Band Director
Close this search box.

It’s All About the Heights!

by Byron J. Toups

Marching percussion ensembles spend hours upon hours in rehearsal each day to perfect their indoor or field show, with their main objective often being to PLAY CLEAN. Most adjudication criteria focuses on the “how” as opposed to the “what.” And we’ve all heard the statement, “it’s not what you play, but how you play it.” This means that our ensembles should focus on CLARITY, on playing together. Although our students want to be challenged with the toughest compound rudiments, as educators, we need to constantly stress the importance of clarity in performance. The key is finding the right balance, a challenging show that can be performed with clarity.

In my 20 years of teaching drumlines, I have noticed a growing trend in young players – a lack of height control. Individuals who can control their stick heights play with clarity and dynamic contrast. But most importantly, ensembles that can effectively match heights in performance will create a clean, musical performance with clarity, thus giving a more favorable performance. Marching percussion ensembles throughout the world utilize stick height systems to define accent/tap volumes and dynamic levels in music. Although these systems vary and may seem complicated at first, they are extremely important to creating a uniform look and sound from your ensemble.

LOOK? Now there’s a word I haven’t mentioned yet. Yes, the look of the ensemble is also important. And let’s face it; percussion is at least as much visual as it is aural for the average audience in terms of what they experience while at a performance. With this in mind, simply put, we want our drumline to have the appearance that all performers are hitting the drum from the same height. The same goes for the front ensemble. So defining the heights for the performers and demanding that these heights are consistent will increase both the visual and musical effect of your ensemble.

Let’s look at some height systems used throughout marching percussion. Some programs communicate dynamics to young performers using traditional musical terms such as forte, fortissimo, mezzo forte, and piano. These terms, although extremely educational for young musicians, do not clarify as much as the use of stick heights in inches. Many ensembles use stick heights in inches to define and clarify dynamics. One popular approach is the 3″ system. Here heights are clarified every three inches:
3″ 6″ 9″ 12″ 15″ 18″

One must understand that these measurements are not exact, but only used as a guide. I believe a more accurately measured approach is the 4″ system.

4″ low tap height or inner beat height piano p
8″ low accent/high tap height mezzo piano mp
12″ accent height mezzo forte mf
16″ high accent height forte f
20″ vertical stroke fortissimo ff

By utilizing one of these systems, an ensemble will perform with clarity, both musically and visually. These heights should be practiced daily in the warm-up. My ensembles rehearse tap/accent exercises at various heights. Instructors should never demand an ensemble perform a passage with 8 inch accents and 4 inch taps unless this concept is practiced in daily warm-ups and drills. I often observe ensembles warming-up at high dynamic levels and never low levels. These same ensembles either don’t play soft, or don’t play soft with much clarity. Front ensembles should practice scales, arpeggios, intervals, and other exercises at ALL dynamic levels or heights. This will increase the sections’ ability to play cleanly at these levels.

Dynamic shaping such as crescendos can also be added. Even 4-mallet exercises can be practiced at different dynamic/height levels. Drumlines should practice legato stroke exercises at all heights in addition to using different variations on tap/accent exercises. This will also keep the section on their toes, as it adds variation to the daily warm-up. My ensembles practice accent/tap exercises at 8 and 4. This means we play the accents at 8 inches and the taps at 4 inches. We also practice this at 12 and 4, 16 and 4, 20 and 4, 16 and 8, and 20 and 8. Drumlines can also practice crescendos and decrescendos from one height to another such as 4 inch to 20 inch crescendos. Have fun, create your own variations.

Young ensembles can modify these height systems to make them more achievable. Simply eliminate some of the heights as described here:

4″ low tap height or inner beat height piano p
12″ accent height mezzo forte mf
20″ vertical stroke, high accents fortissimo ff

This will simplify the process of creating consistent heights as we are only asking these performers to learn three heights. Most music in marching ensembles can be modified dynamically to make this simplified system work.

To get the maximum benefits from any of the aforementioned systems, each individual player must first master the heights. Individuals must practice consistent strokes of the same height, and then add accents and taps. After the individual performers have achieved comfort in these heights, the ensemble will begin to reap benefits of greater clarity. Instructors, directors and/or arrangers should then detail the musical score and parts so each performer will know what height each note in the show should be played. Some arrangers define and detail the score, while some instructors prefer to define each note of a phrase as the phrase is being taught. Another benefit to using a height system is the ability to quickly change the volumes of a phrase or section without losing clarity.

Although heights are not the only determining factor in a clean ensemble, it is one of the biggest. Rhythmic interpretation and a consistent stroke approach are others, but even an ensemble that uses a consistent stroke approach, striking the instrument at the same exact time, will not have clarity unless the performers play from the same height. So pick a height system, perfect these heights in warm-up exercises, and define each phrase in your show for clarity and a clean performance!

Byron J. Toups
Sponsored by Dynasty