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Creating a Winning Marching Horn Line

Mike Lawson • Archives • September 12, 2012

By Tracy Leenman

Wouldn’t it be great if your marching horns sounded as bold and as powerful as the horn line of one of the top DCI corps? Do you have an ideal horn sound in your mind that just hasn’t become reality yet on the field? Great players and hard work are a huge part of this equation, of course; however, understanding the science behind the sound you desire and carefully choosing instruments that will produce that sound are also essential to creating a winning horn line.

Remember the barbershop quartet in The Music Man (“Lida Rose,” and so on)? How can a group of four men produce a sound that is so clear and projects so well? There are two important components to this type of singing that have direct application to your marching horns. The first is intonation.

Intonation

In high school, I was offered a choice between taking Physics and taking AP Music Theory. Because I am a “music geek,” I am proud to say I chose Theory (I probably would have flunked physics anyway). Whether physics and acoustics are your thing or not, bear with me a minute. Barbershops singers know that an open fifth properly sung will create inaudible overtones that will reinforce and project the sound, causing an audible “ring.” Adding other chord tones, if also sung in tune, add additional overtones, which magnify each other and add to the strength of the sound. The same is true for instruments. However, if notes in a chord are sung (or played) out of tune, the overtones don’t mesh, and create an almost imperceptible “muddiness” that has the opposite effect on the projection – the sound becomes acoustically flat, and the sound waves don’t travel nearly as well.

This especially holds true for lower pitches. Play an A major chord on the very lowest A of the piano. Then, play an A minor chord in the same octave. It’s much harder to discern the difference in tonality than if those same two chords were played on the A right below middle C. Specifically because the difference between the lowest C and C# (32.70 and 34.65 Hz, respectively) is almost impossible for the human ear to recognize in that context, while the difference between middle C and C# (261.6 and 277.2 Hz) is much easier to hear.

The lower pitches are, the muddier they sound when they are closer together. This is the reason we were taught in part-writing to put larger intervals in the lower voices, while smaller intervals are more common in the upper voices. It’s also the reason the late Fred Sanford (noted percussionist and DCI instructor) and other fine drum line specialists advocate that you skip a size between your two largest (lowest pitched) bass drums (e.g. 20”, 22”, 24”, 28” – skipping the 26”). Marching bass drums are tuned in consecutive thirds. And thirds at lower pitch levels tend to create a muddy sound as they travel through the air, while the open fifth created by skipping a drum size not only travels better, but also creates a much stronger foundation for the sound of the battery.

Back to horns. If you teach your marching brass players to lock in their octaves and fifths so that they ring, and then teach them how to place the other chord tones correctly into that acoustical framework, the basic principles of acoustics will give your sound the added clarity and ping you desire. Although it’s not an easy task when standing still, much less marching, it’s a skill that needs to be mastered for your band to sound its best. (And just think how appreciative your school’s science teachers will be for this cross-curricular connection!)

Timbre

The second component of great barbershop singing is timbre. Remember in The Music Man, when the members of the School Board first realized they could sing (“Ice cream… ice cream… ice cream…” )?

Each voice had a distinct timbre – bass, baritone, lead, tenor – that combined to make those awesome harmonies. Again, with lower pitches, timbres that are too similar produce acoustical mud, while combining different timbres improves clarity. If you want your horn line to sound like those of the top corps, you must choose a combination of marching horns that each have a distinct timbre, that also blend well together.

Listening to great corps and great marching bands (high school, college and military) will help you develop your ideal tone concept for your marching horns. Military bands, which may march French horns and sousas, rather than mellophones and “basses” (marching tubas), or bands that use cornets and marching French horns rather than trumpets and mellos will naturally have very different sounds. Once you choose your ideal tone concept, you can begin to choose horns that will blend together to form a block of sound that best matches that model.

Many of us choose our marching horns because we like the sound of XYZ Corps, who play that make of horn. But think about the instrumentation of today’s top drum corps – trumpets (usually three or four parts), mellophones (usually two parts), marching baritones (two parts), marching euphoniums (one or two parts) and tubas (usually unison, or sometimes octaves). Some corps may add flugelhorns or other instruments; even so, there are many less parts scored here than in a typical high school or college marching band. And all the parts are within a smaller overall range. There are no woodwinds, and more importantly, no trombones. What sounds great in that type of ensemble may or may not be ideal for the instrumentation at your school, so we need to look further than “XYZ Corps plays this model” if we truly want to create a great horn sound.

The timbre of a marching horn is largely determined by its composition (lacquer versus silver-plated brass), its bore size, and its bell size. Often, we choose silver or lacquer marching horns to match our uniforms, yet if you listen to an ensemble playing a certain set of horns (on the field) in both lacquer and silver, you may be surprised at the difference in the sound that reaches the tower.

Bore and Bell Sizes

Many consider researching bore and bell sizes “bore-ring.” Nonetheless, if your goal is a powerful horn line, studying the specs of the horns you march is crucial. Let’s start at the top – the mellophones. The B? marching horn was the horn of choice for many years, just as the single horn in B? was the choice for many beginning French horn player. Now however, the mellophone in F is more widely used. A mellophone is analogous to the tenor in a barbershop quartet. Its distinct timbre comes from the unique combination of bore (usually smaller than a concert or marching French horn) and bell flare. This makes its tone project well, and makes it a great bridge between the brighter, higher trumpets and the trombones, baritones, and euphoniums. While a marching French horn may have a bore size anywhere from .468” to .472” – similar to that of a concert French horn – the bore of a mello can be as small as .460” to .462”.  The bell can be as wide as 10½” and normally has a more abrupt flare. The smaller the bore, and wider the bell flare, the less the sound will be like a concert French horn or a flugelhorn.

Remember that the mouthpiece – and even the adapter, should you use one – makes a huge difference on the mellophone’s sound. If you purchase new mellos, be sure to try out different mouthpiece options – trumpet, alto horn, mello, and French horn have all been used successfully – and adapters as well.

Marching baritones are akin to the lead of the barbershop quartet formed by your marching brass. However, in a typical school marching band, their place in the horn ensemble differs greatly from their place in a corps’ sound. Drum corps do not march trombones, so creating contrast between trombones and marching baritones is a non-issue. Yet most school bands’ shows are scored for three trombone parts plus one marching baritone part. That’s mud waiting to happen. The bore of most student trombones is .500”, so if your marching baritones also have a .500” bore, and there are four different parts being played in the same range, by instruments with very similar timbres, well, you can imagine why clarity might be compromised. Some marching baritones have bores as large as .571” – the same as many concert baritones – and while it works well indoors, you may or may not want that timbre on the marching field. A .562” bore is basically the same as that of a bass trombone, which is actually the role many school bands score their marching baritones to play – a sound that is distinct from yet complements the trombones. Of course, if you don’t march trombones at all, your marching baritone choices may be entirely different. Consider your ideal sound concept, your instrumentation, and your scoring and match the horn specs to your specific need.

Marching euphoniums are a staple in drum corps, but not as frequently used in school bands. However, they can be a valuable link between the trombone/baritone section and the sousas/basses, normally scored several octaves below – if their timbre, again, is distinct from the instruments surrounding them in the score. Some marching euphoniums have a .562” bore, making them sound not all that different from the marching baritones. Others have a .571” bore, just like a concert euphonium. Then there are some at .593” that have a different timbre all together. Depending on where your marching euphoniums are scored (drum corps may have two parts each for baritone and euphonium, or three total, with the euphoniums doubling the third part), and what other low brass you march, a few marching euphoniums may add considerable depth to your brass sound.

Obviously, there is no one answer to the question, “What are the best horns for my band?” But these are certain principles which, if understood, can help guide you towards success. Other considerations may include the ages and experience levels of your players. Some high school bands include middle school students in their ranks, making weight and balance of the horns a real issue, also whether your marching baritones require large or small shank mouthpieces.

More important than all the stats and specs, never forget that “marching band” is a euphemism for “community.” A winning band is one that strives first and foremost to be a vehicle for teaching life skills – the pursuit of excellence, the attention to detail, and the spirit of cooperation and teamwork.

Tracy E. Leenman has over 40 years of teaching experience at the elementary through college levels, including instrumental music, choral music, classroom music, private teaching, church choir directing, and teaching conducting and rehearsal techniques. 

Currently the owner and CEO of Musical Innovations, a school music retailer in Greenville, S.C., Mrs. Leenman has served on the boards of NASMD and SCMEA, and served for 14 years as the president of the South Carolina Coalition for Music Education. A noted author and guest clinician, she performs regularly with the Palmetto Concert Band. 

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