General Comments
Principles of Interpretation
Tempo Guidelines

General comments

Young bands love playing marches.  Unfortunately, they also have a habit of playing them poorly.  Typically, the trumpets blast their way through the first theme, with either the percussion or the tubas slightly behind the beat.  The quieter, lyrical trio is also played insensitively by the clarinets, totally losing its effectiveness. Little wonder that audiences rarely appreciate such music in the concert hall.  One consolation, if it can be described as such, is the fact that the problem is apparently just as acute in the West as it is for us here in Asia.

Commenting on the situation in the US, one contributor to the WASBE Newsletter noted:

"I believe that perhaps many people are not so tired of marches, per se, as they are of lousy march performances.  A march is a march and not a symphony.  However, the fact that a march is not a symphony does not make it inferior music.  Nevertheless, one rarely hears a march that has been prepared with a fraction of the care of the other music on a programme" [Frank Byne "A Personal Opinion" in WASBE Newsletter Vol XIII No. 2, June 1998].

Music directors need to bring a strong sense of style, musical conviction and imagination to a march, just as they would with other types of music. As Frank Byne points out in the quote given above, the march is not an inferior form of music. Historically, marches were the optional movement in the classical suites written by the great Classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The march form was also used by later composers such as Mahler, Hindemith and Stravinsky.

Principles of Interpretation

  • Look out for contrasts and take every opportunity to highlight them.

  • Watch for interesting bass lines than may easily be hidden and make a point of bringing them forward.

  • Generally, military style marches should be played marcato, with a short separation between each note, except when slurs are indicated.

  • A series of accented notes - particularly if they are longer than one beat - should have even greater space between them or the march will sound dull and uninteresting.

  • Legato passages can often provide a welcome departure from this detached style, however. Such passages are usually to be found in the trio section, where the clarinets are often given the melody.

  • Climaxes also need careful consideration. These can usually be found in the second and final strains of the march.

  • Phrasing is yet another neglected area. Most phrases consists of four bars.

  • Try not to copy other people's interpretations. Instead, study the score carefully and try to come up with your own ideas. Even Sousa didn't always perform the same march in exactly the same way.

Tempo Guidelines

Most - but not all - marches are designed to be played at between 108 and 120 steps (beats per minute). However, it would be unmusical to play all marches at the same speed. The following points need to be borne in mind when selecting an appropriate tempo:

  • Most US military marches (and almost all 6/8 marches) sound best at around 120. Some US marches may even be played slightly faster.

  • British marches are usually played at between 108-120. Kenneth Alford's Colonel Bogey, for example, sounds perfectly acceptable at about 112.

  • Circus marches are played very fast, sometimes up to about 150.

  • Probably as a result of the influence of the pre-World War I "goose-step" marching style, German marches are usually played more slowly (sometimes as slow as 108, but more usually at about 112-116).

  • French marches are often played fast, up to 144.

  • Funeral marches are played very slowly, usually between 50 and 80.

  • Once established, the tempo of a march should not be varied.