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Marches: Rehearsal Techniques and Performance Practices for Percussion

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The percussion section of an ensemble can add or detract from the performance of a march in concert. The conductor needs to have a concept of the sounds expected from each percussion instrument and be able to assist the performers to achieve that tone quality. Directors should not be willing to accept whatever happens in the back of the ensemble. This means, of course, listening to march performances by fine bands and concentrating on the percussion section. I suggest recordings by the American military bands and the Eastman Wind Ensemble performances under Frederick Fennell. These can be considered authentic and appropriate as Dr. Fennell heard and knew march performances by Sousa, Fillmore and King. His alterations and additions to the published score are historically accurate.


  1. Always play within the ensemble.
  2. Bass Drum
    • Should not be played on its side.
    • The left hand should be used to dampen the non-batter head.
    • The drum should be played lightly, except for accents, with a brisk movement “drawing” the sound from the head.
    • Use a hard beater on the bass drum.
  3. Cymbals
    • Help students with correct cymbal technique
    • Cymbals should never be choked by stopping the plates against each other but by dampening the cymbals with the body.
    • Cymbals should have a long to medium decay, German or Viennese, depending on the acoustics of the performance hall.
    • In traditional marches cymbals play the same part as the bass drum except where indicated as “BD only” or “Cym. only”.
  4. Bass drummer and cymbal player should be placed next to each other and toward the center of the back of the ensemble.
  5. Examine the march for appropriate spots for Bass Drum, Cymbals or Bass Drum and Cymbals accents.
    1. Accented notes.
      Creating the traditional “Crash-Boom” of the Cymbals- Bass Drum

      The New Colossus March [End of Break Strain]

    2. Marked accented pickup notes.
      In this case the sforzando is indicated, but often it provides an opportunity for a dramatic contrast between a pickup note and the following strain.

      The New Colossus March [Introduction]

    3. The down beat under a tied melody note.
      This gives forward motion at a point with no melodic movement.

      Founders March

    4. To emphasize unexpected (chromatic) chords.
      A frequent occurrence in the marches of Fillmore and King, especially toward the end of the second strain.  In the example above (meas. 7) remember that the choked cymbals in measure 8 should be softer than the previous crash and stopped (choked) against the body.
    5. On a trill in the woodwinds or roll in the snare drum part.

      The New Colossus March [Final Trio]

  6. Snare Drum
    • Use only one snare drum.
    • Circus bands traditionally use “crush” rolls, accented on the after beat.
    • In Sousa and Fillmore marches, rolls are tied to the down beat with the accent placed on the beat.
    • Depending on the tempo and preference of the director, a decision needs to be made regarding “closed” or “open” rolls.
    • For contrast during the first trio the percussion could:
      • Tacet
      • Play SD on rim (circus marches)
      • Edit part to use only for “highlights”
  7. Mallets
    • Use very hard plastic mallets for bells.
    • Xylophone is used on marches for special effect.
    • Do not double a woodwind obligato part on a mallet instrument.
  8. Timpani
    • Use hard mallets for definition
    • Usually an added part: exceptions include some marches by Sousa and Goldman.

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As a public-school music educator who has arranged and composed music for students throughout his career, Gene makes music that is grade level appropriate while being musically interesting.

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