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Drumming In The NFL

Samantha Landa  /  UPDATED Jul 25, 2023

While there are a few drumlines that hit the field in support of their home teams, there are only two official marching bands in the NFL: Baltimore’s Marching Ravens and the Washington Redskins Marching Band. With most people watching the games for, well, the game, these bands are the unsung heroes. They play a major role in creating the atmosphere at games, tasked with pumping up the crowd and motivating their teams.

As the Percussion Director of the Baltimore Marching Ravens, Jayson Hart-Smith leads the drumline, recruits and auditions prospective members, and writes halftime shows and 3rd quarter breaks – all while teaching and managing rehearsals and performances.

Read on to find out what a 10-hour Gameday looks like for the band, and why Jayson loves this gig so much.

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What does an average performance look like?

While games are only televised for three hours, Gamedays are a non-stop, 10-hour ride from start to finish for the musicians, administration, crew, and staff of Baltimore’s Marching Ravens.

8:00 am – We practice every Wednesday (and before every Gameday) in the field house at the beautiful Ravens Complex in Owings Mills, Maryland. Rehearsal typically starts five hours before game time. So for a Sunday 1:00 pm game time, we are playing our first notes and taking our first steps at 8:00 am sharp. After an hour-and-a-half rehearsal, we load our equipment on the buses with the help of our amazing equipment crew (led by Nick Rossi), change into our uniforms, and grab our lunches for the ride to the stadium.

11:00 am – The buses park at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles. We unload and get in a quick warm up before lining up for our first performance of the day. We march over to the bottom of Eutaw Street while the drumline plays our cadence, and set our pregame concert. We perform there for about 40 minutes and get our first rush of the day. The concert location is next to a heavy foot traffic area for people heading to the game. In combination with our high energy and talented musicians, we are able to draw a crowd of not only Ravens fans but opposing teams as well. Each member works hard to pour their heart and soul into every song, so to see the crowd grow and start to groove, it lets us know it’s going to be a great day.

12:00 pm – We line back up and start our parade down Ravens Walk – a connecting path packed with screaming fans – to M&T Bank Stadium. We march for about 100 yards and that brings us to the second rush of the day, performing “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes for hundreds of fans beneath the overpass along Ravens Walk. Because there are a lot of vendors and 98 Rock is broadcasting a pregame show, there is a huge crowd of fans gathered in a small area. If you don’t get goosebumps from standing underneath the bridge chanting “Seven Nation Army” with hundreds of people, you don’t have a pulse.

Next, we hit the crowd with the Ravens Chant and Fight Song, continuing our way to the M&T Bank Stadium. We pass by the statues of the two greatest Baltimore Football legends, Johnny Unitas and Ray Lewis. Then we march our way around the stadium and head underground to get ready for our third rush of the day, performing our pregame show on the field 20 minutes before kickoff for a stadium full of people. Having over 70,000 fans surround you, screaming and cheering as you perform with 153 of your closest friends, is the most unreal feeling and one of the hardest things I’ve had to describe in my life. To be able to do it for all 10 or more home games a year is a dream come true.

From there, the band heads to their seats which are literally still on the field, tucked in the corner next to the tunnel behind the visitor’s bench. But the drumline heads to the home tunnel for the fourth rush, playing for the Baltimore Ravens’ player introductions. We start playing a simple and quiet 4-bar phrase. As each player’s name is announced and they run out of the tunnel, the drumline vamps, playing a more aggressive and boisterous beat before bringing it back down for the next name. With a headset and my conducting, we coordinate the timing of the drumline with the music being played and the announcements on the stadium speakers. Seeing all these players up close is so surreal; their size and stature is overwhelming and mesmerizing at times.

1:00 pm kickoff – To recap, we’ve now had four heart-racing performances and we are finally getting to our seats for the 1:00 pm kickoff. And we aren’t done playing yet. After every offensive 1st down, the full band plays a 2-bar riff. Going into every defensive 2nd down, the drumline plays an 8-bar groove to keep up the energy for the defense. When the team scores a field goal or touchdown, we play the Fight Song. Occasionally, the band will also play a song during commercial time out. But the fifth rush of the day comes during halftime performances on the field.

Halftime – Throughout the course of the season, we will learn four different halftime shows ranging from top hit shows, medleys, and classical music to anything else we can play to get the crowd on their feet cheering. These shows tend to be about 6-and-a-half minutes long. Our music is mostly written in-house by staff and members. The musician membership ranges from band directors to scientists and college students, so we really try to make the most of everyone’s talents and allow everyone the opportunity to contribute. The success of the band doesn’t rest on one individual, but the collective work and dedication.

3rd quarter – The sixth rush of the day is my personal favorite, and the main selling point for recruiting new drumline members every season: 3rd quarter breaks. Sometimes the entire band will play a song, but more often than not the drumline will go out to the end zone and perform a completely original one-minute-50-second drum solo for the entire stadium. We do three different solos a year and cycle through them over the course of 12 months. There are very few things we do that top the energy level and excitement that is generated during that time.

Exposed moments like these always provide the most hype end energy for the team. It’s typically a close game and we need to keep the crowd excited into the 4th quarter. In comes the drumline, throwing down and providing life to the crowd. Between the drumline and the crowd exuding all this raw energy, the football team has no choice but to feed off that energy and bring us home a win.

Game over – With the blow of the final whistle, the game is over (hopefully with a victory for the Ravens) and our day is almost done. After the final score announcement, we hit the stadium with the Chant and Fight Song one more time, followed by our post-game concert. This is a short four song set that is blasted all through the stadium as people are leaving. Once the bowl is empty, we line back up and parade back to the buses, enjoying the excitement with the fans as we pass by on the way back. We load up our equipment with the help of the crew and head back to the complex after another long and successful day of cheering on our Ravens. For the typical 1 pm Sunday game, we are back in our cars by 6 pm and anyone who still has a voice can consider themselves fortunate.

Everybody in the Marching Ravens organization is grateful for all the support it receives not only from fans but everyone involved in the Gameday experience. Every season we receive more and more compliments on our performances. Every season the Ravens’ front office finds new ways to show us their support and ensure we are taken care of in every way possible. It’s a dream and an honor to work for this organization while still being able to promote the arts and the marching activity.

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Hall of Fame Game Drumline Halftime Performance in Canton, OH. Photo credit: Baltimore Ravens

How do you prepare for games?

The band relies on the professionalism and commitment of each individual in the ensemble to prepare for each rehearsal and Gameday. We rehearse every Wednesday from 7-10 pm and for an hour-and-a-half on Gamedays. Those short windows of rehearsals are not nearly enough time to accomplish every goal the band needs to achieve. So each member practices about 7 to 8 hours on their own each week to learn the music and the choreography we are planning to cover at the next rehearsal. Once we were able to start eliminating all the learning and practicing at rehearsal, we were able to achieve harder and more challenging visual and musical phrases. For the staff, I would say those numbers are doubled on average because of the recruiting, auditioning, writing, and planning that goes not only into the season, but into each week.

How did you get involved with the Marching Ravens?

Fortunately, my high school instructor, Dan Delong was an amazing teacher who turned into not only a mentor but a good friend. Dan contacted me during the spring of 2015 while I was marching with the Reading Buccaneers in Pennsylvania, teaching with Westminster High School Drumline in Maryland, and working my full time job. I had to turn down the offer initially because of my other commitments and was unsure if this gig would be right for me.

A few months later – and after a lot of reconsideration – I contacted Dan and asked if it was still possible to join for the season. Luckily enough, they had an opening in the Tenor Line and I started a few weeks later.

What do you enjoy most about this gig?

When I was a member of the drumline, my favorite part of this was performing the 3rd quarter breaks on the field in front of a packed house. Feeling that energy and seeing yourself on the jumbotron is a feeling I hope everyone gets to enjoy at least once in their life.

As the Percussion Director for the Baltimore Ravens, I’m enjoying watching the members grow as musicians and people throughout the course of the season. Seeing the progress from week to week and thinking back to where they started really drives me to grow as an instructor. It helps motivate me to design a show they enjoy performing and create one that really engages the crowd.

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What are the biggest challenges?

The challenges are different for everyone in the organization, depending on your role and responsibilities. As a member of the drumline, it’s difficult to memorize all music we need for each field performance. When we are playing stand tunes in a concert setting, we have stands and binders. But the drumline needs to completely memorize any field performance, along with exercises, the cadence, and 3rd quarter breaks.

In my current role, the challenge is to effectively communicate and delegate every task we need to accomplish while minimizing members’ stress. There is no way we can create a stress-free environment with all the external factors we can’t control, like rehearsal constraints or last minute gigs and changes. But we will do everything in our power to provide a positive and enriched environment where members feel they can surmount every obstacle in their path. Luckily, I have a great team in the Percussion Instructor Eric Carr and the Section Leaders Allen Kessel, Kim Smith, Matt Rice, and Raishawn Jones. The drumline’s success is due to the hard work and consistency from these leaders. It’s a pleasure to work with them and I couldn’t ask for a better team and friends.

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened since you started?

The most memorable moment in my time with the Ravens was our trip last season to Canton, Ohio for Ray Lewis’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With the Ravens playing the Bears at the Hall of Fame game and the drumline’s success with 3rd quarter breaks, we were asked to perform a 4-minute drum solo during halftime. We of course obliged, so we got to Ohio a few days before the full band joined us for the Hall of Fame parade.

Since we left early, we were able to do a few performances at the fan fest, like competing in a drum battle with the Chicago Bears Drumline! We couldn’t have asked for a greater group of people to meet and drum against; they are a high class organization. On Friday we had some free time, and the Ravens were gracious enough to get us tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the day. Afterwards, some of us decided to venture off to catch a Cleveland Indians game against the Los Angeles Angels. The rest of the band joined us on Saturday for the Hall of Fame parade, and then the drumline did one last performance at the fan fest.

These once-in-a-lifetime moments and trips are ones I truly cherish. The moments we created together – and the bonds we formed – are the things that I will remember forever.

How does a drummer get a gig like this?

The Ravens hold an open audition every year for anyone aged 18 or older. Auditions are held in April, with rehearsals starting in May and continuing until the season is over or the Ravens are eliminated from the playoffs. The skills needed to be a member of the Marching Ravens can be taught but it is preferred you have experience (whether it be from high school, college, or a drum corps). I’ve been fortunate enough to have the support of Dan Delong, Jason Keller, and John Ziemann, the President of Marching Ravens, over the years to help me get to this position. If it wasn’t for each one of them, I wouldn’t be where I am now and I’m truly grateful for their support.

My advice would be to grind, make smart decisions, be consistent, and don’t give up. People will try to tell you what they think you are or should be, but that just gives you the opportunity to prove them wrong and become what you know you can be.

About Jayson:
Jayson Hart-Smith is the Percussion Director with the Baltimore Marching Ravens. His drumline experience started at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, Maryland where he played all four years. By his junior year, he joined the Bushwackers Drum & Bugle Corps, completing ten seasons over the next twelve years. He served the majority of his time in the bassline, becoming Percussion Manager in 2016. Jayson also marched in other world class organizations such as Crossmen Drum & Bugle Corps, United Percussion, and The Reading Buccaneers. While playing bass drum with these organizations, he earned the honors of three-time WGI Finalist, DCI Semi-Finalist, and DCA World Champions with Best Percussion.

Photo credit: Baltimore Ravens

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