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Valuable Lessons
Discovering new respect for the valuable lessons of the not-so-lowly march
by Donald DeRoche, Ph.D.
DePaul University, Chicago
Dr. Donald DeRoche is director of bands and chair of the Performance Studies Di-vision at DePaul University in Chicago. Among his many activities, he has given premiere performances of some dozen pieces for winds with the DePaul Wind Ensemble, which he directs. Dr.DeRoche is a frequent adjudicator and a regular contributor to this column.

Over the last few years, I have gotten out of the habit of playing marches, but this winter I included a couple on one of my programs. I needed to fill some time, and I wanted something easy that wouldn’t take a lot of rehearsal.
After spending nearly an hour on the first march, I began to realize that there is a lot more to these little gems than I had previously noticed. They are compact forms, are short in duration, have a stable pulse throughout and have clearly defined melodies with accompaniment. These attributes make them appealing to audiences, but more important, make them perfect vehicles for teaching the basics of ensemble playing.
What can you teach from marches?
Form. Students always play a piece more intelligently when they understand its structure. A basic military march form is straightforward: introduction of four bars; first strain of 16 bars; second strain of 16 bars; trio with a first strain of 16 bars and a second strain of 16 or 32 bars. This basic form may be altered with “break” strains, extended introductions, and such, but even the altered forms are usually simple.
You can quickly point out the form to students during a rehearsal. The double bars and repeat signs will clearly outline the form for them. It is equally easy to point out how dynamics support the form and to help them hear ways in which orchestration changes in each section. Students find it interesting that most trio sections change key and almost always add a flat (or subtract a sharp).
Pulse and rhythm patterns. A solid, steady sense of pulse is fundamental to developing good rhythm in a group. Marches, with their steady bass lines and constant bass drum beat, help develop this sense beautifully. An established pulse is a real help when teaching subdivision, and that pulse behind subdivisions of two and four (in 2/4 and “cut” time) and three (in 6/8) is very helpful in producing an easy, accurate division of the beat.
As a junior-high student, I didn’t have a well-developed understanding of 2/2 or 6/8. The idea that a beat could be represented by a quarter note, a dotted quarter or a half note was confusing. Dotted rhythms in 6/8 and syncopated rhythms were difficult for me. It was through the playing of marches that I finally became comfortable reading a variety of rhythmic patterns in basic meters.
Dynamics. Because each section of a march is so short, there are usually a lot of dynamic indications on the page. The intro might start ff, have a diminuendo at the end of the fourth bar and start the first strain at f. There will often be a variety of crescendi and diminuendi to follow. Trios often have soft first strains, loud break strains, and more than one dynamic in the concluding sections.
Certainly, each march is different, but their shared beauty is that the dynamic changes are clear and dramatic, fitting the melodic materials very well. This is great for teaching students to read dynamics and for helping them relate dynamic changes to changes in melody and orchestration.
Variety in articulation. Among the rules I learned for playing marches were: Unless notes are slurred, they should be separated. Longer notes get more stress than shorter notes. Syncopated notes get accented.
These are all good rules, and you need to keep them in mind when playing those little flip-folder-sized pages or when reading editions that are not highly edited. Frederick Fennell and Keith Brion, among others, have done a great service by publishing clear, highly edited versions of marches that strive to capture articulations as they were intended. Fennell has taken great care to make real distinctions between a staccato, a tenuto, a normal accent, a pointed accent, sfz, a note with both an accent and a staccato, and a tenuto with a staccato, to name only some.
It’s important that students understand the different sounds of those articulations and know how to produce them. Staccato, for example, does not imply any accent, only separation both before the note and after it. The normal accent is like a quick diminuendo with a kind of down-bow stress. The pointed accent is shorter and more aggressively attacked. Well-edited versions of marches offer an excellent opportunity to teach this variety in articulation and to have students learn to execute it.
Phrase. The short phrases of marches usually fall into clear four-, eight- and 16-measure sections that are perfect for demonstrating phrase structure. The melodies have clear beginnings, middles and ends. Half phrases are clearly heard, and pairs of phrases that form larger sections are easy to find.
Teaching that phrases are like sentences, with commas, periods and inflection, is accomplished easily in marches. Trio sections are often contrasting, with a softer dynamic and a much more vocally inflected shape. Teaching this contrast is also important.
Variety of style. Some interesting facts about marches:
Did you know that the Sousa Band marched only seven times in all the years it existed? Marches were staples of Sousa’s concerts, but they were concert pieces, not intended as “stand-up” works.
Did you know that many marches at the turn of the 20th century were actually dances? One of the most successful was Sousa’s Washington Post, which gained considerable fame as a two-step. The two-step was a popular dance that gradually came to replace the waltz as the preferred social dance of the time. On many old editions of marches, you will find the designation “two-step,” “quickstep” or “fox trot” under the title, indicating the dance step to be used with that music.
Variety of style involves more than simply recognizing the dance, song and marching qualities of various military marches. There is a wide range of kinds of marches, including circus marches, concert marches, college marches and fight songs, as well as marches from opera and musical theater. If you include processionals, it is possible to teach an even wider variety of styles with these simple, direct works.
Warm-ups. A high school band-director friend of mine is convinced that the normal practice of a warm-up at the beginning of a rehearsal is a bad idea. He avoids the Bb scale or the chorale and instead reads a march at the beginning of every rehearsal. He says it helps his students’ sight-reading greatly, gets everyone in the class involved immediately, forces percussionists to get set up quickly and gets students thinking about pulse, dynamics, articulation and following the conductor. The whole process takes less than five minutes, and he can move quickly to the next work.
Not a bad idea.
Some marches you might use. The list of marches that can be used successfully in teaching is huge, but I’d like to offer some suggestions. Sousa’s King Cotton is a good piece to introduce young bands to 6/8 meter. Another Sousa march, Manhattan Beach, can be used because it is so “uncharacteristic” in its form and dynamic content. I like Amparito Roca (Texidore), Circus Days (King), March op. 99, The Florentiner (Fucik), and Barber’s Commando March because of the possibilities for teaching a variety of styles. The marches from the Holst and Vaughan Williams suites are wonderful for teaching phrase and singing lines.
How about an all-march concert? Several years ago, I proposed a concert consisting of all marches to my community band.
After the groaning stopped, I offered a program that included The Earle of Oxford’s Marche by Jacob, Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral by Wagner, March from the Symphonic Metamorphosis by Hindemith and the march movement from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5. These were included along with my favorite Sousa marches, some Karl King, 76 Trombones and some British marches. Clearly, we found a wide variety of repertoire for the concert, and the audience had a great time.
Sometimes the basics of musical playing and ensemble development are not apparent in performances of the more difficult and sophisticated music we choose for our students. Marches provide a perfect environment of obvious musical choices that can help us to teach those basics more efficiently. Once the basics of music and ensemble are clearly understood, it may be easier to transfer those skills to more challenging works.