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What Is a Fife and Drum Corps?

A Fife and Drum Corps is a traditional ensemble steeped in military history, combining the high-pitched wind instrument, the fife, with the rhythmic beats of drums. These corps often perform in historical reenactments and patriotic events, evoking the spirit of bygone eras. Discover how this musical tradition continues to resonate with audiences today—what will you feel when you hear their stirring call?
Lori Kilchermann
Lori Kilchermann

A fife and drum corps is a musical military unit consisting of a fife, a type of flute, and a snare drum in most cases. This unit is commonly used to signal battlefield formations, advances, and attacks, as well as to provide music for the troops as they march. It was common in the early military units to have a unit consisting of two fifes and two drummers for each company of at least 100 soldiers. They provided entertainment for the troops by joining ranks and leading the march, while playing motivational music as well as hometown favorites to build up the marching troops' spirits.

A fife is a woodwind instrument that typically has six sound holes, although some versions may have 10 or 11 for added sound. It's commonly made from hardwood, but some are made of metal. The type of drum used in the classical fife and drum corps is called a rope tension snare drum. There can also be limited use of a bass drum in the modern units; however, this drum is typically used only in shows where the drummers remain stationary. The unit commonly plays only that music which is written especially for this type of musical group.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Early American fife and drum corps competitions and performances were focused on the Revolutionary War period of dress. Tricorn hats, waist coats, and knickers were the period-correct style of uniform worn by the players as they mimicked the uniforms worn by the soldiers of that era. One of the oldest symbols in America depicting the fife and drum players is that of a trio of wounded men, one with a fife, one with a drum, and the other with a flag, marching as they played. This same trio has also been depicted marching in American Civil War garb.

Modern fife and drum competitions in the U.S. typically include both Revolutionary War and Civil War uniforms, with more frequent use of the Civil War-type clothing being displayed. Some Civil War re-enactment groups include the unit in the engagement, adding a sense of reality to the battle scenes. Some claims have the drum and fife players at the battle of Stones River in Tennessee holding the original Battle of the Bands®. Camped on opposite sides of the river, the band from the North and the band from the South played increasingly louder during the night before to the battle in an effort to motivate the troops.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a fife and drum corps?

A fife and drum corps is a musical ensemble that consists of fifes, which are small, high-pitched, transverse aerophones, and drums, typically snare and bass drums. This type of ensemble has historical roots in military traditions, often used to provide music for marching and signals during battle. Today, fife and drum corps perform in parades, historical reenactments, and competitive events, preserving the musical traditions that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

How did fife and drum corps originate?

Fife and drum corps originated in Europe during the Renaissance period. They were an integral part of military life, providing marching music and battlefield signals. The tradition was brought to America by European settlers, where it became especially prominent during the Revolutionary War. According to historical records, every regiment in the Continental Army had its own fife and drum corps to communicate orders and boost morale.

What kind of music do fife and drum corps play?

Fife and drum corps typically play a variety of music that includes traditional military marches, period-specific tunes, and sometimes arrangements of popular songs. The repertoire is often reflective of the historical period the corps represents, with many groups focusing on music from the 18th and 19th centuries. The music is characterized by its crisp, rhythmic drumming patterns and the piercing melody of the fife.

Are there different styles of fife and drum corps?

Yes, there are different styles of fife and drum corps, often influenced by geographical regions and historical periods. For example, the Ancient style, prevalent in the northeastern United States, emphasizes a traditional approach with rope-tensioned drums and wooden fifes. The style is closely associated with the music of the American Revolutionary War. Other styles may include more modern instruments and arrangements, adapting to contemporary musical influences while maintaining the core elements of fife and drum music.

How can someone join a fife and drum corps?

Joining a fife and drum corps typically involves reaching out to a local group and expressing interest in participating. Many corps welcome new members and provide training for those who are new to the instruments. Some groups have age requirements or may be part of historical societies or reenactment organizations. Interested individuals should look for corps in their area and attend performances or open practices to learn more about the group's membership process.

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