In Defense of Marching Band

Okay, first off, I can’t believe I just typed that subject line.  But I’m serious.  I’ll explain.

Composers complain to each other. We’re like a sewing circle of bitchy. Bitching is fun. Ranting is fun. Give me a cocktail and ask me my opinion on just about anything, and I’ll happily and loudly tell you why it’s awful.

So it’s not surprising that I read a very amusing rant by a fellow composer the other day — a rant intended for other composers. His topic of bitching? Marching band.

This composer had licensed one of his pieces for marching use, and received a DVD of the show in the mail. Because he hadn’t licensed a lot of stuff for marching use, he was understandably curious, and he put in the DVD and proceeded to become… well, not super excited.

He thought it was awful, that the music had no resemblance to what he’d originally written, and that the addition of flags was not doing anybody any favors.  I think he’s missing the point. Here’s my take on marching band:

Big fan. Love to watch it? Well, honestly, I haven’t seen much. I never marched, but I did watch a few marching show contests back in high school, partially because I was curious, but primarily because I had a crush on the drum major. I still remember one show based on “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Elliott del Borgo. I remember thinking, “that’s crunchier music than I’d have expected in a marching show. Cool. Oh, and the drum major is cute. I wonder if she has a date for prom.”

I license a lot of my music for marching band and drum corps use. Honestly, though — and this is what my composer friend didn’t consider — I rarely watch the videos. Why? It’s just because the marching arrangement never quite sounds “right” to me — at least not when it involves my own music. I have a particular way that I want every piece of mine to sound, and performances rarely match that “perfect version” that’s in my head — and that’s when the piece is being performed by the exact instrumentation that I intended! So if I hear a marching band arrangement of Asphalt Cocktail, and instead of it being in 4/4 and 7/8 (which is kind of the point, since 4/4 alone would be weirdly square), it’s arranged to be almost entirely in 4/4 for a marching band, and the clarinet solo is replaced by a mellophone, that kind of makes my brain go “?SYNTAX ERROR.”  (There have been arrangements of my own music that blew me away and that I’d watch again and again.  One was Marian Catholic’s show from a few years ago, arranged by Greg Bimm.  That was kind of astonishing in its faithfulness to the original, but that’s pretty unusual.)   The visuals, though — and maybe this is because I used to write so much for dance — always strike me as kind of cool. I wouldn’t say I’m a sucker for flags & rifles, but it’s kind of interesting to see how a designer will translate my music to a visual medium. The challenge for me is getting past the audio. That’s my own issue with my music, though.

So what is it that I really like about marching band? It’s the fact that other people love it. Like, really, really love it. People who march in marching bands love it. People in drum corps? They’re even more obsessive. And if the size of the audience at a DCI final is any indication, many thousands of people love just being in the audience for these shows.

Anytime somebody wants to use my music in some way — whether it’s performing the original version, listening to a recording, using it for synchronized swimming (go Team USA 2004!), or some weightlifting competition (yes, this has happened, too) — I’m just happy that somebody liked my music enough to choose it over his countless other options.  Hell, the weirder the use (assuming it’s used with permission, which is a whole other topic), the more I love it.  I mean, who wouldn’t love having a 10 year old girl arrange your music for Japanese “Electone” synthesizer, and then perform it in a pretty dress in a competition?  (She won the Gold Medal, by the way.)

My attitude is that whenever somebody uses your music, at that moment they’re picking your music over every other piece they could pick, and that’s an honor. If a conductor programs your piece, they’re picking that piece for that place on the program over every other piece they could possibly play. So if somebody wants to use my music in a marching show — and again, if they, you know, get permission — I’m flattered and honored.

And with marching band, those students are going to spend their entire fall (and possibly much of the preceding summer) working on your piece. Maybe those students will like your piece enough that in the spring, they’ll ask the director to program something else of yours during concert season. If they’d never marched to your piece, chances are they’d never have heard of you or your music. The audience? Same deal. Maybe somebody will hear your piece at a DCI show and go home and look up your website because they liked the corps version. But maybe they won’t. Who cares? Either way, because of that marching show, a whole bunch of people were exposed to your music that never heard it before.   It’s an audience that you’d probably never reach otherwise.  I like to think of marching band as a gateway drug. Next thing you know, kids are sneaking out behind the school to download your MP3. And take meth.

I’ll never forget how much fun I had during the rehearsals of “Grease” in high school. (I was Vince Fontaine. You can find pictures on Facebook if you’re so inclined.) I had the greatest time that spring, and because of it, I still think fondly of the show “Grease,” even though, really, that show kind of sucks. But I’m sure people in marching band feel the same way. They’ll remember how much fun they had that fall during their senior year, marching to your music on Friday nights. They’ll get together at their 5-year reunion (and they’ll look like they’ve aged 15 years, if my 5-year reunion was any indication, and 75% of them will already have kids — WTF?!), and they’ll say things like, “remember that show we marched during our senior year? That was a blast.” (Or, “that show sucked.”) Regardless, the fact that they’ll remember the experience — and probably your music — is pretty amazing.

Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

Of course, they’ll also remember how much they hated Bill and Matt in German class.  Those guys were dicks.


Jim says

Not to bring everybody down, but a few years ago I had a former student die in a car accident. Her mother asked if I could play one of her favorite songs at the memorial service. I said yes, of course. Turns out it was "Variations on a Korean Folk Song" by Chance. We had played it in marching band.

Daniel says

John, I thank you for allowing marching band and drum corps arrangements of your pieces to be used/made. I wish another band composer whose works I'm performing would allow it. The piece we're playing is so field accessible and the crowds would eat it up and do all those things you mentioned. Oh and I also love how straight forward you are with your blogs. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

P.S haven't even had a high school reunion and about 20 people I went to high school with have kids....I graduated 07

david says


Kevin W says

I remember Marion Catholic from my sister and my days in WSHS marching band. There were very good; I'm glad to hear they are still doing well.

Crush on the drum major? I thought it was the awesome trumpet section that kept bringing you back...

Jacob Marin says

So true. I remember every year since my Freshmen year in High School (two years ago) after hearing the show music for the first time, I would go home and buy the originals on iTunes. Now I do it to every symphonic or orchestral piece I hear. This is a great way to advertise. I'll have to remember this later on. And I love "Variations on a Korean Folk Song". It is one of my favorites. I played it my 7th or 8th grade year. Can't really remember. In Junior High, we had concert season all year round. We would change pieces after the Christmas Concert in December. I remember playing a lot of songs I just can't remember when I played them. Well they were good times. Can't wait to hear a piece with a great tuba solo in it! (and by great I mean super hard and interesting). And yes, I am one of those tuba players who does not get enough out of alternating fifths and whole notes. Sometimes I wish we had something better. Well who am I to complain?

Celia says

My boyfriend marched Blue Knights in '08, when they did "Turbine". The next year, he's playing the absolutely badass trombone solo when our university's symphonic band does "Strange Humors". And soon after, our entire college music department is all OMG'd about John Mackey pieces and we're bugging our director to stop putting so much Ticheli on the program and pick one of yours instead. So, there's your hypothesis proved!

Except for the meth. We're not that sketchy.

Kash says

I'm glad you have this opinion.

I haven't been in involved in music performance since HS band, so anecdotally, much of the instrumental music and composers I appreciate today are the result of exposure I've received as a fan of drum corps.

And if composers dislike hearing their music performed poorly, then I'm sure the likes of James Swearingen and John Edmondson put a hit out on my HS concert band... :) We were so bad we practically rearranged their stuff.

herp derp says

Bill and matt WERE dicks. sheesh.

John Bogenschutz says

Mackey, your point of being exposed to music I think is the BIGGEST reason for composers to allow permission. I know of so many composers out there now that will not allow permission to play their music and I think it is a shame because 1) the kids are missing out on being exposed to some pretty cool music, and 2) the composer just missed (as you stated) a HUGE opportunity to get new fans, possibly for life.

I got really into drum corps around 1993, that was also the time that I really started getting into classical music, but only because I had heard drum corps playing that music. I don't know, if it hadn't been for drum corps, that I would have been exposed to Medea's Dance of Vengeance, or Chick Corea's A Spanish Heart, or Ginastera's Estancia.

Point is, once I discovered those pieces I started to pursue their other recordings (now Barber is one of my favorites and I have virtually all of his orchestral stuff). The composers that don't allow permission at all I think are missing an opportunity on growing 'followers' of their music, even if the arrangement itself is not as originally intended.

I rarely listen to drum corps now, but I have TONS of classical recordings that I still continue to listen to. It was a good jumping off point for me.

Thanks for the article Mackey!

Daniel says

I had marched with Blue Knights in 08 and we did an arrangement of Turbine (along with Cloudburst and Amazing Grace) and honestly the Turbine movement was my favorite! It must be a great feeling when people ask to arrange your pieces for marching, band or DCI. There should be no shame in seeing a piece in movement. It's true it's not the same in instrumentation but if I like a part of the show enough I'll go home and download it. I usually tend to leave the meth to the other kids tho.

Maritt Wolfrom says

Having marched in that WSHS band with said "cute" drum major, I still remember fondly my first musical experiences. And to this day the songs we played are forever ingrained in my psyche, as are all of those lovely "Grease" songs. What both of those experiences gave me is an ability to appreciate. Today I have an appreciation for theater, and an appreciation for music. I'm no longer involved in either activity (we don't even have a marching band at the high school where I teach!) but, I certainly appreciate the hard work that goes into good music and good theater. Thanks John!

Nicholas J. McKenzie says

Thank you, John, for having this viewpoint. I cannot even BEGIN to list all the amazing composers I have been turned on to due to exposure I have received to them in the marching world. And now? It is these same composers I am buying CDs and charts from so I can get even better acquainted with their skills.

Thank you for being another one of the 'good guys'!


Evan says


As a 16-year (and counting) band director and 7 year (not counting) drumc corps brass instructor, i thank you for this post.

When i first started marching in high school and in drum corps, every piece we read through was a piece I either bought or researched along the way.

This is how I started developing a library of music to listen to. "Russlan and Ludmilla"? Thank you 1984 Crossmen; "Pines of Rome"? thank you 1984 Cavies, "When Kings go off to wary"..thank you Cadets; "Fanfare and Allegro"? Thank you 1984 SCV....and the list goes on and on.

I agree that many marching band and drum corps arrangements sometimes can come accross as hack jobs with disjunct phrases punctuated by the occasional major chord, but this is because show designers don't always make the music guide the production, but the production itself can sometimes dictate the audio.

However, the exposure value is very important and had it not been for marching band and drum corps in my life as a teen, i wouldn't be a music educator today, nor would i ever have heard of these wondefrul pieces of music.

Take Care!

Key Poulan says

John: One of the things that we (Santa Clara Vanguard) have been planting our flag on is being as true to the original as possible. Of course this is difficult with the limited instrumentation we have as well the addition of the field percussion! I completely hear you on being able to listen to your work being... reworked! It is equally difficult to listen to it when it isn't performed very well.

I also concur with you when you said, it's an honor when people play your music and yes, this is how it can not only reach band members and drum corps enthusiasts but "Joe Six Pack" in the stands as well. A gateway drug indeed! I have to admit that one of my favorite "surprises" was a remix of my "Rise and Fall of Rome". It was completely unexpected and I had to send it out to my friends! Opening one door often leads to opening others. Thank you for your positive take on the marching arts. See you at a show this summer? ~Key

Ken says

"Gateway Drug", YES!

I have been an instructor, performer, contest judge and administrator for marchings bands, drum corps, indoor guard, etc since 1980.

There are types and forms of music I would have NEVER been exposed to without these activities. I mean, where else can the general public easily access new compositions? Radio doesn't do it certainly, and formal concerts are not on the list for most people in this country.

Really, I have been inspired to new directions over and over by the music I am exposed to in this activity, and it continues even today, 30 years later.

Any venue that gets your material in front of a new or unaccustomed audience is a good thing! You can't play to the closed "arts" community all the time and expect the arts community to survive and thrive. You've got to expose your material to new audiences, this is one example that reaches out beyond the typical arts community and it's a good thing!


Adam says

I wish teachers would also realize the teaching potential of a marching band. Teacher's can use virtually ANY piece for their marching band. Why not make it good music? If it wasn't for marching band or drum corps, how else can band students fully appreciate Nessun Dorma? Scherezade? Shostakovich? Students learn to LOVE these pieces and anything like them. It all comes down to the fact that marching band and drum corps is fun. Don't we as teachers want GOOD music to equate with fun!

Marian Grad says

I looked up my alma mater on Google on a whim and was surprised to come back here to find you mentioning us. I marched in that Marian Catholic show. It was a lot of fun to march, so I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was also hard as all hell, Mr. Bimm did us no favors in remaining as true as he could to the original score in arraigning it.

As a music ed major in college now, I think marching band and DCI can be great things for people. I know from Marian shows and other band shows I got introduced to certain music. Marching Marian 07 introduced me to a lot of your stuff, which I love now. DCI has shown me more stuff than I can imagine. Phantom introduced me to Shostakovich, SCV to Rimsky-Korsakov, and BD to numerous types of jazz. Whatever way music is introduced to kids, high school kids for the most part who wouldn't know about it otherwise, is good for music.

Susan Wenger says

Interesting thoughts. As a songwriter I've experienced that weird disconnect between the initial creative process and the final arrangement. In the beginning, when it's all happening inside my head, I am in complete control. Nothing happens without my say so. Then other performers get involved and they contribute elements I couldn't have imagined.

Sometimes my gut response is, "No, wait, that's not supposed to be there! Eek!" Then, more often than not, I find it growing on me after the shock subsides.

It's scary, but magical things can happen if you cede a little control.

BTW, you might like this guy's blog. He has a lot to say about creativity and collaboration.

jared says

So much truth to this post.

Even though I prefer concert music (in it's original form), I was exposed to some of my favorite composers thanks to marching shows (TWHS introducing me to John Adams via Chairman Dances being a perfect example. Marian Catholic to Karel Husa, etc.).

Just an observation, I like how you get 98712398470 comments when the topic is marching band ^^.

Cliff says

Thank you for flying the flag Mr. Mackey! I'm a true fan of your music and you should be honored that Marching Bands want to perform your music...that means it mirrors that of a good book. And no different than books to movies...the ones with the best ability to create feelings or imagery are going to be used. Sadly, neither are ever capable of capturing the original, whether a book or original composition. That being the case, have you ever considered writing something specifically for the field? You shouldn't have a problem selling that ;).

Chad Tarver says

There have been many awful renditions of every piece.

When you love and watch marching band as much as I do, you really learn the difference between a good arrangement and a bad one.

But just to note, it's not only classical pieces that get butchered. I have seen shows where there have been arrangements of classic rock, pop, and even rap songs.. and they weren't pretty.

I remember seeing this one band who played(well tried to) Carry On My Wayward Son by Kansas, Faithfully by Journey, and Eruption by Van Halen.

Let's just say I still cringe at the thought.

So if I cringe for pieces I didn't write, I can't even imagine hearing one's own piece redone.

Ryan Salcido says

Dear John:

I wanted to thank you for your "rant" on marching band/drum corps. I marched The Academy 2009, and we played Michael Klesh's arrangement of Kingfisher's Catchfire!! I wanted to let you know that, for playing that song for 6 months straight, through blood, sweat, and tears of tour, the original piece still had me mezmorized. The second I heard our closer music, I immediately had to find a recording of the original. I want to thank you for being a great composer that allows people like us, (drum corps folks), to perform such great music and portray it through the visual medium that you spoke about above.


Jazzy says

Ryan Salcido says

Yes to Jazzy!! That's the show, The Academy 2009, The Ascent featuring John Mackey's Kingfisher's Catch Fire for our closer!

Cathy says

I had that same prom dress!! Except in black and without the fringy thing at the bottom....

John Pollard says

Susan said <>

No greater truth, and an extremely hard pill for the OCD "everything-in-its-place" purists of the world to swallow... I know. I are one! (areas other than composition for me).

I directed band at LD Bell High School in TX from 1997-2005. One of the finest experiences our students had was receiving a letter from the son of Miklos Rozsa - saying if his father was alive he would have loved our embrace of his music. In fact, this feedback (and the fine work done by our arranger) inspired a multi-year stretch of programs including Rozsa's works.

A by-product was that CD/DVD stores in our area of DFW regularly sold out of his soundtracks and fall during marching winter when BOA's DVDs came out...and in spring as the next season's program was announced. Several stores asked people "Why on earth does this stuff sell out!?" and began contacting us in the summer to stock-up on our selections for the following year.

In many places more people will see a single marching band halftime show than attend all of a school's indoor concerts of the year, combined... And the marching band show is presented numerous times in different large venues.

I absolutely agree with the "?SYNTAX ERROR" aspect that is a logical reaction of the artists who created a work at a completely different level than it's possible to present in a marching environment. But as an advertisement for music education - in a sense of broad awareness - the marching band and drum corps medium is a potent and viral medium.

John Pollard

Kevin Howlett says

John, when we meet, if for no other reason than our comparative heights, you WILL be looking at my boobs.

Allie says

Wow. First, your cat is adorable...second, you are one of my inspirations in life because you have such a passion for music, and you are so very talented. I cant believe you never did marching band or play an instrument. That is wicked. Oh and another thing, thank you so much for allowing my band to play Aurora Awakes!!! It was awesome, and I love the piece, though I have to say I almost passed out at the end from losing all that air! :D

Jen N-W says

Marion Catholic always did deal with mixed meter well. I think they did Bernstein's Overture to Candide when I was a freshman or sophomore.

Kevin says

Hey, I was a drum major, how come I never got any action in high school? Oh yeah, I was a fat kid and my drum major uniform was cream colored, therefore earning me the nickname "Pillsbury."

Michael Lee says

Coming back to this post, I think that the Boston Crusaders did a (comparatively, to other DCI-type arrangements) *amazing* job with Kingfishers Catch Fire back in 2008, and the Blue Coats did just as incredibly with Asphalt Cocktail last year. Man, those guys know how to play. =D Can't wait to see what the Blue Coats are doing with Harvest: Concerto for Trombone this year!

Brad Sampson says informs me that the Bluecoats are playing Harvest and the Oregon Crusaders are playing... something by John Mackey. Anyway, the Bluecoats rock.

Matt says

I'm a senior right now and our marching band is doing this very thing. I know this blog post is a bit old, but I just thought I'd say I completely agree. We're using Damn, Asphalt Cocktail, Aurora awakes and Kingfishers Catchfire. None of them really sound the same as the original arrangement, but your music has made for a very impressive and exciting show thus far. Not to mention it's gotten us first place at our first competition (and hopefully a few more).

Adam says

Hey, on the subject, North Forney High School is doing a good arrangement of 'Asphalt Cocktail". When I saw it at a contest, it was really cool. The whole solo that you have written was turned into some sort of trio thingy. Real fun. Still 4/4 though :P Might want to go check it out :P

BSU MusEd says

I REALLY wish you'd tell David Maslanka this. I want to see a drum corps do "Give Us This Day." He's so freaking pretentious.

Holly Haffner says

Thank you for all you do. This post is yet another reason why you are one of my favorite contemporary composers. Thank you for being so down to earth and "real". I can read a post like this to my middle school band students and let them know that there are composers out there that are also "real people" that don't put themselves on pedestals. Thanks again!!

Alex Choi says

That last section of this entry accurately foretells my own future. I'm in marching band right now and I already know which shows I hate and love. Plus I'm in German and Tom, Troy, and Gabe are dicks.

Ray says

We performed an arrangement of Kingfisher Catch Fire last Drum Corp season. It was pretty awesome.

Benjamin says

Playing Aurora Awakes in marching band this year, extremely excited for our first major competition this weekend at ISU! Love your music, you have also inspired me to begin writing pieces of my own. My sister played in the flute quartet in Marian Catholic's 2007 marching performance, ever since then I've been listening to your music. I'd love nothing more then to talk to you about music, just throwing that out there!

Thanks a million John Mackey!

Benjamin Collins.

Sam Signorelli says

Thank you so much for this...I wish other composers would feel the same way (looking at YOU, John Williams).

One thing I don't think has been touched on is the NECESSITY of compressing a work for a band or corps show....they're only allowed a certain amount of time (11:30 for a corps show max), so some pieces CAN'T be done faithfully. There's no way you can compress Beethoven's 9th into that timeframe.

Sometimes also, the dramatic requirements of a show require re-arranging. The Cadets' 1992 program of Holsinger's "To Tame the Perilous Skies" starts with a tymp roll and a lound horn entrance. However, in the original, that happens far into the work. The original soft opening of the original piece was used as the 2nd movement of the Cadets' show.

Some composers are so against use of their music, they don't react well when asked (I think it was John Rutter who was about ready to sue the Cavaliers in the late 80s over one chart they'd put in). Others have no issue at all.

When I was running Nightfire in the late 90s, I got permission verbally directly from Allen Vizzutti for "Firedance" (with no restrictions or payment required), while the use of Stan Kenton's "23 Degrees N, 82 Degrees W" came with no financial payment, and the request that the original composer be listed as "William Russo" rather than the more familiar "Bill Russo." I know things have changed, but it's nice to see someone so open to others using his work.

I fully understand Morten Lauridsen not wanting "O Magnum Mysterium" out there, as it has deep personal meaning to him (although we played it -- with his permission -- in SoCal Dream in 2006...our brass arranger knows Morten personally...nice piece)...Holsinger has one chart that has the same restriction for the same reason.

I do not, however, understand a composer refusing to allow his work to be heard -- in whatever format -- by potential new listeners.

Takes all kinds.

John W says

Hello Mr. Mackey or John or Sir,
I personally am a huge fan of your music. I just got my Marching Band part for next years show, and I was extremely happy to see Strange Humors in the Part, with all of its 4/4, 3/4 and 5/8 Glory. My director really likes to give us fun (almost impossible) music to march to, and by the way, being a trombone player, I thank you. I get overjoyed when I see a Mackey piece on the Stand because in my opinion, that means a Fun as hell part.

With utmost respect, a fellow John

Tyler says

I would never have been as familiar with John Mackey if it weren't for marching music... Bluecoats 2010 arrangement of "Asphalt Cocktail" introduced me to his music and I've been a fan ever since.

Tom Plunkett says

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. There is a while segment of the population that is turned on to your music because of their high school experience in music. I know I was, and I can now share my favorite music wth my students. Thanks for getting it from the other perspective! You are as cool as your music.

DrumCorpsReady says

Marching band is on the rise. We all know the benefits but now our kids get to know as well. We support Marching Band and we support this blog.

David says

I just returned to this article after these few years. I'm helping a young director getting started on arranging for his marching band.

I find your attitude about your music performed by marching bands refreshing. I think it is how I would feel if I were a composer. I was marching band director at a very large suburban Houston public school for a six year duration. It was a new school and my staff and I built the program to well over 400 band members - marching band, jazz band, percussion ensembles, winter guard, color guard, and five concert bands. I had a major DCI winds arranger do our music from the get go - we did "Night On Bald Mountain", "Simple Gifts" from "Appalachian Spring", "American Overture for Band", and Holst's "The Planets". His arrangements were perfectly geared for my kids, as we discussed how many solos I would need - the strengths of every section... we always received top marks for the skill of the arrangement and for the performances. In 2003, there was a blockbuster movie out and a renowned European composer of wind band music had crafted a beautiful original work based on the same subject. I wanted to weave parts of the wind band music with parts of the movie music - the best of each - for our show. When I asked for permission to arrange the composer's music, I was haughtily denied with spite by his lawyers. They said a decade earlier (I assume in the early 1990s) the composer got hold of a video of an American high school band performing one of his pieces. He was aghast at how terribly the band played his music, and was upset at the arrangement. He refused to grant my school permission to arrange his band music for marching band. His lawyers stated that even if "one measure of material was 'lifted', he would sue".

It was MY turn to be aghast! I thought what type of egomaniac would really refuse a top-notch Texas marching band (class 6A) to perform his music... I had sent a few recordings and videos of our previous years' performances so he could see we would do his music justice. I was sad for our students - who wouldn't get to perform his terrific music. So I wound up having the movie soundtrack arranged and it was fantastic!! We received permission from the movie music studio and the composer's lawyer staff.

What a shame this composer had such a 'haughty' attitude. How refreshing it was to hear yours!!


Steve says

Thanks for this post. I do not play an instrument but involved in the support rolen of the activity. Listening to all the different music in Drum Corps makes me want to go listen to the original and has expanded my music repertoire.

I would have never heard "Redline Tango" or "Asphalt Cocktail" if not for Drum Corps. From what I have heard I may get to hear allot of your music this summer, thanks.

Add comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.