Have you ever seen a band go by in a parade or march, and wonder what they really sound like? Maybe they’re all recognizable, good players, but somehow you just aren’t hearing it right now. There are predictable acoustical phenomena to be aware of in order to sound good outdoors, and especially when playing while walking (I prefer a kind of dancing; definitely not marching). I’m happy to share some tricks I’ve learned by experience.
In the mid-1980s, I began playing tuba and sousaphone with the Anti-Fascist Marching Band, in Seattle. That continues today. I also lead a New Orleans style brass band, Muskrat Rabble.
AFMB is a labor of love. I’m not aware of any rules. (In the early days we had a rule against using any but the seven forbidden words when interviewed by the media.) Whatever happens is what we get. Sometimes it’s glorious!
Muskrat Rabble is a working professional organization. We’re expensive, union, and vested. I run it like a small business. All the musicians are much better than I am. As leader, I get to give directions and tinker with the sound. This is what I’ve learned:
Parades and Marches
It’s very important to establish a marching formation and stick to it. Bass instruments are non-directional, so the sousaphones can theoretically be anywhere. In Muskrat Rabble, I’m in front, since I’m also the director. The trombones also sound great in the front row. The polyphony of improvising
trombones and sousaphones in the front row is a great attention getter as your band approaches the viewers. Immediately behind the trombones and my sousaphone, I like the woodwind instruments: clarinets, flutes, and piccolos, followed by saxes behind them. (If we have euphoniums and peck horns, they go between the trombone/sousaphone front line and the woodwinds.) Next come the trumpets. The last row of musicians will be the drums and percussion. If I’m not directing, I might be in the back row with the drums too. If there’s a glockenspiel, I place it near the flutes and piccolos. Frequent video and audio recording from the sidelines, over the decades, has proven that this arrangement sounds best from the audience perspective. This result is confirmed by similar configurations described in Fallen Heroes: A History of New Orleans Brass Bands (Jazzology Press, 1996) a recommended history of New Orleans street bands.
Since Muskrat Rabble uses New Orleans “second line” street beats, I usually have two snare drums and a bass drum. Some of the drums have cymbals and wood blocks mounted on them. The second-line beat is achieved by combining mambo rhythms (clave), the two/four of Brazilian samba schools, hip sixteenth-note marching-band drum cadences, and funk patterns in the bass line, all played simultaneously, and accompanied by dancing. Use a loud whistle to count off the tempo.
The key to a big, balanced sound outdoors is to DOUBLE all the instrumental parts. If you don’t have enough trumpets, you can double the second with a tenor sax, first with an extra clarinet or soprano sax, trombone with baritone sax, etc. It doesn’t matter so much which instruments double what part, so long as all parts are doubled. The New Orleans tradition calls for a third trumpet part, the “descant,” which is improvised above the firsts and seconds, usually in the highest octave. This is a great place to feature a local jazz star. It’s usually better not to rehearse the descant parts. Spontaneity is best.
For parades and marches I prefer a small selection of strong material. The tunes are played for a long time, so the band can improvise background riffs, solo settings, breaks, etc. Often they are played like medleys, with drumbeats filling the space between numbers. I prefer to call tunes by number, not title, so the audience can enjoy the process of discovery and recognition. It’s fine to repeat numbers, since you’re always playing for a new audience. Use your best material when passing a reviewing stand or the media, because it will likely be on the evening news.
How you walk is important. I like to use a standard tempo (around 120-130 bpm), which I subdivide into short, small, faster steps. But that’s just me. I see no point in marching in step. Keep the footwork loose, individual, and dancerly, according to how you feel the groove, but always in time.
Don’t walk too fast. In Seattle, where I work most of the time, parades and marches are often confused with jogging, moving way too fast to facilitate music performance. If possible I try to lead the parade. That way I can establish a relaxed walking speed which allows us to express the funky aspects of the music with our bodies as we play, and the second line can dance. We are constantly harassed by the police department traffic controllers who try to hurry us along. I ignore them. (What can they do about it?) If I can’t lead the parade, we often fall behind, but the rest of the parade is definitely groovier.
Busking and Ballyhoo
Much of the above applies to busking and ballyhoo as well. If this involves passing through doors, you need person who will open the doors and hold them as the band passes through. I like to have a colorfully dressed “high stepping” character for this. That person will also carry the tip “kitty,” shaking it when appropriate, and preceding the band when marching. “Pretty” people get more tips, so dress for the occasion.
When busking in a stationary position, I like the band in a semi-circle: brass on one end, woodwinds on the other, bass and drums in the middle. I put the tip kitty in the center point of the semi-circle. Soloists come out to the center, drawing attention to themselves and the tip kitty as the band riffs behind them. Ideally, you want to orient the semi-circle for presentation to your audience while taking advantage of acoustic aids like reflecting walls, etc.
When you move to a new spot, move in parade formation while playing. This is how you draw a crowd. It’s the original meaning of the term “ballyhoo”.
Playing For Free
All of this is way easier to initiate when the musicians are getting paid to be there. Obviously, in an amateur, community band, it’s a different story. For many in this situation, the mere thought of the audience influencing any aspect of performance is counter to their ideals. Since money is not the motivator here, you have to agree about the desire to sound better. Just remember, we do this, at least in part, because much is wrong in the world and long overdue for change. Music has enormous power to inspire righteous living, but only when it’s fun to listen to. If we’re having fun, and sharing that fun, we’ll draw people in. This can only strengthen the causes we support.
Like many in the HONK! community, Pete’s earliest street band experience was in junior and senior high school marching bands (in 1950s parades, playing cornet first, then sousaphone). This continued through college and countless groups after that. As a working (double bass) musician, he’s in the gig network.
Contact Pete via email@example.com or see his website: http://www.originalcast.com