Spirit of ’76
Frederick Town Fife and Drum Brings History Alive through Music
If you’re lucky enough to catch a performance of the Frederick Town Fife and Drum during a First Saturday in Downtown Frederick, you can do more than just take in great shopping and restaurants. You can also go back in time.
“If you look at Frederick’s history, and discover all that went on here, there’s no reason Frederick could not become akin to Colonial Williamsburg to better draw visitors into this community, to help build and grow and make it prosper,” says Donald Deering, president and foundation chair of the fife and drum corps. “[We created this organization] not only to keep our lineage alive but also to help the city and the county. That was the impetus for trying to put this thing together.”
Deering’s appreciation for American history runs deep. He’s been a member of the Sons of the American Revolution for years and is the current president of its Sergeant Lawrence Everhart Chapter. He’s also taken regular trips with his wife and family to Colonial Williamsburg, which provided some of the inspiration for the Frederick Town Fife and Drum. “The many trips we took to Williamsburg, we really focused on the fife and drum corps,” he says. “That was the main attraction. Whenever they started to play, people would run and follow them to hear them play and do their re-enactments.”
The Frederick Town Fife and Drum regularly performs at First Saturday and at In The Street, as well as making appearances at events all over Maryland. Its reputation continues to build; Deering says there have been 20 requests for appearances so far this year. “Every time we’ve gone Downtown we got mobbed,” he says. “At the end of the Kris Kringle parade we had a number of parents and kids wanting to get involved.”
Nearly a dozen partners including Frederick’s Department of Economic Development, Frederick County Public Schools and the Tourism Council of Frederick County, among many others, help support the organization in various ways.
Deering credits his experience as chief of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police in Montgomery County as vital to working with so many community partners. “It really taught me that it was really important that if you wanted to develop a project, you had to involve a variety of partners,” he says.
In particular, an agreement with the public schools helps get the word out to parents through email, which has helped in recruiting efforts. Members of the corps need to practice their instrument for an hour each night, plus attend an hour-long practice on a weekly basis, Deering says.
The corps was founded in October 2012 and there are currently 18 people in the formal organization, including four fifers and six drummers. An instrumental part (pun intended) of the program is musical director Claude Bauer, who also teaches the fife.
Bauer became familiar with fife and drum music as a Civil War re-enactor, and says he switched because he’d rather play music than fire a musket. He taught himself the fife about four years ago, and is now teaching students music a few centuries old.
“We’re what we call an ancient music corps,” Bauer says. “That’s a broad definition. Rather than spec-ifically playing only music from one time period, we tend to branch out. We’ll play anything from the 19th century and 17th century … [but] we try to focus on the Revolutionary War.”
The performers transitioning from marching bands have an additional challenge beyond learning the ancient instruments—they also have to adapt to not having sheet music available. “You have to learn to read music and then memorize anything you’re going to play,” Bauer says. “We’re not like a marching band where we can put the music up there. Not only do you have to learn it, you have to memorize and then perform it. It makes it that much more difficult.”
While Bauer acknowledged some challenge for drummers, he says learning the fife as a flute player is probably more difficult. “[A flute] has all those keys and is ergonomically designed for the player,” he says. “The fife is just a piece of wood with six holes in it. It’s a little more than that, but bottom line it’s a different instrument.”
Maddie Kohler is one of those recruits transitioning from the flute. A 14-year-old eighth-grader, she plays fife in the corps, and found out about the program after her mom got an email about it. Her brother, Nick, is also a drummer with the group. “It sounded really interesting, like something no one else would really do,” she says. “I thought it would be fun and a different challenge for me.”
She’s been playing with the corps for about a year, and says her favorite part is the friends she’s made, and the fun she’s had playing music. “We all kind of get to know each other and have become friends and family,” she says. “… It’s really fun when you march in there and you see these people like, ‘Wow, look at these children dressed like people from the Revolutionary War and playing these instruments.’”
Drummer Harrison King is a 16-year-old junior at Linganore High School. King has played percussion since ninth grade and with the corps since August 2015, and also found out about the corps when his mom got an email. “She came and told me about it and I said, ‘This looks like it could be pretty fun,’” he says. “I like history, I like percussion, so I went and I’m still having a blast.”
King has marching band experience, but says playing the corps drums is slightly different, as it mounts more toward a player’s hip rather than directly in front. But the biggest difference is the crowd is a lot closer when playing with the corps—sometimes just a few feet from the musicians. “It’s different than marching band because you’re on the football field,” he says. “I feel like they’re a lot more welcoming because they’re right there listening to you. They’re a lot more supportive.”