American Sign Language For Drumline

Posted by on Jun 23, 2020 in Instruction | Comments Off on American Sign Language For Drumline

Using ASL to instruct WHILE the drumline is playing!

Drums are loud, we all know this. So why do we constantly see staff members trying to yell over top of their drumlines? It’s confusing and distracting at best, and most of the time any verbal indicators will not be conveyed to the percussionist and instead have to be repeated at the end of the rep, if anyone even remembers. This is unprofessional, and it’s time to figure out a better solution.

If you’ve ever seen ground crew on construction sites communicate with crane operators you already know exactly where this is going. If you haven’t seen this I suggest a brief pause to go watch a quick video of exactly what goes on in an environment where you literally can’t hear the people you’re working with!

Some of you already have a slightly better solution to communicating with your drumline rather than shouting over top of their sound. You may already convey certain thoughts through hand signals. This is a step in the right direction, so we’re going to expand on your visual vocabulary! Some of the things you probably already sign are accurate and informative, but some of them are also a little confusing too. So let’s explore the actual ASL signs that apply to our drumlines. Imagine being up at the podium and being able to communicate with your drummers at the back of the field in real time! This will also make your drummers learn to focus in with eyes on you during rehearsal since that’s the only way they’ll receive information.

The below examples will be supported by the incredible ASL visual directory created by, which is one of the most in depth ASL dictionaries online today. Even better still, you can download the HandSpeak App to have references in your hand while on the field! Special thanks to Jolanta Lapiak for this great resource.

Example 1: You recently made a change to a musical phrase and you’re practicing the full production. The change you made is about to come up so you want to tell your members to “think” or “think ahead”. Most of you will point to your forehead or temple and mouth the word “think”. Guess what?! You are signing the word “think” correctly already! If you’re yelling “CHANGE” overtop of the music then you’re doing your group a bit of a disservice, instead make them learn to have awareness by focusing in with their eyes so their ears can maintain the task of playing clean!


Example 2: On the flip side of what you may already be using visually, what do you do when the line is slowing down, or during warmups you want the center snare to go faster next rep? You probably do something like this, which actually means “roll”…

(see that this word doesn’t make sense in this context)

So there lies a bit of confusion, because roll in drum terms would be to play diddles, or press roll. To clarify what you actually want, if the line is slowing down you could instead use the sign for “accelerate” multiple times based on how compelling you need it to be. And, respectively, to signal to the center snare you’d like to move on to the next faster tempo you could simply sign “next”…



Now, all this being said, below is a list of more common words or phrases in the marching percussion world (as well as concert band or other musical applications). These are fairly straight forward signs and they can be easily picked up and understood by your performers in a very short period of time, especially if used regularly. Explore these hand picked ASL signs and enjoy the effortless communication with your battery wherever you are on, or off, the field!


(or keep using the universal musical cutoff gesture)

(late musical entrance/attack)

(early musical entrance/attack)

(as in “listen in”, or just “pay attention”)

Hold On:


(or quieter)

(or louder)

(in reference to rolls or diddles)


(as in you’re slow)



(just in case!)

Please do browse HandSpeak for for signs you can use during rehearsal! Just make sure the students have a general idea of what they mean if they aren’t apparent. However, if used in the correct context your members will ultimately identify the meaning of each sign without being told, through repetition. Enjoy your new ability to communicate effortlessly to your members in one of the loudest musical environments that exists!