Does Rudimental Drumming Matter?

Like proponents of all "well-defined" genres and idioms, "rudimental drumming" advocates often see their activity attacked as philosophically unsound or musically irrelevant because they are unable to offer a bulletproof definition of the activity. Those who would find fault with the activity's proponents, in other words, attempt to exploit tiny loopholes in the definitions of "rudimental drumming" that we offer.

The friction we're talking about is the long-simmering disagreement between two camps of the band and drum corps activity, but most keenly articulated among the activities' most talented drummers, which are concentrated mainly in the drum corps community. It goes something like this: "Rudimental drumming is limiting. It's brutish, antiquated, non-musical, and cannot express the subtlety and musicality which today's corps strive to produce," say the concert proponents. "Hogwash," say the rudimentalists. "The concert style is simply a watered-down version of rudimental drumming, an outgrowth. It's valuable and beautiful in its own way, but it's an outgrowth nonetheless. It doesn't challenge the player or display the skills traditionally required of percussionists."

You've seen this before: in the nit-picking between sports car-enthusiasts, fashion plates, Coke and Pepsi drinkers, Apple and PC users. Is the Camaro a "true" sports car? Were Versace's clothes vulgar? Why do I drag a file to the trash to delete it, but drag a disk to the trash to eject it?

The problem is, the nit-picking we hear from those who would disparage rudimental drumming cannot be dismissed as simply a matter of taste or strictly a matter of opinion. They either don't get it, or they get it but don't want to admit that they're on the wrong side of the discussion. Both variations of the same position will be dealt with in this essay.

Of course, I can't claim to speak for anyone but myself, but I believe I capture the spirit of the rudimental proponent's argument when I say that rudimental drumming is the purest, highest form of the art of percussion because its execution requires a command of the most fundamental elements of the form - thus the term "rudimental."

The rudiments, found elsewhere on this site, are a collection of rhythm patterns derived from the various combinations of the most basic elements of drumming: striking a drum with sticks held in the left and right hands. The most basic rudiment, as you'll see, is a single-stroke roll, which is simply the pattern of single strokes created by alternately striking the drum with the right and left sticks. The rest of the rudiments are all variations and combinations of single, double, and triple stroke patterns. Notice that they are all symmetrical - a characteristic derived, naturally enough, from the symmetrical nature of the human body's hands and arms.

At its core, this is rudimental drumming. That's it. No embellishments, no frills. Just pure rhythms and patterns.

It is an art form. But like any art form, it is of course much more than the raw elements which define it. The pure, clean, simple patterns of the rudiments are to the work of the great rudimental drummers what pigments, oil, brush, and canvas are to Leonardo and Van Gogh. Anyone can buy paints and a canvas; likewise, anyone can buy drumsticks and a sheet of the rudiments. It is, of course, what one does with one's tools that makes it clear that, from the raw elements of the form, art can be produced.

In the sixties, seventies, and early eighties, rudimental drumming reached it peak in the American drum corps activity. Thousands of drummers filled the ranks of corps like the Garfield Cadets, the Bayonne Bridgemen, and the Blue Devils. Each corps's style, rooted in the same fundamentals but as different as could be on the field, displayed the range which rudimental drumming is able to express: at Garfield, that of the elegant, grand, and classical; in Concord, the smooth but powerful jazz and swing style; in Bayonne, the wildly entertaining, anything-goes antics of mischief and
irreverence. But all these corps, and all the others that emulated them and filled in the subtle stylistic gaps, fielded batteries which had one thing in common: a potent display of power, precision, and rudimental risk-taking.

That is what is missing from most - some would say all - of today's corps lines. It is missing because those who make the decisions about what charts to play - and how to water them down - are anti-rudimental in their percussion philosophies.

In response to questions from our camp, such as "Where are the displays of rudimental command? Where are the displays of the players' chops? Why do you insist on 32 counts of buzz rolls followed by 16 tacet bars? Why do your snares priss around the field for the entire show instead of playing their drums?" we hear this: "Go back to the parking lot, you bunch of neanderthals! Rudimental drumming is a thing of the past. What people want today is musicality, not guys with huge forearms pounding on Mylar!"

And of course, this misses the point. As I mentioned earlier, these people either don't get it, or they get it but don't want to admit they're on the wrong side of the discussion.

For those who don't get it, this is what they don't get: there are not two philosophies of percussion, rudimental and concert. Concert-style percussion is a subset, an outgrowth of rudimental percussion. One develops and refines the nuance and restraint of concert-style percussion only after mastering the fundamentals of grip, technique, and rudiments. Without a solid command of the rudiments, and the ability to command them with power and precision, a drummer who claims to adhere to the "concert" style is a hack. He is a hack for the same reason that the heavy-metal guitarists, grinding away in front of his amps and twenty-foot high speakers, is a hack. Les Paul, for example, can do Slash of Guns N Roses if he so desires. Slash, needless to say, cannot do Les Paul. To return to the painting metaphor, it is why Keith Haring was a hack, and Van Gogh was not. Ask Van Gogh to do Haring's silly little round-headed people, then ask Haring to do "Starry Night."

The hard truth for the concert camp is this: the accomplished rudimental drummer can play any "concert" passage with ease and grace; the accomplished "concert" percussionist wilts in the heat of rudimental demand.

For the other part of the "concert" camp - those who get it but don't admit it - this is what they won't admit: that, in terms of competition - once and still the center of drum corps activity - adherence to concert-style percussion at the expense of rudimental percussion is a cop-out, a compromise that seeks to justify itself with claims of civility and "musicality." If you are now or have ever been tempted to think this way, listen up: this is an excuse, a sham. It is an exercise in "feel-good" baloney, meant to pump up the self-esteem of tender young drummers who, rightly, know that "mastering" concert-style percussion is a snap when compared to mastering the rudimental technique. This is not unique to drum corps, however. Virtually all aspects of American society today are under siege from the feel-good wimps - from high-school English classes to corporate America. Far more important, they will tell you, that everyone feels good about their "accomplishments," that high self-esteem is better than high standards.

Problem is, as we define "accomplishments" downward, we devalue the worth of the activities we engage in and the rewards for those excelling at them. Drum-corps scoring is the reductio ad absurdum of the feel-good siege: does anyone really believe that today's top-scoring corps are just a few tenths away from perfection, especially when compared to their legendary predecessors' low- and mid-nineties scores? The implication is not only that today's corps are far and away better than those of the late seventies and early eighties, but that there is precious little room for improvement, and for that matter, improvement is there for the taking as long as you feel good about your performance. Just think: a few counselors and Prozac for everyone before a show, and - voila! - perfection!

Rudimental percussion is superior in the realm of competitive activity because it is centered around a common reference of standards: the rudiments. There is no doubt, for instance, what a paradiddle is. Either you play it correctly or you don't. This is not the case with the ubiquitous buzz-roll - there is infinite room for waffling on judgements of its quality. This is not to disparage the buzz roll, but it's not coincidence that the nature of the buzz mirrors the nature of today's scoring: formless, lacking definition, infinitely malleable. Where there is no definition, there can be no objective judgement of quality. And quality, presumably, is what we pursue in our activity.

Drum corps used to resemble baseball or auto racing: clearly-defined goals (scoring the most points or crossing the finish line first), and clear penalties for errors (the number under the "E" column at the end of every inning, or the rubber- and paint-smeared concrete wall in the turns). The winner was clear. There was beauty and purity in attaining victory.

Now, drum corps resembles the dreaded modern dance: no rules, just "interpretations." You can thank the elimination of the tick system for that. The state of the activity - dreadful - can be blamed on its inability to reconcile its essence - competition - with the face it puts on for the public - one that smiles blankly and denies that 10 guys executing a heavily flam- and drag-laden passage is any more difficult than 6 guys buzzing for a few counts and flitting off on their tiptoes to follow the guard in some demented "interpretation."