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The fife and drum corps: passing the torch to the next generation of musicians.


THE U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps plays an active role in telling America's story. It's through its uniqueness that it is able to pass on a passion for music and history that its members say inspires and teaches the next generation.

As an element of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard," the Army's oldest active-duty infantry regiment, The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is one of the Army's four special bands. Its 69 Soldier-musicians serve as goodwill ambassadors for the Army, performing at more than 500 events each year. From playing for the president and honored guests on the South Lawn of the White House to performances in Hometown USA, the Corps has become a national icon, reaching millions of spectators annually.

The uniforms the Corps' Soldiers wear represent those worn by Gen. George Washington's Continental Army, and their interactions with the public bring that history to life.

"Playing at elementary schools allows the Fife and Drum Corps a great opportunity to reach today's youth," explained Staff Sgt. Rebecca Davidson, fife instrumentalist. "It's a thrill to not only see their faces light up when we start playing but to leave knowing you truly taught them a piece of American history. It's always the question-and-answer session we do after a show that gets the kids really excited."

The Corps' musicians said the goal of a performance is to keep the audience engaged and excited, and they whole-heartedly embrace that challenge. Corps members, who play on handmade rope-tensioned drums, 10-hole wooden fifes and single-valve bugles, maintain bonds with their young fans long after a performance.

"Over the years, we've received hundreds of pieces of fan mail from children we've played for. We like to think we ignite their love of history at an early age," said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Huddleston, U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps Drum Major. "It's a Corps member favorite to go through these letters and write them back. It's an interaction and experience you don't see anywhere else in the Army."


With a strong following in the New England and Midwest regions, fifing and drumming is a vibrant pastime for today's youth with hundreds of corps throughout the country. Through direct interactions with these civilian groups, the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is able to do something no other military band can: truly immerse themselves in a genre.

"Growing up with a daughter in the tradition of fifing and drumming was fantastic. As a father, something that really touched me was watching her face when she saw the Old Guard perform in our hometown," said David Arns, a Midwest fife and drum corps parent. "She looked at them as the rock stars of the fife and drum world."

The Corps' strong outreach program is at the heart of Soldier-young musician relationships. Through dedicated events and appearances such as the annual Old Guard Juniors' Workshop, the Soldier-to-youth interaction is further fostered. In 2010, the Corps hosted its sixth such event.

To commemorate its 50th anniversary, Corps alumni and current members volunteered to teach and mentor workshop participants. The workshop is a unique event within the Army, and currently one of only a handful of events designed specifically for the nation's younger generation.

The Corps' Education Outreach coordinator, Staff Sgt. Jay Martin, explained: "Our goal here in the Corps is to continue what we've done, what we're doing and foremost, what we're going to do, so we can push further ahead in our outreach to today's youth. When you start such a groundbreaking event like our Juniors' Workshop, it's up to you to make sure it continues to grow."

Held on historic Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., just across the Potomac River from the nation's capital, the weekend-long camp brings together more than 100 young musicians from across the United States. The days are filled with a wide array of classes ranging from music composition, marching basics and even a sneak peak into the life of other Old Guard elements. According to the participants, everyone has a great time.


Soldiers from the Fife and Drum Corps are there to teach classes and shuttle students between events throughout the day. Members take participants under their wings and make sure their weekend runs smoothly. Soldiers explained that it's this close interaction that fosters an environment where each child wants to learn.

"The Juniors' Workshop is the highlight of my year. Obviously you leave the weekend with a bunch of musical advice, but the best part is the experiences and (the) friendships you form with Old Guard members," Patrick McHale, a 2010 Old Guard Juniors' Workshop participant, said. "It's like having an older sibling you can really look up to."


As Soldiers welcomed the participants, the Corps building's halls bustled with excited chatter about what the weekend's activities would hold. The workshop provides many kids with the opportunity to meet with old friends and quickly make new ones.

"Since I became a member of the Fife and Drum Corps, to experience the Juniors' Workshop and to see all of the kids running around, seeing their friends and saying hello to our Soldiers, never gets old. Some of them have been attending the workshop since it started, and it's so moving to see their progress," said Staff Sgt. Kara Loyal, a fife instrumentalist. "More importantly, you soon realize you've made lifelong friends out of the students you teach--there's no greater event for everyone to build camaraderie."

The capstone of the weekend, and something that lies within the core of the fife-and-drum world, was the jam session. Participants agreed that was the moment they waited for all weekend--an opportunity to play with the Soldiers of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. There's no rhyme or reason to how it's pieced together--the beauty lies in the simplicity and spontaneity of the session, participants said. The concept: Musicians gather en masse, someone starts a song and the entire collective joins in. The jam session showcased the efforts of both the Soldiers and their students. Brought together by music and a common thread of patriotism, the young musicians joined the ranks of the next generation to carry on this American legacy.

"As keepers of the flame, we not only chronicle the legacy of military music, but we also look to the horizon to ensure the art form continues," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Frederick Ellwein, U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps commander. "It's about inspiring the future leaders of our nation through the interaction with today's Soldiers."

Staff Sgt. Alexander Borisov is a fifer and the public affairs noncommissioned officer in charge with the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
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Author:Borisov, Alexander
Publication:Soldiers Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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