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In marching drum lines, like Blue Devils, it's common that there are some tenor drum players with 4-6 drums, but the snare players only have 1 drum. To me, that seems like a waste. Sure, more drums/frets/strings/keys is not always a good thing since it can make playing difficult, and in a marching setting it increases the weight. But I still find it a bit strange that the snare players only have one drum.

I know that on a regular drum kit, there's only one snare and several toms (plus kick and cymbals), but there it's one drummer that plays everything.

Note, I'm not asking why the snare players only have one snare. I'm asking why there is a role that only has a snare. It could have been a role with one snare and one or two toms for instance. Or two or three snares.

Is there any explanation to this?

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    I'm not sure that negates anything I said.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 3 at 13:02
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    @Tetsujin Because I'm not asking why the snare player don't have more snares. I'm asking why there's a role that only has a snare. The "snare player" could have other drums than a snare as an addition.
    – klutt
    Jan 3 at 13:05
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    @Tetsujin You could ask that, but I think the answer is pretty obvious. To be able to play different sounds. :)
    – klutt
    Jan 3 at 14:42
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    @Tetsujin Well if you're truly curious about that question, you could ask a question just like I did. But it's not the same question as my question.
    – klutt
    Jan 3 at 14:50
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    I'm out of my depth, but I have some guesses. 1) Because snare parts are more active. There's enough to keep a snare player busy on just one drum. 2) Because toms are "pitched" (don't believe me, ask Phil Collins.) Sure, snares of different sizes have different tones, but it's a much more diffuse sound, much less pitched. Jan 3 at 15:09

3 Answers 3

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I'm not a percussion player. Hopefully you get an answer from an experienced percussionist or band director.

My first thought was along the lines of Andy Bonner's comment: the snare drum may get the most important parts and so responsibility for just the single drum might help the player's focus on their part.

More specifically, I think the ensemble treatment is different when comparing a trap kit with percussion band. At the risk of oversimplifying, it isn't that hard to coordinate hitting the snare on the back beat for a rock beat on a trap kit. When fills are played, even moving all over the kit, the snare tends to drop out or strokes alternate between snare and the other drums.

But in a percussion ensemble it's often different. There can be really active snare parts, where the strokes are alternating on the one snare. If that snare player had to simultaneously play accents, counterrhythms, etc. on other drums, it becomes too much for one player.

Basically, it's two different kinds of playing for the snare. The drum kit has a lot of drums, but it's not really used the way percussion ensembles use multiple drums/drummers.

Compare a trap kit beat...

enter image description here

...to an ensemble...

enter image description here

It's not that the first one, the trap kit beat is easy, but you might say it's economical. It gets a lot done with only a little bit of unison playing. One person can do it. But the second one, there's just too much unison stuff. (I think unison is the correct term in percussion, when one or more hits happen simultaneously.) One person can't play that ensemble piece. The snare player would not be able to take on additionally even one of the other parts.

Following @Edward's suggestion I found a transcription of some Blue Devils music...

enter image description here

...like I said, I'm not a percussionist so I can't really say about the difficulty, but there are indications for strokes. That transcription is from a YouTube video.

Apropos of nothing, I really wish the NFL had drum lines or marching bands playing during breaks.

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    DCI parts are even more complicated than the example you give. Since the asker mentioned the Blue Devils, maybe a bit from one of their shows would really help to show your point.
    – Edward
    Jan 27 at 23:06
  • @Edward, I found something to add, I hope it shows that complexity. Jan 28 at 15:01
  • Ironically, the Blue Devils transcription example you posted has 16th-note triplets for a lower drum part, each stroke alternating between different drums. This likely weakens your case, as the fastest any other drum part gets is a flam into 16th-note triplets.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 28 at 15:02
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Quite simplistically, I would say that this is just the way things evolved over time.

It helps to check the history of the instrument, to understand what it was used for, and how. The snare drum came from the east and seems to always have been used for military purposes. Since the military was mobile, it would not have been practical to carry a drumset or 6 drums around, like they do in the drum corps. I find the key piece of information to be this:

The style of military music developed by the Swiss drummers of the day remains unique to that tradition, while having influenced marching musicians and rudimental-style drummers in Europe and elsewhere.

Prior to a drum, the percussionists played tabor and pipe, which were played with one hand. The drum, however, was played with two hands and this evolved into the modern snare drum.

See more at the History of the Snare Drum: Eight Centuries of Innovation & Ingenuity.

I'm not sure if this answers your question, which is directly related to how the snare is played at today's Drum Corps, but it does provide a historical perspective to it.

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It would be pretty difficult to execute a drum roll on a regular drum without the snare drum tied to the body in a prominent playing position making noises. That is different with drums on separate stands. In a drum kit, snare drums get placed on separate stands while tomtoms can share a mount.

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