Fifes And Drums, 1812 Style

Jun 28, 2013

Fife and Drum music keyed military maneuvers during the War of 1812 and latter day fifers and drummers keep that music alive. Now, they are passing that to a new generation during the first Fife and Drum Camp at Fort McHenry.

Tim Ertel, leader of the fife and Drum Corps at the post, came up with the idea for the camp. He says it’s based on weekend long camps for re-enactors who spend entire days learning drum and fife techniques and the calls that field musicians used in that era. This, however, is only a 9 a.m.-to-noon camp for middle school-aged campers. “We’re emphasizing the marching drill; War of 1812 marching, the facings, the maneuvers,” he says, “so they get acclimated to what foot to step off on.”

Tyler Mink, a seasonal ranger at Fort McHenry, drills his young recruits, calling out commands. “Field Music,” he calls. “To the right about!” And the campers respond. “Stop!” He checks them carefully and will drop anyone for push ups who isn’t right in line. He concedes he’s a tough drill sergeant, but says they only have 7 days to get this right. “So I want to make sure we get the good habits,” he explains. “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. So, if you practice it right, you do it right.” 

Camper Emerson Moore, the only girl, says it’s a good camp, though the drummers—including her--outnumber the fifers. In the first week, she says she’s had “two days of practice so far in my life, and I’d say I’m doing pretty well for that.” Near the end of the second week, she says it’s gotten a lot more complicated.

Kenny Nickerson Jr., a student at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Baltimore, says he wasn’t so sure about this camp until he found out about the drumming. He gave his mother the permission slip and told her his music teacher wanted her to sign it. She did and now he’s at the camp. “And I’m having a lot of fun,” Kenny said. There aren’t enough drums to go around, so Kenny and the other beginning drummers work on practice pads. Or they march along clicking their drum sticks together to keep time.

Mike Otto, a professional drummer and music teacher at Patterson Park Public Charter School, is their instructor. He says he’s amazed at how well they’re doing. “They’re into it, they’re living it and they’re working really hard,” he says.

Robert Johnston, Kenny’s music teacher at Booker T. Washington, works with the fifers. He’s a brass player converted to fife for this camp. He says it took him a few days to get it together, but his students are picking it up quickly. “By the end of the end of the first day after about two hours of instruction, they had a pretty good handle on how to work the fife.”

They were sounding even better near the end of the second week, just in time for a performance for their parents on Saturday.

This story is part of our series “Rockets’ Red Glare: The War, the Song and Their Legacies,” made possible by a grant from Star Spangled 200, a national bicentennial in Maryland.