Recently, a colleague of mine asked me how soon in the school year I start working on our “indoor sound.” I hesitated for a moment because I didn’t quite understand the question. “What do you mean, our ‘indoor sound?’” I responded.
“You know, there’s a sound you have for your marching band and one for your concert band, right? When do you flip the switch? Do you wait until marching season is over?”
Again, I hesitated.
Sound: There’s only one.
In my experience, the bands that strive for their best, most characteristic “indoor” sounds are the ones that generate the most enthusiastic response from the outdoor audience and, naturally, from any judges. Back in “the day,” when drum corps played exclusively on instruments pitched in G with only two valves (or a piston and rotor!), there was most definitely a sound associated with the activity. Many marching bands erroneously modeled their approaches based on this sound. The color, intonation, projection, and timbre of these drum corps was restricted by the equipment allowed. These limitations were never a part of the marching band idiom, yet the success and visibility of drum corps influenced the way marching bands approached musicianship. In the last 20 years, with the addition of instruments pitched in orchestral keys, drum corps have evolved more in the direction of great marching bands than great marching bands have evolved toward drum corps.
Strategies: There are many!
Although I don’t believe there is a dedicated “indoor” or “outdoor” sound, there are undoubtedly indoor and outdoor strategies that can be employed to generate musical effect—not necessarily for artistry’s sake, but to overcome the limitations and to exploit the characteristics of an outdoor environment or a large indoor space. In addition to the venue, these strategies are also driven by another unique aspect of the pageantry arts: the brevity of the shows.
One such strategy falls under the heading of “scaled effects,” such as the enumeration of dynamic levels as opposed to the traditional Italian terminology. In the marching environment, dynamics often carry numerical values (ff=Level 7, pp=Level 2, etc.) with a specific objective that involves how exposed woodwind or keyboard percussion instruments are at specific moments in the musical evolution of the production. Perhaps because the marching band contains a more diverse cross-section of musicians, this concrete approach achieves a more unified result. In addition, I believe there is a greater range of nuance available on the concert stage which necessitates a more subtle and relative approach to musicianship (how often do marching groups compete with crowd noise, traffic, and other distractions!). But I would not enumerate dynamics within the concert band setting, regardless of the skill or maturity of the individual players. Working with a concert band, I refer exclusively to the standard terminology and conventions of the orchestral idiom. Dynamics are defined as fortissimo, pianissimo, mezzo, etc.
A distinguishing characteristic of the marching idiom is the condensation of large scale works into much smaller, concise, “best of” versions of the original. Though I would not
abridge original works for the concert stage, I will, however, truncate works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, or Ticheli and Mackey to accommodate the time limitations and “short attention span” of the marching activity. Musicianship, unlike form, does not necessarily have to be a slave to construction or brevity. But in all cases, the concepts and goals of teaching musicianship must be the same. This is why I believe in only one basic sound for a band, marching or otherwise. I concede that this notion might meet with resistance initially. But who can argue that any band should strive to make anything less than the most mature and characteristic sounds possible? After all, that’s why drum corps evolved away from bugles pitched in G to more standard instruments in multiple keys. (Just look at the number of top drum corps using trombones in addition to marching baritones!)
What do your kids think you value?
Regardless of your approach, your students will come to value what YOU value. If you value playing loud, even if the sounds of the instruments are distorted, your kids will value that as well. They won’t know the difference. If you value playing fortissimo with a characteristic sound, one without distortion, they will strive to achieve an orchestral fortissimo (but only if you can define this for them through your pedagogy and through demonstration—that is, by playing examples of this for them).
So, is there really an indoor or outdoor sound?
In my opinion, there is no “indoor” or “outdoor” sound. There are strategies for achieving musical effect, but those are dictated by the environment as much as by artistic choice. If we put artistry ahead of everything, we’ll achieve a satisfying, artistic result. Of course, we have to be artists ourselves, and that demands a lifelong commitment, not a momentary competitive strategy.
These and other topics will be the subject of future weekly System Blue tips. As always, if you have questions or would like more information, contact Frank Troyka at firstname.lastname@example.org.