Update: I uploaded a sample marching band arrangement that demonstrates the tips mentioned. You can also email me if you are looking for an arranger or consultant. -Jon
Arranging for marching band or any large-ensemble can be intimidating. You might wonder “how the can I write for all these instruments??” I know I felt that anxiety when I wrote my first orchestral piece back in college. But after years of composing and learning from Hollywood’s best composers and orchestrators (and geniuses like Stravinsky), these tips can help you write or select great marching band arrangements.
First, let’s describe the music roles of each section (brass, woodwinds, battery, and pit) and how they create the marching band sound.
Brass – In marching band, the brass plays the same role as the string section in an orchestra. They both feature the important ideas of a piece, like melody. If a marching band had to perform with just the brass, the audience would still hear the main musical ideas. Drum corps are a great example and most will agree that the brass is the main ingredient on the marching field.
Woodwinds – Though the brass are the meat and potatoes, woodwinds give us the seasoning and can add an important texture to the music. Flourishes and glisses can add an exclamation to a brass hit while scales, trills and repeating figures can add a secondary texture and add depth. When doubling the brass or featuring the section, woodwinds can also soften the sound and make everything more intimate.
Battery – The battery is what separates a concert band from a marching band. The rhythmic complexity featured in the battery adds excitement in a supporting or featured role.
Pit – Like woodwinds, the pit can accent the brass or add texture by using a variety of pitched and non-pitched percussion. As the arranger, this is where you can introduce new sounds and make your arrangements more original.
Here are some orchestration tips for arranging for marching band.
- Start with the brass – Starting with the brass ensures that the important “stuff” (melody, harmony, rhythm) gets featured properly.
- Have the woodwinds and pit do something else – Doubling the brass with woodwinds only softens the overall sound. This can be counter-intuitive if you think more instruments means a bigger sound. Instead of doubling, give the woodwinds and pit secondary ideas that adds depth and gives the listener more to listen to.
- Think gestures before notes – Skim through Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring and notice all the flourishes, accents, and other cool effects he used to orchestrate. I guarantee that he thought of splats, rips, and hits before he knew which scale or chord was going to be used to play them. If you think of gestures while arranging, the notes will come and you’ll have a much more exciting arrangement.
- Don’t be afraid of rests – Don’t feel obligated to have every instrument constantly playing. In addition to fatiguing musicians, it tires out the listeners’ ears as well. Try passing around ideas to different instruments and save the tutti moments for climatic points in the show.
- Divisi doesn’t mean louder – Dividing an instrument into two or more parts takes focus away from the top line. If you want a part to cut through the band, have an instrument play in unison (and preferably in the upper-register). Use the woodwinds, pit and other secondary instruments as an alternative way to imply harmony.
- Bone placement – Trombones and baritones placed below middle c (first line above the staff in bass clef) fill out the bottom end and create a symphonic sound. Above middle c is more common for jazz arrangements or solos.
- Sax doublings – Arrangers have a hard time figuring what to do with saxes, so they double altos with mellophones, tenors with baritones, and baris with tubas. While pairing baris with tubas is good 99-percent of the time, altos and tenors should only double if the mellophones or low-brass are thin. Why? Because woodwinds soften the brass. Altos and tenors are better utilized supporting woodwind textures. If there’s a sax feature, have the altos and tenors play in unison like in jazz band and consider adding the baris 8vb.
- Sketch percussion ideas for the drum arranger – It’s important to have pit and battery parts support what’s happening in the winds. Sketching ideas and notes for the drum arranger will glue everything together. Also, experiment with sounds in the pit and consult with the drum arranger about making sure everything is physically playable by the number of musicians in the pit.
Update: I uploaded a marching band arrangement that I originally composed for wind ensemble called “Western Frontier.” The last 90-seconds of the piece features the main concept of the brass playing the theme and the woodwinds doing something else. The percussion writing is from the original wind ensemble version and can be treated as a detailed sketch for the percussion arranger.
BONUS: You can also hear a 90-second orchestral demo of “Western Frontier,” which applies the same arranging principles as above, but with orchestral instruments.
What about you?
If you already arrange for marching band, what are some of your tricks that make your arrangements stand out? If you’re a band director, what do you look for when selecting arrangements?
Jon Manness is an LA-based composer, 8-year drum corps member including Jersey Surf and Crossmen. Please contact Jon if you would like him to arrange for your marching band.