My Take on Marching

Eric Wiltshire | September 2009

    Many band directors realize, often to their dismay, that for people outside the profession the marching band is the instrumental program. However, some music educators see marching band as a drain on the program in terms of both time and resources. My teaching experiences in middle and high schools have led me to develop a philosophy that keeps me focused on musical goals and makes the goals of my marching program clear.
    Practice good teaching. Most of the complaints I hear about marching bands do not stem from inherent problems with the ensemble but from examples of poor teaching. When a concert band plays too loudly, out of tune, or with poor sound quality people judge the director; but if a marching band plays the same way, marching bands in general are condemned. Some critics believe the phrase “good marching band sound” is an oxymoron, but a director conducting the national anthem at a football game should be as proud of the sound the band makes as he would be of his top concert band.
    The same high expectations of musicianship found in concert band should apply to marching band, but students will not apply these unless taught to do so. Students hear their sound differently outside and get excited; they will quickly forget to play with a balanced, controlled sound.
    Although marching band members need to project their sound over a large distance, this is not the same as playing loudly; it is a different application of listening, blend, and balance. If students learn these concepts they will play well. If all they learn is a halftime show, an opportunity has been missed.
    Make good music. Defining good music is difficult, and there are a wide range of opinions, but in general people fall into one of two camps. Formalism is the view of art for the sake of art; aesthetic appreciation of music becomes the goal and guides the teaching. The praxial philosophy, on the other hand, defines art as not something that is, but something people do, and considers that value to be in the experience.
    Because of the connection of marching bands with football games and parades, it can be difficult to take marching band seriously as a musical and artistic endeavor. Even in marching festivals, where the focus is entirely on marching bands, bands too often fall short of professed musical goals in an effort to score points with judges through effect rather than musical substance. I agree that these problems exist but suggest that most arguments against marching bands are arguments against poor teaching and misplaced priorities.
    A common complaint about marching bands is that they focus on arrangements of popular tunes; however, the context of the performance is important. A thoughtful musical performance should be presented to an audience prepared to listen to it. A football game may not be the ideal venue for a Bartók string quartet, but popular tunes played musically will go over well.
    Every year I ask music education students which experiences led them to pursue a career in music education. The majority of the responses are experiences in marching band – sometimes from a competition, but more often the simple enjoyment of playing the music. At these moments students worry less about playing all the right notes and perform at their expressive best. It is perhaps because these performances are seen as less important that students feel able to play freely. We should take advantage of these moments to help our students learn how to use music to connect with the audience. I won’t make the case that Louie, Louie is a better piece of musical art than Holst’s First Suite in E flat, but the essence of music is not in its complexity or depth, but in its ability to communicate.
    Choose good-quality music. Marching bands primarily play arrangements of popular music, but some arrangements will be more musical than others. Original music should not simply be a vehicle that moves the band from one visual effect to the next, but it should possess the same qualities by which all music is judged. If directors set high standards in selecting music to perform, the audience will follow those expectations; but if directors settle for mediocrity, so will the crowd. Marching bands can serve their purpose at sports and civic events without fear of becoming nonmusical entertainment if directors allow good musicianship to guide their efforts. Bennett Reimer said, “A performance program that is essentially musical, which justifies itself accordingly, which expends its major efforts on its essential purpose, can afford to give a reasonable amount of peripheral service without endangering its status.”
    Maintain a healthy balance. March-ing band is an important part of the music education curriculum as well as the social fabric of both high schools and colleges. Directors can view it as a necessary evil or as an opportunity to teach the same concepts they would in concert band. If the teaching is correct, the type of ensemble is less important.
    That said, concert band cannot be abandoned during marching season. Concert band rehearsals should continue throughout the fall, sightreading at least one new piece every week. This makes it easy to put together a concert as soon as marching season ends. In the past I’ve come out of marching season eager to fix the problems created on the field. Now I begin marching season with the goal of improving the musicianship of all my band members. In rehearsals we focus on high playing standards and attention to musical details and work to develop a love of playing and performing that permits students to be spontaneous and creative. Such skills can be taught in any ensemble with the right philosophy.

Eric Wiltshire is assistant director of bands and assistant professor of instrumental music education at the University of Oregon. He was previously assistant professor of music at the University of Dayton (Ohio) and received a master’s degree from Washington State University and a doctorate from the University of Washington.