin a minute later. Stern reprimands for misbehavior are not unheard of.
Strict adherence to procedure is what it takes to create a world-class lot of musicians. But another reason Fifes and Drums brass can demand so much of these young people is simple: It’s their job. Colonial Williamsburg’s fifers and drummers are paid; while the recruits won’t draw a check until they’re marching with the Junior Corps—they’re in training right now—their manner and repertoire must match that of their peers when it’s time to finally suit up.
That’s why the recruits are learning now how to stand at attention. It’s why their fifes and drumsticks snap up beside their heads in unison. It’s why they’re learning to plant each foot firmly, horse hockey or not. Because if these recruits are going to be frazzled by a little poo, they’ll never keep a straight face under trying circumstances—in summer’s blazing heat, for instance—when countless flashes are recording their every move.
It’s the corps’ discipline that frames success. All those roll calls and ranks set the stage for progress. And when young musicians bring their devotion and work ethic to these standards, magic happens.
Ben Swenson lives in Williamsburg, Virginia with his wife and two sons. His writing career has led him to all sorts of odd corners of the world: he has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, wrestled crab pots on a Chesapeake Bay work boat and taken a helicopter ride through a twisting river gorge. Odds are good you will find him outside with them somewhere when he is not chasing or telling stories.