Complete Percussionist

Interpreting Marches

by David L. Codrey

Is it possible to “kick” a march in much the same way you kick a dance band? As long as we’re not talking about dance band rhythms, but are talking about support (supporting the brass and reeds in a march just as much as you support them in a dance band) then the answer is a resounding yes! Kicking a march is the only way to go.

When you see a dominant chord in dance band music, you kick it. You’ve got to. But how many first endings in marches are there, with a very similar and just as dominant chord that is not kicked because it’s not written? Why? The power is there to make that chord say something. You’ve got the power to shout that punctuation. Why not use it?

It’s time to face the facts about drums and drumming. Forget the mystique, the almost magical aura that surrounds shiny new drums. Forget how hard it is to play a drum exactly correct. Instead, sit back and listen to a field drum, bass drum and hand cymbals individually. You won’t get very far before remembering once again that drums can be just a bunch of noise! Drums are indeed the least musical instruments in the band.

Many drummers go wrong by spending their time fighting for something they already have, a place in the band. Instead, they should find out why their noise making ability is needed so badly. The popular idea is that drums are needed for their timekeeping ability. Luckily, this idea is being challenged by musicians who know that drums can actually do very little to help a band with a bad lime problem. I’ve always compared timekeeping to a mallet man on a Roman slave galley: no music, just time.

Drums do have a musical function in the band, a very important one that, like their sound, is slightly unmusical. Think once again of a field drum, flashing cymbals and the blasting ability of a bass drum. Quite often the only movement in a band is the drum section — and it catches the audience’s eye. So one function of the drum section is to get the audience’s attention.

Another function, and the most important, is how the drums keep the audience’s attention. The best way to explain this is to ask you to recall the last time you listened a bad speaker. The speaker droned on and on, never letting the listener know when he passed a period or a comma or even an exclamation point. The monotone voice rambled past thoughts and ideas until everyone in the audience was fast asleep.

Drums are used to punctuate music, and in doing that, they become interpreters of the music. As interpreters, they build a bridge from the ensemble to the audience. In a word, they give the music meaning.

Dance-band drummers play music their own way all the time. Why not you? Dance drums are constantly being used to the utmost of their creative ability. Why not field drums?

Composers may want you to play it safe. They might expect you to follow the spots and be a slave to the printed page. But the composer is not responsible for the way you sound and you can’t tell an audience, “Hey, this march would have sounded better if I had played my part differently.” Don’t tell them, show them.

Some of the best examples of the well-known “Tension and Release” techniques used in music are found in dance-band charts and march music. But, unfortunately, most marches in print today were composed in the early part of this century, during a time when drums were to be “felt but not heard.” Sure, there were a few experiments. The great march kings were innovators. They tried to explore some of the possibilities of percussion instruments. But their ear, training, and thinking was tied to the 19th century music.

Why, for instance, were so many pick-ups to the next strain written with a rest in the drum part? The best answer I got (and there were few musicians with an answer) was that the composer felt it more important to set up a sonority rather than a “feel” for the next strain. That is pure 19th to help the brass. The power is there to century, or chamber music thinking.

Today, thanks to big bands, jazz, and rock bands, drummers and composers are ever questioning the different ways drums bring feeling to music. And they are finding their answers. All we have to do is take these answers back to the early marches and use them to bring out all the music those marches contain.

For example, there are places in many marches where the drums can actually set up the brass in much the same way a dance drummer will set up a shout chorus. Watch for the four-loud-bars-four-soft-bars sequence, usually in the second strain. If the brass begin their loud part with eighth notes off of one, hit them with an accented fortissimo roll on one, followed by 5’s or 7 stroke rolls to the end of the four bars. Continue into the soft part with soft after-beats; then hit again with your roll. Finish out the strain, playing the repeat exactly the way you did it the first time.

The best place I’ve found to use the above technique is in “On The Square” by Frank A. Panella. Frank’s drum part “preps” the trumpets a few times, (the theme is repeated in the last strain), but they should be prepped every time with a whole note, fortissimo roll. Also, he wrote a very thetic sounding rhythm for the loud part and the 5’s and 7’s mentioned above would help to lighten and broaden the snare drum and give more support for the trumpets.

But this is by no means the only technique or the only march with which you can play around with your part. In fact, the march most experimented with by arrangers, conductors, and instrumentalists is also considered by many to be the best march ever written, Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The late Arthur Fiedler’s “unwritten” Grand Pause before the last strain of that march is fantastically successful.

If you’re a responsible musician, then like a dance-band drummer, you won’t try to force a meaning into your part that has no intelligent place in the music. You won’t try to bury your brothers too deep with your playing. Like a dance-band drummer, you can punch the brass, soothe the reeds, and follow the melodic curve. Force the band into changes of volume, and like a dance-band drummer, lead the band.