The scope of the band movement within the Salvation Army is wide and varied. Bands range in size and ability from the quartet shivering around a Christmas kettle to the International Staff Band on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall.
The corps band is the basic unit of Salvation Army banding. These are the local bands, supporting worship services each Sunday and other special events as needed by the corps. Corps bands range in size from a quartet to 40 or more players. Some bands can play only simple hymn tunes, while others are among the elite bands of the Salvation Army, capable of playing almost anything.
The primary function of a corps band is to support the Sunday worship services of the the corps. Unlike a band which is primarily doing concerts, a corps band usually does not develop a standing repertoire. The typical corps band plays one or two pieces each Sunday morning, plus accompaniment for congregational singing. The corps bandmaster must have a ready list of items that can be played without rehearsal, in case key players are missing on a particular week. Corps bands also support a variety of other corps activities, either as a complete unit or in ensembles.
Members of a corps band are soldiers of the corps. The corps officer, as the commander of the unit, functions as the executive officer. Except in the larger corps, there are generally holes in the instrumentation - few corps bands in the US have a soprano cornet, for example. Generally, membership in a corps band is required for participation in regional or staff groups.
Regional bands are usually sponsored by an area command or a divisional headquarters. Some regional bands are formed because there are no large corps bands in the area. The regional band, drawing on several corps, can complete the instrumentation and play more complex music. Some regional bands serve as
elite groups, with the better players in an area in the group. The staff band can be thought of as the extreme case of a regional band. Many youth bands are regional in character.
Regional bands are more concert-oriented than corps bands, although many regional bands serve as duty bands for large meetings and events. Many regional bands rehearse less frequently than once a week, especially those covering a large geographic area. Also, some regional bands operate on a seasonal basis, for example, not operating during the summer months.
Most regional bands have a more formal structure than the typical corps band. Usually, a ranking officer from the sponsoring command serves as executive officer. There is usually an official band board. Board positions such as band sergeant, secretary, quartermaster, and librarian are often filled. Many regional groups have strict admission or audition standards. Membership in a corps band in the region is almost always required.
In recent years, the fellowship band has become an increasingly popular form of Salvation Army ensemble. These groups take a variety of forms, including bands made up mostly of players who have retired from other bands, which is one of the most common. Other groups that might be considered fellowship ensembles are those where non-Salvationists are invited, but the group is still sponsored by the Salvation Army. One such group is Vintage Brass, sponsored by the Long Beach Citadel corps in California. Because most fellowship bands have a less formal structure and less demanding schedule than regular Salvation Army bands, they are sometimes seen as casual or lesser ensembles. However, many fellowship groups are excellent musically and rival some of the top standing ensembles in the quality of their performance.
One of the major reasons why the Salvation Army has had a thriving brass band movement for over 100 years is the youth band and associated music education programs. Beginning at the corps level, many young Salvationists are taught to play and sing, starting sometimes as early as seven years of age. As with the "senior" groups, there are corps and regional youth bands, with varying degrees of skill.
The youth bands are supplemented in the music education program by singing groups, individual instruction, and summer music camps. The traditional week-long music camp has evolved in some divisions into a four to six week music conservatory, usually still held at a camp but with the same campers for the entire duration.
The staff bands are the top level of Salvation Army banding. A staff band is sponsored by a territorial headquarters. The staff bands were originally comprised of staff members from the headquarters. Although most staff bands still have many Salvation Army officer and employee members, non-staff players are more common in the modern staff band. The staff bands are among the most formal Salvation Army groups. Most have long histories, and travel and record on a regular basis.
There are eight staff bands that are generally recognized as major staff bands:
- Amsterdam (Netherlands)
- Canadian (Canada and Bermuda)
- Chicago (USA Central)
- German (Germany)
- International (United Kingdom)
- Japan (Japan)
- Melbourne (Australia South)
- New York (USA East)