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A college marching band in the United States

A marching band is, in the broadest terms, a group of performers that consist of instrumental musicians and sometimes dance teams / color guard who generally perform outdoors and incorporate some type of marching (and possibly onto other movements) with their musical performance. Instrumentation typically includes brass, woodwinds, and percussion instruments. Most marching bands use some kind of uniform (often of a military style) that include the school or organization's name or symbol, shakos, pith helmets, feather plumes, gloves, and sometimes gauntlet, sashes, and/or capes.

Marching bands are generally categorized by function, size and by the style of show they perform. In addition to traditional parade performances, many marching band also perform field shows at special events (such as football games) or at competitions. Increasingly, marching bands are performing indoor concerts (in addition to any "pep band" duties) that implement many of the songs, traditions, and flair from outside performances.


The marching band originated with traveling musicians who performed together at festivals and celebrations throughout the ancient world. It evolved and became more structured within the armies of the early city-states, becoming the basis for the military band, from which the modern marching band emerged. As musicians became less important in directing the movement of troops on the battlefield, the bands moved into increasingly ceremonial roles - an intermediate stage which provided some of the instrumentation and music for marching bands was the modern brass band, which also evolved out of the military tradition.

Many military traditions survive in modern marching band. Bands that march in formation will often be ordered to "dress their ranks" and "cover down their files". They may be called to "attention", and given orders such as "about face" and "forward march". Uniforms of many marching bands still resemble military uniforms.

Outside of police and military organizations, modern marching band is most commonly associated with American football, specifically the halftime show. Many U.S. universities had bands before the twentieth century. The first modern halftime show by a marching band at a football game was by the University of Illinois Marching Illini in 1907 at a game against the University of Chicagomarker. That same year, the first formation, breaking traditional military ranks on a football field, was the "Block P" created by Paul Spotts Emrick, director of the Purdue All-American Marching Band. Spotts had seen a flock a birds fly in a "V" formation and decided that a band could replicate the action in the form of show formations.

Another innovation that appeared at roughly the same time as the field show and marching in formations was the fight song. University fight songs are often closely associated with a university's band. Many of the more recognizable and popular fight songs are widely utilized by high schools across the country. Three university fight songs commonly used by high schools are the University of Michiganmarker's "The Victors", the University of Notre Damemarker's "Victory March", and the United States Naval Academymarker's "Anchors Aweigh".

Other changes in marching band have been:

Since the inception of Drum Corps International in the 1970s, many marching bands that perform field shows have adopted changes to the activity that parallel developments with modern drum and bugle corps. These bands are said to be corps-style bands. Changes adopted from drum corps include:
  • marching style: instead of a traditional high step, drum corps tend to march with a fluid roll step to keep musicians' torsos completely still (see below)
  • the adaptation of the flag, rifle, and sabre units into "auxiliaries", who march with the band and provide visual flair by spinning and tossing flags or mock weapons and using dance in the performance
  • moving marching timpani and keyboard percussion into a stationary sideline percussion section ("pit"), which has since incorporated many different types of percussion instruments such as: Tambourines, Crash Cymbals, Suspended Cymbals, Bass Drum and Gong Sets, Chimes, EWIs (Electronic Woodwind Instrument), and most Keyboards
  • marching band competitions are judged using criteria similar to the criteria used in drum corps competitions, with emphasis on individual aspects of the band (captions for music performance, visual performance, percussion, guard (auxiliary), and general effect are standard).

Marching band styles

Marching bands are categorized based on primary function, instrumentation, and style - although many organizations may fill multiple roles.

Military style bands

Texas A&M's "aTm" formation during halftime
Military bands and Corps of Drums were historically the first marching bands. Instrumentation varies, but generally contains brass, percussion, and woodwinds. Given their original purpose, military marching bands typically march in a forward direction with straight lines. Music is performed at a constant tempo to facilitate the steady marching of the entire military group with which the band is playing. This style can include classic drum and bugle corps, pipe bands and fife and drum corps.

Active duty military marching bands often perform in parades with other military units and march in the same manner as other military personnel. Due to a lack of competition venues, military personnel, and interest, almost all military marching bands have disappeared from schools in the United States; three notable exceptions are the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band from Texas A&M Universitymarker, the Highty-Tighties of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, and the Cadets of Norwich University Military College of Vermont, the oldest collegiate band in the United States and the nation's first private military academy. There is also a pocket of about 80 high school military marching bands in East Texas, influenced by the Aggie Band in nearby College Stationmarker. They have formed the National Association of Military Marching Bands in order to preserve the tradition of military marching.

Show bands

Show bands primarily perform on fields (for example, a football field) and serve the purpose of providing entertainment during sporting events, going to competitions (especially at the high school level), and occasionally performing at parades and other events. During football games, they normally perform their field show before the game and at halftime (and sometimes after the game as well). Competitive show bands perform only one show that is continually refined throughout a season, while bands that focus on entertainment rather than competition usually perform a unique (and less technically challenging) show for each game. These shows normally consists of three to five musical pieces accompanied by formations. Depending on the band, though the show could be practiced and completed before the football season at Band Camp but mostly this is only done by competition show bands. Also depending on the type of show band, the instrumentation can contain entirely brass instruments and percussion instruments, and may or may not use woodwind or a percussion pit. The show design also depends on the type of show band. For example, a typical college half-time show is designed for the entertainment of the audience, whereas a competitive high school marching band might be more concerned with showing off their musical and visual abilities to the judges.

Carnival bands

Carnival bands are a UK variant of show bands. Carnival bands typically march in time to the music, and may also participate in parades and competitions. They contain brass and percussion, but may or may not use woodwind. The main competition body for carnival bands is the Carnival Band Secretaries League.

Scramble bands

Scramble bands (also referred to as 'Scatter' bands) are a variation on show bands. They generally do not march in time with the music, but, as their name implies, scramble from design to design and often incorporate comedic elements into their performances. Most of the bands in the Ivy League use this style.

Drum and bugle corps style

Drum and bugle corps is a genre of marching ensemble descended from military signaling units. It is distinctly divided into classic and modern corps. As the name implies, bugle and drums form the musical background of the corps, but modern competitive drum corps incorporate other brass instruments and orchestral percussion. Many high school and college bands have adopted the marching style and show design practices of drum and bugle corps and are said to be corps style.


The size and composition of a marching band can vary greatly. Some bands have fewer than twenty members, and some have over 500. American marching bands vary considerably in their instrumentation. Some bands omit some or all woodwind, but it is not uncommon to see piccolos, flutes, clarinets, alto saxophones, and tenor saxophones. Alto clarinets, bass clarinets, and baritone saxophones are less common, but can usually be found in high school marching bands. Bassoons and oboes are very seldom found on a field due to the risk of incidental damage, the impracticality of marching with an exposed double reed, and high sensitivity to weather.

The brass section usually includes trumpets or cornets, mellophones and/or alto horns (instead of horn), B♭ tenor trombone, euphoniums or baritone (either upright or bell front), trombones, and tubas or sousaphones. Some upright tubas can be converted with a moveable lead pipe which allows the player to face the bell towards the box or crowd. Sousaphones are named after John Phillip Sousa, and are normally carried over the shoulder to promote playing while marching. E♭ soprano cornets are sometimes used to supplement or replace the high woodwinds. Some especially large bands use flugelhorns and bass trombones.

Marching percussion (often referred to as the drumline, battery, or back battery) typically includes snare drums, tenor drums, bass drums, and cymbals and are responsible for keeping tempo for the band. All of these instruments have been adapted for mobile, outdoor use. Marching versions of the glockenspiel (bells), xylophone, and marimba are also rarely used by some ensembles. Historically, the percussion section also employed mounted timpani that featured manual controls.

For bands that include a front ensemble (also known as the pit or auxiliary), stationary instrumentation may include orchestral percussion such as timpani, tambourines, maracas, cowbell, congas, wood blocks, marimbas, xylophones, bongo, vibraphones, timbales, claves, guiros, and chimes or tubular bells,concert bass drums, and gongs, as well as a multitude of auxiliary percussion equipment. Drum sets, purpose-built drum racks, and other mounted instruments are also placed here. Until the advent of the pit in the early 1980s, many of these instruments were actually carried on the field by marching percussionists by hand or on mounting brackets. Some bands also include electronic instruments such as synthesizers, electric guitars, and bass guitar, along with the requisite amplification. If double-reed or string instruments are used, they are usually placed here, but even this usage is very rare due to their relative fragility. Unusual percussive instruments are sometimes used, including brake drums, empty propane tanks, trashcans, railroad ties, stomping rigs, and other interesting sounds.


Many bands have auxiliaries that add a visual component to the performance. For ceremonial bands, this could be a traditional color guard or honor guard. For drum & bugle corps and corps-style field bands, this could include Dance lines, majorettes, Auxiliary units may be collectively referred to as color guard or visual ensemble.

Auxiliaries may perform as independent groups. In the early 1970s, color guards began to hold their own competitions in the winter (after the American football season, and before the beginning of the summer drum and bugle corps season). These became known as winter guard. There are also numerous dance competitions in the off-season.

The color guard of a marching band or drum and bugle corps may contain sabers, mock rifles, and tall flags. In modern bands, other props are often used: flags of all sizes, horizontal banners, vertical banners, streamers, pom-poms, even tires, balls, and hula hoops or custom built props. The color guard may also employ stage dressing such as backdrops, portable flats, or other structures. These can be used simply as static scenery or moved to emphasize block drill, and are often used to create a "backstage" area to store equipment and hide personnel.

While military color guards were typically male, band color guards tend to be primarily female, though it is becoming more common for men to join as well. A few independent units are all-male. Guards most often have a special uniform or costume that is distinctive from that of band, and may or may not match each other.In most cases they match, the only differences in them is that men on the team would have jeans instead of a skirt,and a tight fitted manly looking top.


A marching band is typically led by one to three or, occasionally, four drum majors, also called field commanders, who are responsible for conducting the band (sometimes using a large baton or mace, though such tools are used rarely in modern marching bands for conducting) and commonly referred to as the leader of the band. When there's more than one drum major, one may be the head drum major who runs rehearsals and who stands on the 50-yard line while conducting, whereas the other(s) often directs from convenient angles (should the marching block not be facing forward) and/or functions as an apprentice of sorts. The number of members in the band often determine how many drum majors there are, based on the complexity of the show (in which case, in a three-person scenario, one stands on the 50-yard line while another stands on the 30-yard line and the third stands on the other 30-yard line), and occasionally, additional individuals may be asked to perform brief conducting duties if beneficial in a particularly tricky part of the show (more often, such people are those on the sidelines or in the pit). Bands may also be led by a more traditional conductor, especially during field shows, where a stationary conductor on a ladder or platform may be visible throughout the performance. Aural commands – such as vocal orders, clapping, or a whistle – may be used to issue commands as well. Other leaders within the band may include field lieutenants and captains of sections such as brass, drumline, and woodwinds, and members that lead a section, squad, letter, row, etc.

Depending on the size of the band may not only determine how many drum majors there are, but how many section instructors are needed as well. Section instructors function like the music director, but are mainly responsible for teaching members of a given section. Because they are commonly previous members of the section they teach, they're able to provide better instruction to combine the needs of the show with the characteristics of the given instrument.

The director provides general guidance, selects the repertoire, interprets commentary and evaluations from judges, and auditions and/or recruits prospective members. What content is not provided by the director may be contracted from arrangers (who compose original works or adapt existing works) and copyists (who reproduce the parts of the score), choreographers, and drill designers (primarily for field bands). With the assistance of section instructors, the director also teaches performance technique—musical, martial, and visual—and assesses the pool of talent, choosing leaders and soloists as needed. The director also selects venues for public performance and oversees the staff that help provide funding and equipment. Many opportunities for member improvement are present: the director may organize clinics with various professionals, send representatives to specialty schools or camps, and/or plan trips abroad for education or exhibition.

Large bands also require a number of support staff who can move equipment, repair instruments and uniforms, create and manipulate props used in performances, and provide food, water and medical assistance. Additional staff may be utilized when the band hosts functions such as competitions and reviews. In high school bands, these activities are usually performed by volunteers, typically parents of band members or the band members of the lower grades. These people are often referred to as "runners" or "boosters". Significant support staff for college bands and independent corps are typically paid by the university or the corps organization, respectively.

Performance elements

The goal of each band's performance is different. Some aim for maximum uniformity and precision; others – especially scramble bands – want to be as entertaining as possible. Many U.S. university marching bands aim for maximum sound "impact" on the audience. Some bands perform primarily for the enjoyment of their own members. However, there are some common elements in almost all band performances.


Some marching bands have their members hold music on lyres attached to the instrument.
The traditional music of the marching band is the military march, but since show bands also evolved from the concert and brass band traditions, music has always been varied. Often, music from other genres is adapted for the specific instrumentation of a marching band.

Commercial arrangements that are tailored for the "average" band instrumentation are also available. Military and university bands typically have a repertoire of "traditional" music associated with the organization they serve. Many competitive bands will choose to use an arrangement of popular music varied for marching band, as well as music from a movie or other such theme.

Music may be memorized, or it may be carried on flip folders that clip onto the instruments, called lyres. Having music memorized is usually considered an advantage for competitive bands, and there is usually a penalty for the use of the sheet music on the field written into the scoring rubric. Practically, memorization prevents obstruction of vision caused by the folders.

The high step

The high step is used by many colleges and universities such as all the Big Ten Conference bands, the University of California- Berkeley Cal Band, the University of Southern Californiamarker Spirit of Troy, The University of Washington Husky Marching Band, and The Pride of Oklahoma Marching Band, the Lehigh Universitymarker Marching 97, as well as most Historically Black Colleges or Universities such as Tennessee State Universitymarker and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical Universitymarker. And some bands, such as the Auburn University Marching Band and the Kansas State University Marching Band use both high step and glide step, depending on the situation.

  • In one high step, the band member rolls his or her foot out to the toe, bending the knee. The knee then locks, and the leg is lifted out in front of the marcher before it is put down in the new position.

  • Another high step involves bringing the foot up to the inside of the leg to the knee before coming down and forward. Some bands may refer to this as "tucking" and others as "ankle-knee".

  • An older high step involves the lifting of the knee with legs directly in front, thighs parallel to the ground, and toes pointed downward. When the leg is elevated, there should be a 90-degree angle with the body and the thigh, and a 90-degree angle with the thigh and the shin. The leg is then lowered, and this is repeated with the other leg. This is informally referred to as the "chair step". Many schools in the Big Ten Conference use this style and it is also the style for many HBCU bands.

  • Another, very physically demanding, style of high step marching is extended high step. This version requires the thigh to be parallel to the ground (perpendicular to the body) with the lower leg extended outward at a 45-degree angle from the body (135-degrees from the thigh), toes pointed downward. The leg is then driven quickly back to the ground while the other leg repeats in this fashion. At the same time, the upper body swaggers 22.5-degrees left or right of center with each step.

The most important part of this style of marching is known as "stop action," which means all movement ceases momentarily at the apex of each step. This requires a band to have a great deal of stamina, but is effective visually. This style is common among most marching bands of the Big Ten Conference

Glide step and roll step

Many bands use some variation of the glide step, also known as the roll step. This step involves bringing the heel gently to the ground with the toe pointed up, and then rolling forward onto the toes before lifting the foot (or walking on the ball of the foot with heel elevated when backwards marching). This style is a direct imitation of drum and bugle corps. It gives the drill a fluid and smooth appearance, and allows for better control of the difficult formations and various styles of music played by those bands which roll step.

In addition, walking in place allows for a much broader range of tempos to be performed; the proper execution of a roll step will give a player marching at 40 beats per minute the same smooth tone as a player who is marching at 180. The roll step allow for much better control of the upper body, and better control of the air support needed for playing. The proper form prevents the wind player from bouncing and moving around unnecessarily, thus producing an unstable tone. Marching percussionists generally use a roll step exclusively, as drum harnesses (especially in the case of marching snare and tenor drums) make a high step impossible.

Marking time

When a band is not moving, the members may mark time, or march in place. The step used usually resembles the step that is used for marching forward, though mixing a high step mark time with a roll step march (or vice versa) produces an interesting visual effect.For a typical mark time, the foot is raised to the ankle bone of the opposite leg. The toe should not come off the ground and the knee shouldn't come out much past the still-straight leg.

Some bands mark time by bringing their feet all the way up to their knee, this is also known as high-mark time. Some bands practice marking time during concert arch with the toes coming off of the ground in order to give the marcher a greater sense of marching while actually standing still. The heel should hit the ground on the beat. Some bands forgo marking time and instead come to a complete halt when not marching. Traditionally, the drumline would put their feet in a V-shape and lift their feet fully off the ground a few inches. This is to avoid hitting the drums.

Changing direction

When band members are marching in one direction but want to focus their sound in another, they may rotate their bodies at the waist, so that only the upper portion of the body faces in the direction of play. This is known as "shifting" or "sliding". Percussion players, whose large drum harnesses often prevent them from twisting their torsos, and sometimes tuba and sousaphone players, will instead use a crab step when moving sideways. During a crab step, the musician crosses one leg over the other, either marching on the toes or rolling the foot sideways. Percussionists may also substitute roll step when their instruments would interfere with performing the high step.

When certain band members need to change the direction in which they are marching (sometimes called the "line of march") while facing the new direction, a "flank" is used. Flanks have their history in military maneuvers and are executed so that the entire body will face the new direction. This provides a definite sense of change rather than the more fluid slides.

Backward marching

A back march may be used when the band wishes to move in the opposite direction from where it is projecting its sound. There are several ways to back march, one of which is to walk backwards, putting each foot down and rolling from the toe to the heel (the exact reverse of the roll step). Another variation involves marching on the toes, dragging the toe of the moving foot on the ground or simply walking backwards on your toes. Some people feel dragging the toes gives better balance, while others feel lifting the toes gives better balance. Using peripheral vision to align oneself to formations or field markings is even more important during backward marching.

Staying in step

Even when marking time, it is often considered good form for all band members to stay in step—that is, step with the same foot at the same time. A large majority of bands step off with, or start marching on, the left foot, the Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps being one exception. Staying in step is generally easier when the band is playing music or when the drums are playing a marching cadence.

When the band and percussion are not playing, rhythm may be maintained in a variety of ways: a drummer may play clicks or rim shots, the drum major may clap or use a wood block, a drum major or band member may vocalize a sharp syllable like "hit", "hut", or "dhut" (the latter is usually characteristic of the drum line, and often said before playing in the rhythm; dhut, dhut, dhut-dhut-dhut-dhut [one, three, one two three four] ), or band members may chant the military call of "Left, left, left right left". Band members may count the steps of the move out loud so as to keep the entire band together. Typically most moves consist of a number of steps that are a multiple of four. This is because most marching band music is in the time signature of 4/4. Even-numbered time signatures like 4/4 aid in staying in step because they assign odd-numbered counts to the left foot, and even-numbered counts to the right foot.

Parade marching

For parades, bands usually line up in a marching block composed of ranks (rows) and files (columns). Typically, each member tries to stay within his or her given rank and file, and to maintain even spacing with neighboring musicians. It is usually the responsibility of the people at the end of each rank and the front of each file to be in the correct location; this allows other band members to guide to them.

Band members also try to keep a constant pace or step size while marching in parade. This usually varies between 22 and 30 inches (56–76 cm) per stride. A step size of 22.5 inches is called 8-to-5 because the marcher covers five yards (about 4.6 m) in eight steps. A step size of 30 inches is called 6-to-5 because five yards are covered in six steps. Because yard lines on an American football field are five yards apart, exact 8-to-5 and 6-to-5 steps are most useful for field shows.

A drum cadence (sometimes called a walkbeat or street beat) is usually played when the band is marching, sometimes alternating with a song. This is how the band keeps time. Alternately, a drum click or rim shot may be given on the odd beats to keep the band in step. Between songs and cadences, a roll is usually given to indicate what beat in the measure the band is at. Cadence tempo varies from group to group, but is generally between 112 and 144 beats per minute.

Street marching

In Minnesotamarker, Upstate New York, and Wisconsinmarker, bands perform on city streets (called a performance route) with compact formation elements, sometimes referred to as a street show. These shows are judged using similar criteria as any other marching band competition. Elements of difficulty increase with street marching competitions because of the varying widths of streets in each community. Street marching is typical for bands who operate during the spring and early summer months. Typically, a band that performs street marching competitions will not be involved with field marching, and vice versa. Various venues exist for street marching competitions between high school marching bands.

Field marching

While playing music during a field show, the band makes a series of formations, called drill, on the field, which may be pictures, geometric shapes, curvilinear designs, or blocks of musicians, although sometimes it may be pure abstract designs using no specific form.

Typically, each band member has an assigned position in each formation. In many show bands and most drum corps, these positions are illustrated in a handheld booklet called a drill book. Drill books, or drill charts, show where each person stands during each set of the show. The drill charts include yard lines and hashes as they would be on an actual football field, which shows the band members where to stand in relation to the yard lines and hashes. There are many ways of getting from one formation to the next:
  • each member can move independently – this is called scattering or "scatter drill"
  • all the members can move together without deforming the picture – this is called floating
  • the members can stay in their lines and arcs, but slowly deform the picture – this is sometimes called rotating, expanding, or condensing
  • the members can break into ranks or squads, each of which performs a maneuver (such as a follow-the-leader) which may or may not be scripted – an unscripted move is sometimes called a rank option
  • each member may have a specifically scripted move to perform – in these cases, the desired visual effect is often the move itself and not the ending formation

Many bands use a combination of the above techniques, sometimes adding dance choreography that is done in place or while marching. Players may point the bells of their instruments in the direction they are moving, or slide (also called traverse) with all the bells facing in the same direction. Bands that march in time with the music typically also synchronize the direction of individuals' turns, and try to maintain even spacing between individuals in formations (called intervals). Sometimes bands will specifically have wind players turn their instruments away from the audience in order to emphasize the dynamics of the music.

Auxiliaries can also add to the visual effect. Backdrops and props ("scrims") may be used on the field that fit the theme of the show or the music being performed. In comedic shows, particularly for university bands, an announcer may read jokes or a funny script between songs; formations that are words or pictures (or the songs themselves) may serve as punch lines.

Fundamental commands and drill down

In some marching bands, a drum major has the option to give out a set of commands to the rest of the band either vocally, by hand command, or by whistle. These commands originated from the military history of marching band. Different bands might have different sets of procedures such as the amount of counts it takes to carry out the command, but the overall result will be the same.
  • Atten-hut: the command that tells the band to go into the position of attention, a military posture.
  • Left face: the command to turn the band 90 degrees to the left while at the position of attention.
  • Right face: the command to turn the band 90 degrees to the right while at the position of attention.
  • About face: the command to turn the band 180 degrees to the rear while at the position of attention.
Aside from field show and parade, competitions among secondary school can also have the "drill down" (or "concentration block"). This event involves all participants on the field following the commands of a drill sergeant. If a participant makes a mistake, either by execution or wrong timing, then the participant will fall out of the field. A winner is crowned when there is only one participant left on the field.


In addition to staying in step and marching uniformly, one of the challenges with playing in large outdoor arenas is phasing. This is when part of the band gets behind or ahead of another part of the band, and such an occurrence is sometimes called an ensemble tear.

Phasing is a subjective effect, due to the finite speed of sound; some areas may not hear any phasing problems while other areas may hear a half second variation in timing. Even if all members of a band are playing at once, the sound from their instruments may reach listeners at different times.

For example, if two musicians, one standing on the front sideline of the football field and one on the back sideline, begin playing exactly when they see the beat of the conductor's baton or hand, the sound produced by the musician on the front sideline will reach listeners in the stand before the sound played by the back musician. This is because the speed of sound is significantly slower than the speed of light. Sound may also echo off parts of the stadium or nearby buildings.

Phasing can be reduced in several ways, including:
  • keeping formations compact
  • having players listen to the drums in addition to watching the drum major, to get a uniform idea of tempo (this only works if the drill is not spread across the entire field)
  • having musicians make constant adjustments and keep watching or listening to sources of tempo so as to try and make their sound reach the audience at the same time as other musicians
  • having players located near the back of the field watch the drum major, and all other players "listen back", playing along with those watching the drum major.
  • having players keep track of time and rhythm on their own (called internalizing the tempo)
  • knowing to not only watch the drum major for the tempo but listen to the percussion. Having the percussion call out counts, or do rimshots (sometimes called "cheaters") when they are not playing might help the bands phasing problem also.
  • simply ignoring the phasing heard on the field and realize that the end product is essentially in sync. This most often occurs when the band is spread out, but in groups (i.e., the four corners of the football field in 4 groups). In this case, the sound will reach the center of the stadium and the center of the stands at the same moment provided the band members are not listening to each other.


Nearly all marching bands use some kind of uniform, and the parts of a band uniform are numerous. Military-style uniforms are most common, but there are bands that use everything from matching T-shirts and shorts to formal wear. Common design elements include hats (typically shakos, pith helmets, combination hats or other styles of helmets) with feather plumes, capes, gloves, rank cords, and other embellishments. Many Ivy League band members wear a jacket and tie while performing. The Southern Methodist Universitymarker band will wear a different combination of jackets, vests, ties, shirts, and pants for each half of each game, (changing before halftime) such that no combination is repeated all year. Rather than a traditional helmet, the USCmarker Spirit of Troy Marching Band and Troy Universitymarker's Sound of the South Marching Band wear traditional Trojan helmets. The Alma College Kiltie Marching Band is famous for wearing formal Scottish outfits including the official Alma College tartan. Additionally, the school or organization's name, symbol, and/or colors are also commonly applied to uniforms. Uniforms may also have substantially different colors on the front and back, so if band members turn suddenly (flank), the audience will see a striking change of color. It is also common for band uniforms to have a stripe down the leg and light-colored shoes (or spats over dark shoes) to emphasize the movement of the legs while marching. However, competitive bands may opt for matching pants and shoes (usually white or black) to hide the visual effect of members who are out of step as seen from a distance. Occasionally, a band will forgo traditional uniforms in favor of costumes that fit the theme of its field show. The costumes may or may not be uniform throughout the band. This kind of specialized uniform change is usually confined to competitive marching bands.

Drum Majors, the field commanders and band leaders, often wear more formal outfits or costumes that match the theme of the music, or their own design of uniform, based on personal preferences, which is at the discretion of the director. Many use an all-white version of the regular band uniform, with some (especially at the college level) still employing the tall wool-lined shako (often derisively referred to as a "Q-Tip hat"). Sousaphone players typically use a military-style beret, as other hats may be in the way of the bell. Some auxiliary groups use uniforms that resemble gymnastics outfits: Often, these uniforms are themed, drawing inspiration from the music. Many groups change the outfits they use from season to season based on the needs of the band, although many that do also have a "base" uniform for occasions such as parades or other ceremonies.


Some bands will perform the same field show at all of their appearances during a single season. Others will avoid repeating a performance in front of the same crowd. In either case, the amount of rehearsal required varies greatly depending on the number and complexity of the formations, and the difficulty of the music. Some bands do a new field show every week, but only practice drill for two or three hours immediately before the performance. Other bands can practice a single show upwards of 20 hours per week (or more, for some competitive drum and bugle corps, who have been known to practice as much as 16 hours a day) for an entire season.

In the US, some states, such as Texas, have association rules that prohibit high school bands from practicing too much, in order to avoid injuring or overworking students. Texas has an 'Eight Hour Rule' which states that no competitive part of a marching band can spend more than 8 hours per week, including full band rehearsals, sectionals, and time before competitions, rehearsing. The things that do not count towards the 8 hours are competitions, parades, football games, and rehearsals during the scheduled school day.

Music for parade and show bands is typically learned separately, in a concert band setting. It may even be memorized before any of the marching steps are learned. When rehearsing drill, positions and maneuvers are usually learned without playing the music simultaneously – a common technique for learning drill is to have members sing their parts or march to a recording produced during a music rehearsal. Many bands learn drill one picture or form at a time, and later combine these and add music.

Rehearsals may also include physical warm-up (stretching, jumping jacks, etc.), music warm-up (generally consisting of breathing exercises, scales, technical exercises, chorales, and tuning), basics (simple marching in a block to practice proper technique), and sectionals (in which either staff or band members designated section leaders rehearse individual sections).

When learning positions for drill, an American football field may be divided into a 5-yard grid, with the yard lines serving as one set of guides. The locations where the perpendicular grid lines cross the yard lines, sometimes called zero points, may be marked on a practice field. Alternately, band members may only use field markings – yard lines, the center line, hash marks, and yard numbers – as guides (but note that different leagues put these markings in different places).

In order for members to learn their positions more quickly, they may be given drill charts, which map their locations relative to the grid or field markings for each formation. In other groups, spray chalk or colored markers are used to mark the location of each person after each set of drill, with a different color and, sometimes, shape for each move.

Some bands use small notebooks, also known as a dot book, which they hang about their necks, hung on the drum harness, or around the waist. Within contain 'drill charts' taped in, which list coordinates that band members use to find 'pages' or 'sets' on the field, which are normally set off the front sideline and front and back hashes, along with the number of '8-5 steps off of the yardline listed on each page. Some bands are even using small plastic pouches that hang about their neck on an adjustable strap, which has a zipper pocket for holding drill, flags to mark sets, and a pencil. There is also a clear plastic window in front to display the current part of drill being worked on at that point in time.

Members may also group into squads, ranks, sections, or (especially with scramble bands that primarily form words) letters. Instead of each member having an individual move, moves are then learned on a squad-by-squad (rank-by-rank, etc.) basis.

March steps and traditional music and drill that are unique to an organization are often taught at a band camp, a time set aside for intense rehearsal before the performance season begins. Many U.S. university bands meet for a week of band camp prior to the beginning of the autumn semester. Other band camps exist for individual band members, drum majors, and auxiliaries to practice their skills and learn generic techniques in the off-season. For many bands, band camp is actually camp: the groups board at a campground for a period of time. Other groups simply hold band camp at their typical rehearsal facilities. Many bands have an initiation night at the end of the camp to help build a greater bond between the musicians. More often than not, initiation is focused at the newcomers to marching, for example, freshman in high school/college.


In competitions, bands are usually judged on criteria such as musicality, uniformity, visual impact, artistic interpretation, and the difficulty of the music and drill. Competition exists at all levels, but is most common in the U.S. among secondary school bands and drum and bugle corps. Performances designed for a competition setting usually include more esoteric music (including but not limited to adaptations of modern orchestral pieces).

Spring competitions

Spring and early summer parade marching (or street marching) is popular in the northern midwest and Upstate New York, where temperatures are moderate enough for students to march distances in standard uniforms. Performance styles range from traditional block marching to elaborate productions with evolving drill patterns.

Summer competitions

There are also some circuits in the United States which continue to hold field show competitions during the summer months. Much like drum corps, these bands rehearse and tour full time for about a month from mid-June to mid-August. Such circuits include the Mid-America Competing Band Directors Association, or MACBDA, and the Catholic Youth Organization circuits.

MACBDA is currently host to more than 20 actively competing, summer-only field show bands from the US (Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan) and Canada (Saskatchewan and Alberta). The circuit sponsors fourteen field show competitions each summer and the circuit championships move on a three-year-rotation from Calgary, AB, Canada, to Traverse City, MI, to the Southern Wisconsin / Northern Illinois area.

The Honda Battle of the Bands is an annual marching band exhibition which features performances by HBCU bands. Seemingly contradictory to the name, Honda's "battle" is not a competition in the traditional sense; that is, no winner is crowned during the event. Rather, the bands compete for the favor of the audience, each other, and the greater community.

Fall competitions

Most high school marching band competitions occur in the fall when the majority of schools begin classes. In the United Statesmarker, there are two national competition circuits in which bands can compete; Bands of America and the United States Scholastic Band Association (USSBA).

USSBA was formed in 1988 through the help of the Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps. Over 700 high school bands compete during the Fall season with bands of similar size and talent. Each competition provides approximately 40 professional judges who give feedback on the show's programming and design. At the season's end the top 50 bands are invited to compete in the US Scholastic Band Championship, which is hosted at a college or professional stadium.

Also, many states have their own competition circuits as well as rules that govern competitions that occur in their circuits. Several colleges host annual independent competitions, many of which hold varying degrees of prestige, such as the Contest of Champions at Middle Tennessee State Universitymarker, which is the longest running high school band contest in the United States.

The Avon High School Marching Black and Gold, a large marching band, is classified as an AAA band in the BOA circuit.
In order to make competitions fair, bands are normally split up into different classes based on certain factors. One popular classification system uses the size of the school to split up the competing bands. This system is used by Bands of America which uses the population of a school's 10th-12th grades :
  • Class A - less than 600 students
  • Class AA - 601 - 1220 students
  • Class AAA - 1221 - 1750 students
  • Class AAAA - more than 1751 students

The Sudler Trophy and Sudler Shield

The Sudler Trophy and Sudler Shields are awards bestowed each year by the John Philip Sousa Foundation on one university marching band and one high school marching band. The awards do not represent the winner of any championship, but rather a band surrounded by great tradition that has become respected nationally. No school may be honored with either award twice while under the same director.

Marching band documentary

The 2007 film From the 50 Yard Line is a documentary which chronicles the high school marching band experience by following the Centerville Jazz Band and the Fairfax High School Marching Band.

See also


  1. The Osseo Marching Band Festival in Osseo, Minnesota
  2. Vikingland Band Festival in Alexandria, Minnesota.
  3. Other similar street marching events can be found at
  4. The Vikingland Band Festival parade marching championship in Alexandria, Minnesota, is held annually on the last Sunday of June. The event was founded in 1985 and has drawn parade bands from seven states, two Canadian provinces, and Norway. Another popular street marching cometition is The Osseo Marching Band Festival held on Saturday of the last full weekend in June.
  5. Mid-America Competing Band Directors Association
  6. Youth Education in the Arts
  7. Class Breakdown

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