Welcome to Band Camp: A Primer

Home | Concert Band | Orchestra | Choir | Small Ensembles | About | Blog

Welcome to Band Camp: A Primer

August 15, 2012

Sorry for the little break there. I had band camp and the Olympics to keep me busy for a while. As a composer and arranger, I get a lot of work arranging marching band shows, and sometimes teaching that music to bands as well. I get asked often what exactly it is that an arranger does, so I'll get that out of the way first. I take music written for one group of instruments, and re-write it so a different group can play it. For example, if a group wanted an arrangement of Peacock for marching band, I'd have to figure out which instruments would play the lead vocal, which would play the backup vocals, the bass line, etc. Then I have to write it out as sheet music for those instruments that they can read and play. It can be a real challenge since marching band arrangements of pop songs always sound stupid. You just try to make it sound as not stupid as possible. I also have to take instrumentation and skill level into account. For example, if there aren't enough saxophones, I'd give the same parts to the clarinets.

Or if all the piccolos are freshmen, I could wear earplugs.

Stuff like that. It's all very complicated. Then, when the music is all arranged, it's time for band camp!

What Exactly Is Band Camp?

When I was a freshman in high school, I had never seen a marching band show, and had no idea what marching band was all about. I knew the band went to competitions, but I wasn't exactly sure what happened at them. I had seen marching bands in parades, and so I had a mental picture of the band lining up on the football field in formation and marching around in circles as if they were in a parade. I also realized this idea was kind of stupid, but I was too lazy to ask someone, and the ability to watch a marching show on the internet didn't exist for me yet (man, I feel old). Imagine my surprise on my first day of band camp...

The purpose of band camp is to learn the marching show, both music and the drill. If you've ever seen a marching band perform at halftime at a football game and you weren't off peeing behind the bleachers, you may have noticed that the band marches in formation, making pictures with their bodies on the field. Those pictures are called drill. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of time and effort to learn those pictures, and a lot of practice to create them while playing music at the same time. If one person is in the wrong place, the picture is ruined. Many band directors write their own drill, and you can learn a lot about a band director's psychology from the drill he or she writes. Most marching shows have a huge butt in them somewhere.

Drill is either drawn by hand on big pieces of paper that have a football field printed on them, or created with computer software which is much easier and faster. Either way, each member of the band is represented by a dot in each formation. They have to memorize where to stand on the field to make each picture, then march from spot to spot so the pictures change along with the music. This is called "marching your dot". 90% of band camp is learning where all your dots are on the field, and marching from one to the next, over and over.

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't ruled yet on whether this counts as cruel and unusual punishment.

To help band members accomplish this, some time is also devoted to marching fundamentals, which include things like standing up straight, roll-stepping from heel to toe, and marching in step (think "left--left--left right left").

Marching Band Instrumentation

Flutes: If you play flute in the marching band, make sure to stand up straight and tall and proud, because nobody can hear a note you're playing.

Piccolos: These are those little tiny flutes. They're used in marching band because they're louder than regular flutes. They're also really hard to play in tune. As a result, the marching band's piccolo section usually sounds something like a cross between a police whistle and a canary caught in a document shredder.

Clarinets: See Flutes. It doesn't help that they are aimed at the ground.


Alto Saxophones: The smallest saxes regularly used in marching band. Their job is to help the mellophones figure out how their part goes.

Tenor Saxophones: Slightly bigger than alto saxes, with a bendy part at the top. That's basically it.


Baritone Saxophones: The big sax with the grease trap. Some older models are started with a pull-cord. Getting the gas/oil mixture just right can be tricky. Remember to cover the choke!

Trumpets: The Alpha personalities of the marching band. Must be stored in separate tanks at night, or they'll consume each other after mating. Punch holes in the top for ventilation.

Pictured: Mellophone

Mellophones: These are essentially the French Horns of the marching band, although they are a little easier to play (which isn't saying much). "Why not just use regular French Horns?" you may ask. Because aside from the fact the French Horn is impossible to play sitting down, let alone standing up and marching around, it's also pointed backwards and down at the ground. Mellophones are much easier to hear outside, and can be identified by their distinct "funnel-attached-to-a-garden-hose" timbre.

Trombones: The trombone is well known and easily recognized. Less well known is the fact that the trombone has two basic settings: On and Off.

Baritones: The marching baritone is an abomination, the bastard child of the trumpet and concert baritone. It straddles the border between two worlds, welcomed in neither, shunned by all. Its Machiavellian design makes it impossible to hold and play correctly for any length of time without excruciating pain and anguish. Also, it sounds like ass.

Tuba: In marching band, tubas come in two varieties: Convertibles and Sousaphones. Convertible tubas can be converted from concert tubas with the bell facing up into marching horns which are held on the shoulder with the bell facing forward. Their advantages are being more compact, easier to carry, easier to transport, and easier to march with. Sousaphones wrap around the player, and so are "worn". Their advantage is that they hold more beer.

Drum Line: Consists of snare drums, tenor drums, several bass drums, and occasionally some cymbals. Also known as the battery. To me, every drum line sounds like a bunch of monkeys beating on milk jugs, but nobody ever asks my opinion.

Pit: These are all the instruments that can't be carried and marched with easily. Includes pitched instruments like xylophones and timpani, as well as non-pitched instruments like large bass drums and gongs. The pit is usually a zany madcap mixture of kids who love learning the intricacies of percussion technique, and kids who auditioned for drum line but can't play worth a crap.

Don't Forget the Guard!

And finally, the color guard (or just guard for short). They accentuate the band with a routine consisting primarily of twirling and throwing large colorful flags, but may also use fake rifles and sabers, or any number of other neat accessories. At one time, the guard was considered to be a girls' domain, but in recent years it's become increasingly common for boys to join the guard, and now most guards have at least one or two boys.

That's no consolation when you're getting a swirly in the men's room though.

Don't Give Up!

Band Camp ends up being a lot harder than some people expect. I think every band member has a moment at some point when they just want to quit and go home. For encouragement, I'll finish with one last anecdote. The first marching show I ever had completely memorized was also my last. That's right, my final year of college was the first, last, and only show in which I memorized every single note of music. Every other show I ever played contained some measure of music somewhere that I just never bothered to learn, out of sheer laziness. In fact, my first show in my freshman year of high school, I didn't know the whole final song. It was New York, New York. Can you imagine? A high school freshman, who had only been playing baritone for one year as it is, making up some version of New York, New York as he goes along, never the same way twice? Yep, that was me. So don't get discouraged. We've all been there. When you're overwhelmed, and thinking about throwing in the towel, just take a deep breath, wiggle your fingers, and blow.

Return to the Blog

Images 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, & 13 courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Image 14 Copyright Peter Hopkins. All others public domain.

Copyright 2012 Peter Hopkins