Leapin’ Lizards: Three Lessons I Learned in Marching Band

by Bill Benzon

Girl marchingLike many musicians, I was in a marching band in middle school and high school, the Marching Rams of Richland Township in Western Pennsylvania. We were a very good band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. in 1965.

That experience was a rich one. But it was also complicated and fraught with anxiety and ambivalence.

These lessons are about the lizard brain and its problematic relationship with civilization. Not merely Western Civ, mind you, but any civilization whatsoever.

Lesson the First: It’s the Groove, Baby

Those aren’t the words he used, but that’s what he meant. It’s the groove that tells the story; it’s the groove that moves the feet.

I’m talking about something told to me, though not to me personally, by Richard Cuppett, director of my high school marching band. Cuppett was something of a taskmaster and worked us hard. Because he did so, the band was an excellent one, so good, rumor had it, that some people came to football games—we’re talking Steeler country, folks, the coal mines and steel mills that fed the fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers—as much to see the band as to watch the football game.

Cuppett was talking to the band about excellence. How can you tell that a band is really good? If kids march alongside the band when it is on parade, the band is a good one. He passed that on to us as a lesson, though I forget whom he attributed it to. Perhaps some bandleader he’d worked with, or perhaps some legendary figure, like John Philips Sousa.

It sounded strange when I first heard it, gathered there in the band room along with the other bandsmen. It didn’t quite make sense to let little kids be the judges of band quality. But Cuppett was the director, so it must be true—I was just a kid then, and so inclined to believe things told to me by someone in authority.

His point, of course, is that when music is really grooving, it’s infectious. It will attract those little kids and get their fidgety feed to move in time with the music. For that to happen, two things are necessary: the musicians have to play together, and they have to play with passion. Not just one, or the other, but both at the same time.

Everyone, together, passion.

That’s not easy to do, not for a band with 72 or more members. It’s one thing for a small group of a half-dozen or so musicians to lock into a deep groove. And it’s not so difficult for a small village to get locked when the music is relatively simple. When you have 10s of musicians playing a dozen or more different kinds of instrument with four or five different kinds of musical action going on at one time, get that bunch to groove is tough.

And that’s why we had to practice so much.

But there’s more to it than practice. Marching bands have a fair amount of internal structure, and the responsibility for maintaining performance standards over many individuals in the band. Marching bands are fairly sophisticated social instruments. Here’s a passage from Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 243-244) where I explain some of this:

As a functioning parade and drill unit, a marching band is organized into ranks and files. This social structure is responsible for how the band moves on parade, on the drill field, or on the football field; it is, at best, loosely related to the band’s musical organization. The drum major initiates activities—marching, stopping, turning, performing—while individuals at the left and right ends of individual ranks are responsible for keeping order. The drum major is simply a proxy for the bandleader, who generally does not march but who has ultimate authority over the band and, as such, bears ultimate responsibility for its performance…

These responsibilities obtain both during parades and during practice. A band of, say, 72 individuals may be organized into nine ranks of eight and be directed in its maneuvers by a drum major… The musical organization is similar, but the units do not necessarily match. For musical purposes the band is divided into sections, each consisting of players of the same or similar instruments. To the extent possible, the instrumental sections will march together. Military bands typically have the following sections: clarinet, saxophone, flute, trumpet, trombone, baritone horns and euphoniums, tubas, and percussion. Each section will have several members. The music for such bands is written so that each section will have its own part, which may differ from the parts played by the other sections…

The director may conduct the band when it is more or less standing in formation. Otherwise the band performs without a conductor—the drum major is not a conductor, though he or she will initiate music.

There endeth the lesson.

Lesson the Second: All the Voices are Important

We need a bit of background before I get to the second lesson. We need to know yet more about how bands are organized, both musically and socially.

To begin with, I’m using the term “voice” in a slightly technical way. For roughly the last three or four hundred years, harmonic structure has been a dominating for in Western music. There is a melody line, and there are accompanying lines the spell out the harmony. By convention all these lines are called voices even in the situation where the music is purely instrumental.

In a military style band, or for that matter, just about any large ensemble organized along Western lines, different instrumental sections will be divided into subsections. Thus the clarinets will have the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd parts, and so with the trombones, and saxophones, and so forth. Those playing the first part would be assigned the melody line, while those playing second and third parts would be assigned harmony lines.

While it’s the melody line that’s most prominent, the line we whistle or hum or hear in the mind’s ear when the performance is over, all of the lines, all of the voices, are important. Without the harmony lines, the music loses much of its richness and its logical structure is weakened. Those inner voices, as they’re called, are essential.

What does this have to do with the practical business of organizing a band? Well, if we’re talking about top-shelf bands, such as the best bands in the United States military, all of the players are excellent musicians. The range in ability between the best and the worst in narrow, and the worst musician is still very good indeed. Any of them could do an excellent job playing the first, second, or third parts, though the first parts are generally somewhat more difficult than the second and third parts. These musicians could be assigned to parts on a random basis and the band would still perform quite well.

Things change when you’re dealing with lesser organizations, such as community bands and high school bands, such as the Marching Rams. The range in ability between the best and the worst musicians is often quite large—after all, some of these musicians may only have been playing for a year or two. Even the best musicians are not likely to be of professional or semi-pro caliber, though some of them could reach that level if they chose to do so, as some do. If musicians in such groups were assigned to parts on a random basis the result would not be very good. The less skilled musicians could not even play the first parts, much less play them well.

But musicians are not assigned to parts on a random basis, not in top-shelf bands and certainly not in high school bands. Musicians audition for and are assigned to parts by the director. The director must first decide whether or not to admit you into the band. If admitted he (or she) assigns you to play the first, second, or third part. Not only that, the musicians playing a given part are also ranked. So in the trombones we have first chair, first trombone, second chair, first trombone … first chair, second trombone, second chair, second trombone … and so forth. For each section in the band

Thus, within each section of the band the musicians are strictly ordered, from best to worst. If there are nine trombone players, they will be ordered from best to worst, with the best three assigned to the first part, and so on.

This arrangement, naturally, has its tensions. We live in a competitive society; it is important to be the best. At times and in various situations, and to the most competitive individuals, being anything other than THE BEST is equivalent to being a LOSER. The upshot, then, is that some musicians aren’t happy with their chair assignment. They want to be higher in the order.

And, wouldn’t you know, there’s a procedure for dealing with that. This particular problem is as old as marching bands themselves–heck, it’s as old as civilization–and somewhere along the way our forefathers came up with the challenge system. It’s simple. If you aren’t happy with your position, you issue a formal challenge to the musician immediately above you in the order. The director then listens to both of you and decides who’s better. Some bands have adopted a blind procedure where the players perform behind a screen so as to mask their identities. If you win the challenge, you move up and the other player moves down. If you lose, things remain the same. Either way, though, someone’s feelings are going to be hurt.

Well¬–we’ve arrived at the lesson–during the Fall my junior year I was playing first chair, second cornet. I was the leader of the second cornet section. But I felt that I should be playing first cornet. I decided to issue a challenge, which, as I recall, was a rare event.

But–wouldn’t you know it?–there’s a subtlety. There are cornets and there are trumpets. The instruments are only slightly different. If you can play one, you can play the other. Back in the 19th Century cornet players were a dime a dozen, but trumpet players were rare. By the second half of the 20th Century, if not before, that situation had reversed.

By tradition, music for military bands is generally scored for three cornet parts and two trumpet parts. Further, even where 10 or trumpeters are available, only one will be assigned to each of the trumpet parts and the rest will be distributed over the cornet parts. But, unless the band is an elite and purist one, all of the parts are likely to be played by musicians using trumpets.

How, you might ask, does this affect the overall ordering among the trumpet players? In theory, of course, you can have one order among those assigned to cornet parts and a different one among the two assigned to trumpet. In practice, that’s not how it worked. The player assigned to the first trumpet part was ranked just below the last player the first cornets. The second trumpeter was, naturally, ranked just below the first trumpeter. And that means that the second trumpeter was ranked above the second cornet.

So, I couldn’t challenge my way directly into the first cornet section, which is where I wanted to be. I had to challenge the person directly above me in the order, the second trumpeter. If I won that one, then it would take two more successful challenges to put me in the first cornet section.

This also means, however, that, when he heard us play, the director would know who was playing even though he couldn’t see us. Why? Because the cornet parts are different from the trumpet parts. He could ask us each to play, say, the first 8 bars starting at letter C in “Parade of the Charioteers.” I’d play one set of notes and the first trumpet would play a different set of notes. Anonymity was impossible.

Now, when I issued this challenge I thought it would be a slam-dunk, and I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. I was obviously better than the second trumpeter and, for that matter, I felt I was obviously better than the first trumpeter and better than most of the five guys playing first cornet as well. When I issued that challenge, I fully expected to challenge my way deep into the first cornet section, if not all the way to first chair, first cornet, which would have gotten me a few solos (the Holy Grail, as it were).

At this point, of course, you know very well what happened with my challenge. There’d be no point to this story if I’d won and then proceeded to cruise through the first cornets. But there’s one more piece of information you need to have: all of the first cornet players took private lessons from the band director, that same Richard Cuppett who taught us that it was the band’s passion and energy that was important. But I did not.

Why’d I lose? At the time the explanation was obvious; Cuppett was protecting his students. He knew who was playing, though he couldn’t see us, and had me lose so I wouldn’t be able to threaten his students. As that sort of favoritism happens all the time, that explanation of my loss was plausible.

But, some years later I decided that something else might well have been at work. Let’s assume that I’d won. I would have had no trouble playing the second trumpet part; after all, it was simpler than the second cornet part (as is generally the case). But the new first chair, second cornet, would not have performed that part as well as I did and, more than likely, would also have been angry and disappointed for having lost the challenge. The net effect is that the band as a whole would have been slightly worse, and I personally would still be gunning for the first cornet section.

Let’s further assume that I’d successfully challenged my way to first chair, first cornet. What then?

Well, I’d certainly have been happy. But the seven musicians I’d bested in those challenges would be miffed and the band as a whole would have been a bit poorer. Why? Though I could have played the first cornet parts a bit better than any of the others, it was only a bit better. That wouldn’t have made much if any difference in the overall band performance.

It is precisely because I was as good as any of the first cornetists that the band was better off for having me play second cornet. It gave the band strength in a position where amateur bands are traditionally weak. All the voices are important.

There endeth the lesson.

Lesson the Third: I’m the Boss, I Make the Rules

Here we need a bit of background as well, but not quite so much.

High school bands march during the Fall, when they perform half-time shows for football games. Once football season is over the band becomes a concert band.

Concert band music is more varied and more interesting than marching band music. It’s better music, plain and simple.

March music, after all, is constrained to a narrow range of tempos and time signatures. You aren’t going to be playing slow lyrical pieces and you aren’t going to be playing waltzes, which have three beats while humans have only two legs.

We’ve arrived at another sources of tension in Musicland. Students who are mostly interested in being in a club don’t much care about the difference between music for marching season and music for concert season. A club is a club. But those who care passionately about music have a different view. Marching band is a bit of a drag, while concert band was much more interesting. That’s where you get to perform real music. Club vs. music; rehearsing like hell vs. hanging out.

Many band directors feel that way as well. I’m sure that my private trumpet teacher, Dave Dysert, felt that way. But I doubt that Cuppett felt that way. Oh, I’m sure he recognized the difference between the two musical regimes. But I suspect that he liked them both. He liked concert band for its greater sophistication and he liked marching band for the grand spectacle of it all.

As you might have suspected, I’m one of those who was more interested in the music than in the club. I couldn’t see any good reason why I had to play in marching band when it was concert band that interested me. During the Spring of my junior year I decided that I wouldn’t play in marching band the following year, but that I would play in concert band. During the following week a few other musicians decided to follow my lead.

The next week Cuppett made an announcement. If some musicians didn’t want to perform in marching band, that was fine and dandy with him. However, those who didn’t play in marching band would lose their chair position in concert band. You’d go to the bottom of the section.

Well, all among those few of us who’d decided to secede had relatively high chair positions. We didn’t want to lose them. Rebellion over.

There endeth the lesson.

* * * * *

Which of these lessons is the most important? That’s simple, the first one. Without it, the others don’t matter.