Marching Primer

Updated 14 April 2009. Contact Gary.

During a former life, I was a grunt drill instructor for a couple of high school marching bands. Some people refer to the position as a "drill tech". Often, I was the guy who worked with incoming students during their first experiences with marching. Recently, a friend took a job as a band director at a small high school and sent me an email, asking if I could remember all those funky commands and such. So, I figured I'd write a couple sentences, and that grew into a big bunch of sentences. This essay describes fundamental marching concepts that a new marcher needs to learn.

The audience for this article is a band director or marching instructor who is not an expert marching instructor. I hope to improve this article over time with content and graphics, but for now, this article focuses on marchers with musical instruments. There are a few tidbits about color guard equipment and American flags, and nothing about carrying percussion instruments. This article focuses on street marching, and does not delve into the arcane art of field show design and instruction.

The novice instructor of a novice marching band has a lot to learn and a lot to teach, but has the benefit of low expectations. Most spectators will be satisfied if most of the kids remain upright most of the time. This provides the opportunity to present a band that impresses your spectators simply by stressing the fundamentals. Your spectators will notice the difference between a fundamentally sound band and a bunch of goofs. Now, to work!

I found some videos on the web. Most are related to field bands, but there is some basic stuff.

Be prepared for rehearsal, at least in your head, because if you stop working the kids for a minute, they will lose focus and drive you crazy. Just like regular school classes.


A drum major (or teacher) gives commands, of course, to get the band to perform actions as a group. The commands follow a pattern for where the syllables fall and for voice inflection. Most commands are spoken across three beats, with a rest on the fourth beat, and then the band members act on the following beat. Most actions are performed in a single beat, such as when the members go from an at-ease position to an attention position. In a few cases, especially when moving color guard equipment, the action may take two or three beats, but this article won't discuss that in detail. The basic commands for a parade band are:

Band ten hut (come to attention)
Dress right dress (or dress left dress, or dress center dress - straighten the lines)
Ready - front (come to attention after dressing)
Mark time move (march in place, given when already at attention)
Forward move (start moving forward, given when already marking time)
Mark time move (stop moving forward)
Band - halt (stop marking time)
Horns - up (can be given when at attention, moving forward, or marking time)
Horns - down (can be given when at attention, moving forward, or marking time)
Right shoulder arms (color guard equipment moves from attention to right shoulder)

You may be able to use "parade rest", "left face", "right face", "about face". Those are rarer, so don't bother unless you have extra rehearsal time.

Sometimes, a command word will contain two syllables but will be spoken as one. In the following command, the word "center" is spoken on the second count:

Dress center dress -

You can vary your delivery to help the marchers understand what's coming. The "forward move" command could be delivered as a choppy "for ward move", or you could smooth that out by speaking "forward" on the first count, then waiting for a count, then speaking "move" on the third count. The problem with the choppy delivery is that for an instant, the syllable "for" sounds like the word "four", and you don't want your marchers to be confused, not even for an instant.

Consider delivering most commands with two syllables in the first count, then a pause, then the third syllable. "Mark time", "right shoulder", "dress right" can all be spoken in the first count, with a pause on the second count, then the final word on the third count. About the only command I give in the choppy form is "band ten hut".

Certainly, at rehearsals, you may clap while commanding. In public, though, you'll want to clap as little as possible. In public, you want to speak the command and see all the marchers act in tempo, without the clap. It's critical that the marchers get the tempo from the command, so you can't be sloppy while commanding. In fact, you will see that when your commanding is sloppy, the reaction of the marchers will be sloppy.

Commands should be barked. Teach your drum major to use the diaphragm to push out the syllables. Breathe into your lower abdomen and use those lower muscles to bark commands. The words should be delivered in a staccato fashion. Don't go legato, and don't slur.

The following notations are not intended to show exact pitches, just general voice inflections. The tempo for certain commands will depend on how fast you want to march, and even when noted, the tempo is arbitrary. But usually, you don't want to drag things out, because you want the reponse of the marchers to be snappy.


Marchers need to be able to stand at attention (chin up, back arched, butt tight, heels together, toes apart). This is not relaxed, it is tense. The marchers snap to attention on the fifth count of the command. If they're already at attention, but maybe a slacker is goofing off, you can call them to attention again, and they should snap just a little taller.

Marking time

On the fourth count of the command, the marchers' left heel lifts up, and on the fifth count the left heel hits the ground (and the right heel lifts up). Always always always start on the left foot, and the left heel continues to hit on 1 and 3 (assuming 4-4 time). When marking time, don't make marchers lift their feet high. Just have them lift their heels and keep the toes on the ground. Lift enough to see the knees flex. The marchers need a beat (at least a hand clap) on 1 and 3 to stay in tempo and in step.

"In step" means that the left heel hits on 1 and 3. "Out of step" means that the right heel hits on 1 and 3. You want the marcher to always be in step. If there is anything you berate your marchers for, it should be for being out of step. Most kids will do OK, a few will be total schlubs. Don't sweat the horn angles if they can't stay in step. If all the left legs are moving together, everything else will look better. Staying in step takes practice, but eventually, it becomes muscle memory. Most marchers will spend their whole life feeling the need to walk in step whenever music is playing.

The "mark time" command is given when the marchers are at attention or when moving. Always start and end with marking time. In other words, don't give a forward command from attention, and don't give a halt command when moving. First give the mark time command.

Holding instruments

You will have to take time to teach how to hold each type of instrument (so that they all do it the same). There will be a down position (when not playing) and an up position (when playing). The commands will tell them when to switch to each position. Always have two hands on the instrument (aside from percussion). Percussion positions will depend on the types of straps and such.

"Floating" while marching, and step size

The "forward move" command is given while the marchers are marking time. On the fourth beat of the command, the marchers plant the right foot and step forward with the left foot so that the left heel hits on 1. Marchers should roll from heel to toe on the outside of the shoe. They should not hit flat footed because it will jar their body and screw up their playing.

The length of the step is usually "8 to 5", that is, eight steps per five yards. This refers to football field marking, but even for a parade band, it helps to teach 8 to 5 because that's a small step. If they can learn that, then they won't march too fast and it will be easier to play when marching. A lined football field is, of course, the ideal place to teach 8 to 5. Have the marchers yell "halfway" and "hit it" as they march from yardline to yardline.

A parade route will have twists and turns. Don't do fancy corner stuff. Just keep the dress to the inside of the turn and let the outside marchers curve around. The inside of the turn will move slow, and the outside will move fast. It's obvious physics, but it needs to be practiced. It may be helpful to give a "ready move" command to indicate when the marchers should start to turn. For a 90-degree turn, the inside marcher immediately slows down and turns. It usually takes eight steps to complete the turn, with ranks of up to 6 marchers. But this is a formal treatment of a turn. For the usual village parade with a novice band, you should not burst a blood vessel trying to teach the perfect turn. Your drum major can simply face the front row and gesture the band around the bend. However, the lines should remain mostly straight as they pivot around, and the inside marchers need to "get" the physics and not force the outside marchers to run. Also note that the whole band will slow down while each row gets to the turn, since the inside marcher will be taking tiny steps.

Parade formation

Your parade lines will have five or six marchers across. Try to keep your parade formation within a dozen or so rows, so a band of 50 could march five across, but a band of 100 could march eight across. It's typical to dress to the right, but dressing center or left are not unheard of. The dress direction is arbitrary, at least for a novice band.

When the "dress right" command is given, marchers (on the fifth count) stick their right arms out to the shoulder of the person next to the right, and look to the right. That allows the marcher to set the distance between marchers. Hold the instrument in the left hand and stick out the right arm. The "ready front" command tells the marchers to bring the right arm back to the instrument, and to look forward.

The person on the right is always correct. That person does not dress, and his or her head does not turn. The person on the right sets the distance to the line in front of him or her. Usually, that will be four steps. While marching forward, the right side person can count the steps it takes to get to where the line ahead used to be.

The person on the right end of the front line controls the band. If that person moves slow or fast, the whole band follows, because they dress to the right and to the front. So, make sure that person is not a doofus.

Your musicians should march near others with the same instrument. The positioning of each section in the rows of marchers may depend on the particular pieces you are playing. However, most likely, your band will be playing typical parade music that is heavier on the brass than woodwinds.

You will do OK with trumpets in the front, then woodwinds, then horns, then lower brass, and finally percussion in the rear. Don't attempt a woodwind feature on the street. Every piece will be different, of course, so in the end, you need a generic formation that works for everything.

Drumline cadence

You will want your percussion section to have some sort of "street beat". This is a cadence to use when the band is not playing and the horns are down. At first, make this eight measures. Keep the parts simple, but try to have a bit of melody with the bass and snares. If you have toms or cowbells or tuned drums, use them for that variety. I am not a drummer and I have few suggestions about this, but it's much cooler than a rim shot.

Playing songs on the street

To start a song when marching forward, give a command to the percussion to end the street beat. At the end of the cadence, they will switch to a single rim shot from one snare player. Maybe "drums stick beat". Then, bring the horns up. Then, count a couple measures and start the song. Or, you can teach a lead-in drum beat, like the beginning of the 20th century fox song, and that would cue the musicians to start playing.

In my opinion, it's better to memorize two pieces than to use flip folders for extra music. Memorization is a pain, but give it a shot. On the street, most spectators will only hear one piece, so it's OK to keep repeating the two pieces. You will also need the standard repertoire like the national anthem, school songs, etc. Flip folders are a pain in the ass for the marchers and they distract from the uniform appearance, so if you can leave them in the cupboard, you'll be better off.

If you have the opportunity to stop for a standstill number, such as in front of a reviewing stand, this is a good opportunity to show off with more difficult music. It depends on how good the band is. If the band is terrible, don't stop for the reviewing stand. But if the band is respectable, then take the opportunity. A village parade committee may not have even considered standstill performances, so you could ask about that in advance. Or, what are they gonna do, push you away with fire hoses?

On the street, at a standstill, you will still be stuck with your parade formation. If the marchers turn to face the stands, the trumpets will be on one end and the drums on the other. This may affect your decisions about pieces to play. If you later have a standstill opportunity after the parade is over, you can adjust the sections to look more like a concert stage layout, and then you have more music options. The band should practice coming to a stop and being told to turn to one side, and then to play. This should happen in a way that looks as if they know what's happening, but again, don't burst a blood vessel.

Student leader

Preferably, you will have a drum major. This person should practice giving the commands and should give the commands at real parades. You (the teacher) could do this yourself, but as cool as you are, it would be cooler to have a uniformed student leader. This means you need to teach a student to conduct when marching.

Don't audition kids for student leader positions. Just watch the kids and pick a drum major (and color guard captain if needed). Don't pick your best trumpet player to be drum major, because you need that person to play.

Color guards

It's nice to have a horizontal school banner in front of everyone.

You need an American Flag squad ("A" squad). The American flag is always guarded by a weapon, such as a rifle or saber. It does not need to be a real weapon, i.e., it can be a fake marching rifle. The weapon bearer needs to be within a few steps of the flag. The flag bearer does not wear a weapon, so you need at least two people in the squad. You can put other flags in the squad with the A flag on the right, and you can have more than one weapon bearer (on any side of the A flag). The marchers in the A squad do not do flag tricks or weapon tricks. The flags should remain mostly straight upright, but it's OK to dip a little depending on the person and the straps.

If you don't have an A flag, or if the squad members act improperly, someone will complain, so it's best to have a proper squad.

Banner work and weapon work is a whole new category. If you want to do any equipment work while the band is playing, you'll need to find a guard instructor. That could be one of the students if she has the knowledge.

If you have a bunch of banners and no way to teach equipment work, that's OK, you can just have them march with the band and hold the equipment. Usually, the guard will march in front of the band. Sometimes you'll see them alongside the band in each row, but that's not typical.

The banner people will need to know an attention position, with the base of the banner at waist level and the pole in front of the face. They should have some sort of rest position for when the band is playing at a standstill. You'll sometimes hear the command, "right shoulder arms", and this could be used to drop the base of the banner to the ground and hold the pole against the right shoulder. Sabers and rifles also use centered and right-shoulder positions.

If there is no special equipment work, you can probably handle the color guard without a separate instructor. Assign a student color guard captain.


Make sure uniforms are cleaned, etc. Consider the shoes. It's tough to require special shoes for a few parades per year, but it looks better if everyone has the same shoe. If you can get the band out to football games or other events in uniform, then at least they get to wear the shoes a few times.