Close this search box.

September 1994 Conducting Marches with Flair and Accuracy, By Harry Begian

Marches form the largest body of original works for band, yet they appear infrequently on most band programs. Many talented young conductors seem unaware of the vast store of marches or think marches are unworthy of gracing formal concerts. Some conductors who exclude marches from programs may not know how they should sound and might underestimate how much audiences enjoy hearing these works. The spirited vitality of good marches comes through only when they are played well. Most audiences are delighted when a march is played, and more than a few in an audience expect to hear at least one on every program. Directors with disappointing attendance at concerts might try putting some variety in programs by including a march or two.
   The form, melodic content, phrasing, and harmony of most marches are deceptively simple, but below the surface are the nuances and details that add spirit, vitality, and rhythmic precision. The American style of military march is adapted from the European form, which includes the minuet and trio used by classical composers. American marches start with an introduction followed by the first strain, second strain, trio-tune, and break-strain. The European form is nearly identical except that it repeats the introduction, first strain, and second strain after the break-strain.
   All military marches have a two-beat pulse in either cut-time (alla breve) or 6/8 time. American marches are commonly written in the keys of F, Bb, Eb, and Ab major, but a few good marches, such as The Trombone King by Karl King and Army of the Nile by Kenneth J. Alford, are written in a minor key. Marches occasionally start in a minor key and change to a major tonality in the trio, as in Rolling Thunder by Henry Fillmore.
   March introductions capture the audience’s attention, often in four or eight measures, but sometimes run longer. While all marches open at a loud dynamic, the first strain is almost always much softer. The second strain is louder and often features a pomposo tune in the bass instruments. The trio often shifts to the sub-dominant by adding a flat, invariably at a soft dynamic level. Sometimes this is the only lyrical section of a march. The break-strain is the loudest and most aggressive portion of a march and leads back to the final repeat of the trio tune at a loud dynamic. Marches often end with a hard, short stinger; the practice of playing a stinger as a powder-puff, sustained chord breaks completely from the march style. A stinger played with good balance and precision clearly defines the end of a march. R.B. Hall omitted a stinger from many of his marches, but the most famous American march without one is Bagley’s National Emblem.
   Melodic lines in marches are relatively simple tunes with straightforward rhythms that occasionally become technical challenges. March
phrases are four measures in length and rarely
complex, but the dynamic range is wide, stretching
from the softest trio tune to the loud final strain.
Each of the four strains of a military march is 16
measures long, with a complete playing time that is usually three minutes or less. Some composers
alter the basic formula by lengthening or shorten
ing strains, inverting dynamics in repeated sec
tions, adding an introduction to the trio, or elimi
nating a break strain.   

March Tempos
   Most quick-step marches were written to accompany marching at military functions and parades, but a smaller number were written for circus performances. March tempos vary considerably depending on character and function. The tempo for military and parade marches is usually 120, while circus marches are considerably faster. The tempo for marches at military functions matches the cadence adopted by the American military and called for in many parades. It is appropriate to play the same marches at slightly quicker tempos and different dynamics for indoor concerts.
   The fast tempos of circus marches don’t sound musically correct when played at break-neck speeds. It seems that some conductors have not heard a circus band or do not remember the tempos at which they were played. Merle Evans never exceeded a tempo of 144 except when conducting a galop, but I can readily accept a faster tempo if the conductor wants to display the technical abilities of the musicians.
   The marches of Henry Fillmore should have fast tempos ranging from about a half note = 138 for Americans We to a quarter note = 148 for Orange Bowl. All of Fillmore’s 6/8 marches sound best and have a better swing when played at about a quarter note = 120; this is true for most 6/8 marches by any composer. This can be tested by singing or playing the following fragments at a dotted-quarter note = 120. The march In Storm and Sunshine by J.C. Heed is an exception to the rule because it sounds best when played at about a dotted-quarter note = 138.
   Even though most marches sound best at approximately 120, American march tempos can vary from 112 to 144. Conductors should select the tempo that sounds and feels musically convincing. The following melodic fragments from The Trombone King and The Purple Pageant, by Karl King, should have quite different tempos. The Trombone King has a stately trombone melody and sounds best at a slower tempo than 120, while the spritely rhythmic figures of The Purple Pageant evoke a much faster tempo of a half note = 132.
   I recently received a questionnaire that asked if all Sousa marches should be played at 120. This certainly is not correct because the character, style, and tempo of marches by Sousa or any composer differ considerably. I strongly believe that a conductor should determine the tempo of a march in the same manner as with any concert piece. The march fragments from Sabre and Spurs would sound unconvincing if played at a fast tempo as would George Washington Bicentennial if it is played at a half note =120.
   European marches usually call for a slower tempo than American military marches. British regimental marches are the closest to the general tempo of American marches and have been played at tempos between 116 and 120 for over a century. They are much more like our American marches in melodic sound, style, and tempo because the earlier American march writers were influenced by the British marches. Some obvious differences between British and American marches, other than tempo, are the greater length, the lyrical and lengthy counter-melodies, the pomposo-style second strain, and the simple, song-like trio-tunes in the British works. Punjaub, a famous British march by Charles Payne, is a typical type of trio-tune.
   The tempos of German marches range from about a half note = 104 to 112, as seen in the trio at the end of Flag of Victory, a fine German march by Franz von Blon that would fit the German military goose-step at a half note =104. German marches are favorites of the U.S. service bands, and the marches of Teike, Blankenburg, Fucik, and Strauss make excellent encores for formal concerts.
   The Spanish march or paso doble (two-step) uses a tempo of around 108. The paso doble has a subtle lyrical style with gentle dynamics and guitar-like accompaniments to long, horizontal tunes. The tendency of many conductors to play the well-known Amparito Roca at a fast tempo destroys the graceful style of the Spanish paso doble. Programming these lyrical gems on formal band concerts adds a pleasing change of pace for audiences.
   Italian marches have equally tuneful, lyrical lines, and I have heard Italian bands play most Italian marches at ca. 116. Italian marches emphasize the tunes throughout the march and grace them with lyrical counter-melodies and many dynamic changes and inflections.
   The few French marches with which I am familiar are played at a faster tempo (138) than American marches. French march writers favor fanfare-like introductions and melodically simple trio tunes.

March Interpretation
   Conductors should develop a march interpretation after studying the score for musical concepts, adding personal perceptions and convictions. They should faithfully interpret the printed score and remain true to the composer’s concept. Only after learning a march from beginning to end can a conductor develop an interpretation, yet most give scant attention to marches because they appear simple on paper. These directors are prone to play a march as someone else conducted it or as someone has proclaimed it should be played. This approach never produces a convincing performance because it merely copies the ideas of someone else. There is also a sense of musical achievement after studying a score and arriving at an interpretation that has vitality and conviction.
   Although two conductors should not decide on identical interpretations, the best march interpreters follow some basic principles. When a march is played outdoors, it should sound almost exactly as written, but the conductor might decide to change dynamics, registration, or accents for an indoor concert if the melody, harmony, and rhythmic figures remain the same. Military marches should have detached style and steady tempo throughout, and the harmonic and rhythmic elements should balance one another to support the melody. Melodic lines should be heard above anything else in a march. Conductors should look for opportunities to play legato in the trio to add variety and contrast.
The following ideas will make march performances more enjoyable for players and audience members alike.
• Keep a steady tempo throughout.
• Maintain precise rhythms and avoid rushing.
• Provide as much dynamic contrast as possible, particularly in legato sections.
• Pay close attention to marked accents and dynamics but freely make changes for indoor performances.
• Avoid dull performances by changing dynamics on repeated strains, particularly in the second-and break strains.
• Highlight all counter-melodies, obbligatos, and variations so they match the melody in volume.
• Make all attacks solid and firm and develop a good concept of marcato.
• Keep the tempo steady when playing a crescendo or diminuendo; many conductors rush the tempo in a crescendo and drag it in a diminuendo.
• The cymbal player should always match the bass drummer. Until about 1940 the cymbal was mounted on the bass drum and played simultaneously with the bass drum part.

There are also many pitfalls to avoid in conducting marches.
• Refrain from hurrying tempos at strain endings and when approaching cadences.
• Do not play at the same volume throughout; this quickly becomes dull.
• Do not rush the tempo on crescendos or slow the tempo on soft passages. Tempo and dynamics are not related.
• Never cover the melody of a march, which should be heard above all else.
• Do not slow the tempo in grandioso passages; this term indicates a style of playing, not a tempo change.
• Do not exaggerate loud dynamics.
• All percussion parts should relate to the music played by the rest of the band.
• Instead of beating the cymbals loudly, percussionists should play them with finesse by emphasizing accents and providing support at climactic points.
• The lead trumpet or cornet should never play above the entire band.
• Do not play a stinger with a fermata.

   The key to playing marches with proper style is to master the common rhythmic figures and to hold notes for their proper value. In addition to playing with a detached style longer notes should be louder, and notes of a half beat or longer should have full values. H.A. VanderCook explained these ideas on style and musical expression in his 1952 book, Expression in Music, published by Rubank.
   Maintaining a steady tempo is essential for a correct interpretation. Rushing occurs most frequently when approaching cadences at strain ends or when hurrying toward a climax in the melody. This problem can usually be corrected if players give long notes their full values and have percussionists subdivide the beats in their minds. Subdividing is the surest way for a percussion section to play with precision and prevent the anticipation of accents.

   Although many composers mark accents in obvious places, the best march interpreters always seem to add accents and dynamic changes. Judicious accentuation can dramatically improve the interpretation of a march. Many great march stylists add accents simply through instinct, but I have developed several guidelines for making changes to the printed markings. Although dictionaries offer varying definitions of accents, there are three ways to stress a note or chord: giving a note its full length, playing louder, or attacking more strongly. These forms of accents should be added according to what feels right to the conductor.
   It is up to each conductor to test these ideas to
determine which accents work best for a piece.
The recordings by William D. Revelli, Frederick
Fennell, Donald McGinnis, Keith House, Frank
Byrne, and John Paynter are excellent examples
for conductors who want to learn more about
march interpretation, style, and accents. Military
bands, particularly the United States Marine
Band, also give fine interpretations of marches. I
urge those conductors who omit marches from
concerts to reconsider this position.

Some of Harry Begian’s Favorite Marches for Band
American Marches
Battle of Shiloh, by Charles Barnhouse
Battle of the Winds, by Charles Duble
Battle Royal, by Fred Jewell
Boys of the Old Brigade, by Paris Chambers
Bravura, by Charles Duble
The British Eighth, by Zo Elliott
The Caravan Club, by Karl King
Chicago Tribune, by Paris Chambers
The Circus Bee, by Henry Fillmore
The Circus King, by Charles Duble
Colossus of Columbia, by Russell Alexander
The Director General, by Fred Jewell
Emblem of Freedom, by Karl King
E. Pluribus Unum, by Fred Jewell
The Free Lance, by John Philip Sousa
From Tropic to Tropic, by Russell Alexander
Gentry’s Triumphal, by Fred Jewell
Golden Friendships, by Henry Fillmore
Golden Jubilee, by John Philip Sousa
The Goldman Band, by Karl King
Honey Boys on Parade, by E.V. Cupero
Independentia, by R.B. Hall
In Storm and Sunshine, by J.C. Heed
Joyce’s 71 N.Y. Regiment, by T.B. Boyer
Olympia Hippodrome, by Russell Alexander
Quality Plus, by Fred Jewell
Ringling Brothers Grand Entry, by Al Sweet
Robinson Grand Entree, by Karl King
Rolling Thunder, by Henry Fillmore
Revelation, by Paris Chambers
The Royal Decree, by Walter P. English
Sarasota, by Karl King
The Southerner, by Russell Alexander
Tenth Regiment, by R.B. Hall
Washington Grays, by Claudio S. Grafulla

Spanish Paso Dobles
Corazon Gitano, by Martin Domingo
El Abanico, by Alfredo Javaloyes
El Relicario, by Jose Padilla
Espana Cani, by Pascual Marquina

Harry Begian has appeared as a conductor, adjudicator, and lecturer in the United States, Canada, and Australia and is Director Emeritus of the University of Illinois Bands.