When you need to march in 30-degree weather, dress yourself properly to make it out of the season without an endless runny nose or nagging cough.
The cold winter months can be harsh for anyone—the wind’s blowing in your face, snowflakes are landing in your eye, and you can barely see five feet in front of you—but having to march and play an instrument in bad weather can be devastating if you’re not prepared. Like any other athletic activity, marching can potentially turn into a miserable experience in any sort of inclement weather; however, much like any sport or performance art, the show must go on, no matter what.
Layers, Layers, Layers
Whether rehearsing or performing outdoors or just unloading equipment on the way to an indoor arena, the most important thing to do is to dress reasonably. Ensure that your outfit is dense enough to retain heat and keep you insulated. In an activity where mobility and breathing are essential, however, thick layers of clothing may not be the best course of action.
Instead, choose a lightweight outer layer that is windproof, according to James Preste, marketing director for Cheer Factor, which makes custom warmup outfits.
“The reason people get cold is that wind blows through the fabric,” Preste says.
“Teflon backing will help prevent that. We have a material that has a soft fleece on the inside and teflon on the outside, so wind won’t go through it, but it stays comfortable on the inside.”
Multiple layers underneath a practice outfit allow for students to adjust their clothing based on changing temperatures over the course of a practice. If they get too warm, they can shed a layer of clothing or two in order to cool off. Similarly, if the weather worsens, additional outer layers can be added to keep students warm and comfortable during practice.
One challenge for marching ensembles outfitting their members is that high-quality weather-resistant material can be very expensive, particularly when the material has to be bought in bulk for a great number of students.
“Waterproof garments can be very expensive, and they don’t have the stretch that marching apparel needs for movement,” Preste explains.
“Layering is the best way to go, we’ve seen. We have polyester materials that absorb rain and are breathable, so that the rain will dry pretty quickly. We also have some neoprene fabrics that are completely water-resistant, but they can sometimes be problematic in terms of overheating.”
Preste says that performers specifically should avoid wearing nylon fabric. Though it can keep players very warm, nylon has absolutely no give, restricting movement, which can, of course, be very problematic in a marching setting, particularly in highly choreographed shows that require movement beyond marching patterns.
“Nylon doesn’t stretch, doesn’t breathe, and has to be made slightly oversized, so that performers don’t suffocate in it,” he explains. “It keeps your students too warm, and it has no style. It just doesn’t work.”
Jose Diaz Jr., the band director of Wagner College on Staten Island, New York, has specific clothing advice as well. He suggests fitted clothing—such as the Nike Pro Hyperwarm line—for your base layer. Made of polyester and spandex, this fitted material will not bunch up under a uniform while keeping the performer warm and comfortable.
“The most important thing is to get fitted material to wear under your uniform,” Diaz says. “You can wear multiple layers, and it does not bunch up.”
Thermal undergarments are incredibly useful in any marching setting, as most of them will easily fit under a practice outfit, marching uniform or anything else the students happen to wear. This is particularly useful in a parade or competition setting, where the outward appearance of the band is incredibly important and can’t be affected by any undergarments.
Preste suggests underwear containing honeycomb-patterned insulation, which he notes to be the most efficient heat retainers.
“Layering is a good idea in this case as well,” he adds. “You can have insulated underwear, but you can also have regular underwear underneath. Long-john underwear and honeycomb patterns are the best ones to go with. They’ll keep you the warmest.”
Gloves as well as hats or shakos are frequently part of a marching outfit regardless of the weather. In cold weather, warm beanies and hats of that nature could be worn as well as thicker gloves, so long as they allow for enough hand movement.
“Keeping hands warm is tricky, as students most likely need full mobility in order to play their instrument or handle various pieces of equipment, in the case of color guard and twirlers,” says Joe Martinez, creative director of Band Shoppe. “We have winter gloves that are lined with heavy sweatshirt fleece, which keeps mobility in mind while keeping a player’s hands warm.”
In the Wagner Band, percussionists have specialized gloves with a better grip for drumsticks. “Many of my band members—brass and most woodwinds—wear gloves,” Diaz says. “Clarinet players, unfortunately, can’t wear full gloves because of how the instrument is played.”
Clarinet and flute players could try convertible mittens whose top halves fold back to expose the player’s fingers in order to cover the tone holes properly.
For guard members, Preste recommends mittens instead of fingered gloves, so long as the performers have enough dexterity in them. Mittens will retain heat better by keeping the hand and fingers bunched up.
“It keeps your fingers together and allows for the whole hand to be warmer,” he says. “When you have fingered gloves, your hand will get cold eventually, whereas mittens hold heat much longer.”
Another solution that would work for all band members is to use an external hand warmer, Martinez suggests. Strapped around the waist, these hand warmers are most often seen in professional football used by quarterbacks and wide receivers to keep their hands warm and dexterous in cold weather. They can be used for the same purposes for marching band members, particularly woodwind players who may need to keep their fingers exposed to play.
Regarding headwear, a player’s ears may be particularly susceptible to the cold but should not be fully covered by earmuffs in order for the player to hear the rest of the band and any commands the drum majors may call out. Knitted caps work well, particularly those with earflaps, as they will rest over the player’s ears without compressing them and restricting hearing. Color coordination can help hide them under a shako.
Balancing between optimal performance conditions and protecting students from the cold can be difficult for any program. Staying warm often requires function over form while a large part of doing well at competitions is presentation and appearance. Bulking up to endure rough weather can restrict mobility, affecting a student’s posture and movement. A student suffering from the cold, however, will also suffer in terms of musicality, not to mention their health off the field. The winter months can make marching band a challenging activity for students and for the groups they play in.
“As a marching band in New York City, we need to be prepared for all types of weather,” Diaz says. “The danger of illness when performing in the extreme cold is a very real possibility.”
Mobility and comfort are high on the list of considerations when dressing students up for the winter, but, in Diaz’s eyes, nothing is more important than making sure the students are safe in the cold.
“The health of the student is number one,” he says. “I would rather see a scarf sticking out from under the uniform than a student too cold to perform.”