The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps

As the only remaining military fife and drum corps, the Old Guard—recently celebrating its 50th anniversary—has a storied and honored past.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2010, the 69-member U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps has played at every presidential inauguration since John F. Kennedy in 1961. Sergeant Major Gregory J. Rock has participated in six out of 10 of them. With an average of 500 shows annually from educational performances to arrival ceremonies of dignitaries, it is common for the members to play in an elementary school in the morning and on the White House lawn in the afternoon. Halftime Magazine spoke to Rock about the corps’ mission, history and future.

Halftime: How did the Fife and Drum Corps celebrate its 50th anniversary?

Rock: We decided to do a yearlong celebration. It started in February [2010] with a kickoff event. We [also] decided to do a muster tour, where all the fife and drum corps got together and performed as a parade and did individual performances. We wrote a special show just for the 50th anniversary. In June, we had a large tattoo (military pageant), and in October, we had an event called the Junior’s Fife and Drum Workshop. We’ve done that the last six years, but we made it more 50th anniversary focused. [We capped] off with a corps recital in December.

Halftime: When did you join the corps, and what are your responsibilities?

Rock: I came in December of 1988. I came from the First U.S. Army Band, and I was a trombone player there. I came here and played bugle for 17 years, and then they decided to promote me.

I’m the corps’ Sergeant Major. My responsibilities entail resource, training, quality control, and verifying all the performances. I’m also in charge of the welfare of the soldiers, making sure that everyone is taken care of, and they are able to perform their duties in the army. My role is to create an environment where soldiers can succeed and perform at their best.

Halftime: How was the Old Guard formed?

Rock: The 3rd Infantry Regiment, the Old Guard, is the oldest active infantry regiment with direct lineage to George Washington’s original Continental Army during [the] Revolutionary War. The Old Guard wear uniforms patterned after the soldiers of 1784. They [resemble] the continental musicians’ uniforms, and they are different than the continental soldiers’ uniforms.

The musician uniforms are opposite of the organization they belong to … [This is because] the military musician of that time was the signal on the battlefield. When the commander wanted to communicate and give an order to part of his command that was all the way across the field, he grabbed one of the musicians to give the signal to do whatever he wanted. Because there’s a lot of confusion on the battlefield, in order to grab the musician quickly, they identified him with a different colored coat.

Halftime: How is the Old Guard unique from other military bands?

Rock: We are the only [fife and drum corps] in the armed services. All the other bands are traditional bands. All of the service bands march in the inaugural parades. We, however, are the army guard for the President. Our position in the parade is right in front of the President himself.

Halftime: Describe the performances.

Rock: All the music has historical roots, and the shows are pretty typical as that of a marching band performance at halftime. In all our shows, we include a troop step, which is our signature maneuver. It’s the slow kick, toes pointed, drop the heal kind of thing, and the troop step is always followed by “Yankee Doodle.”

Halftime: How have things changed in the corps since you’ve been there?

Rock: Well, our mission has changed a little bit. Prior to 9-11 we did less army-type jobs than we do now. For example, we now have an additional mission of acting as Liaison Officer (LNO) to our higher headquarters. However, our musical missions have not changed, and in fact, have increased in volume.

We’re [also] doing a lot more national and international events because of the Internet and streaming. In that respect, we’re a little more visible than we were in the past.

Halftime: How does someone audition?

Rock: Auditioning is extremely competitive. For any given instrument, we receive over 50 applications. [These applicants] range from the conservatory-trained to the lifelong fifer. These musicians send us a resume as well as an audition tape that help us whittle down to only a handful of candidates. From here, they’re invited to come to Fort Myer for an onsite two-day audition. This incorporates the applicants playing in front of a panel of our senior leaders as well as an extensive interview process.

The average age group is usually between 27 and 32. We are a little bit older than soldiers that come into the army because of the advanced degrees we have.

Halftime: What is your vision for the corps over the next 50 years?

Rock: [First], my job is to prepare the next person to take my position and … to develop the future leaders of the organization. [I would also like the corps] to get into the international tattoo circuit and travel more extensively.

About the Author

Lydia Ness is a visual journalism student at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. She has performed in the Glassmen, the Bluecoats, and the Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps as well as the Riverside Community College indoor percussion ensemble. She teaches the front ensemble at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, Calif. Lydia plans to go to law school and focus on international and global justice.

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