An exciting opportunity for musicians who play certain instruments is to be involved in a marching band. Whether a total newbie or looking to make an instrument switch, students often wonder which instrument they should choose.
If you like woodwinds, the alto sax is naturally loud and relatively easy to march. Among brass instruments, the trumpet is the lightest but requires precise mouth formation. For percussion, bass drums are the least heavy, holding the beat for everyone, while snares play fast but more complex parts.
When choosing your instrument, you must consider the physical requirements and how much you’re willing to condition your body.
Large instruments require strength and endurance while small instruments are lighter and easier to manage.
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What instruments are usually used in marching band?
There are three families of instruments commonly used in a marching band: Woodwinds, Brass, and Percussion.
Woodwind instruments used in marching bands commonly include:
- Flutes and piccolos
- clarinets, bass clarinets
- Saxophones: alto, tenor, baritone
Brass instruments typically include:
- Trombones, euphoniums, baritones
- Sousaphones or contrabass bugles
For marching band, percussion instruments are divided into two categories: the battery/drumline and the pit/front ensemble. The battery/drumline uses harnesses to march the instruments and mostly consists of drums:
- Snare drum
- Bass drum
- Quad drums
- Impact drums
The pit/front ensemble do not march, but are set up on the sideline at the front of the field. This might include:
- Keyboard, synthesizer
- Auxiliary, rack, bass, gong.
Criteria for choosing a marching band instrument
Every instrument will pose unique challenges, and it is best to understand those challenges when choosing an instrument with which to march and play. The physical requirements are a major consideration.
First, physical strength of the player is important, and to which degree varies by instrument. Whichever instrument you choose, you will need to hold your arms up in playing position for a whole song.
If considering sousaphone or saxophone, the stability of the back and neck become relevant. Most of the sousaphone’s weight lies on the player’s left shoulder and neck. The saxophone’s weight, on the other hand, lies on the neck.
Not only will the player need the strength and endurance to hold the instrument, they must do so while reading music and marching.
If you choose a woodwind or brass instrument, lung capacity is important too.
Challenges of brass instruments
Brass instruments are played by buzzing the lips together inside the cup-shaped mouthpiece. It is crucial to march with a steady torso to keep the mouth formation steady and maintain a consistent tone.
Horn angles are essential to proper marching posture and showmanship. Trumpets, trombones, mellophones, and contrabass tubas march with bells facing upward at a 45 degree angle while playing, which is strenuous on the arms.
Challenges of woodwind instruments
Woodwind instruments are played by vibrating reeds against a mouthpiece using air, or in the case of the flute, blowing over a sound hole.
Accurate positioning of the mouth and reeds must be maintained, which can be challenging while marching.
Clarinets and saxophones are not as heavy as brass instruments, but be prepared for pressure on the right thumb.
Saxophones have neck straps to help bear the weight, however the tenor and baritone saxophones are still quite heavy.
With flute, it is even more crucial that the mouth is kept positioned, since even being slightly off center will make it difficult to play.
Also, the flute is held up parallel to the ground, and will be quite tiring initially.
While the drumline can be a lot of fun, they can be the most challenging for marching band. The size and weight of the drums are significant.
With the snare drum, bass drums, or quad drums, the instrument is in front of you, so you need to distribute your weight backward.
The bulkiness of the drums makes it difficult to pull off quick maneuvers.
To be in the drumline, you must be able to carry a 15-25 pound instrument on a harness made of fiberglass and metal. Your back and shoulders need to be conditioned to hold these instruments for the amount of time of a show or parade.
Which brass instrument to choose for marching band?
#1 Trumpet for marching
The trumpet is the lightest brass instrument, so it is easiest to hold while marching. It also requires the least amount of air.
Because of its small size, the trumpet has the smallest mouthpiece, which demands a high level of precision with your lip and mouth formation.
The slightest shuffle or misstep will inhibit the player’s sound, making marching and playing somewhat challenging at first.
#2 Mellophone (marching French horn)
Still on the lightweight side of the brass family, the mellophone is manageable in terms of size. Its mouthpiece is comparable in size to the trumpet, and it doesn’t require an abundance of air to play.
Like the French horn, the Mellophone has a specialized embouchure, or mouth formation, that is challenging to learn.
There are several notes for one fingering, so precise ears and playing technique are necessary to march a mellophone.
#3 Baritone for marching
The marching baritone is a forward facing horn and looks somewhat like a giant trumpet. It’s size and bell offer the opportunity for great visuals on the field.
Because it is larger, the baritone is heavier and all of the weight is held by the player’s hands and arms.
Also, large amounts of air are needed to maintain a quality sound.
#4 Tuba, sousaphone, bugle
The tuba is the foundational bass sound of a band. Being the bottom layer of the band can be gratifying, and you get to play the lowest voice and bass lines.
A contrabass bugle is essentially a marching tuba used often in drum corps. It is positioned on the shoulder of the player.
In contrast, the sousaphone encircles your body, which offers fun visual effects but also makes it difficult to maneuver quickly.
Both the contrabass and the sousaphone are very heavy, so strength, endurance, and large lung capacity are required to play and march it.
The trombone is unique, and uses a slide to change notes rather than valves like the other brass instruments. It is a boisterous instrument and easy to hear outdoors.
The trombone is a long instrument with a bell that must also be aimed toward the stands.
Reaching out to extend the slide can be strenuous and requires advanced hand, eye, foot coordination for marching and playing.
Which woodwind to choose for marching band?
Perhaps the easiest woodwind to play outdoors is the saxophone. It is a naturally loud instrument, and although it can be heavy, the neck strap helps to support the weight of the instrument.
The tenor and baritone saxophones are cumbersome, so a sturdy body frame and strong perseverance are important if choosing the larger saxes.
The lightest of the woodwinds, the flute won’t weigh you down while marching. It’s length offers visual appeal as it shines in the light during movements on the field.
On the downside, it requires an immense amount of air to play in general, so marching and playing will be challenging with breathing.
The flute also has a very soft sound, and it sometimes can barely be heard when playing outdoors.
The clarinet is also on the lighter side and easy to hold for an extended amount of time. Like the flute, the clarinet often gets the melody which many find fun to play.
Because of the small reed and mouthpiece, it can be difficult to march and play if the upper body is not kept still.
Because it is held down in front of the body, the clarinet isn’t greatly conducive to field visuals.
Which percussion instrument to choose for marching band?
Marching bass drums vary in size but even the largest is lighter than other marching drums. The bass drum often plays on the beat, which coincides with the footsteps of marching.
Although on the lighter side, the bass drum is large and difficult to see around while marching.
Also, being the heartbeat of the band means you must be able to keep a steady, consistent tempo to keep everyone together.
The marching snare drum is a traditional instrument that feels very militaristic. Many find it fun to play and find opportunities for stick tricks and playing fast drum rolls.
The snare has complex music, so fundamentals need to be mastered in order to be able to march and play.
The snare is the leader of the battery, so the player must be solid.
#3 Tenor/Quad drums
Considered by many to be the coolest drums, the tenor drums are very showy and exciting to play. Having four, and in some cases five, different drums of varying tones creates a melodic texture within the battery.
Although fun, the tenor drums are extremely heavy. The drums surround you, limiting mobility. Each drum head needs re-tuned before performing.
Being made of metal, the flashiness of the crash cymbals is used for visual effects frequently. They can be moved in many configurations, especially in groups of multiple players.
They are thick and heavy, so solid upper body strength is needed to hold them up for long periods of time.