Is the use of electronic instruments in a marching band brilliant or blasphemy? It really depends on who you speak to. The honest truth though is that as our schools and society change, so too is what our audience enjoys watching during halftime. While every piece of music heard on the radio uses electronic instruments of some sort the marching band has remained almost exclusively acoustic except for several brave, innovative programs across the country. In each of these cases the inclusion of electronic instruments has not been a hindrance but a blessing. Why? And what can other teachers learn from their experiences?
The Modern Marching Band
In most schools the marching band is arguably the most audience focused performing ensemble in the organization. While concert and jazz bands tend to be more deep and thoughtful in terms of repertoire, the marching band remains for the most part chasing after whatever the most popular, crown pleasing melodies that can be arranged. The marching band is often about power and sound, to pump up the spectators and provide a little bit of power in the middle of a game that may or may not be going so well, yet the vast majority of the loud, driving music that kids listen to on the radio contain a minority of acoustic sounds.
When a marching band attempts to play intensive, electronic songs solely on acoustic instruments they often lack that little extra spark that changes a good performance into one that the crowd goes home praising. Music educators have many different points of view on this topic but there can be no doubt that for the majority of listeners rock and pop songs will simply sound better when played with the original instrumentation. This fact alone has urged some brave music educators to expand their marching band’s front ensembles to include electronic instruments, yet this is not the only reason that these electronic instruments should be considered.
Reasons To Use Electronics In The Front Ensemble
Among those who already use electronics in their programs there are two main reasons driving it. The first reason for including electronics in the marching band is that it can serve as an open door for musicians that do not play traditional wind band instruments. Properly used, electronic instruments can get more diverse students involved in your program. Those same electronic instruments and their players can often be used in other ways in other ensembles throughout the year in jazz and concert band settings, potentially bringing dozens of new students to appreciate the value of your school’s music education program.
The second of these reasons is to provide a wider palate of sound for the composer/arranger to draw from. “The use of electronics at appropriate times can really increase audience appreciation of the music,” says Mike Boo, staff writer and defacto historian for Drum Corps International. “Still, many directors oppose it because they have seen it being used in a way that is distasteful or distracting. In some programs the use of synthesizers has been grossly overused.” Other programs have made the mistake of trying to use electronics as a way to pump up sagging sections or instrumentation. Says Boo, “The good groups use [electronic instruments] to enhance the music but not to try to fix deficiencies in the ensemble.”
Ways to Use Electronics In The Marching Band
Beginning in the mid 1970’s band director Bob Buckner was arguably one of the first to use a bass player in a marching band. Over the years since many directors have tried this as well, to varying degrees of success. Today, the first thing that many individuals think of when they visualize electronics in a marching band is an electric guitar player standing on the sideline of a football game. This stereotypical view is now quite outdated as evidenced by the explosion of ways in which electronic instruments are currently being used in some programs.
Years later when Buckner took over as director of the Western Carolina University Marching Band he brought the tradition with him and began to expand its use. Today, Assistant Director of Athletic Bands Jon Henson is the director of WCU’s front ensemble and rhythm section and has helped the group expand far beyond what most would even have thought possible.
The WCU front ensemble and rhythm sections are like an electronics program on steroids, incorporating a full rhythm section along with virtual drums, three electric guitars, synthesizers, electric bass players, vocoders, malletKats (MIDI enabled mallet instruments), and Roland SP-20 Octopads. In total, this year’s program will include at least 29 pieces of electronics in addition to the over 400 other members of the marching band.
To some this may seem like overkill, but yet it works very well for them. “Electronic instruments have really opened up a whole new repertoire to us and our goal is to create a great quality of sound through these electronic ensembles,” says Henson. “We use the electronic instruments to create a big rock and roll sound from an acoustic marching band ensemble.” The band’s performances to date demonstrate clearly how well this arrangement can work. Their video of the WCU 2008 marching show titled Work It! (http://bit.ly/ckoW0P) is an excellent visual example of ways that this technology should be used to enhance and energize a pop music centered halftime performance.
Tips For Including Electronics In The Front Ensemble
One of the big fears for teachers considering electronic instruments is the perception that using the instruments often bring with them a large set of new problems. To counter some of the most common issues Henson provides several helpful suggestions. First, be sure to purchase quality equipment. Never take shortcuts on amplification equipment or instruments. A poor sound system can make even the best musicians sound bad.
Second, work hard to take care of existing equipment. Have students and/or staff members perform daily maintenance on the instruments and speakers and be sure to have covers available. Each piece of equipment should have someone in charge of it. That person should feel like they “own” the instrument and be fully aware and capable of caring for it.
Third, keep all cables coiled properly and practice the setup and tear down many times before the game. Practicing the set up will help prevent accidents like leaving cables unplugged or damaging the connectors while moving the equipment around.
Fourth, if the ensemble will be using wireless microphones or other equipment be aware of the potential for wireless interference while travelling. Go to your wireless equipment manufacturer’s web sites and check on wireless frequencies for cities where you are visiting. You may also want to call the venue to check on what wireless devices the stadium uses that may interfere with your equipment. If possible always do a sound check before the big performance.
Lastly, always have contingency plans for everything. Have extra cables and think about what to do if you lose power. Henson’s ensembles have low noise, gas powered power generators from Honda available as a backup.
Make no mistake, adding electronic instruments to a marching band’s front ensemble is not a quick or simple undertaking. Having the ability to make use of new palettes of sound and the ability to use amplification in ways that enhance a musical performance is a worthy experiment for any music program to undertake.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the music technology section of Teaching Music magazine. A copy for personal or research use may be downloaded but no further use of this article is permitted without written permission from the National Association for Music Education.