Have you ever noticed that you’ve never seen a bassoon marching in a show? A soloist for a marching show may be seen up near the front ensemble playing the french horn solo from Stravinsky’s Firebird, but wouldn’t be seen doing 8-to-5s with the rest of the band while still holding that horn. A marcher may jump out of the ensemble to play euphonium in a brass quintet for a movement of the show, but would most certainly pick their baritone back up before rejoining the marching ensemble.
Why are these instruments not included in marching band? Some instruments are excluded from marching band because they are cumbersome or impractical to march with. For various reasons specific to each instrument, they simply cannot be played well while moving.
Instead, players of these instruments interested in marching band can breathe easy, because these instruments have simply been adapted or replaced to get similar timbres and sounds.
On a french horn player’s first day of marching band, they are handed an entirely new instrument called a mellophone. A euphonium player showing up on their first day would be given a marching baritone. Why is this?
Think about all the brass instruments you would see in a marching show: trumpet, mellophone, baritone, sometimes trombone, sousaphone. Each of these have one important thing in common: a front-facing bell (the conical part of the instrument from which the sound comes).
Considering that the goal of a marching band is to project and perform towards an outdoor audience sitting in front of them, instruments that deliver sound in a forward direction are a must. The upward-facing euphonium bells and backward-facing horn bells don’t contribute well to this goal.
Additionally, the awkward size and holding position of horn and euphonium make them quite difficult to march with.
Euphoniums are used occasionally in parades and more often in the United Kingdom, but for the sake of competitive marching band, they aren’t ideal.
Horn requires players to keep one hand inside the bell for tuning purposes, and marching with one hand nearly behind the body isn’t ideal either. Secondly, any horn player could also impart to you how much skill it takes to play horn well and consistently due to how close together horn’s partials are, and as such would be considerably difficult while marching.
Thankfully, mellophones and marching baritones came to the rescue in the 1950s!
Double reeds include oboe, bassoon, and english horn. These instruments’ reeds are notoriously delicate compared to single reeds (saxophones and clarinets). Double reeds are considerably thinner and shorter than single reeds.
They’re broken extremely easily, and certainly are not cheap to replace. One single oboe reed can cost anywhere from $10-$30, a bassoon reed can cost anywhere from $20-$40, and for those who make their own, it can take at least 9 hours to make an adequate reed.
With so much money, time, and effort in mind, it isn’t worth taking the chance to damage such a delicate reed by trying to simultaneously play and march with it.
All reeds are sensitive to temperature and humidity in general. Most sax and clarinet players already refrain from using their best reeds for marching band. Considering that marching band takes place in the summer, a sweaty, 100℉ day is likely not the best environment to get good sounds from an oboe or bassoon, nor will the instruments stay in good shape for long in such conditions.
Unlike for french horn and euphonium, there is no marching band-version of an oboe or bassoon. Double reed players usually have the choice between any of the remaining woodwinds to march with.
Bassoon players are more likely to be seen marching with a saxophone or clarinet, and oboe players most often march with clarinets or flutes; mainly for the sake of sticking with instruments with ranges similar to their main instrument.
Let’s get the obvious said right away; tubas are big. While it is possible and fairly common for tubists to stand and play, the instrument’s size and hand positions do not lend themselves well to simultaneous playing and moving for long periods of time.
Fairly early on in the history of marching band, bandleaders realize that marching with a concert tuba was not the best way to have bass in the brass section. Before the invention of the sousaphone—the solution to this issue which high school and college bands use today—bands used an instrument called a helicon. An early ancestor of the sousaphone, helicons were worn around the body for mobility, but were overall smaller and thinner, with a bell angled outward and to the side of the player. These were used most often in military mounted and marching bands.
After being dissatisfied with helicons and wanting a new tuba for concert band settings, John Phillip Sousa oversaw the invention of the first sousaphone by J.W. Pepper in 1893. Early sousas were bigger than helicons and had a large bell facing straight upwards (these were commonly referred to as ‘rain-catchers’). Although Sousa intended his instrument for concert band, its usefulness in marching band was quickly noted, and the U.S. Marines began using them for marching in 1908. Soon after, sousaphones were adapted to have the completely front-facing bells we see today.
Drum corps, however, use contrabass bugles (often shortened to just ‘contras’) instead of sousaphones. Contras more closely resemble a concert tuba, but are larger and played over the left shoulder of the marcher. While they are heavy, the detachment of the contra from the body allows the performer to more easily put it down and pick it back up, as well as provide more freedom to the lower body which a sousaphone may inhibit due to its shape and size.
Marching band has evolved over centuries to achieve the level of efficiency the activity enjoys today. Every instrument from a concert band setting can comfortably participate and perform with the accommodations made for them over the years. However, if oboe or euphonium are your favorite instruments, don’t fret! Although performers can’t march with these instruments, they are used very often for solos in shows and still get their own spotlight.