IS BIGGER BETTER?: Can A Small Band Ever Really Be The “Best Band”?

images (2)

Look at any online poll or list of The Best College Marching Bands in America and I assure you that most of the bands listed, if not all, will be well over 200 members. Is it possible for a small band to ever be “The best band”? I know what most who read this will likely say, because I share the same view… “Size doesn’t matter”, “Quality over quantity”, “David vs Goliath”, etc… This is the expected “band head” response. However, among the average marching band fans it’s typically accepted, that bigger is better. As an adjudicator, I’m able to put size aside and use the score sheet as the measure for superior performance but when enjoying performances as just a fan of the craft even I allow certain size biases to seep in.24_4

I’ve noticed the way audiences receive larger bands vs smaller bands and there is indeed a difference. Before a single note is played the bigger band is given the audience’s full attention and respect, while the smaller band is given the task of having to earn the audience’s attention and respect. This is not always a bad thing because the element of surprise can be a formidable weapon, yet still I’m interested in understanding why we are wired this way. Even some colleagues and I have been guilty of accusing a band of having a “down year” based solely off a decrease in size (And we are supposed to know better). Is this human nature? Are we naturally disposed to the notion that bigger, or more, is always better?


This was a question that I was pondering over the last week or two, so I decided to study the issue a little closer and began categorizing bands I liked into three groups; small, average, and large based on the size of the group’s wind and percussion players. I came up with a system to help discern between the groupings. Bands were average if their size ranged from 96 to 160 members. Bands above 160 members I categorized as large bands while bands with membership less than 96 I categorized as small bands. Every clip I watched, I applied a label to the band; small, average, or large. I quickly realized that my favorite bands, with a few exceptions, were mostly in the large band category. Try it for yourself and see where your favorite bands fall.images

I’m in this phase where I like to self analyze, so I asked myself, was I saying size doesn’t matter while truly believing and practicing the opposite based on my choices? Was I boxing bands in based on their size? I’m a fan of some really good small bands. Why could I not bring myself to rank them higher than larger groups? It’s not like I haven’t witnessed small groups that performed outside of typical expectations. I’ve fielded some of those bands myself, so I know there are always exceptions to the norm.

“Small bands have always had to work twice as hard, be twice as right, and sound twice as nice”

Back in the day, I’ve seen smaller bands out perform larger programs in many situations. Watching old Marching 101 videos from the late 80’s and 90’s proves this point nicely. They weren’t a small band, I’d consider those bands to be “average sized”, right at 140 members, but they didn’t need any numbers beyond what they had, that’s for sure. The musicianship, the excitement, the energy just “left nothing to be desired” as Mr. Sarjeant would say…

Video provided by: TAPEMASTER

We’ve all heard the legendary story of the Southern University 48 Posse… if you haven’t I’ll attempt to paraphrase the backstory, but don’t quote me on pin point accuracy here. Legend has it that in 1989 Dr Greggs got into a “disagreement” with university officials about the band’s scholarship budget. To drive home his point, he allowed only the students who were on scholarship to perform at a game, which happened to be about 48 students. I’m not sure what he was trying to prove, but if his point was all he needed was 48, then it was well received! This legendary story has been passed around from band head to band head for years and became the stuff of urban legend until somebody produced the tape! Shoutout to TAPEMASTER for a collection of legendary footage! Wow is all I have to say… Check it out for yourselves…

Video provided by: TAPEMASTER

We might agree that bands of yesterday and bands of today are different in many aspects. Not many of today’s bands could drop down to 48 members and still provide a quality performance to a sell out crowd. The band director would likely be fired before the band even played one note, Lol. Today, many schools subscribe to the premise that there is strength in numbers. The sheer size of the band is a testament to the academic and competitive prowess of the institution. They’ve developed ensembles that are, generally, larger with stronger instrumentation than bands of yesterday. With the advent of music notation software, making it easier to score and arrange, the sound of today’s band has “changed” as well. Having around 18-20 baritones in a marching band, back then, didn’t make much sense but seems to be the norm amongst the “elite” programs of today. How can a small band compete with that? Small bands have always had to work twice as hard, be twice as right, and sound twice as nice, just to be accepted as a formidable opponent. I guess that much has remained the same.

What are your thoughts?

Published by Ernest Stackhouse

-Music Educator -Marching Band Show Design -Musical Arranger -Adjudicator -Fine Arts Administrator -Band Director -Writer

8 thoughts on “IS BIGGER BETTER?: Can A Small Band Ever Really Be The “Best Band”?

  1. Can it be done? In my humble opinion at this day and age, not for the masses. Competition, absolutely! Halftime show… not as simple. I would have to agree that the energy, arrangements, difficulty and precision of the drill, and skill of the band CAN overcome the bias against a small band. I don’t think it happens often now. Is it lack of talent and vision of the director? Is it lack of skill, motivation, and execution of the students? The larger bands are not free from the same issues, but it is a lot easier to mask errors with larger numbers.

    1. Yes Sir! There are many factors at play here. And these factors apply to small, average, and large sized bands but it does seem that large bands get a “pass”. Rather we intend to do it or not they are treated differently by the fan and music educator alike… It’s interesting.

  2. Great article. I’ve seen bands both large and small that are HORRIBLE. On the other hand I’ve seen great bands both big and small. The thing about a small band is that you do have to work harder for audience attention but also there is the ability to be cleaner and more precise than your larger counterpoints. An old band director told me years ago “All you can do is make the best with what you have. If you have one tuba player, teach him and make that one tuba player the best tuba player in the city”

    1. Absolutely! I agree 100%. As directors we must always make the best of what we have before us because all students deserve a quality music education regardless of the outliers. Thanks for reading! 👍

  3. Size (with balance) can certainly give you some versatility with arranging. However, you can argue (and it has been proven before) that a good arranger can make odd instrumentations sound good, as long as there is good teaching and a willingness to learn on the part of the members. I have seen small bands with just as much excitement as the larger bands. Some of the larger bands can be a bit bland. It starts with the Director!

    1. Absolutely!… Could you select a small band as your favorite amongst bands that are at average or large band size? Some find it difficult to do that. I’m struggling with this topic, honestly. I go back and forth by the hour. Lol

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: