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Finding a Place for Everyone, An Interview with Gerry Miller

Dan Blaufuss | April 2013

    Gerry Miller, Director of Bands and Fine Arts Department Chairman at Justin Wakeland High School in Frisco, Texas. Under his direction, the wind symphony and marching band have performed at numerous festivals and competitions, earning high ratings and numerous awards. On teaching high school students, he comments, “It is interesting at upper levels to find where the gaps are in students’ knowledge and try to fill them, so that students, especially those going on to major in music, leave high school extremely prepared. Rhythm is an important skill, but with the advent of technology it seems there are fewer students who can read rhythms solidly at all levels of the high school band program. With as much band music as can be found online, if I tell my students about a new piece we are going to read tomorrow, ten of them will go home and listen to it online. Others will ask their private teachers to play music for them. We have had to throw curveballs at students to make sure they can really read rhythms. We put up rhythms designed to throw students off base, and then we help students break them down and demystify them. They say, ‘Just sing it once and I’ll have it.’ I know they will, but that isn’t the way to do it.” A graduate of Loyola University-New Orleans, Miller is also on the staff of The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps, the assistant region band chair for TMEA Region XXIV, and the coordinator for the TMEA All-State Band. In 2008, he was awarded the UIL Sponsor Excellence Award.

What is the key point to remember when planning a marching show?
    Ultimately, our marching show is our textbook. Other classes do not get to write their own textbooks, so it should be the single finest textbook we have to offer. My mother is a middle school English teacher, and when she picks books for her class, she wants something that will get her students fired up about reading. Music is the same way; we want our students to be excited about the music. This is why I pick a lot of classical music. Our students might not ever have another opportunity to play something like The Barber of Seville. There are band transcriptions, but not every student in every ensemble gets to perform classical masterworks. We can choose snippets of a piece, so students don’t have to attempt a work that may be, in its entirety, too difficult for them.
    When people ask me how difficult they should make their marching show music, I say that whatever level your top band is playing, the marching show should be two levels under that. If your top band plays grade 4 literature, the marching show should be grade 2. Some arrangers might see that a group played Holsinger’s Havendance at contests and think they can write something that difficult for a marching show. If students are going to go on the football field and sit down, then yes, they will be able to handle that level of difficulty, but if they are going to march and play, it is not feasible. The reason for aiming two grades below the top concert band is because students are outdoors and on the move, and this makes playing more difficult. It may seem frighteningly simple to go down two levels, but when students are successful at the end of the season, you won’t care if the show was a little too simple, because you’ll be the hometown hero.

How do you plan your marching shows?
    We start thinking of the next fall around October or November of the previous year, making some decisions about the direction we feel the program needs to go. From a creative standpoint, we consider what stories we want to tell and how we want things to look. We typically have four or five shows in production at one time. Forcing ourselves to develop multiple ideas gives us options. If one idea isn’t working, we can immediately move somewhere else. In my opinion, the show that is right for our group in a given year is always the one that wins out. The remaining shows might get redeveloped the next year. Several years ago we did a show about King Midas. It had been in the books for quite some time, and it never seemed to be the right time or the right group, and then in 2011 it worked really well for us.
    After generating ideas, we get into planning. We pull the full staff together and take a topic. If we were going to do a show about butterflies, we would suggest anything we could think of having to do with that topic. The meeting gets extremely silly sometimes, because we are getting as many ideas out as we can. Internet image searches are a wonderful tool for this. What pops up is brilliant and often something I never would have imagined.
    With our Midas Touch show a few years ago, we tried to come up with as many ideas for things that could represent gold. We thought about what we could turn into gold; how we could make a flag or a rifle look like it changed from its original color into gold. We started throwing out crazy ideas, and when we have a lot of them we can start eliminating down the ones that are silly or unrealistic. Over time the shows develop, and this approach works well.
    Marching shows typically fall into three groupings. There is the random gathering of objects, which is similar to a still life in an art class. Then there are shows more similar to an art gallery, akin to going to a museum and pulling every painting that has ballet dancers in it and putting them all in one gallery. The third grouping, and the one that seems to be most favorable of late, is the progression of ideas, or a storyline. There is development, drama, tension, and release.
    I also think the new trend of telling old stories in a new way is great for marching band. I joked with my wife over Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but there is something to be said for taking an old story and retelling it. Reading books and watching movies, I ask myself at the end whether it would make a good marching show. Almost everyone on staff has young children, so we look to children’s literature or mythology, always seeking something new and different.
    We also love collaborating. This year we worked with Si Scott, a British graphic artist who makes ink drawings, on a retelling of the Pied Piper story. Si had a drawing of a stylized rat, which we found on an internet image search. We liked it and asked whether he would be interested in helping us with the rest of the show. The three main elements of the Pied Piper story are the rats, the money, and something to symbolize the piper leading the children off at the end. He had never worked with a marching band before and was interested and quoted us an reasonable price for the amount of artwork we were getting. We took Si’s artwork to a local print shop and put everything on vinyl. All the panels across the front were Si’s drawings, and every flag was based on Si’s drawings or actual digital prints of his drawings on silk flags. It enabled us to create a visual world done by one artist. I feel comfortable creating a musical backdrop, but not with making large visual backdrops. I prefer to leave that to set designers and graphic artists. To be able to go to people who have such skills and have it all come from one mind nearly assures that it will be cohesive. When we went to contests, judges would comment that the artwork was fascinating and they were intrigued before the show even started. In addition to the marching performers and the green field and white lines, we had a new element that changed the overall feeling of what we were about to do. We had created a world within a world.
    We have worked with choreographers and vocalists over the years as well. Several years ago Carson Dorsey, currently a student at the Cleveland Institute, was a student in our choir program, and I would hear her in the practice rooms all the time; she had a beautiful operatic voice. She was friends with all the band students, so we asked her to sing with the marching band. As we were thinking of ways to use her, someone suggested Nessun Dorma, but with a female singing it instead of the traditional tenor. I proposed the idea and she eagerly agreed. It was a solo element in the show, and the audience loved it. Marching band audiences will clap politely for an instrumental soloist, but when you get a vocal soloist, that’s new and different from what they have been hearing all day. It makes the shows memorable, which is always our goal. I do want students to score well and be finalists, but performing a show that is memorable is far more important and meaningful in their lives.
    Once we get into how the show flows and have visual content that works, we prepare a storyboard. On our storyboard sheets, we have a grid. On the horizontal lines, we will have music, visual, guard, general effect, and props. Down the columns there is a marker for every 30 seconds of show time. Although the storyboards are created in Excel, we do this for the first time on a giant bulletin board with yarn lines on it so everything is easy to rearrange. We go through the pieces and start plugging ideas and linking things. We know how long the music is, so we go through and ask, “What event needs to happen here?” In every 30-second column, there has to be something to elicit a reaction from the audience. The golden mean is also important to show planning. Bach used this extensively, and we want the peak of our show to happen right there. At a little under two thirds (61%) of the way though the production, the music, or the marching show, should peak. Getting the peak of the show correct is important. If the peak is too early, the crowd gets excited while it happens, but the rest of the show seems to drag.

What are some tricks to eliciting a good audience reaction?
    People need to feel secure before they will clap. There are obligatory moments where we know to clap. A soloist at a jazz concert plays, and then people applaud. However, we have all seen a soloist finish but stay at the microphone through an eight-measure fill before coming back in. This is an awkward situation for the audience; they do not know whether to clap. Marching band audiences go through that as well; they are unsure whether they should applaud, so they don’t, figuring they can always clap at the end of the show. We should find ways to get the audience to clap and certain time-tested tricks work nearly every time. Have a guard member toss something really high. Everyone will clap – provided she catches it. Cool drum breaks are another applause winner; if the drum break sounds like hip-hop, they’ll clap for it. Technical woodwind moments or brass double tonguing will get applause. Soloists and company fronts always get applause.
    The average marching show runs about 71⁄2 minutes, so if you think in 30-second blocks, that is around 15 moments where you should try to win applause. They don’t all have to be applause moments, as much as something interesting to watch. They might be tender moments or places that draw oohs and aahs from the audience. They might also be moments of intrigue. When I was younger, I would go into a critique with a judge and hear that my show seemed unfocused. I wondered what that meant until a judge explained, “I didn’t know where you wanted me to look, and I didn’t know what you wanted me to listen to.” Knowing ahead of time what you want people to pay attention to alleviates this.
    Once we have plugged all those applause points into our storyboard, we see how everything fits. We use blue dots for our big moments, and sometimes a 30-second moment will be overloaded with dots in every caption – music, visual, guard, and percussion. There might be dots in only one or two captions for smaller effects. Sometimes these effects are coordinated, but other times one just may not have the desired effect on the audience.

What are directors likely to forget when planning marching shows?
    Directors should spend more time on the endings of tunes. If you end a tune well, people clap louder. This often happens at rock concerts; many popular acts know how to end well. They might take the ending of a tune that everyone knows from the radio, then add another verse and chorus, and just keep building to the point that by the end you think, “I have to clap for this.” In marching band, we can be too quick to end a tune, but if someone spent 32 counts to write a good ending, the audience will respond twice as much.
    People sometimes remark, “I can’t afford an arranger or a drill writer,” but there is an arranger and a drill writer for everybody. If the budget is zero, then the director is the arranger and drill writer, but even with just a little bit of money, you can call a top writer and tell them your budget. They might respond, “I can’t write for that amount,” but have a suggestion for someone young and good who is trying to build a solid reputation. Chances are, the lesser-known arranger will do a good job, better than using a stock arrangement.
    I am not against the stock arrangements, but if you use them, have a skilled arranger look at it. If nothing else, ask the arranger to make the endings of the tunes better. It is important to punch up the end of a tune. If that is all they did, for a modest figure there are lot of people who could do that. They can take the stand-tune ending and make it into a marching band ending.
    There should be variety in voicings. Melodies in the flutes and trumpets are predictable. The same melody set in the tubas is completely different. A sense of contrast is important. Young directors may hear that and think it refers to dynamic contrast. That is important, but it also refers to high and low. Is a high melody countered with a low melody? How are the middle voices used?
    Consider the strengths and weakness of the sections. I advocate that young directors give each section of the band a score from 1-10. If most members of a section are young and struggle to make great sounds, rate them a one. If a section is phenomenal down to the last player, they get a ten. Once you number it out, that makes writing much more scientific. There’s no more need for such thoughts as, “I think my flutes can handle this.” It becomes “I gave my flutes a three and my saxophones and eight, so I will give the saxes the 16th-note line.” Even giving these numbers to an outside arranger can be helpful.
    Understanding the audience is important. Some audiences are comfortable with cutting-edge shows and the newest, hippest trends. Others just want a simple theme show that they understand. The band is going to perform in front of judges maybe five to eight times at most, but they will perform in front of their football audience at least ten times, plus any playoff appearances. It is important to consider that audience and their comfort level.

Why is it important that marching shows be memorable?
    When our students look back at their experience 20 years from now, I don’t know that they will remember every piece they played or every award that a performance won. I do know they will remember how it feels to them and how proud they were of their hard work and the end product. We have been as high as fourth place in the state and have had times where we haven’t made the finals at local marching shows, but in the end, students are ultimately proud of the work they are doing, which is what it should be about. With that mindset, and attention to quality, I think the awards come anyway, but they become secondary.
    In facing the reality that maybe 60% of our students will play the last note they ever play at the spring concert of their senior year, it is beneficial to consider the larger skills we teach students. I took calculus classes in high school, and although I don’t use that knowledge any more, I do use some of the skills I learned through calculus, such as logic skills or the idea of breaking large problems into smaller ones. These skills transcended calculus for me.
    As music educators we can get wrapped up in teaching about music, but some of the students in our lower ensembles are here for social reasons. Band may be the only place they feel they fit in. We have some extremely quiet students, and this is where they feel they can be themselves while being expressive and competitive at the same time. They may not have put in tons of time in middle school to become Texas all-staters, but what they did do is make a commitment to stick with this and they are following through extremely well. This is admirable, and we make sure those students are getting an amazing experience, even if their musical life may not be as long as some of the others in the top bands.
    We do a great job of teaching students how to be on time and prepared, which are things that will help them in the corporate world. We set students up for success. I was invited to give a guest lecture on this for MBA students at Southern Methodist University.
    Music students learn that when you make a commitment, you have to follow through, even if it is difficult. My brother earned his law degree at Vanderbilt, and the first time that students had a major writing assignment, everybody left the classroom with distraught looks on their faces after reading the professor’s comments. My brother asked several people what was wrong, and the responses were, “The professor hated my writing. I should give up; I’ll never make it through this.” My brother, who had been in bands in both high school and college, said, “What’s the big deal? You just go back and do it again.” He told me later that at that moment all of his band training had kicked in. There are some corporate headquarters near our school. A number of band parents are in management, and they tell me that they can identify the arts students because when asked to revise something they will turn in a completely revamped project with everything better. Every sentence is more polished, every graphic is clearer, and they weren’t insulted at being asked to do the project again. They took it as a challenge to do better.
    In band, we can have them do things over and over and ask for more each time. Sometimes I liken show preparation to climbing Mount Everest. Anyone can do the first 100 yards of Mount Everest. As for the last 100 yards of Mount Everest, I would say that there is no way I could do that, because that is a task beyond my ability right now. Music is similar. On the first day of band camp, everybody gets better instantly. The second day everyone continues to improve, but at some point everyone hits a wall where it is difficult to keep going up, and they have to work extremely hard to keep climbing. That our band students push through that and keep going is what will set them apart when they get to college.
    They don’t take criticism personally. It isn’t a personal reflection on someone if they play a D flat instead of a D natural, they just need to be more careful. If you are getting criticism, it is loving. It is because someone wants you to be better. The time to worry is if as directors, we are not saying anything, because that means we’ve given up on you – but I am not going to do that. Criticism is what makes you better, and that is how directors show care for students – by delivering criticism in a professional manner. But that’s a difficult thing for directors to figure out.

How do you handle recruiting?
    It starts the first year of band. We have three goals for students coming out of sixth grade. First, they have to love band. If we put loving band first, we have created life-long music learners. They will be the community band members and the school board members to keep arts funding where it needs to be. Second, students have to understand the fundamentals of music, including notes, rhythms, how key signatures work, and fingerings. Finally, they need to play six notes, concert A, B flat, C, D, E flat, and F, with a great sound. I want students to love their tone quality for those first six notes. A former student was a broadcast journalism major. He spent time in college recording his voice over and over again, listening to it, analyzing it, breaking it down, making notes of things he liked or disliked how he said. Our students should likewise spend more time falling in love with their own sound. The more they love their sound, the better off things will be. It makes getting a balanced sound much easier if students have great individual sounds. As a clarinetist, I’m not always happy with my sound on altissimo G. There are people, even some of my students, whose sound I do like, and I work to imitate that.
    We have a great plan at the middle schools to produce instrument balance in the program. There are monthly section parties for the sections where retention is most important. If we need more tubas, there will be a tuba section party, to which the tubas get to invite one other section. My son is a tuba player at the middle school, and last month, the tubas invited the flute section to be their guests at the tuba party. They serve pizza and soda on Wednesday afternoons right after school. Keeping these sections involved helps tremendously. I have to credit Marty Ball, who started it at one of the middle schools.
    When Wakeland High School initially opened there were 68 students in the program, and we’re now just above 220. Frisco is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. Until fall of 2003 we had one high school; there are now six with a seventh opening next year. All the high schools have about 2,000 students in them. Here, one of the challenges is making sure that every student finds a place as the move in from all over the country. Some students were the first chair player at their old school but may not rank as high in our programs. It can be difficult for such students to feel like they fit in. It isn’t that these students were under-taught; they were just the biggest fish in small ponds and had been pushed as far as they could be.
    We make sure that every ensemble has its own culture and climate. I find when I go into a lot of programs the first band has a climate that is awesome and every kid wants to be a part of it, but the
second band will be just a transitional group before the first band. We strive to make sure that all the ensembles we direct are our pride and joy. Our fourth band is never treated like scale jail. We make them into a performing ensemble, and they get the same sectional time and great clinicians to work with them that the first band does.  Those six beautiful notes that students could play in sixth grade eventually expand to 12 notes, then 24. Students see that the quality doesn’t change as they move up, just the difficulty of the music.
    One thing I think we have done particularly well over the years is creating a tremendous amount of build-up toward finding out what next year’s show is. We keep it secret for a long time. Some directors tell their students what next year’s show is back in November or December. It is good for directors to know this that far ahead, but I think the big reveal in spring generates more excitement. The week that I reveal the show just happens to be the week that students talk with their counselors about signing up for classes the next year. We are fortunate to have great counselors here, and I coordinate with them to pick a date that is right before when the counselors will be there. We create a movie slideshow with clips of the excerpts used in the show, and I do some simple sound editing. The movie includes explanations about what each piece means and how it will all flow together. The staff proofs the video, and we put it online as a sneak peek just before we show it to our classes. Usually a couple of students find it early, and it gets the buzz going and the students talking. Even some of the middle school directors show it in their classrooms.
    Many students go into the summer already knowing they want to march in the fall, but some students are fence sitters. Some have not made up their minds whether to do band, theater, or athletics. The athletic director and I work to make sure students hear the same script from both of us. We tell students thinking of dropping athletics for band or band for athletics to do both their freshman year of high school. They might make both an athletic team and band as a freshman, but they don’t have a job or a car, just school, so the load should be bearable.
    Other students are simply unsure they are up to the task. The only thing that many middle school students know about high school band is what they see on the field, which to them looks extremely difficult, and what they have done in middle school. They assume high school band is simply an extension of middle school band, and it is not. High school band, especially marching band, is a different world. To introduce high school band to incoming freshmen, we have Hype Day, which is a preview day for marching band.

    Hype Day is on a Saturday in May. In the morning, we show how marching fundamentals work. The entire band attends, not just incoming freshmen, and we separate students by section to do a couple activities and icebreakers. Then we get into the details of marching band rehearsals, and take students through a pretty full version of stretching, running, and everything we do in rehearsal. We spend a couple hours before lunch teaching students how to march. The goal is for students to do eight forward steps with their horns up. More than teaching students how to march, Hype Day is about showing students what the climate and pace are like. When the say the reality of how small the steps are broken down and what our approach is, they realize they can handle it.
    We dispel all the myths. After lunch we pull students in and have a music rehearsal with the same step-by-step approach, so students see what happens in rehearsals. Again, this is because students only see the finished product; I do not want students to think the music is too hard for them to ever play well. We excerpt two minutes out of the show and run a number of stand tunes as well. I take the parents to a parent meeting while my associates continue the rehearsal. I speak briefly to parents about what we have done and encourage them to engage their children and ask many questions. Just as we have to teach students how to be band students, we have to teach the parents how to be band parents. I give parents some of the specifics they can bring up to get students to do more than shrug their shoulders and say everything was fine.
    In the last 30 minutes we do a show and tell for the parents. The guard does a one-minute routine. The drumline comes out and plays warm-up exercises, as does the front ensemble, then the wind section comes out and we play some full band tunes. At the end of this, students feel extremely invested. About 50% of the fence sitters come back after that day, saying, “This isn’t at all what I thought it would be, and I absolutely want to try it.” Of our students who are still sitting the fence after this, I tell parents that it would be smart to have them come try again when band camp starts. They have just invested three years in middle school band and should be absolutely certain before they give it up. Band is not like choosing a movie; students are choosing what to do with their lives.  

Some of the resources discussed in show planning and recruiting are available at