Marchers with unique instruments add a special flare on the field while also posing various challenges.
Photo by Akarin Mittongtare
When imagining a marching band, the high trills of the flute, the croon of the trumpets, the low bass of the tubas and the rolling of the snare drum may come to mind. While the style and dynamics of marching music has changed, the typical instrumentation of most marching bands has changed very little.
Now imagine seeing a marching band with oboes, bassoons, glockenspiels or even violins on the field. They aren’t exactly seen very often in marching bands, but some groups encompass those types of instruments anyway. Reasons vary, from added musicality to years of tradition.
The Pride of California at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of a handful of bands in the country that still have a marching glockenspiel section. With the introduction of the pit into marching bands in the 1980s, the marching glockenspiel became nearly obsolete along with other marching melodic mallet instruments due to their weight and bulkiness. However, the Cal Band prides itself on the fact that tradition still prevails in terms of having the “glocks.”
“The glockenspiels have been around in the Cal Band for a very long time, way before I came here in the 1970s,” says Robert Calonico, director of the Cal Marching Band. “They were around since at least the 1940s according to the pictures that we have. They could have been around even before that in the 30s. If we were to let our glocks go, our band alumni would throw a fit. They are integral to the band.”
The challenges of having to march glockenspiel are marked by the fact that the performer is only able to use one hand to play the instrument instead of two like on normal mallet instruments. The glockenspiel is held in one hand, supported by a sling, rather than parallel to the ground. Similar to the pain issues faced by wearers of snare drums and bass drums, the harness for the glocks has its own stress points; it is worn similar to the harness for a flagpole.
“It’s an instrument that is typically played with two hands, but they are forced to play quite a few notes with one hand instead,” Calonico says. “So far, our players have been able to deal with it.”
Divina Magracia, a sophomore who plays the glockenspiel at Cal, made the transition from playing mallets in a front ensemble in high school and has adjusted to the fact that she needs to march as well as rethink the way she plays music.
“The keys on the glockenspiel are aligned vertically where you play accidental notes on the left and the natural white keys are on the right,” says Magracia. “This is as opposed to playing them from top to bottom. I kind of had to reorient the way that I thought of the notes and how I read the music in order to play well.”
The glocks are considered a part of the drum line and do not have their own section leader; however, as the most senior player, Magracia guides the two freshmen players. New members have routinely been those with high school front ensemble or piano experience.
“I got the perspective of a teacher as I got to witness two different types of music styles,” Magracia says. “I was a little worried at first, but they have surprised me, and they are doing really well right now playing with me.”
Oboes and bassoons are more often seen in orchestras or in a concert setting, but the Apache Marching Band at Arcadia (Calif.) High School incorporates them into the field shows. Recently, the band has become rather well-known for having double reed instruments, but there is a logistical and educational reason behind it. Director Seth Murphy wants them in the band due to the large size of the music program—the 360-member group includes seven oboes and seven bassoons.
“We want to give our students the opportunity to practice the instruments they are already playing all year long,” Murphy says. “This is so that they can carry over all of the technical discipline that we teach in the spring to the fall of the next year, so that everything remains in continuity.”
Murphy also wants oboes and bassoons to provide a unique supporting sound for the ensemble. “The instruments allow us to add a different color to the ensemble,” Murphy says. “The oboe has an upper range that the clarinets aren’t able to reach as the pitch of the oboe is between the clarinets and the flutes. The bassoon adds another tenor instrument instead of having just a tenor sax or a baritone sax.”
Arcadia band member Renee Gao took up the challenge of learning to play oboe two years before high school to become a better musician but still felt the difficulties of playing a double reed instrument when she began marching.
“It is hard to maintain the embouchure when you are marching, but you get through it,” Gao says. “I think it is pretty cool to be playing an instrument that is not too often played by most people.”
Annabell Liao, a bassoon player, faced similar obstacles but enjoyed the chance to stand out in parades as spectators routinely noticed the marching bassoons. “There would always be people pointing us out,” Liao says. “They would be like: ‘They are marching bassoons!,’ which created a unique visual effect.”
Strings and Electronics
Some bands march nearly anything, making up unique groups called scatter bands where there isn’t much traditional marching. One such ensemble is the Marching Owl Band or MOB at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The members pride themselves on their eclectic instrumentation, making up the identity of the band. This includes the strings and electronics section.
“We try to include everyone into the band at Rice,” says Chuck Throckmorton, the band director of the MOB. “We have marched violins, cello, ukuleles and electronic keyboards—you name it. They add a certain dimension to our musicality that not many bands can say they have.”
Accordion player Victor Acuna leads an electronics section that includes electric guitar, keyboard, bass guitar and keytar. Acuna doesn’t find the accordion too much of a challenge to adjust to in a field setting but knows of the challenges other members of his section face.
“It’s really not that bad moving around with the accordion as it’s strapped to my body,” says Acuna. “What is perhaps different is the way I have to learn music as I can’t carry around a stand on my instrument. The keyboards, though, probably have it the toughest as we had to build special mobile carts for them to move around.”
The strings section, led by Kathryn Powell, includes violins, cellos and violas. The fact that the MOB marches these instruments gives the band a special type of visual representation on television whenever the band is at a football game.
“The cameras will always have close-ups of us as people are fascinated by the fact the band has violins and cellos,” Powell says. “It makes for good television as there will be many people tuning in, and it raises the profile of the band as we have something for them to remember us by.”
At all the schools, succeeding with a unique instrument allows performers to feel an even stronger connection to the band as well as their instrument.
“I definitely feel as if I’m closer to the rest of the band than I was in high school, especially during band camp,” Magracia says. “I used to be in the shade with my stationary instrument while the rest of the band had to be out in the sun. Now I get to suffer the heat with them by going through the same things they are. I definitely would not trade playing glocks for anything else.”
About the Author
Jeremy Chen is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). He marched cymbals for two years at Rancho Cucamonga High School before playing bass drum and snare at Upland High School. He is currently a snare drummer and office staff member for the USC Trojan Marching Band. He aspires to one day become a correspondent for the BBC.