Marching band percussion consists of drums, cymbals and other mallet percussion instruments, such as the glockenspiel and the occasional timpani (kettle drum). Drums of the marching band percussion unit commonly consist of the snare, the tenor and the bass drum. For the most part, the drums are all worn on the drummer's body, suspended from a brace or a support that places the drum's weight on the wearer's shoulders and back. The tenor drum is a multi-unit drum that is available in several sizes to best suit the marching band percussion unit's needs. While the glockenspiel and timpani are not as widely used as they once were, several large marching bands continue to use these instruments.
Percussion instruments are used primarily to provide a beat for the rest of the marching band to follow. The marching band percussion also provides and sets the tempo for each piece of music that is played by the band. This is especially important with a marching band where not only the count of the music must be considered, but where the count of the march must also be cognitively recognized and monitored by the musicians. Many of the crowd-pleasing numbers as well as the cheers shouted as the team scores are backed by music from the marching band percussion players.
Many times, when marching in a parade, the marching band percussion is used to mark the rhythm of the march. This can be through the use of the snare, tenor or bass drum alone, or in conjunction with the cymbals. Occasionally, the drummers will simply rap their drumsticks together to sound a marching rhythm. During large shows such as a homecoming football game, the marching band percussion unit may be joined by a stationary percussion unit known as the front ensemble. This front ensemble may contain a full drum set or drum kit, as well as a kettle drum.
Parts of the marching band percussion unit that are placed in the front ensemble are done so, in part, due to the difficulty or impossibility of the player marching while playing the instrument. Thus, a full drum kit or a kettle drum must be played from a stationary position. One exception for this is during some parades when these large instruments can be played from a moving trailer pulled along with the rest of the marching band. Special visual effects created by the marching band percussion players, such as cymbal flips and exaggerated drumstick height, are intended to thrill the onlookers and add a visual element and appeal to the musical selection.