These days, it’s not uncommon to find a marching band taking the field with powerful backup. As much a traveling rock and roll review as they are a marching band, there is a slew of electronics, software and other technological tools that help improve performances both on and off the field.
Anyone will tell you that no band should be without metronomes and tuners. These basics are absolute essentials when it comes to practicing efficiently and preventing bad habits. Some bands, such as the Southridge High School Marching Band from Beaverton, OR, even hit the field with their metronomes to get their timing down perfectly.
Many bands also take the step of programing their show in a MIDI format and amplify the sounds through speakers while they’re learning their drills. This can provide a huge advantage to bands when they are warming up.
Tuners also play an important role in every band. It won’t matter how well you play if you’re not in tune. Many bands try to take the same approach to tuning on the field as they would in the concert hall. Often, this will start with the clarinet player tuning with a tuner and then sounding their pitch. The winds will then come in and match the clarinet’s pitch, and it expands from there. By taking the principal players and getting a read on their average pitches, you’ll be able to tune quickly and effectively.
If you’re part of a competitive band, you know that mics, amps, and speakers are a must when you take the field. Many bands even go the extra mile by integrating concepts from other musical styles. Doing this allows them to put a fresh spin on the standard march - getting the crowd and performers psyched-up for the performance.
Bands such as the WCU Marching Band take this concept to the extreme, actually sporting two different ensembles playing on top of their normal marching band. One of these ensembles is a more traditional pit, with occasional flourishes (including solos and even a DJ!), while the other is a distinct rhythm section set on scaffolding that consists of electronic instruments such as electric guitars, keyboards and drums. WCU playfully refer to their band and their large sound system as the “Soul Train.”
What the “Soul Train” does is open up the realm of possibility for what a marching band can do. It allows them to play genres that they previously couldn’t. Plus, it allows them to bring in more talent for the band, which is always a bonus.
While not every marching band has the resources to put their own Soul Train on the rails, amplifying soloists and pit instruments, as well as using synthesizers, is a common practice that almost any band can use to shore up weak sections.
For example, take a look at the band at Tarpon Springs. They have every marimba and vibraphone in the pit covered with two microphones set up above them - one for high end and one for low end. This allows players to use more finesse; they can focus on technique instead of abusing their instrument in the name of volume.
Computers can make the lives of the marching band much easier, especially if you are the drill writer. Graph paper and hand written drill charts are officially a thing of the past, with fantastic programs such as Pyware taking its place. Using software offers a number of advantages not previous possible.
For example, software can show a drill being executed in real time, which is crucial for visual technicians and those who teach the drill to the performers. Software can also help directors, assistants and students write and rehearse music. Software such as Sibelius 6 features support for dynamic parts, which means changing a note in your full score results in that note changing automatically for any particular instrument’s part. A process that used to take hours to complete is now automated and taken care of in seconds.
Another great piece of software is SmartMusic, which allows musicians to play along with the music, then analyzes their play to help them to determine which passages they need to work on. Tools such as these can be invaluable for students who are learning new pieces. Finally, for work that is more administrative, there’s Charms Office Assistant, which makes it easy to access and sort contact information, manage money, track attendance, and coordinate trips and events. Arguably, the most important feature this software includes is incredible intuitiveness and user-friendly design, easily allowing you to keep the focus on the music.
As more bands turn to technology to improve their sound and performance, it’s generally agreed upon that it’s here to stay. While technology can add to your performance, it is in no way meant to replace your performance, and it’s important to remain in touch with the roots of your music.
Whether you’re using technology to take advantage of its wealth of options that expand your sound palette, or simply to support and complement your band, there’s no denying that it can enhance your creativity and artistic ability. We are living in a world with digital children; there is no escaping electronics. So it’s important to educate students on how to maximize their benefits, while staying true to the beauty musical performance and composition can provide.