Video Conference Recap: Drum Speak

An overview of our webinar with our Percussion Caption Heads/Writers


Last night, Director George Hopkins interviewed Cadets Percussion Caption Supervisor and Battery Arranger Colin McNutt and Front Ensemble Caption Superviser and Arranger Iain Moyer about The Cadets Percussion Section.


IainMoyer_conduct.pngThe conversation began as usual, with Colin and Iain discussing their drum corps backgrounds and careers outside the drum corps world. The two acclaimed percussion writers have been teaching and arranging together since 2002 when they worked for the Glassmen Drum and Bugle Corps, so the process has become very familiar to them.

In the "real world," Iain (right) is the Director of Percussion Studies and the Assistant Director of Bands at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Ala.

Colin, on the other hand, said he has been lucky enough to make a career out of drum corps and marching band. He teaches at UMass Amherst part-time, but most of his life's work revolves around writing parts for The Cadets Drumline, as well as creating custom band shows for marching units across the country. Colin also travels as a clinician for The Cadets' sponsors Yamaha, Zildjian Remo and Vic Firth.

High Drums

"Let's talk about the percussion section last year," George said in transition. "It went pretty well?"

"Yeah," Colin chuckled. "Well, never in our wildest dreams did we start out thinking that we were going to win drums. Part of it was definitely the source material. The Barber music was very angular and a great vehicle for percussion, but it’s not like we all sat down and said, 'We have a book here that could win drums.' We never think of it that way."

The Cadets Drumline won the Fred J. Sanford Award for Best Percussion Performance at the 2013 DCI World Championships

"The Cadets' philosophy is to always look at the total effect of the ensemble, not to strive for individual success," Colin continued. "But once we started getting the numbers from some judges, it became kind of a fun side thing while we kept pushing forward with the show."

To give a bit of perspective, the 2011 drumline had a very high percentage of age-outs, so in 2012, the snare line was made up entirely of rookies, while only two tenors returned and one bass drummer. This allowed the drumline to grow together from the ground up, and grow they did. They ended up coming in third that year, and many of the same guys came back for 2013.

"But if Colin was dealing with a lot of new folks in '12, the pit was doing the same last year," Iain said.

Only four veteran members were able to return in 2013, and many of them ended up playing different instruments in the front ensemble.

"We had a really diverse group of people in the pit last year," Iain said. "There were lots of completely different backgrounds, but they really came together and succeeded as a percussion section."

"These guys were kinda young pups that just busted their butts and ended up winning drums," George agreed. "I was able to listen to Jeff Prosperie's tape after the run on Saturday, and I knew they were going to win, but they had no idea. I remember talking to them outside Lucas Oil and telling them, 'Guys, this guy is going crazy on the tape.' They were just going nuts and hugging each other. It was fun," he said.

pit_NathanKim_2013_marimba_mallets_vertical.jpgEvolution of the Pit

"Not everyone is crazy about the use of electronics in drum corps," George said. "Do we look for piano players now, in addition to other percussionists?"

"Sure, "Iain said. "We’re looking for marimba and vibe players, but also at least two to three piano players, which is very new to the front ensemble landscape in DCI. We've recently had a few marching band synth players who are also great piano players.

"Front ensemble has really blossomed, and people are really taking it seriously now," Iain continued. "And with the use of amplification, we can be just as loud as the hornline or drumline. It's really changed the playing field."

Iain also noted that amplifying the pit has allowed percussion instructors and musicians to be smarter about the mallets they choose: "There’s a very aggressive way many front ensembles play in DCI that’s actually similar to how a battery might play, but with appropriate keyboard technique. I think the general aggressiveness of the musicians is the same or even greater now that we're using amplification, but we’re able to get warmer sounds because we're not using ridiculously hard mallets on keyboard instruments when it wouldn't be appropriate," he said.



One webinar listener asked about the frequency of physical problems like tendonitis and carpal tunnel, but Colin said it tends not to be an issue, at least in The Cadets Drumline.

"I think it’s actually getting better because folks are playing on a year-round basis, and they're being smarter about it," he said.


"Our technique is also evolving, and we’re realizing the limits of what we’re able to do as percussionists. We have a lot of music majors in the battery and the pit, and we want them to be able to go to a drum set or chamber group and be able to have a relaxed technique.

"It all comes down to how you play. Here at The Cadets, at the point of contact, your muscle groups are relaxed, and the rebound pushes the stick up. If you play with that technique instead of playing into the drum, I think you will find that you have longevity," he said.

Impact of Cadets2

George then asked whether Cadets2 has positively impacted The Cadets Percussion Section.

"C2 has been a Godsend for us," Colin said. "Back when I was marching, there were a lot more corps out there. My first smaller corps was a great gateway for a high school kid like me who could start out marching on the weekends and not do a full tour. Cadets2 gives young people The Cadets experience, but not quite full-time, and now in the third year we’ve had a number of snares, a tenor, a bass, and couple pit members move up to C1," he said.

2013 Cadets2 Drumline

George added, "For those who don't know, Dave Dumont heads up the percussion program at Cadets2, but it's very obvious when you watch them that we have the same approach to the drum across our programs. I watched Cadets Winter Percussion last weekend, and they look like The Cadets too. Not their uniform at all, but the way they play – it’s pretty aggressive."

Effect of Indoor Percussion

Another listener posed this set of questions: How has indoor percussion affected the quality of players and the number of kids who audition? How do The Cadets balance all of that without falling behind in preparing for the summer?

"Indoor percussion is actually a huge advantage for us," Colin said. "Our students are playing year-round, and most likely doing a triple-play – they're playing in their college or high school, in an indoor ensemble, and then in The Cadets."

Cadets Winter Percussion at the 2014 WGI Unionville Regional

During the audition process, Cadets staff members ask students about their grades and responsibilities back home. They have found that accountable students are well able to keep up with their committment to The Cadets.

As for keeping up with drum corps in the winter and spring, The Cadets Percussion Section has a private Facebook page where members post videos of themselves playing homework assignments. It's also a great place for encouragement, support and accountability.

"It's not that we’re lenient with rehearsals," Colin said, "but if you’ve got a big indoor show, we want you to go do the show, and then make it to camp if you can."

The Writing Process


The conversation then shifted to the process of creating an intricate show throughout the off-season when The Cadets' designers live states apart.

"Well the writing process generally goes from Brass Arranger Jay Bocook, to Colin, and then I’m reacting to not only Colin’s stuff but also to Jay’s," Iain explained. "Some of it involves talking through it, but Colin and I have also been doing this for such a long time together that a lot of things come naturally."

"We try to be architects of percussion, organizing the sounds based on what is most important at that moment," Colin added. "Jay’s scores have percussion cues. Iain and I collaborate and decide how we see the percussion working, then we write."

Colin McNutt and Jay Bocook at DCI Finals Retreat in 2013

George provided an example: "In the Lincoln segment of our show this year, there is a part where the ensemble is facing backfield, and some are marching to quarter note, while others are marching to the half note. While Jeff [Sacktig] is writing that, I go ahead and tell Colin [the battery] to go with trumpets in double time, while Iain [the pit] stays with the low brass in half time. That will help stitch it together. We try to catch all that on the front side, before it’s written."

He added that, with such an intricate show this year, the process of balancing the instrumentation has not been easy.

Once the program finally hits the field in its rawest form, changes inevitably must be made.

"We’re always adjusting to the drill once we move in," Colin said. "As a writer, you do your best work, and you think it’s going to work out, but sometimes when you hear it on the field, you realize that it’s not going to work. We’re used to this process, and you just have to check your ego at the door."

He continued, "When it takes me 19 hours to write a phrase, and George tells me it’s out of the show, that can be really frustrating. But it’s not enough just to write a great snare part. It’s about how it all works together. Jeff Sacktig is one of the greatest drill writers ever, so I don’t ask him to change his drill. I just rewrite the part."

George clarified that while the staff can pretty much clean anything, sometimes it just isn’t worth spending the time to make certain things work. "We always talk to the members about why we have to make changes. They know that it's not because they can't play it, but that it's just not working ensembly."

At the end of the day, Colin said it's about being selfless and giving the members the best vehicle possible. "I want to be a great example for our students, and our kids are selfless. They don’t get upset if they have to get up an hour earlier or stay up an hour later. I think that’s a big part of our success."

Colin's Approach

Colin also shared that he writes his music entirely by hand. "My eraser is still my best tool," he said.

"I don’t want to give our students Finale files with midis. I tell them, 'If you want to hear the chart, then learn the chart.' "

Once Colin gets the battery parts right, they are then lined up with the the brass and pit scores in Finale.


"When I'm writing a part, I think, 'What’s the musical line and how can I embellish it?' Especially with the Copland music this year, the melody is what's most interesting to me. We’re a very melodic drumline this year."

In response to a question about the balance of musicality and technicality, Colin said he primarily seeks to give Cadets drummers a book that’s fun to play and enjoyable and intruging to listen to.

"When you're writing, it's important to balance the musical presentation while showing off your players' technical abilities" Iain added. "You’re trying to put your best foot forward in both areas."


A listener asked: How are you going to top last year’s flams?

"More flams!" Colin said. "Watch the bassline. They have a lot of the flams this year."


He also said that the flam vocabulary of The Cadets Drumline has increased dramatically from player to player since they have been focusing on it more. "We have a rudiment sheet that every member is expected to learn," he said."

Tuning and Balance

Questions started coming in about The Cadets' approach to balance and tuning on the field:


"Whether you're tuning lower, higher, dryer or wetter, our philosophy is that every drum is tuned the same, and we teach our members to go for the quality of the best players," Colin said.

Ensemble Balance

"When I was marching, people would tell the pit not to listen to the brass, but with a corps like The Cadets, there’s excellence all over the field," Colin said. "The pit has been able to integrate not only with the battery, but with the brass ensemble as well, to round out our program. This is not something everyone is doing in marching band, but I think it’s definitely a valuable practice," he said.

Therefore, the drum major and drumline are taught to have great synergy. Then the brass listens back to the drumline, and the pit is with the brass.

George voiced another listener's question: I'm in the drumline, and our staff is always telling us never to listen to the pit. Is there any point when the drumline should listen to the pit?

"Yes," Colin said as they all laughed. "If you’re standing in front of the pit."

Battery Warm-up

George explained that The Cadets Hornline does not play their show music during the show warm-up because they can’t get into the complex listening environments inherent in the drill. Caption Head Gino Cipriani and George have come to agree that playing the music out of context can negatively impact balance on the field.

"We don't have that issue of mixed instrumentation, so we do play the show in warm-up," Colin said.

He explained that the battery's warm-up is about getting the members mentally and physically prepared to perform at the highest level. As the season goes on, the focus shifts more and more towards mental preparation, thanks to muscle memory.


"Last year, we ran our show in three parts," Colin said. "And we just do it once so they get used to performing it one time. For feature moments like drum solos, we do take a little time to get into the drill in the lot, but more often than not, they’re standing in an exposed line so that we can hear each player."

Admittedly, it's impossible to duplicate the listening environment on the field. "Warm-up is really more of a meditative ritual than anything," Colin added. "And that’s a very important part of performance psychology."

Thanks to everyone who tuned in to last night's video conference. If you have a question that went unanswered on the call, submit it for Ask Me Monday!

If you missed the talk, tune in on Tues., April 8 for a special video conference with Bruno Zuccala and George Hopkins .


Click here to read about each webinar.

Sign up to listen here, and you will receive an e-mail reminder inviting you to the call on Tuesday.


All active news articles