Switching sections within a season or between seasons brings rewards to many marching arts participants. It also adds its own set of complexities.
Flute photo by Tomas Ovalle; Mellophone photo by Will Melendez
“What instrument do you want to play?”
For budding marching musicians, this all-important question—typically “answered” in elementary or middle school—defines their relationship with music. While many people stick it out with that one instrument of choice, some don’t. Along the way, new opportunities may arise where a person may want to switch instruments or sections entirely.
Perhaps a member of the color guard will want to play an instrument or vice versa. In some cases, a person may become adept at playing more than one instrument in different sections and become “bisectional.”
For the purposes of this article, “bisectional” will be defined as switching between completely different sections. This does not include, for instance, a flute player becoming a piccolo player or a bass drummer becoming a snare drummer.
A New Beginning
Alexander Gerbic was already an experienced front ensemble player at Bellbrook (Ohio) High School when he decided that he wanted to actually march while playing an instrument as it felt more exciting. He originally settled on playing trumpet but wound up playing tuba instead. His band director needed more tuba players in the band and suggested he try out with the section. When he started marching with the tuba at rehearsal, it became very eye-opening for him.
“Going from a section where I knew what I was doing in the pit to being a completely new member of the section gave me a very different perspective,” Gerbic says. “In pit, the instructors didn’t really pick on me. They knew I could play my music with good technique as I was one of the more experienced players. In the tuba section, since I was the least experienced player, the marching and drill instructors would be watching me much more closely to point out any errors. It was very challenging.”
Fortunately, he had friends in the tuba section that helped him understand the nuances of the instrument as well as learn how to march.
“We would find time after school and outside of rehearsal to work on my marching and playing, and it was a massive help,” Gerbic says. “Without them, it would have been a huge struggle.”
The Drum Corps Factor
Many marching musicians have dreams of being in drum corps, and in a few cases, this causes them to take up new instruments, especially if they are woodwind players. Kelsey Heater did exactly that when she switched from flute to mellophone to march with the Blue Devils B Drum and Bugle Corps while she was at Buchanan High School in Clovis, California. The opportunity came knocking in the form of a willing instructor.
“My high school band had a marching instructor that was trying to recruit people to play for Blue Devils B,” Heater says. “I thought, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ He offered to help any woodwinds that were thinking of switching to brass and gave private lessons.”
Heater went from not knowing how to hold the mellophone to becoming a solid 2nd horn player. After marching with Blue Devils B for a year, she had a bit of an existential crisis.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to keep on playing my flute or play mellophone,” she says. “After marching with Blue Devils B, I really liked playing my horn.”
Eventually she made a compromise with herself: She would play her mellophone for marching season and her flute in concert settings, both of which she continued to do at Fresno State University.
“I just liked playing my mellophone in a marching setting so much more as it felt very powerful and the positioning of the flute for marching band was very weird for me,” Heater says. “At the same time, I didn’t really like playing French horn, so instead of that, I could still continue playing flute for the symphony orchestra. It wound up working quite well.”
For anyone wanting to become bisectional, adjustments need to be made once the switch happens. For Hannah Reese, switching from mellophone to color guard while at Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, South Carolina, brought out many changes to her routine.
“When I joined color guard, the learning process became extremely fast,” Reese says. “When I was a mellophone, we would have time to focus on learning and memorizing our music and going step by step with marching. With color guard, by the time band camp came around, we had to learn all the new choreography with the new music and basically learned the whole show in about a week and a half. It was fast.”
She was able to adjust to the change of pace due, in part, to her past experience as a musician; she saw that her mellophone playing and her color guard performance were interdependent.
“After I joined guard, I was able to easily pick up counting and the tempos since I played an instrument, but guard allowed me to get a better feel for the music,” Reese says. “My mellophone playing gave me the technical aspects of my musicianship, but being in guard gave me the emotional aspect of the music, which I am able to convey when I play French horn in a concert setting.”
Being bisectional gave Reese the opportunity to participate in other ensembles such as winter guard. In fact she is going to perform with the Independent A Class guard Entr’acte and take part in the upcoming WGI World Championships in Dayton, Ohio.
“This is a great opportunity to help me reach my ultimate goal … to be able to become a member of the color guard for Carolina Crown,” Reese says.
Learning multiple instruments is also very beneficial for anyone wanting to pursue a career in music education as it allows a person to understand what goes into learning each instrument and what struggles their future students may have.
“As a clinician for Fred J. Miller [camps], being in both pit and playing the tuba allowed me to understand the different needs of each section,” Gerbic says. “I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony, and by learning multiple instruments, I became that much more aware of what students in different sections need in terms of instruction. I encourage anyone wanting to become a band director to play as many instruments as you can, so that you can connect better with your students, and it will make you a much better teacher.”
“When I entered college, I had plans on becoming a band director,” Allums says. “In order to focus more on my major, I went back to trumpet playing. It was a necessary sacrifice at the time, so that I could succeed. Eventually I wound up switching back to guard, where I felt more at home. I do encourage anyone who does want to become a music educator to switch instruments to understand different perspectives.”
Advice and Reflection
There will inevitably be some bumps on the road for anyone who wants to successfully switch instruments.
Gerbic advises anyone who is new at his on her instrument to listen closely to whatever the instructors are saying.
“Don’t take anything they say personally as they are just there to make you a better performer and musician,” Gerbic says. “Whatever constructive criticism they give, take note of it and apply it the best you can. You will be picked on initially, but once you are able to show improvement, it will give you a great feeling.”
Caitlyn Chandler from Bellevue (Nebraska) West High School has already experienced the ups and downs of learning a new instrument after switching from tuba to quads in the drumline. She didn’t initially make it into the drumline, but she still plans on working hard at it.
“Just go for it and do it,” Chandler says. “Ask people to help you and don’t let anything bring you down or else it will stop you from getting to where you want to be. I’ve been asking my friends in drumline to help me after school and getting private lessons. Participating in a bonding session with your new section will also let you create a sense of camaraderie. Practice on your own as well since the instruction you get can only do so much.”
Reflecting on her choice to be in the color guard, Reese was very pleased with her progress and has no regrets about making the switch.
“I was very nervous at first about switching,” Reese says. “But looking back, I am very thankful for it as I am able to be in a section where I can express my spontaneous personality. I can now perform with my whole body and express emotions on the field rather than being restricted to my chops on my mellophone. I’m able to have more fun that way.”