Fife & Drum Corps: Old Uniforms, Modern Mission

By Michael Lewis
NCO Journal

News story photo
Photo credit: Eboni Everson-Myart
The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) Fife and Drum Corps performs in the “Spirit of America” show in North Charleston, S.C.
Of all the Army Bands, none is quite like The Old Guard’s Fife and Drum Corps. Like a time warp on the White House lawn, the sight of two dozen fife, bugle and drum players wearing Continental Army uniforms and wigs is a spectacle that harkens back to the earliest days of the American Soldier.

But behind the music is a unit that likely houses the highest concentration of advanced degrees held by NCOs in the entire Army and whose physical demands require special training sought out by others in the corps’ parent unit, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard).

Based a stone’s throw from the Pentagon, at Joint Base Myer- Henderson Hall, Va., the 70 bandsmen of the Fife and Drum Corps — 69 NCOs and their commander, a warrant officer — are unique in many ways. Recruits must audition to join them, newbies rise from basic training to staff sergeant in about six months, and once in, they rarely leave the unit before a decade or two of service.

Though in “colonials” when performing, their usual uniform is the same Army Combat Uniform every other Soldier wears, and the stripes of their rank insignia still indicate a tactically and technically proficient NCO, said Sgt. Maj. Gregory Rock, the corps’ sergeant major for the past nine years.

“Nobody else in any of the armed forces does what we do,” Rock said. “We maintain a tradition, we maintain a heritage — not only for the military, but for the country.”

That heritage is based on the vital role of the fifer and drummer during the American Revolution. They were the commander’s primary means of communication to his troops amid the commotion of the battlefield.

“They didn’t have radios,” Rock said. “So the fifer and the drummer were usually close to the commander, and when the commander said, ‘Right flank,’ they’d have a call and a drum beat for it.”

The din of battle was no match for the high-pitch sound of a fife, which can be heard up to two miles away, he said. “When we go to elementary schools and try to explain this to them, we have a demonstration: We tell them to scream as loud as they can, and as soon as they hear the fife, to stop screaming. They start screaming; but once we play the fife, it cuts right through.”

Other field instruments, like the bugle and drum, were also used throughout the Army’s history to sound charges and signal battle movements.

“Some cavalry units in Europe even used big timpani and kettle drums on horseback,” Rock said.

And when not in battle, the fifer and drummer helped buoy spirits by entertaining troops in the camp.

Today, the Fife and Drum Corps fulfills a similar mission, entertaining across the country, marching during ceremonies, and playing at the White House whenever dignitaries arrive — a total of 300 to 500 performances a year. And each one must be perfect, said Master Sgt. Russell Smith, the corps’ bugle group leader, who has been with the unit for 17 years.

“A standard test, if you get a few wrong, you’ll get a 90 or a 95 on it; that’s an A,” Smith said. “In our organization, sometimes you’re on the White House lawn. If you miss 5 percent of your notes, people are going to hear 5 percent of missed notes. And if you’re out of step out there with 26 other people — in front of CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News, the pope and the queen of England — and you miss 5 percent of your steps, people are going to notice. If everybody in the group misses 5 percent, then it’s 100 percent failure.” “We have to maintain that standard,” Rock said. “That’s what we’re known for — our precision, our musicality, our performance. Without that, we don’t have an identity.”

The corps thusly seeks the top instrumentalists in the country, most of whom have college degrees in music, Rock said. “Right now in the unit, we have four doctors of musical arts, about 27 with master’s degrees and 23 with bachelor’s degrees. And two more are about to finish their D.M.A.,” he said. “We don’t require a degree, but the level of performance and ability almost dictates that you have some sort of further education.”

But because of the corps’ special repertoire,even those with doctorates require specialized training once they arrive. “Most of our D.M.A.s are in trumpet or flute performance, not fife and drum,” Rock said. “In essence, when we hire somebody, we hire them on their potential and their ability to do what we do. Here, if you’re a trumpet player, you’re going to have to learn how to play the bugle we play, which is similar but different than the trumpet. Same thing with the flute and the fife. We also teach them how to march like we do. No one marches like we do.”

Joining the corps

The corps only auditions for slots when one is open, and only a handful open up each year. Once selected, potential corps members head to basic training, and then to the corps’ own specialized version of Advanced Individual Training at its headquarters.

“We have a four- to six-month period, depending on the individual, to go through that phased training,” Rock said. “Upon completion of that, they appear before a board, and if they pass the board, we promote them to staff sergeant.”

Though extraordinarily quick, the rank is indicative of their specialized training, said Staff Sgt. Scott Jamison, the NCO in charge of the corps’ drum shop.

“That’s part of the reason we become NCOs so relatively fast,” he said. “We have a background before entering the Army of years of training to do what it is we do. Without that time we put in the practice room or on the field, we would not be able to do that. So the Army takes that into consideration.”

“And of course, you’re dealing with musicians who, on the whole, have greater discipline,” Rock said. “Anyone who has gone to college has had to have practiced discipline — starting something and finishing something and understanding processes.”

Once corps members, they are expected to remain proficient in their musical ability as well as their physical fitness. Apropos of their being a part of the nation’s oldest infantry regiment, the fifers and drummers of the corps are on their feet constantly, spending hours standing during ceremonies. As odd as it may initially sound, that requires special training.

“We have a standing endurance test, because we’re on the marks for a long time and we don’t move,” Rock said. “That’s more than a physical ability, that’s a mental discipline as well. So we’ve had to implement that into our training program.

“The Old Guard has used some of our endurance testing procedures — how we do the training itself and how we validate it — for the Continental Color Guard, for example,” Rock said. “Those guys, more than us, cannot fall out. You can’t have a guy carrying the national colors in front of the president of the United States fall out. It’s not an option.”

“A lot of people who are going to be reading this are going to be saying, ‘Standing in a ceremony? That’s not a big deal,’” Smith said. “But this ceremony we’re going to do on Friday, it’s going to be the better part of an hour and a half of just standing there at modified attention or parade rest. It’s still not moving a muscle. If you do that for 20 years, it does start to take a toll on you.”

Another occupational hazard can be the corps’ ceremonial uniforms — colonial- style wigs styled by the musicians themselves and wool reproductions of what was worn by Gen. George Washington’s fife guards. In both the steamy summers and snowy winters of Washington, D.C., they can be uncomfortable. They can be uncomfortable for another reason, Rock explained.

“Our parent infantry unit is the Commander in Chief ’s Guard — A Company,” he said. “They wear blue coats with red facings. Musicians traditionally wore the opposite so that the commander could easily grab them in the confusion and smoke of battle and get a signal out to the troops. It was also considered proper battlefield etiquette not to shoot the musician — though a lot of times it happened anyway.

“So because of our uniforms’ color, we get called ‘redcoats’ a lot,” Rock said. “We’ve been on parades before and had things thrown at us because people thought we were British. We did a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston a couple of years ago and had toilet paper thrown at us because we were ‘British.’ Not many people know that musicians wore the opposite color.”

Being an NCO in the corps

Amid the long hours practicing, performing, preparing their uniforms and instruments, and traveling to shows all over the country, the corps’ musicians must also attend to the same duties and responsibilities as any other NCO: showing what right looks like and taking care of Soldiers.

“Regardless of your [military occupational specialty], you quickly find out when you are put in a position of leadership that accomplishing the mission and taking care of Soldiers is serious business,” Smith said. “Regardless of MOS, that is an NCO’s job. One of the facets of our job is to tell the history of the Army. But we also represent a high level of standards — the way we march, the way we play, the way we wear our uniforms.”

And even with a near-constant schedule of traveling, there are many opportunities to counsel and develop Soldiers, said Sgt. 1st Class Melissa Dyer, a fife section leader who has been with the corps for 14 years. “We spend a lot of time together, so a lot of that mentoring happens on the road, on the bus, on the plane — on accident, really,” Dyer said. “Because it is such an incredibly educated group of people, they want to get better, they want to be smarter, they want to read the books, they want to do the work.

“You’re not going to pin on the stripes and know what to do,” she said. “You’re going to have to work at it.” “It’s straight from the NCO Creed: ‘Competency is my watchword,’” Smith said. “You really learn that here. It really doesn’t matter what MOS you are in, once you’re in the spot of having to make something happen, having to make sure that people can do it in the most effective way and really taking ownership of that, that’s applicable to all leaders across the Army.”

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