Scottish Drum Major Resources
Tips for the Beginning DM

The rookie year is an educational one for DMs. All of the Mace Drill and flourishing manuals won't prepare you for the "real world" of parades and performances. Here are a few tips that might help as you master your role in front of your band.

The most important rule is to ask yourself whether an action will help your band. If what you are doing isn't making your band better or making their roles easier, then you should try something else.

A few tips --

  1. Learn the Music

    Essential for knowing when to cut off, knowing the music allows you to stay on the right foot, march to the beat, flourish during the forte sections, and otherwise lead the band while they are playing. While learning the pipe melodies is important, try to also learn the drum scores as the snares should help you pick up if you lose the tempo or your place in the tune.

  2. Communicate Clearly to the Band

    Band members don't know Mace Signals, so you need to spend time teaching them the basic signals. Keep signals broad and large so everyone can see them and keep them simple. While the horizontal mace turn signal is nice to look at, most band members respond better to simply gesturing with your right or left arm for wheels.

    Necessary commands are Right and Left Wheels, Mark Time, Halt, Forward and the Cut Off. If you march in for performances, you might add Form the Circle and the Reform commands.

    Band practice should include some marching practice. Try wheels at first without the music; progress to humming the tune, followed by turns with the pipes. Practice marching backwards so you can watch the band as they turn (or mark time, or come to a halt, etc). Diagrams drawn on paper can help band members figure out what should happen. And consider videotaping marching practice so you can review the films later.

  3. Communicate with the Pipe Major

    Ask your pipe major who is going to give the March Off and Cut Off commands, as some PMs prefer to retain control. My PM and I have some non-verbal cues we use for restarting in a stalled parade.

  4. Communicate with the Flag Corps

    If your band has a flag corps or Honor Guard, they should be in front of you. You are thus the link between the PM and the flags. When the band is playing, the flag corps cannot hear you, so the leader of the flag corps should turn and look at you from time to time. Develop hand signals to tell them when to increase or decrease pace and when to halt and restart. It's your job to help them stay 4 to 6 paces in front of you.

  5. You Shouldn't But You Need To

    The DM of a military band unit never turns around to look at the band. It is the band's responsibility to follow the DM.

    But in a civilian band, the marching is less disciplined. The band will increase and decrease pace and the only way to check is to turn your head and look from time to time. Admittedly when the music gets loud, they have undoubtedly gotten closer, but almost all DMs have had a band lag far behind them, at least once. While technically that is the band's fault, it really is your responsibility to keep the band in order. A quick look is all it takes and modify your pace accordingly.

    When you are marching but not playing, your lead drummer should be tapping out a cadence so everyone can stay in step.

    ALWAYS look behind you on both sides before you start to flourish!

  6. Ask Your Band About Stride

    The music controls the steps per minute and you can't do anything about that, other than to keep the tempo constant. But you can change the pace, the length of each step. Military bands use 30 inches for the pace, but most civilian bands use 20 to 24 inches. Ask your drummers what is comfortable for them as they have to battle carrying a drum while they march. Also, have a signal from the drummers if the pace is too long.

    Remember to decrease the pace when marching uphill. If a descent downhill is steep, you should shorten the pace then, as well.

  7. Defend Your Band

    Some parade organizers will put a pipe band at the front and then expect you to keep up with the Grand Marshall's car that is zipping down the parade route at 5 miles per hour. Numerous DMs have had parade officials come up and tell them to keep up.

    Don't listen to them! A pipe band marching a 21-inch pace at 80 bpm will travel at 1.5 mph (regimentlal bands with a 30-inch step and tempo of 105 bpm only do 3 mph and can't keep up with cars). Other walking groups will be thankful if you hold your pace. If the parade officials won't listen to reason that it is impossible to for a pipe band to lengthen the stride significantly, then your option is to drop out. Thankfully, these remonstrations are infrequent and you'll more likely get tired marking time. (My record is to have to mark time 5 steps after we stepped off during one parade.)

  8. Know the Parade Route

    Satellite maps available online are indispensable. Is there a railroad crossing? Are trains active during the parade time? Where is the review booth? Are you expected to salute the dignitaries? What will the band do at the end of the parade? Is there a place to fall out?

  9. Keep Your Kit Clean and Shined

    You are the first part of your band that a crowd sees. Wear your uniform well. Band members may get away with unshined ghillies, misaligned sporrans and glens, and dusty pipes. But all eyes are on you, so keep things shined, especially your mace.

  10. Drum Major is Gaelic for "Standing in Line"

    My band tunes and warms up in a shady spot while I hold our place in the parade line-up. When I get to the starting line, they join me and we march off. So my allies are a water bottle and good sunscreen as the staging area is almost always in full sun. Several kilt suppliers (1  2) sell water bottle "holsters" to wear on your kilt belt.

  11. Be Flexible and Be Loose

    My first major performance with my band, the PM missed my reform signal at the third bar of our exit music, thinking the signal would come in the third line. We almost didn't get marched out in time. In the same performance, I was so flustered by our flag corps mistakenly marching in front of the band as we prepared to countermarch during our extended entrance set that I almost forgot to signal the countermarch. And then I forgot we were in odd files, so I turned in place instead of to the side, only to come face-to-face with our music director on the turn.

    My next major performance was a Tartan Ball. Upon entering the dining hall, I had planned some quick flourishes knowing I would only have 12 steps before we had to turn toward the performance spot. Almost immediately, a lady backed her chair into my mace arc so I veered right only to find a gentleman trying to maneuver his walker into my path. As we finally turned, I saw that the organizers, at the last minute, had put a table where we planned to countermarch. My prep signal for the countermarch was abbreviated at best.

    Hardly anyone noticed either set of mess-ups but shows that you need to be flexible in your drill and flourish.

    The unexpected occurs more often than the expected, so I no longer try to rigidly choreograph the march-ins for performances, or tightly control flourishing and mace signals. The band will respond to impromptu preparatory signals as long as the final signal is clear and you lead them to what they need to do (my band is good at "Follow the leader").

    Don't get flustered, focus on leading, react calmly to the unexpected, always act like you meant to do what happened and don't worry about what the RDMA Mace manual says you should be doing in these moments. If you stay in control, the crowd won't notice, you won't distract your band, and things will work out if you focus on the next step. Remember, you are there to work around the unexpected so the PM and band don't have to worry about it.

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Drum Majors
Regimental DMs
Dress Faults

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The material on this page is Copyright D. Bruning 2020, 2023
updated: Feb 2023