Keith Brion and his New Sousa Band - Articles

Sousa's Marches, As He Conducted ThemKeith Brion
Bass Drum with Attached Cymbal Playing as Employed in Concert Bands of the Sousa Era and the Modern Concert BandBrian W. Holt
The Roll of the Snare Drum in the Concert Band Brian W. Holt

Sousa's Marches, As He Conducted Them
by Keith Brion

Sousa conducted his music with his own players more often than any composer in history. When he wrote a new march the published parts were thickly orchestrated with outdoor marching in mind. Sousa's Band, however, was exclusively a concert band, playing mainly in concert halls, theaters and opera houses. Therefore, during the first rehearsal of a newly composed march, Sousa would verbally indicate various changes to his players, radically altering the orchestration for indoor performance. The changes included deletions in doublings, octave switches, changes of texture, dynamics and accents. The repeated strains were reorganized to enhance the progression of musical ideas. All of the changes served to build toward the march's grandioso finale. These alterations developed in the daily give and take between the composer/conductor, his virtuoso musicians, and the audience. The process allowed the march to reach its fullest concert-hall potential, and shortly settled into a standard procedure for the march. This created the "Sousa sound". It made Sousa's performances of his own music unique.

When a march had proven to be a hit, it was added to the Sousa encore books -- a bound volume of 100 popular encore selections. From these 100, eight to ten were chosen for performance at each concert. Sousa's altered performance versions of his marches remained fairly constant through the years, even though the players continued to read the music from the original heavily orchestrated and largely unmarked(!) march sized parts. New members learned Sousa's orchestration style by ear and by word of mouth from their older "side-partners." While the changes are sometimes difficult to pinpoint, they must be considered authentic clues to the accurate concert interpretation of Sousa's music. They are essential to its fullest realization.

These Sousa performance practices offer numerous musical rewards. There is a freshness of texture, shading and dynamics. The trimming of instrumentation allows some parts of the march to become more delicate and dance-like, reminding one of Sousa's origins as a violinist, and recalling the European "light-music" traditions of Sousa's idols, Arthur Sullivan, Johann Strauss and Jacques Offenbach. The lightness of texture contrasts and illuminates the powerful "battle scenes" and grandioso finale which conclude the march. The alterations heighten architectural form, greatly enhancing the total effect of the composition. Sousa's marches, in their sophisticated concert versions, rival similar compostions by Sullivan, Strauss and Offenbach.

Clues abound for the verification of Sousa's unwritten "secret arrangements". They include recordings of the Sousa Band, one lone published example, information passed on by band members, and secondary sources such as bandmasters of the time who sought out Sousa or his players for knowledge of their performance practice.

James Smart's The SOUSA BAND, A Discography, attributes 1166 Victor Talking Machine record titles to Sousa's Band. Of those issued, only six were led by Sousa. The best known: "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine", "Sabre and Spurs", "Solid Men to the Front" and a radio broadcast of "The Stars and Stripes Forever", all reveal precisely the orchestration changes reported by Sousa's contemporaries. Sousa's biographer, Paul Bierley, suggests that the March King personally approved every disk, whether or not he was the conductor. Many Sousa Band recordings led by other conductors--from the earliest cylinder recordings until the electrical recordings of the late 20's, reveal orchestration changes similar to those confirmed by other sources.

A comparison of the published indoor and outdoor versions of the march from the operetta "the Free Lance", provides a rare corroboration of Sousa's "changes" . The marching band edition, as usual, is thickly orchestrated and doubled, but the concert version, meant for indoor performance, and published in large parts as the finale to the "Selections from "The Free Lance", uses the lighter orchestration style often attributed to Sousa's indoor performances. The process also worked in reverse. For his concert music, Sousa often added doublings when the band played out of doors!

Edmund Wall, principal clarinetist from 1926 until Sousa's death in 1932, affirmed to this writer the general accuracy of reports of Sousa's reorchestration. Since many of Sousa's instructions were given to one section at a time, the rest of the band would likely be unaware that any change had occured. Some deletions and changes were accomplished with a quick visual gesture from the conductor and remained for ever more. Some of these ideas may be confirmed by a small number of pencil markings surviving in the Sousa Band encore books, located in the library of the United States Marine Band. Most of the alterations were of a simple nature and did not require rewriting. However, for some marches Sousa did add special parts for bells and harp. These are also preserved in the Marine Band Library. According to Mr. Wall, once the march settled into a satisfactory performing pattern, Sousa rarely made subsequent changes.

Today, these ideas also live in the contemporary performance practice of the marvelous Allentown Band. They began to play the marches in the Sousa style during his lifetime and continue to do so today. The band, which was conducted from 1925-75 by Albertus Myers, a former Sousa cornetist, has maintained their tradition section by section in the same aural and oral manner used by the Sousa Band -- older members pass the information to younger ones, and all play from the unedited parts.

A number of prominent college band directors, including Austin Harding and Mark Hindsley at Illinois and Raymond Dvorak at University of Wisconsin made an effort to emulate Sousa's concert orchestrations, and thus preserve the Sousa sound. In the 1960's, Frank Simon, who had been Sousa's solo cornetist and assistant conductor, supervised a remarkable two volume record series for the American School Band Director's Association. Extensive program notes detailed Simon's memory of Sousa's performance practice.

It is strange that Sousa altered his published music so greatly. However it is even more mysterious that since his death attempts by such dedicated conductors as Simon, Hindsley and Dvorak to restore Sousa's concert arrangements, and make his "secrets" public have had so little general influence. Although most of today's Sousa performances are indoors, publishers have resisted re-issuing the music as it was originally played by Sousa. The vast majority of today's performances and recordings use the marching band outdoor editions.

Sousa's marches are America's classical music....if a classic compostion is defined as music that each generation rediscovers as valuable, and if "classical" refers to an ideal compostional realization within strict, but pleasing forms; Sousa, although he lived in the romantic era, may well be regarded as one of America's pre-eminent classical composers.

Sousa's true place in music history will not be fully established until the public once again hears the original arrangements and performance practice of the March King and his band.

Bass Drum with Attached Cymbal Playing
as Employed in Concert Bands of the Sousa Era
and the Modern Concert Band

by Brian W. Holt

Sousa's Band employed only three percussion players at any time during its entire existence. Since most music performed required four percussion players, one of the drummers would play both bass drum and cymbals. This was accomplished by attaching a cymbal to the top of the drum and playing on it with a hand-held cymbal. Gus Helmecke, Sousa's favorite bass drummer, was highly regarded for the sounds he produced on bass drum and cymbals.

Many pieces played by the modern concert band require more than four players; therefore an experienced player doubling on bass drum and cymbals is a valuable asset. The player must adapt to various styles and create the proper musical effect.

This technique is also used in orchestral playing for low-budget productions. Three players might be hired to play four or five percussion parts.


The ideal sound for most Bands is a 36" x 18" bass drum equipped with skin heads or fiber-skin heads. A combination of fiber-skin and calfskin is recommended, as the fiber-skin head will provide a consistent playing surface under all weather conditions. The drum should be tuned to the deepest sound possible, with no discernible pitch.

Since the player must be in total control of the drum, internal muffling devices should not be used. All muffling is accomplished by the player and will be further discussed under performance techniques. Bass drum beaters are selected according to music performed or personal preference. The beaters must have sufficient weight to produce a deep resonant sound. I prefer the Gauger #1 beater for most playing and the staccato beater for marches and other instances where greater articulation is required.

For ease of playing with attached cymbal, the drum should sit on a low cradle-type stand. This enables the cymbals to be played at just above waist level. In this position, the player will be able to employ orchestral cymbal playing techniques with the hand-held cymbal. The attachment must allow the cymbal to ring freely. Custom made cymbal attachments usually work better than standard commercial models. Cymbals should be 17" or 18" heavy, or 18" medium heavy, for clean attack and maximum sustain.

Performance techniques:

Band transcriptions of orchestral pieces and original band works are performed with the concept of creating the balanced sound of two percussionists working as a team on bass drum and cymbals. It is important for the player to be familiar with the original orchestral percussion score. I have on many occasions used the orchestra percussion parts when performing a transcription with a band.

The performance of marches merits much discussion, as the march is one of the traditions of the concert band. A good march played with style, precision and dynamics will be an uplifting experience. Visualize a band marching down Main Street, USA. Solid section playing by the bass drum and snare drum players is essential for an inspiring performance.

The printed parts assume bass drum and cymbals play together unless notated otherwise. However, cymbals may be left out in some passages; for example, when cornets are tacet. Also some printed parts may be edited because of misprints or for artistic expression. Listen to the band and use bass drum and cymbals to color the ensemble sound. Solid timekeeping will permit and encourage musical phrasing within the band. The drums play a large part in controlling the dynamics of the ensemble.

For general playing, the beating spot should be somewhere between the center and edge of the drumhead. Listen, and find the spot that blends with the sonority of the band. Avoid the center, except for cannon shot effects. Employing a staccato attack for timekeeping will help drive the band. This is similar to the technique a drummer would use on the ride cymbal to drive a big band. Full arm and wrist strokes are used for accents and solo attacks. Play off the drum, not into it, to bring out a full resonant tone.

Use the knee to control length of notes. By employing various degrees of pressure with the right knee on the batter head you can control the duration of each note played on the bass drum. When beating time, try to match the bass drum note duration with the tuba. The bass drum is a bridge between the tuba section and the percussion section. Other notes are sustained as notated or phrased with the band. Of course, bass drum rolls should not be muffled. A pair of roll beaters played at about halfway between the center and the edge will produce a full resonant sound. Try to match the speed of the single stroke roll with the vibrations of the drum head. When playing with attached cymbal, a double-ended beater will be necessary. The best sound will be produced if the beater has sufficient weight and both beater heads are the same size.

Cymbals are muffled by pulling the top cymbal against the body and using the body or right hand to stop the attached cymbal. Do not crush the cymbals together. I have been most successful in producing consistent good-sounding cymbal crashes employing the following technique. Drop the hand held cymbal onto the attached cymbal and turn the wrist at the moment of impact. Play off the attached cymbal to the left towards the back head of the bass drum. Practice playing relaxed and strive to achieve the sound of a well-played pair of cymbals.


Marches should be played at a marching tempo from beginning to end. Ritards and accelerandos detract from the continuity of the march. A solid tempo with good dynamic contrast will produce the most exciting performance.


Some accents are written in the parts, but improvised accents may be added at the discretion of the player or music director. Accents, played tastefully, will add much to the performance. There are several categories of accents:

  1. Natural accents occurring in the melodic line are played for emphasis at the relative dynamic level.
  2. Musical climaxes or unusual chord changes are accented with a full deep sound. These are most effective if played very slightly late and will add depth to the ensemble sound.
  3. Solo accents exceed the volume of the band.
  4. Accents may be played on an open beat to set-up a melodic phrase. Jazz drummers would refer to this as kicking the band. Leave the bass drum ring to the next beat on most accents, with the exception of staccato accents. Cymbals may ring through several beats. Listen to the trumpets for duration of cymbal crashes. It is a nice effect to sometimes play accents in a melodic style with cymbals on higher pitches and bass drum on lower pitches.

During the golden age of band music, virtually all cymbal crashes were executed by striking the held cymbal with the bass drum beater. This is a nice sound for some solo crashes and is also a flashy visual effect. However, with the proper equipment and technique, crashing the held cymbal off the attached cymbal will produce an excellent sound.

Listen and play with musical expression and the ensemble sound of the band will be greatly enhanced.

The following recordings demonstrate my application of the techniques imparted above. Virtually all of the bass drum and cymbal playing on these recordings is accomplished by one player doubling on both instruments.

"The Original All-American Sousa!"
Keith Brion and his NEW SOUSA BAND

"Stars & Stripes & Sousa"
The WASHINGTON WINDS, conducted by Keith Brion

"Music from America’s Golden Age"
"A Trip to Coney Island"
"Thatsum Rag"
"The Teddy Bears Picnic"

All of the above recordings are available from Walking Frog Records, PO Box 680, Oskaloosa, Iowa 52577

"Ringgold Plays Von Suppe and Other Classics"
"An Althouse Tour of Berks County"

"Our Band Heritage" series

Brian Holt lives in Reading, PA and plays percussion for the Reading Symphony Orchestra, Reading Pops Orchestra, Ringgold Band, New Sousa Band, and the New Columbian Brass Band. He has also performed with the Allentown Band (20 years), Virginia Grand Military Band, several regional orchestras and numerous dance bands.

The Roll of the Snare Drum in the Concert Band
by Brian W. Holt


Several snare drums should be available to create the sounds which will enhance the wide variety of modern and historical concert band literature.

  1. A concert-size drum (6" x 14") equipped with gut snares would be the primary drum for most band literature. For recreating the snare drum sound of the Sousa Band era, a (6" x 15") drum with gut snares would be the best choice, as the 15" head is more easily tuned to the pitch of that time period. Consider that drums of that period were equipped with calf-skin heads.
  2. A smaller drum (5" x 14") with wire snares may be used for sensitive playing. This drum may also be the choice for big band or show arrangements. However, a drum-set is preferable for these pieces.
  3. A deep field drum (12" x 15") with gut snares is recommended for military style playing. It is very effective for drum solos in marches or doubling the concert snare part on the really powerful trio strains of a march. This drum should be tuned to replicate the sound of a vintage rope-tension field drum.

All snare drums should be tuned to blend with the band. High-pitched modern drum corps tuning should not be used in the concert band.

Performance techniques

Most snare drum rolls in concert band should be multiple-bounce; however this is at the discretion of the performer and based on the style of music played. Many drum parts do not clearly indicate the interpretation of tied or untied rolls. Usually long rolls should be tied, especially crescendo and decrescendo rolls. Listen to the band for the musical phrasing of both tied and untied long rolls.

The interpretation of an orchestral piece, transcribed for band, may require a different approach than an original band composition. If the player does not have orchestral playing opportunities, listening to recorded orchestral performances will be most helpful. You will notice that many snare drum parts in transcriptions do not appear in the original orchestral score. These parts are added to band arrangements primarily to add color to the brass parts; therefore dynamics should be adjusted to create the proper effect. Some parts may be deleted if they seem to detract from the music. One example is the Roman Carnival Overture band arrangement which has an extensive snare drum part, totally out-of-character with the piece. The original Berlioz percussion score features the tambourine, cymbals, and triangle. In this instance the orchestral percussion score would more accurately create the proper musical effect. If orchestral parts are unavailable, the band percussion parts may be edited to more accurately reflect the intent of the composer.

Marches are the staple of the American concert band and the snare drummer must have the technique to perform in the correct style. Therefore, a solid foundation in rudimental drumming is essential. Open rolls generally project the best effect. The two basic march styles are: duple meter (2/4) or (2/2) and triple meter (6/8). In duple meter the backbeats must be in unison with the french horns. Do not rush! The last trio strain of many marches features repeated tied rolls. Depending on tempo, the five, six, or seven-stroke roll will usually be the best choice. The six stroke roll employed is not played in the modern drum corps style but is played as a flam five with the grace note equally spaced with the rebound strokes. The five, six, and seven-stroke rolls all fill in the same half-beat pulse. Whatever roll is played should comfortably fill in the half-beat starting in unison with the horns and ending precisely on the downbeat with the bass drum and tubas. Alternating the rolls is not necessary in concert band. A consistent sound and driving pulse is the objective.

The 6/8 march presents the most stylistic challenge. A 6/8 march should not sound like a shuffle swing beat. Rudimental sticking on flam accent patterns will produce the correct 6/8 style. Do not rush the repeated 5-stroke rolls or the upbeats in either the 6/8 or the 2/2 march style. The 6/8 rolls on the upbeats must be shorter than the 2/2 rolls to fit into the 6/8 pulse and must match the french horn upbeats. I have discovered that high sticking (at chest level) will create the best effect stylistically and visually. This will also facilitate the correct spacing of the quarter note and eighth note pulse in the 6/8 march style. The authentic interpretation of snare drumming in march music can be heard prominently on the original recordings of Sousa’s Band. Many of these recordings have been reissued in the CD format. In my opinion, it is important to preserve this style of playing.

Some snare drum parts may be doubled to add depth to the snare drum sound. The second drummer should match the style and sticking of the principal drummer and not exceed the volume level of the principal player. The second drum could be a concert snare or a field drum, depending on the sound that is characteristic of the music performed.

The snare drummer must listen to the band and play musically at all times.

Brian W. Holt, percussionist

"Keith Brion’s New Sousa Band"
"The Ringgold Band" of Reading PA
"The Reading Symphony Orchestra"

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