Fifes and Drums of Yorktown Offers Kids a Chance to Learn History

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The Fifes and Drums of Yorktown perform at Mt. Vernon in July. (Photo courtesy Genny Beaver)
The Fifes and Drums of Yorktown perform at Mt. Vernon in July. (Photo courtesy Genny Beaver)

These kids wouldn’t look out of place on an 18th century battlefield.

The level of detail that goes into the appearance of members of the Fifes and Drums of Yorktown puts them right at home in Yorktown, where a passerby can often see them practicing on the streets or performing at an event.

The Fifes and Drums of Yorktown will celebrate Yorktown Day today with various performances throughout the day.

The approximately 85 kids in the group play the tunes that brought order to the smoky chaos of a Revolutionary War-era battlefield, offering those who hear them perform a chance to hear the sounds officers of the time relied on to communicate with one another.

“[The Fifes and Drums of Yorktown] brings the value of this area alive for the kids,” said Genny Beaver, a parent of two children in the program. Her daughter plays the fife — a simple flute with seven holes drilled into a piece of wood — while her son plays the drums.

Beaver said the program keeps kids busy year-round, with practices going on regularly outside of the performance season, which runs from May to August. The kids meet once a week for a 90-minute practice, with a small vacation from mid-December to mid-January. Their performances take them throughout the Eastern U.S. and beyond.

In 2013, for example, the Fifes and Drums of Yorktown performed at Monticello, Mt. Vernon, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and a muster — where fife and drum groups gather to play together — at Deep River, Conn. They also played in Yorktown on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day weekend and Yorktown Day.

“The kids love the opportunity to travel and see so much of the coast,” Beaver said. “We try to build in time for the kids to take a tour of the area. If it’s possible, we try to give them some time to enjoy the areas and take in some of the history.”

Jim Camillucci, a music teacher at Peasley Middle School in Gloucester County, has been an associate fife instructor with the Fifes and Drums of Yorktown for 10 years. He’s one of four instructors who train the kids to play the tunes.

“They’re a great group of kids who are interested in being a part of this musical ensemble that has a lot to do with the history of not only Yorktown but the 18th century, the Revolutionary War and more,” Camillucci said. “They’re very much into being a part of this and performing and representing Yorktown and Virginia when we’re traveling out of state. I have a blast teaching and working with them.”

Camillucci said kids aged 10 to 18 participate in the program, with many of them sticking with it for years. That allows them to climb the ranks of the organization. Each rank features its own songs the kids must memorize before they can advance to the next level, ranging from recruit to senior corps.

The kids wear uniforms similar to those that would have been seen during the Revolutionary War. They’re made up of britches and a waistcoat, with long socks beneath the britches. The senior corps wears wool regimentals, which are similar to the red coats worn by British troops.

“During the Revolutionary War, the musicians were neutral,” Camillucci said. “So they wore the opposite color of their regiment so that they would be recognized as being neutral so they wouldn’t be fired upon and killed. They held to that honor that musicians are neutral, so they dressed in different colors.”

He said the music reflects what was played in the 18th century. Many of the tunes are commands used on the battlefield.

“Each commander on the battlefield had his own fifer and drummer,” Camillucci said. “The officer would give a command to the fifer and drummer. A tune would correspond to each command and could be heard across the battlefield. The next fifer and drummer would pick it up, and it would go down the line until everyone knew what the command was.”

They also play popular tunes from the day, which were often used in marching or in camp to boost the morale of the troops.

Joining the corps requires a kid to be signed up by the start of a new recruit class in January. If that deadline is missed, no new recruits will be accepted until the following January. No musical experience is required. While the group receives some funding from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, some expenses are associated with participation, such as buying certain instruments.

“Membership is not restricted to York County residents,” Beaver said. “We have kids from all over the Peninsula, even Richmond. We have some that come from Isle of Wight County.”

For more information on joining the Fifes and Drums of Yorktown, email recruit-chair@fifes-and-drums.org. Visit the group’s official website here.