MUSICIAN OF THE MONTH: JOHN PHILIP SOUSAA MARCHING VIOLIN?!
By Amy Cassaniti
The March King. As anyone who has spent even one season in a marching band knows, the great crowd pleasers are any marches written by John Philip Sousa. Born November 6, 1854, John Philip Sousa began his music career studying the violin. As a young musician, Sousa thought he might fulfill the dream of many a young boy and run away to join the circus. Fortunately, in 1868, at the age of 14, Sousa’s father enlisted him in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice instead. It’s not clear what Sousa’s duties would have been as the Marine Band did not utilize string players at the time. However, Sousa did continue his study of music theory and composition. Finishing his apprenticeship in 1875, after seven years, Sousa left the US Marine Band to spend the next five years performing as a violinist and learning to conduct.
By 1880, Sousa returned to the US Marine Band as the director. Sousa was directing the band when a revolutionary new technology - sound recording – was in its infancy. Over the next 10 years, Sousa conducted the US Marine Band as it recorded 60 different records for the Columbia Phonograph Company. This achievement makes the US Marine Band one of the world’s first musical recording stars and Sousa’s works some of the most popular music ever recorded. Further, under the direction of Sousa, the US Marine Band undertook its first tour. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison authorized the cross-country tour. Phenomenally successful, the President’s own US Marine Band undertakes an annual tour every year except during times of war. Sousa officially conducted the Band for the next 12 years, but even after stepping down as the official director, Sousa focused on conducting and writing music until his death in 1932. Sousa’s farewell gift from the Band was an engraved baton. This baton is now presented to each new director at the change of command ceremonies.
But why not a marching violin? Remember, Sousa was a violin player. He easily could have incorporated and written marching music that included a string section – yes, even a cello. It is possible to play the cello standing up – look for a coming blog. But here’s why he didn’t, and no one else has. String instruments are fragile and not very loud when compared to the decibels of sound that brass or woodwind instruments can make. Sousa may not have revolutionized the composition of instruments in a marching band, but he did aide in the creation of an entirely new instrument. Tubas are crucial for the overall sound of a marching band. But the concert tuba directs the sound upward out of the bell. Sousa worked with a craftsman to design a tuba which would be easier to carry (the modified tuba wraps around the player’s shoulder) and faces the bell forward to project the sound above the heads of the band. Thus, the Sousaphone!