Wind Instruments: Marching Band Versus Concert Band

Posted July 10, 2018 by Ben Harloff

Over the course of a school year, band students may play in different kinds of ensembles. For example, in addition to performing a solo, a student could perform in a concert band, an orchestra, a jazz band, a marching band, a pep band, a musical pit, and a chamber ensemble. Playing in different ensembles may require students to change gears and take different approaches to their instruments, which can be a challenging adjustment. 

In this article, we’ll focus on the differences encountered by students playing in concert bands and marching bands. Should their approach be the same or different? To uncover the answers, we interviewed these band experts: Greg Bimm, director of bands at Marion Catholic High School (Chicago Heights, Illinois); Amanda Drinkwater, director of fine arts for the Lewisville (Texas) Independent School District; and Betsy McCann, assistant director of bands/director of marching and athletic bands at the University of Minnesota.


The first topic we discussed was tone quality, arguably the most important music fundamental taught to students. As many of us know, most of the time spent during a fundamental training session focuses on the students’ ability to achieve a characteristic tone and then match it from player to player. Why? Because students who are unable to achieve good, fundamental sound in an ensemble will find it challenging to match articulation, intonation, balance, and blend as well. 

Question: When considering the difference between playing in a marching band and playing in a concert band, should students adjust their basic tone quality?

Bimm: I don’t ask the students to adjust their tone—I’ve always had them strive for a dark, rich sound from all of the winds. Because the band has moments of high volume, our students work hard to keep their air, body, and shoulders, etc., free and relaxed so that they can maintain the same high quality of sound when marching.

Drinkwater: In an outdoor setting, I always expect identical tonal concepts for identical instruments. There are, of course, inherent timbral differences for tubists performing on sousaphones, euphoniums on marching baritones, and horns on mellophones. That said, in my opinion, the conceptual basis for these performers is best conveyed as peripheral to that of their concert counterparts. 

McCann: I ask students in concert bands to play with a wider variety of tonal colors than they would play in a marching band because in the marching band, we focus on producing a rich, projecting sound, which may vary a bit (but not to the extent that it does in a concert band setting) between pieces of different styles.


Articulation can be challenging to achieve at a high level. Matching note shapes between woodwind and brass instruments, for example, can be especially demanding. A player might wonder, “How will the notes begin and end?” or “What shapes do the notes have?” 

Question: Should articulation be approached differently for a concert band versus a marching band?

Bimm: We emphasize a “doo” attack nearly all the time in marching band. As a result, our season is geared in part toward teaching correct playing methods to our freshmen. Focusing on cleaning the “doo” attack allows young players to ingrain that element into their skillset before we add more. 

In contrast, with the concert band, I open the door more widely to include small variations in the quality of the attack. I’ve learned that while there are many possibilities that can be explored, it’s important to choose wisely when to explore them.

Drinkwater: In my experience, a performer’s training should incorporate a full range of all desired articulation approaches. For example, an outdoor performance typically has a more focused/edited articulation vocabulary, representing a firmer articulation range for clarity and emphasis.

McCann: In both ensemble settings, I find that most articulation time is spent working with students to match articulations across the group and as a whole to achieve the musical style. 


Also challenging for band members? Matching playing volume to different venues. In one season, for instance, a concert band may play in a small band room, a large auditorium or a gigantic orchestra hall. A marching band, on the other hand, may play in small-to-large outdoor stadiums or indoor arenas. 

Question: Should volume be approached differently for concert bands and marching bands?

Bimm: Because of the size of our marching band’s venue, at times they do try to play with a bigger sound than when they’re on a concert stage. That said, I never compromise quality over quantity. Our younger players are still learning how to play with good sound and they’re often playing on young embouchures, which place a limit on the quality of the volume produced. I believe in using woodwinds as a consistent part of quality band sound. The only time I ask the brass to completely dominate the sound is when a specific situation calls for a brass-only or a brass-heavy sound.

Drinkwater: In my experience, the performers’ training should incorporate the full range of all desired dynamic capabilities. An outdoor performance is typically comprised of median-to-extended volume ranges to communicate to audiences across expansive space and distance.

McCann: I do approach volume differently between concert bands and marching bands. For example, our concert band usually plays in a concert hall where the acoustics are predictable and incidental noise is minimal. This allows the ensemble to explore a full range of dynamic expression, from a single instrument playing pianissimo to the full ensemble playing all-out.  

Our marching band, however, mainly performs in a 50,000-seat outdoor stadium, which is always accompanied by crowd noise and traffic sounds. In general, for any woodwind line to be heard, the players need to play forte or louder. Brass or saxophone soloists must play with full projection at all times and the band as a whole must focus on projecting its sounds throughout the stadium. For example, we’ll have a soloist face the home crowd while the rest of the band faces away, or we’ll add horn flares for impact points.


The interior performance spaces typically used by concert bands can make achieving a balanced ensemble easier simply because it’s easier to hear across a concert stage than it is to hear across a marching band field. While directors may have different philosophies about achieving band balance, every director understands that any time battery percussion and amplification are added, the challenge of balancing a marching ensemble is raised. 

Question: Should balance and blend be approached differently when going from a concert band to a marching band?

Bimm: Obviously, the percussion writing will need to be adapted from concert to marching, but in general, the concert of sound doesn’t change. When I’m directing, I want to hear a complete band sound with all of its possible, wonderful colors. This typically begins with a “tutti” sound that is inclusive of woodwinds.

Drinkwater: I absolutely believe a performer’s training year-round should incorporate balance and listening environments that are inclusive of all woodwind instruments. An outdoor setting is driven by (and focuses on) the brass and battery percussion choirs and, as in most cases, neither the contributions of the woodwind choir nor the front ensemble provides audible, dependable, or appropriate listening points. I would contend that it’s most pleasing to have an opportunity to hear and appreciate the isolated woodwind color and texture at times.

McCann: Being 30 percent woodwind, 60 percent brass and 10 percent percussion, our marching band is significantly more brass heavy than our concert band, which is 55 percent woodwind, 35 percent brass and 10 percent percussion. The brass-heavy balance of the marching band provides greater projection for playing outdoors in a large stadium, and the woodwind-heavy balance of the concert band helps the woodwinds be heard more easily (instead of being overpowered by the brass). This balance also allows us to include more color instruments in the ensemble (in terms of double reeds) and a wider variety of woodwind instruments. 

The percussion makeup of both groups is different as well, with only a drumline in the marching band and a full complement of concert percussion in the concert band. In addition, I tend to adjust the balances and blends in the concert band often to fit the music. For example, in one line there might be a more horn-led balance, and later, there might be a more trumpet-led balance. Also, in the marching band, we don't play with the color as much as we do in the concert band. 


Within the marching activity, instruments including battery percussion, sousaphones, marching tubas, marching baritones, marching French horns and mellophones, among others, have been added, leaving many performers to wonder about the need for different equipment when changing ensembles.

Question: Other than the instruments mentioned above, should students use different equipment when shifting from performing in a concert band to performing in a marching band?

Bimm: The clarinet players in our marching band often use plastic instruments outside to prevent cracking when playing outdoors. They also use “wood instruments in domes.” The Legere plastic reeds are great because they last and don’t need to “stay wet.” Their consistency also makes them ideal for younger players because they learn what it feels like to play on a good reed.

Drinkwater: We don’t utilize premium woodwind instruments in outdoor settings for obvious reasons. If budgetary considerations weren’t a factor, it would be wonderful to have a set of dedicated woodwind instruments to use outdoors.

McCann: We provide marching brass, piccolos, and percussion for all members of our marching band, which makes it easier for musicians to match tone, pitch and blend. Our reed players use their own various instruments for marching band (although most play on better instruments in concert band). 


Based on our experts’ answers, there isn’t a huge difference in the approaches taken—or the vocabulary usedwhen shifting from playing in a concert band to playing in a marching band. A good characteristic sound is a good characteristic sound regardless of the type of ensemble a musician may be playing in. Similarly, a good articulation is a good articulation whether the ensemble is spread eighty or twenty yards apart. 

The variables that impact wind instrument players’ approaches most are venue and acoustics, the addition of battery equipment, the addition of amplification, the size of an ensemble, the weather, and the ages and experience of the performers and their equipment. We hope these insights are useful and will help directors feel confident when training their students. 


Ben Harloff has two degrees from Indiana University: Trumpet Performance and Music Education. While at IU Ben studied trumpet with Edmund Cord, Stephen Burns, John Rommel and Dominic Spera. He had the privilege to play in Ray Cramer’s Wind Ensemble and Dominic Spera’s final Indiana University Jazz Band. Ben completed a Master’s Degree in conducting from Southern Oregon University in 2008. When he was twelve years old, Ben’s drum corps career began with the Phantom Regiment Cadets. Ben marched Star of Indiana from 1990 to 1993 at which time he had an opportunity to perform under an incredible instructional staff, including Star¹s Brass Caption Head Donnie Van Doren. He also performed with Star of Indiana¹s Brass Theater where he had the privilege of working with the prestigious Canadian Brass. Ben was one of the trumpet soloists in both the original London and New York casts of the show Blast!, which was the 2001 recipient of the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and also won the 2001 Emmy Award for Best Choreography. Since 1999 Ben has been teaching drum corps including The Cadets, Magic of Orlando, Crossmen, Syracuse Brigadiers, Blue Knights, Troopers, Minnesota Brass, and Blue Stars. He continues to be a proud brass staff instructor for Carolina Crown. Ben was a band director at Clay Middle School in Carmel, Indiana for two years and at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, Minnesota for three years. Ben has been a band director in the Wayzata school district in Wayzata, Minnesota and is currently a band director at Rosemount High School in Rosemount, Minnesota. Ben has been judging marching band competitions and arranging for marching bands since 2000.