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Rope-tension snare and bass drums are tightened using tugs or ears that apply pressure to the rope, which is transferred to the heads when the rope compresses the counter hoops, causing them to move slightly closer together. The drum heads used are usually made of lamb or calf skin, or plastic drum heads made by many drum manufacturers. Unlike in the British corps, the single tenor drum is not customarily used in American fife and drum ensembles.

The drums are beaten using two sticks. Visual effects may be created by flourishes of the drum sticks; for example, bass drummers may swing the beaters in a flourish while the snare drummers roll (or when the beating leaves sufficient time to flourish).

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