Size Matters

Counties

Last night was Frederick County’s annual Marching Band Festival. (Yes, this is a marching band post. What were you thinking?) All ten high schools in Frederick County—Brunswick, Walkersville, Catoctin, Oakdale, Frederick, Middletown, Urbana, Tuscarora, Governor Thomas Johnson, and Linganore—sent bands to the LHS campus to perform in the stadium on Monday night.

I love Counties. It was one of my favorite competitions as a band member, and it’s even more fun to go now and watch my younger friends perform. But there is one unavoidable problem with a geographically-based competition. Most band competitions are divided into “classes”; bands of similar sizes all play at one time. But with only ten bands of various sizes (from about ten people to over a hundred) in the county, the class system simply can’t be used. So in a span of two hours, you have a chance to watch bands of four or five different classes. And you start to notice what effect a band’s size has on its performance.

Mr. Lloyd, my old band director, reminds his students every single year that there is no second-string in band. And he’s absolutely right. Band members don’t have subs; if a musician breaks his fingers/ribs/face/whatever, he can’t call up another guy to fill his spot. In a formation, you immediately notice a missing guy no matter how big the band is.

But, speaking musically, a smaller band suffers through a long, exhausting show where fatigue wouldn’t be an issue for a larger band. In a bigger group, you can have more people on each part. And if one player has to drop out for a second to breathe, the others can temporarily pick up the slack (a unique problem for large bands: lazy players coasting by under assumption that the others will take care of things)

If you’re the only guy out there with a trumpet, and you’re in minute six of the show and the stitch in your side is killing you, nobody can cover. So either you tough through it or you drop out. And even if you play through, you naturally get weaker by the end of the show. It’s natural. So these young, small bands, on top of being little and therefore having to work a lot harder to make any sound, have to be hyper-vigilant.

That’s not to say that big bands should let their guard down either. A properly-motivated and well-trained thirty-piece band will always beat a poor, lazy hundred-piece thing. Being in a big bands produces problems all its own. Phasing, musicality and expression come harder to a big band with more players to wreck things. There’s no magic number for when a band is “too big” (some say it’s near 100, but that’s opinion). Just like with small bands, it’s what you do with your numbers. If I see two hundred people on the field, I’d better hear some serious noise. Like ear-splittingly loud.

There is hope for growth in the small bands. Look no further than Oakdale High School. I saw them last night for the first time since 2012, the very first year that the new school had a four-class band: they must’ve eaten their Wheaties every morning since. Not only had the size of the band gone up, but the quality took some leaps and bounds in every category.

They weren’t the best show out there, but they definitely win the award for most improved—and not just because of their size. The challenge for the Railroaders, Lions, Cadets and Cougars (and the more size-gifted Patriots, Knights, Hawks, Lancers, and Titans): take that title away from the Bears. Every band has the potential for improvement

There are other factors, of course. If the band likes the show, it will naturally be better than if the band doesn’t care about what they’re playing (special shout-out to Linganore—the Beatles suit you guys, and you proved it last night). Some bands have natural strengths. TJ, for example, has had the most precise drill at counties for as long as I can remember. Meanwhile, Urbana has a thing for flawless execution of solos and technical bits.

Directors make a world of difference, and you can tell when the kids love their director because they work harder for him. Experienced, active drum majors can do more for a band than a hundred trumpet players. And naturally, a well-funded band is generally a more successful band. Sadly, that’s just the way the world works.

No matter the size of the band, all of the programs in the county put on a good show last night. And I think they all had fun—that, at the end of the day, is the most important thing. Just know that overly-large or noticeably-small bands face unique challenges. Size matters in marching band. But that’s no excuse for a poor performance. There are winners and losers in this game. Don’t let your size define you. Passion and effort do that.

Video courtesy of the Frederick News-Post

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