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Making the Most of Marches

Christopher Heidenreich | December 2012

    Everyone loves a march. Whether we tap our toes to The Footlifter or power down the street to The Thunderer, a great march can move men, women, children, horses, and machinery. Some might consider marches lowbrow or only appropriate for a popular music concert, but audiences truly appreciate a well-played march, no matter how many times we program the classics. There is more to the march than the notes on the page, and each demands more than a one-time sightread before the concert. As William Revelli once said, “Select marches carefully, rehearse them thoroughly, perform them with life and vitality, and observe your audience reaction.”

Consider the Tempo
    Regardless of the march, there are several factors to consider in the selection and performance of a march. First and foremost, consider the tempo. The tempo relates to the style of march. A slow funeral march (below q = 88) will be played differently from a military march on the quick step (q = 120), or a circus march (q = 144). The ability of the ensemble may also affect what tempo can be played successfully given the available rehearsal time.
    The acoustics of the performance venue also play a role in determining tempo. Outdoor acoustics tend to wash out faster technical passages from the upper woodwinds and can lack clarity, while dryer indoor venues make it harder to hear each other, potentially causing issues with time. Therefore, test the tempo you choose, and do not be afraid to add or subtract from the tempo based on these factors. Traditionally, military marches do not change tempo, and while performance practice might indicate otherwise, there are few marches that historically stray far from the tempo indicated throughout the performance. However, a slight variance of tempo might add interest and spark to a march’s appeal.

The Importance of Pulse
    When playing a march, the performers should take responsibility for maintaining pulse. Too often conductors enforce steady time from the podium, but in a march the conductor should merely monitor the situation without getting in the way. Students often believe that the percussion section controls the tempo; in fact, each player must acknowledge this responsibility and listen closely. Bass lines with the bass drum and horns with the snare drum create an important foundation that should line up rhythmically. Throughout rehearsal, let these parts listen to each other and work together without the melody. Try sizzling sections of the march, by lightly hissing air through the tongue and teeth, especially rhythmic passages in the introduction or first strain. Conductors can easily speak over the group without shouting, they can monitor and comment on dynamics and articulations, and the clarity of the rhythms is quite distinct with this technique. Musicians will develop a firm rhythmic foundation that gives the responsibility to the players, not the conductor.

    The percussion section should provide an unwavering, steady pulse. The stick used on the snare drum should produce a clean, crisp sound. The quality of the head and the bead on the stick will affect the sound. A deeper field snare can work nicely, but should be tuned quite a bit lower than when on the marching band field. Make the snare player aware of his role in the march. At times, the snare is a part of the horns and tubas following the pulse in after-beats or downbeats. Within the same march, the snare might also have melody with the flutes, oboes, clarinets, or cornets. This awareness by the percussion section will give the player information to make good decisions about balance when the environment changes such as from a concert hall to the festival stage. Encourage players to keep most of their rolls closed during the march, except on the final strain. Sometimes opening the stroke up when the band reaches the climax of the march drives provides more drive than a closed stroke roll.
    Carefully choose the bass drum beater and the method used to dampen the head. Too much dampening or striking too close to the edge, will produce a dead sound that does not support the bass line. Too little dampening leads to a ringing that washes over the fundamental sound of the bass line and affects the clarity of the parts. Again, be certain the player understands the role of the bass drum in the march sound. Many marches include emphasis on a special chord or moment, and the bass drum highlights this with a larger, bigger sound on one beat or note.
    The choice of cymbal and the manner in which it is played are both essential. A smaller and thicker plate will eliminate extra ringing that covers the clarity of rhythm. The player should remove the marching band pads and grasp the cymbal straps rather than lace the hands through the straps. In addition, marches rarely require a hi-hat effect in which the cymbals close rhythmically on the pulse, but instead requires a more difficult technique of bringing the cymbals against the body to dampen the sound. A special highlight or chord might require extra emphasis or even, as Frederick Fennell frequently suggested, another player on a larger pair of cymbals.

Melodic and Harmonic Direction
    There are many ways to add interest to the performance beginning with the introduction. Most introductions include two to three different types of articulations. Identify the differences in the beginning, middle, and end of notes required for marcato, staccato, and accented notes in the march style. Consider the use of chanting the sound of the articulation to reinforce the style required using jazz sounds such as dah, dit or daht. Ask the players not to allow the notes to touch each other. This includes the bass drum, timpani, cymbals, bells, chimes, and any other percussion instruments that must be aggressively dampened on the tutti release of sound. Listen to the difference players can make when focusing on the distinctive articulations of staccato, accent, or marcato. The percussion section can provide important clues for wind instrument articulations. Use the variety of sounds from the section as a model for the other players, especially the light sound of the triangle or tambourine.
    Always play three or more notes of the same pitch with the same rhythm with a small crescendo toward the longer note. Start the first note softer than the printed dynamic and lean into the repeating notes. This will help the players clarify the rhythm of the faster notes and add shape to the musical line. If the rhythm repeats, such as four sixteenths and quarter two or more times, crescendo each one and make the second crescendo bigger than the first.
    Further, consider the harmonic direction established by the composer in the introduction. A quick harmonic analysis of the score will identify the color chords found in the march, and the harmonic direction of the introduction and other strains which, in turn, will reveal the goal of each musical phrase. In rehearsals Harry Begian used to take an entire march at an extremely slow tempo, as slow as a Bach chorale, to show how the melody and harmonic foundation work together. Just a few minutes spent slowing things down will illustrate how the introduction prepares the first strain. Pay particular attention to the last note of the introduction; it may serve as the end of the introduction or as a pick-up to the next strain.
    It has been said that if a performer plays what is on the page, it will be wrong, and marches are no exception. During the first strain, provide the tension and release that the melody implies through crescendo and decrescendo. Pay particular attention to the articulation marks provided, especially with new editions. The length of note that makes staccato different from marcato or an accent should be clearly defined. First strains in marches by Karl King and Henry Fillmore (along with his various pseudonyms) often contain an interesting counter-line in the low brass. Remove the counter-line on the first time through or back the players down dynamically, bring that voice to the fore the second time, and create a more dramatic contrast between the repeats of the first strain.

Enhance the Dynamics
    Instead of just playing the dynamics printed in these first strains, which typically do not change between repeated sections, seek any excuse to play softer by emphasizing the dynamic changes by one level. Consider identifying shades of piano, mezzo forte, and forte that give room to shape the phrase to musically enhance the natural rise and fall of the melody. Set up the next strain or what follows the current repeated section by playing the strain softer than printed. If the present first strain is followed by a softer second strain, play the first one a shade stronger to emphasize the contrast with the upcoming section.

Identify Shape and the Character of the Strain
    The second strain typically provides melodic contrast to the first, yet it is often played with the same dynamics and character as the first. Again in this strain, identifying the shape to the melodic line is important, as well as the character of the ideas. Often, two musical characters are at work in contrast between the first four measures (antecedent) and the second four measures (consequent). Have students select adjectives that describe the nature of these two smaller phrases such as sassy, with a swing, bold, or timid.
    Emphasize the dynamics and pull out the shape of the line to give the two characters contrast and provide more interest. It is a subtle distinction between these smaller parts of the larger strain, but the character contrast adds musical variety and spice to the second strain. Again, instead of just playing printed dynamics, enhance the dynamics, look for any excuse to play softer by emphasizing the dynamic change one level, and consider making any crescendos bigger the second time by starting it softer than the printed dynamic. Louis Armstrong reportedly said that one should never play anything the same way twice, and marches are no exception.

The Lyric Trio
    The trio of the march frequently needs the most attention, as the melody of this section is often the most lyric. In addition, by this time in most marches, the full band has needlessly played almost every measure. This is a perfect opportunity to change up the tutti sound of the ensemble by varying the orchestration. The melody might have a better flow in the chalumeau register of the clarinets, and dropping these parts down an octave often emphasizes the lyric quality of the line. Sometimes, it might be appropriate to take the percussion section out completely, remove sections of the brass, or limit the number of players to create a chamber music effect to the ensemble. Phrase shape is crucial here, and slowing down the trio in rehearsal will help the players identify their roles. Pay close attention to the horn parts, especially in older editions, as often the third and fourth parts may be the only ones to have certain chord members, and their absence will change the harmonic intentions of the composer. Rewrite any missing parts to be certain that all notes of the chord are present. Always search for more reasons to play softer, especially if the melody is repeated by playing the first phrase soft and the repeat even softer. Emphasize the end of the trio taking the sound back to nothing and cushioning the final note of the cadence. Rehearse this section and these notes as if they are to be the final notes of the entire piece. This cushion sets up the next strain, often the break-up strain that starts at forte, by juxtaposing the softest section of the march with one of the louder sections.

The Break-up Strain and Final Strain
    The rhythmic precision of the break-up strain is particularly important, as players tend to rush ahead as they play louder during this section. Again, seek contrast by enhancing the dynamics; take the softer sections back a notch, making the louder music seem louder and the softer section seem softer. Try to start crescendos softer than printed to allow more room to grow louder and emphasize the space between the notes, especially half and whole notes. Watch for that one special chord often marked with a szforzando and accidentals that seems to set up the final measures. Pull this chord out and slowly play the surrounding notes so that players can identify the harmonic direction of these sounds. Allow the percussion a sforzando accent on this chord with the cymbals ringing freely and the bass drum playing a bigger note. Save the strongest dynamics for the last time through the final strain. Follow through any accented notes with a full sound, letting the note ring for its full value.

The Stinger
    Finally, do not forget the stinger or the final note. Historically, it is a heel click at the end of a long march. Some delay the note while others play it right in time; regardless, its finality depends on playing it to full value, bloating the note, in tune, and balanced from the bottom up. Sometimes the marcato marking might imply to shorten up its value, but it must be played adequately to end the march decisively.

Sousa Marches
    Sousa’s name makes an impression on our audiences. Students and audiences learn that the Sousa band was the iPod of the turn of the 20th century, playing Wagner, Verdi, and even ragtime before most orchestras, and brought this music to people who had no other chance to hear classical music other than performed by the band. Audiences know the Sousa name but may not realize that the most traveled musicians anywhere in the world were members of the Sousa band, logging over a million miles long before cars, buses, or airplanes.
    Consider which edition will be used. Often, the Church Publications represent the march in its entirety as intended for outdoor moving performances. Tutti playing across the band, few rests for the players, and constant battery percussion were requirements of music on the move, so these additions are most often used only for today’s marching bands. Typically, this type of edition is not clear regarding cymbal and bass drum parts, and the conductor needs to make sure that the performers realize both parts frequently share the same part and often-identical notes and rhythm.
    Frederick Fennell provided his own editions to many marches, sometimes including his edits for articulation and including his thoughts about doubling the snare drum with a field drum, using double pairs of cymbals, and a new and fabricated timpani part. The additional field drum tends to add substance to the percussion parts and strengthen the rhythmic elements of the march. Fennell often states that he has changed very little of the march but has simply clarified some discrepancies and provided a full-sized set of parts and score rather than the smaller size edition from Church. Other editions, such as the recent contributions by Loras Schissel, attempt to reconstruct and maintain an historical accuracy by including lengthy essays on the context and performance practices of Sousa. Of course, there are also other editions that modify marches for younger bands. The ultimate decision relies on the conductor, and, regardless of the selection, many of the same comments can be used here to make the Sousa march sparkle.

Circus Marches
    The style of the circus or screamer march can be summarized in one word: tempo. Consider the acoustics of the performance space and how this will affect clarity of the rapidly moving parts. Circus marches can be a wonderful way to feature the woodwinds, low brass, or the trumpets. A faster tempo makes wind players work harder and often forces the articulation. Encourage players to think one dynamic level softer than printed, lighten the articulation, and stay on top of the pulse. Ask the players to think in groups of notes, harmonic groups, or phrase groups. When the after-beat or down-beat players dig in and focus too hard on the pulse, this tends to drag the tempo. As the conductor, emphasize the big pulse and avoid micromanaging the band. Instead, allow your conducting to float above the pulse, stay light, and encourage the players to do the same.
    Unlike the Sousa marches, do not double the snare. instead, ask the performer to crush all the rolls with an accent on the after beat rather than open stroke. The entire percussion section should maintain the same light sound as required by the wind players to keep the tempo moving. This style of march frequently gives the percussion section a chance for new effects such as wood blocks, slap sticks, police whistles, and sirens. Finding an authentic sound is worth the expense.

Processional Marches
    Processional style marches often come from British composers. While tempo might be the primary consideration for the circus march, the holding back of all forces and keeping all of the parts from pushing ahead on the tempo is crucial to this type of march. Phrasing is especially important because the slow tempo now exposes the melody for the listener. Again, enhance the dynamics by identifying the biggest moment of the march and contrast it with the softest section. Find reasons to play softer and show players how you will treat the dynamics of each phrase. Take care in the trio to identify the counter line and give it as much attention as the melody. Encourage the students to imagine the British or a blushing bride ­­- dignified, proper, not in any hurry, and wanting to take all day to reach the end of the aisle.

Marches in 6/8
    Marches in 6/8 have a unique style and include such classics such as Sousa’s Liberty Bell, King Cotton, and El Capitain or Them Basses by Getty Huffine. When working on the style of the rhythm to these marches, focus first on the eighth notes that follow quarters. Make the eighth note a part of the next note, not a connection to the previous; it should feel like a pick-up note. Frequently, students tend to compress the rhythm, in particular the two sixteenth notes preceding an eighth note, and players turn this into a duple feeling. Six-eight time has a particular swing to it, producing a dancing quality based on forward motion. Lean or progress one note to the next note when playing consecutive eighth notes. Have students chant this together with a natural growth to the sound of the voice, and create a natural tumble or natural forward motion to the eighths. Again, sizzling is quite beneficial, not only because the conductor can instruct while the players are actually performing the rhythm, but also the players can hear if the notes are moving together. Two other common errors in this type of march include the dotted eighth leaning toward duple and not having a solid feel of three, and the snare drum performing rolls in duple and not in three.
    While not all marches follow a classic formula, many of these ideas can be applied to almost any march to create intrigue and enjoyment for players and audiences alike. Seek out marches from other countries or infrequently performed American marches to add spice to your program. Use them as openers, encores, or features to maintain the flow of a concert. These ideas are simply a beginning to the endless opportunities that marches can provide for a more musical performance.   

The Music of Henry Fillmore and Will Huff by Paul E. Bierly (Integrity Press).
The Works of John Philip Sousa by Paul E. Bierly (Integrity Press).
Teaching Music through Performing Marches by Carl Chevallard, edited by Richard Miles (GIA Publications).
“Authentic Rehearsal Techniques” from Sounds of John Philip Sousa by Frank Simon (American School Band Directors Association).
March Music Notes by Norman E. Smith (Program Notes Press).