Marches – The Key to A Successful Band Program

Marches are an important part of the American concert band literature, but might be one of the most misplayed genres in the band repertoire. Many directors and students feel that marches are both predictable and not exciting to play. This is only true if they are played incorrectly, which comes from a complete lack of understanding of the genre. Marches are some of the richest pieces in all of music literature. There is an abundance of variety of styles, forms and tempos within the march form. Every great composer throughout musical history has written marches as part of their output, including Mozart, Beethoven and of course Sousa. There are as many different types of marches as there are composers who have written them. The composers’ country of heritage has a lot to do with the style of the marches they write, but there is every variation in-between giving bands a wonderful musical palette to chose from.

Bands play marches poorly due to a lack of understanding of this rich musical history. Most American bands approach all marches in the typical American style. This is the wrong approach, for within the many great marches written by American composers there is great diversity. You would never play Sousa the same way you play Fillmore or King. Students can gain as much knowledge about musicianship and solid fundamental playing from performing marches as they can from any other type of music. It is the mindset of the educator that dictates how the students learn from these delightful compositions. If the teacher has a disdain for marches, then that will carry over to the students. If the teacher approaches marches like every other composition with the musical passion that all music deserves, then their band’s performance of marches will improve greatly and the students will share the passion for this music that is due.

Let’s start by selecting the right tempo for a march. Not all marches are played 120 bests per minute. Also, it has been my observation that many directors play marches too fast. In general it seems that the most common tempo a march is played today is around 132 beats per minute. Sousa’a marches for the most part need to be kept in check and in the 120 range. Fillmore on the other hand liked his marches “fast and fun,” but you would not play a 6/8 Fillmore or even a 6/8 Sousa march faster than 120. The most common error that I hear is the playing of a British style march at the tempo of an American style march. A good example of this type of march is British Eighth by Zo Elliot. This march is best performed at a tempo of between 92 and 108 beats per minute. It is more regal this way and following the long tradition of marches in the British style.

One of the worst aspects of march performance today is that students have a tendency to play all of the notes too short and accented notes are played with too much tongue and short. Do marches contain short notes? Absolutely, but these shortest of notes should be reserved for notes that precede an accented note or for notes that are specifically marked with a staccato. This means unmarked notes should be played separated, but not short and certainly not clipped or stopped with the tongue. Accented notes should be played with more weight using air and more length, and not just a harder tongue. Accented notes are given to show emphasis to a note and should be thought of in this manner.

Marches can be delightful musical gems to perform and to listen to or they can be some of the most boring. It’s your choice! Why not make them the rich, vibrate and joyous pieces that they deserve to be and strive to improve the quality of your band in the process!

bennett-band-book–Portions of this blog were taken from the book “The New Bennett Band Book” by Harold Bennett, arranged by Larry Clark

Duets – The Start of Chamber Music in Your Band Program

In my experience as an instrumental music teacher, I found that having students play in small chamber music groups was a very beneficial exercise to improve the student’s overall musicianship. The simplest form of chamber music is the duet. It is an opportunity for the student to play with a teacher or to play with another student of similar abilities. Aspects of playing such as tone quality, intonation, technique and ensemble skills can be developed during the process of studying duets.

I have found that weaker players learn a lot from playing a duet with a stronger player. I also like to say, “One player gives a lesson while one player receives a lesson.” It works in reverse too. Often times even the weaker player has something to offer the stronger player. The weaker player may actually have an aspect of their playing that they do better than the weaker player. It might be something as simple as playing at a consistent tempo. This will help the stronger player in this respect and is but one example of the multitude of benefits of using duets as part of your program.

There are becoming more options out there for students to play together in duet. I created a series recently called “Compatible Duets” that came about through my discussions with band directors all over the country that desired for their students to play duets, but the students always wanted to play with their friends and often their friend played a different instrument than them. So, I wrote these duets that can be played by any combination of two wind instruments.

A lot of students are apprehensive about playing a solo. Duets can be a start point towards overcoming this fear. It requires the same part independence as a solo, but helps the student feel more secure while playing with one of their friends. I guarantee that your band program with reap great reward and growth from the addition of a chamber music component. It is my opinion that every student in band should have this opportunity. It will make your concert band better and ultimately improve the overall musicianship of your students.

Making Musical Connections with a Middle School Band

connectionsOne of the most elusive aspects of performance in the middle school band is the students’ ability to understand how to make musical connections—that is, the relationships and performance implications of notes, chords, etc. within a phrase. In the initial and middle stages of learning how to play a wind instrument, students seem to perceive that notes are to be played one at a time, sometimes even with short puffs of air, destroying any potential for maintaining a horizontal musical line, and demonstrating the inability to grasp the musical intent of the phrase. This same sophistication is necessary for performers in vertical chord structures, regarding balance, blend, and intonation; but often the quest for vertical perfection creates a setting where the student develops a disregard for horizontal/linear playing. Learning to play an elegant well-connected musical line is something that even professionals struggle to master. This is the true artistry of the musical performing art and what separates a live human performance from that of computer generated music.

Teaching students that even simple rhythmic patterns in music have musical intent is the starting point. It is my experience that every great player and every great band starts with long tones, because they are in fact difficult to master. These long tones, however should not be done as mindless drills with no emphasis on musical integrity. Every note that a student plays should be used as an avenue to improve their musicianship. I suggest making young students start out by playing long tones with a slight lift or crescendo, so that the note has life and direction. I always tell young students – “Any note longer than a quarter note has to go somewhere (crescendo) or come from someplace (decrescendo).” Start by making it a habit for even long tones to have musical life and intensity. Also, make sure to teach students the real lengths of notes. What I mean by this, is that a whole note for example does not stop on the fourth beat, but it continues until one of the next measure. I like to say, “play until you think of five.” This goes for all other note values as well, they should go until the next beat.

Next, teach students that different beats of the measure have different stresses. For example, in 4/4 time, generally beats 1 and 3 are stronger beats and 2 and 4 weaker beats. Again, we are trying to avoid a monotone sound of every note having the same weight and same musical inflection. It is boring to listen to! Each note means something in the context of the phrase and should be treated differently. This is a sometimes difficult concept for younger student to grasp; but when should we start teaching it? It is my very strong opinion that we need to start on day one! Students can do it, we just have to make it essential and as important as playing the right notes.

Now on to phrasing. There is absolutely no reason why middle school students cannot play in phrases and make a phrase that has some sort of line direction or musical shape. First of all, ask the students to have a gentle rise and fall of the notes based on the pitch level of the notes themselves. In other words, as the notes go up in pitch get louder and as the notes go down in pitch get softer. Obviously this is not always the case, but it is a simple place to start. It is also quite necessary to start talking to younger players about the apex of the phrase as the point at which the line is leading. Playing music is more than playing what is on the page. Students add life to the music and they won’t do that if we don’t encourage them to do so. Connections are what music is all about—connections are necessary for communication of the musical intent. Striving to make the musical connections is a life long musical pursuit. It is a skill that needs to be developed from the very beginning of musical study, so why not start TODAY!!

–Portions of this blog were taken from the book “Connections – Chorales and Exercises to Emphasize the Art of Legato Playing for the Middle Level Band” by Larry Clark and Sean O’Loughlin