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Drummers once played a massive role during some of history’s most significant battles. Their beats not only helped to keep marching soldiers focused and in time, but certain rhythms communicated orders and signals that could be heard from a distance over shouting and gunfire.
Peter Alexander is the Drum Major of the 41st Regiment of Foot Fife and Drum Corps at Fort George National Historic Site in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. As a former headquarters for the British Army during the War of 1812, it’s the perfect location to host authentic battle reenactments.
How do these drummers survive the blazing heat in historical wool uniforms? Peter talks about the biggest challenges of this gig, and recalls the time he almost got caught in musket fire.
My primary role as drum major is to lead the Corps through the daily routines of a British drummer for our visitors. I’m also responsible for instruction, arranging music scores and directing our Band of Music.
In the winter I work on developing historic resources and performance techniques for over a dozen period music instruments, as well as look after their maintenance.
In the summer, the day begins with drinking a lot of water before we get into it! Then we spend about an hour polishing our brass, boots and belts.
The formal part of the day begins with a parade inspection and ceremonial flag raising followed by a march about the fort. After morning parade, there are music demonstrations for our visitors. We also perform during black powder firing demonstrations and crew several cannons for our daily tactical demonstration. Time is made for practicing and lessons, too.
The day ends with evening parade, the flag lowering, and drums beating the Retreat. Then we re-hydrate!
I lived nearby and began volunteering at age thirteen. I also joined reenactment groups with my friends, and continued to volunteer and work in these roles all the way through university.
During university, I had a chance to study with some amazing teachers, including John C. Moon (Drum Major Scots Guards, Brigade of Guards), Tim Sutphin and Lance Pedigo of Colonial Williamsburg fame, and Mark Logsdon, drum major of the 1st Michigan Fife and Drum Corps in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
In 2009, Parks Canada hired me permanently to continue developing the Fife and Drum Corps program for the upcoming Bicentennial of the War of 1812.
My favourite part of this gig is getting to play challenging material every day. It’s also seeing the focus in everyone’s eyes just before we step off for a performance. I’m tremendously proud of them.
The biggest challenge for sure is the summer heat. It makes it extra difficult to keep everyone’s attention and to ‘lock up’ their fife and drum parts. If you push too hard it makes you frustrated, and not pushing enough makes you sleepy!
The weather can really play havoc with calfskin heads and fifes too, especially if it’s humid or there’s a rapid temperature change.
Repetitive strain injuries do occur. I ended up taking a few years off to recover from my own injuries and studied massage therapy to help other performing artists.
One notable thing about working in this role is the feeling you get when you’re in a deeply authentic recreated experience…it is breathtaking. Sometimes you begin to play and it just feels real!
The most remarkable moment was a reenactment at Fort George where we were ordered to press forward through a forest to make contact with an American patrol. I can remember looking at the ground watching my step and listening to all the metal equipment jingling on our uniforms; there was no drumming because we were sneaking.
One of our soldiers stepped on a tree branch and, instantly, there was a thunderous volley of musket fire directly in front of us, filling the forest floor with smoke. Even though I knew this wasn’t real I was frozen. I couldn’t remember my signals and my hands were visibly shaking! I could hear someone yelling and I was suddenly grabbed by the sleeve. Another drummer had just enough time to pull me off the trail before I was nearly run down by an officer on horseback.
Most historic sites with fife and drum programs require you to be at least sixteen years old before you can be hired, and most applicants will normally have at least two to three years of volunteer experience in the program.
Traditional grip is a must to perform on rope tension drums as the drum is slung over the right shoulder and balanced on the left leg. Any experience marching in a high school or local band is helpful, as is demonstrating your knowledge of the drum rudiments and reading music.
Peter Alexander grew up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. He began rope tension drumming at age 13, and drum kit at age 16. He has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in history from McMaster University and a Massage Therapy Diploma from Kikkawa College. Peter formed the Fort George Fife and Drum Corps in 1987 with his colleague Gavin Watt. In 2009, he was hired full-time as a Parks Canada Historic Music Coordinator/Drum Major for Fort George National Historic Site. Peter is one of the cofounders of traditional Celtic band ‘Gin Lane’, and has released a fife and drum album and a traditional album.
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