The decision on the theme of the group is a big one. It will drive your entire Marketing strategy, as it answers the simple question “Who are you?”. Ensuring that there is clarity around the group identity is critical, and getting it wrong will cause disharmony in the image you project.
In years past it was enough to simply categorize a fife and drum corps as either “Ancient” or “Modern”. With the demise of the “Modern” classification, and a somewhat less articulated “Ancient” approach, it is necessary to look at the themes a group can adopt a little differently.
In general, a group can adopt one of three types of themes:
Historical - Based on a specific time period
Role Specific - Based on a function provided by the unit
Musical - Based on a specific body of music
Of course, it is certainly common to combine multiple themes. Let’s explore these themes a little more deeply.
Historical themes place the group in a specific time period (e.g. Colonial era, War of 1812, Civil War, etc.) and generally incorporate music selections, uniforms, and drill associated with the selected time period. Groups who take this seriously can figuratively transport their audience back in time.
This approach can be very challenging to pull off if you intend to stay “in period”. It requires dedicated research, training, and a fairly significant investment. By definition, nearly all reenactment groups fall into this category, but there are some dedicated Fife and Drum corps who meet this criteria as well.
Examples of groups that exemplify historical themes very well are:
15th Massachusetts Regiment, also known as the Captain James Buxton Fife and Drum Corps - This unit has several impressions they portray - from Revolutionary War, to the War of 1812, to the American Civil War. In each impression the group maintains strict adherence to period appropriate dress and music.
41st Regiment of Foot Fife and Drum Corps - Plays traditional music from the War of 1812 in historic Fort George
The success of these groups in portraying historically accurate ensembles lies in their passion and dedication to the research needed to produce period-specific impression.
Some decisions around the theme of the group are driven by the role the group plays. Ceremonial ensembles often fall into this category.
Examples of groups that exemplify Location/Role Specific themes very well are:
The Kentish Guards Rhode Island Militia - Still attached to a functional part of the Rhode Island National Guard
The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps - Official Ceremonial Unit and Escort the the President of the United States.
The requirements of the role can often have a higher priority than the historical or musical elements that these groups also portray. The theme and general deportment of the group are almost always influenced outside of the fife and drum corps context, as the musical group is part of a larger more comprehensive organization.
Musical themes are by far the broadest category. Most “Ancient” fife and drum corps come from a theme that is neither linked with a specific time period or function, and exist solely to provide a source of local entertainment for their community and themselves. Groups in this category play from a wide variety of music, and can range from traditional to fairly modern.
Examples of groups in this category:
The Stony Creek Fife and Drum Corps - Much of Stony Creek’s tune lists dates back to its inception in 1886 this group plays a great deal of American Martial and Patriotic music.
The Connecticut Patriots - The focus here is on musical excellence and precision. While the Patriots draw from a wide variety of tune sources they are not constrained in their arrangements by any historical requirements.
It is not uncommon for groups in this category to have uniforms “influenced” by a specific period, but they feel no requirement to conform to historical norms, save those that may have arisen in their corps.
Uniforms should be selected that reinforce the chosen theme of the group. Try and be as consistent as you can within the selected theme to ensure that your group projects the intended image.
When Themes Collide
It is entirely common within the fife and drum community to mix themes at some level. This is neither bad or good, but it should be a conscious choice made by the membership (rather than flawed historical interpretation). In general, the more subtle the mixing of themes the more successful it is.
The most common mixing of themes comes when a uniform selection hints at an earlier period, but the music may be from an entirely different time period. The Ancient Mariners pair a historical seafaring theme with “Ancient Music” of relatively recent construct quite successfully.
As conflicts between themes become more exaggerated it is more likely to cause confusion for the audience. It is not uncommon on the muster field to see a stylized “colonial-inspired” uniform paired with modern sunglasses, and we generally accept this. When that same individual is decked out in a full period-correct 18th century wig, cocked hat, and hand sewn clothing the visual dissonance caused by the same modern sunglasses is noticeable by almost everyone. Try and limit this conflict where possible, as it muddies your identity (unless that is your intent).
That said, a mixing of themes is almost inevitable when the role of a group requires them to step outside their general historical impression to serve a specific function. For example, despite wearing 18th century uniforms (complete with reversed musician colors) the Old Guard carries drums emblazoned with contemporary battle streamers. Given their role, this is wholly appropriate for them to do so.
There are also times when the juxtaposition between themes can bring humor to a performance. The performance of the music of Star Wars by Americlique, a Basel-style drum and piccolo group is a good example. This worked well because the audience knew what they could expect from the group and got something different. If the audience did not have the same understanding of the group's repertoire it may not have been quite as funny to them. This approach is best used in a controlled environment so that your brand image is not confusing.
Take some time to ask yourself if the theme you have chosen for the group comes across clearly to the audience, and what conflicts you may have created in the visual and musical spectrum that could impact their willingness to join your group or hire you to perform.