You’re standing along Duke of Gloucester Street admiring the Fifes and Drums as they march by when the person next to you wonders aloud what all the wide gestures signify. Or maybe you’re watching a video after Drummers Call when your significant other isn’t sure why they’re wearing white frock coats. Well, here’s your opportunity to look really smart as we offer some help so you can “read” the signs and signals of the corps.
The first thing to understand is there are two distinct units. The younger Junior Corps (shown above) currently has around 50 young men and women about 11-14 years old. The Junior Corps represents pre-professional Continental Army musicians. They all wear the same white hunting frocks, but underneath they are wearing the clothing of 18th-century civilians.
Members of the Senior Corps (below) are generally 15-18 years old. There are about 40 right now, representing the field music of the Virginia State Garrison Regiment. It would likely have taken a couple of years after the war started for all of them to be properly uniformed, but many details of their dress come from a list of supplies in an orderly book from when the regiment was formed in 1778.
They wear formal military uniforms: matching small clothes, leather stock, leather garters—all authentic 18th-century military accoutrements. But don’t call them “redcoats!” Their uniforms are simply colored in opposition to the blue Continental uniforms to identify them as field musicians, thus non-combatants.
There are also differences in the instruments. Drums used by the Senior Corps are 16 inches tall and 16 inches in diameter. The Junior Corps drums are an inch shorter at 15 inches. It’s a subtle, but important difference, Stewart assures me.
Novice fifers play an instrument typically made of a lighter wood, such as persimmon or maple. The more experienced players in the Senior Corps have fifes made of Grenadilla or African Blackwood, which achieve a better sound by virtue of their greater density.
The Fifes and Drums operate with a rank system, and the hierarchy of the corps is visible in their march formation. In the front row, stage right, is the section leader for the fifes. The leader for the drums stands front and center of their section behind the fifes. From there it alternates, with the second-highest ranked positioned across the front row stage left, the third-highest one in from the section leader, and so on, back and forth through the ranks.
The order reflects the progress each player makes to attain higher ranks. Everyone begins as a recruit, then becomes a private, fifer or drummer, lance corporal, and corporal. In the Senior Corps, there are corporals, sergeants, and fife or drum sergeants. There is only one sergeant major and he or she acts as the liaison between the kids and the adult staff. Only a select few will become section leaders or sergeant major.
On the march, the corps is led by the drum major, usually either Stewart Pittman, who heads the Fifes and Drums, or by the sergeant major, which is an appointed leadership position. They give all the signals, wielding an ornamental mace about five feet in length. If it’s the Junior Corps, the mace has a lion figure on top, signifying the monarchy.
Since the Senior Corps represents the army after independence, they have no use for such trappings. The head of this mace is just a simple ball dome. Stewart likes to think it represents the lion figurine being ripped right off the mace after independence. (So do I.) The simpler mace has “Virginia State Regiment” engraved at the base of the dome.
Typically, the drum major employs only a few verbal commands: “Attention,” to get the corps in position to play; “To the front, march” which is delivered in the same cadence as the music to be played; and “Dismiss,” when it’s time to go home. But when the music starts, the mace takes over, because it’s hard to hear commands over the music.
Here Stewart is standing in a basic position. “This is supposed to be the most comfortable position, the one you could stand in forever if you needed to,” says Stewart. The mace is close to the body but under control.
From left to right above, this is the sequence the drum major follows at the beginning of a tune:
ATTENTION The drum major twirls the mace in a circle and ends in this position, calling the corps to attention when it’s about time to begin playing.
FIFES UP This is the signal for the players to bring their fifes and drums into position to play.
READY Raising the mace high in the air tells everyone the music is about to begin.
PLAY When the mace drops, the music starts.
This sequence shows what happens at the end of a song. First the drum major brings the mace to his side. He raises it horizontally in front of his face, then holds it an angle over his hand to order CUT.
MARK TIME The drum major raises the mace horizontally high over his head as the corps continues to play while marching in place.
MARCH THROUGH Anytime you see the stick of the mace in the air, it’s likely signaling a march maneuver. The leader signals a “march through” with the signals above. After the drum major executes another twirl of the mace, he holds it upside down and raises it high. The fife section marks time for a bit, and the drum section passes through to the front.
While the drummers take their turn in the limelight, the leader holds the mace by his side (above right). “It’s about as flashy as we get,” says Stewart. This always happens during “open beatings.” These are short drum solos in between songs, and while it seems like a phrase that’s ripe for misinterpretation, at least it offers the fifers a chance to take a breath.
COUNTERMARCH, MARCH When the drum major wants the corps to execute a 180-degree turn, he twirls the mace three times, stops, and turns directly around as the corps turns on itself to head in the opposite direction.
HAND SIGNALS You might also see some of the hand signals shown above. On the left, Stewart puts two fingers to the right (or left) to order a turn in that direction. In the center, he is telling the players it’s time to get through the song more quickly by skipping the first ending and going directly to the second one. (Songs are typically played twice, with a different ending the second time.) And on the right, just as you might expect, he gives the command to take it from the top, that is, repeat the song from the beginning.
HALT To call a halt, the drum major raises the mace, then shakes it back and forth before bringing it to a rest on the ground.
There you have it, a primer on all the essential directions given by the leader of the Fifes and Drums during a performance.
Stewart doesn’t know of any surviving 18th-century drum major manuals, but the circumstantial evidence suggests they weren’t too different today. John Moon instituted the system used back in the 1960s, and he was the Senior Drum Major for the Scots Guards, an elite corps with a grand tradition unlikely to have made any outlandish innovations.
Stewart likes his sergeant majors to play up their roles at the head of the corps. “I always push flamboyancy,” he says. He likes large, but graceful gestures, and always shares a favorite paragraph from Bennett Cuthbertson’s well-known 18th-century guide to military etiquette:
It should never be objected to a drum major that he is too great a coxcomb. Such an appearance is rather to be encouraged provided it does not exceed the bounds of proper respect to his superiors. His dress and appointments should all tend to promote that character, as it is absolutely necessary for him to strut and think himself a man of consequence when marching at the head of his drummers.
Everything you hear the Fifes and Drums play is authentic pre-1810 pieces of music. At their facility on Franklin Street there is a vast library of tunes that have been researched and catalogued. So while there’s a wealth of tradition, there’s always something different coming along, too. And now that you’ve got the key to reading the signs and signals of the corps, you’re bound to appreciate them even more.
Join us for Drummers Call during Armed Forces Day weekend May 20-22, 2016, and experience a rousing series of events with fifers and drummers from Colonial Williamsburg and all over. If you can’t be here in person, join us online for the Grand Review on Saturday, May 21 at 2 p.m. We’ll be live streaming the concert.
A special thanks to Lael White and Wayne Reynolds for all of the great photos!