I can’t put my finger on exactly when it happened but some time between my graduation from college in 2000 and today, the loudest marching bands are viewed as better. This is the case for a large portion of the public and, sadly, most musicians too… I remember the days when being loud wasn’t something musicians went to first when bragging about their performance. Now it seems like it’s the only thing that matters. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like bands weren’t huge and they weren’t filling the horns up with air back in the day. My school’s tuba section was nicknamed “The Thunder Brothers” for a reason. It’s just that there were so many other things that differentiated bands back then… high among them was the sound.
“You’ve heard one marching band… You’ve heard them all”
I remember the days when most of the “good bands” possessed a unique sound and they protected their sound above anything else because that was the most important characteristic of their organization. Two bands would have totally different interpretations of one song and it made both performances different and exciting in their own right. This was facilitated by the fact that every band had its own arranger who wrote most of the music heard by the public. Fast forward to today and most bands still have their own arrangers… but the writing styles have become so similar that many times bands sound exactly the same and the audience is left with that “You’ve heard one marching band… You’ve heard them all” feeling, which hurts the culture.
One major change in the way things used to be is how we think about woodwinds. Today, woodwinds are rarely used independently in the marching band setting. Most arrangers typically follow the practice of doubling them with their upper brass counterparts (which causes them to disappear into oblivion). Others write an independent line here or there but only to make it appear as if their band has some concept of contrast, which is quickly diminished once their 90% brass band re-enters the music. In smaller ensembles, like some high school bands, many woodwind players are asked to learn a brass instrument during marching band. Re-enforcing the non importance of woodwinds in the marching band setting… So why do we still have them at all?
Woodwinds… why do we still have them at all?
The style of play that many traditional marching bands have adopted within the last two decades (and even further back for some) is one that caters to a brass heavy sound… similar to the all brass instrumentation of DCI groups. I predict that within the next decade most, if not all, “traditional” college marching bands will not include woodwinds in their instrumentation. Here’s why…
- Volume: Let’s face it, the current fad is to be the loudest. Unless this changes, (which I don’t see happening any time soon) a marching band full of woodwinds is a “losing” one, according to public opinion. Having those woodwinds will make you appear bigger, which could be a bad thing because according to the typical audience member, the biggest band should always be louder (ie. better). However, woodwinds will never produce the volume of brasswinds.
- Cost Savings: When comparing marching brass and woodwinds, of equal quality, woodwinds are typically more expensive to purchase, maintain, and repair (sousaphones are the exception). When awarding scholarships, why pay for a clarinetist and a baritone player when you can get a clarinetist that plays baritone? You’ve just saved thousands! Many smaller programs have already phased out marching woodwinds for this very reason.
- No Marches: For the longest time traditional bands held onto “The March” as the tool by which a band’s musicians, especially woodwinds, sharpened their saws. How well a band played The Circus Bee, Purple Carnival, The Klaxon, and other marches could give the listener an indication of the caliber of musicians within that program. Within the form of a typical march is a section called “the trio”. The trio features the woodwinds and, very prominently, highlights their contributions to the marching band’s sound in general. Well… many marching bands (with the exception of a few) no longer play marches. In hindsight, stepping away from the march was likely the nail in the coffin for woodwinds.
Or I could be wrong of course…
Maybe we are not in some musical shift of historical proportions and this is all just a fad, a blip on the historical timeline… kinda like bell bottoms. Lol! What do you think? Would the great bands of yesteryear get “cranked” on by today’s standards? Do woodwinds still have a place in today’s marching bands? Sound off in the comments!