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The Ideal Marching Schedule

Sean Smith | August 2015

    Imagine you are a new teacher one week before school, preparing the concert band rehearsal space, putting seats in a concert arc, and setting out percussion. Slowly the students trickle into the rehearsal room with quizzical looks on their faces. Finally, one of the students mentions that the band period is used for rehearsing marching band during the first quarter. This information is a complete surprise because it is entirely different than the way your high school rehearsed marching band and the complete opposite of what you were taught in college.
    This was my experience when I started the school year at my first job in Conneaut, Ohio. I thought maybe Conneaut High School’s marching band schedule was an outlier, but then I found out that this was common not only in Ohio, but across the country. This made me question if had I been taught incorrectly. My high school band experience was part of a strong, suburban music program, and I wondered if my way would work in a small, rural school. I wrestled and pondered with these questions before concluding that if providing a strong music education for my students was the first priority, then marching band should be treated as a voluntary, extra-curricular activity and therefore should be rehearsed after school. Although this was a difficult decision, I followed my instincts and moved marching band out of the school day in my first year. Over my six-year career at this school, this change paid huge dividends for the program and the music education of the students.
    There were 23 students enrolled in the instrumental music program when I started. Five years later there were approximately 70 students. The high school concert band performed grade 2 music with difficulty when I arrived, but three years later the students were able to perform grade 4 music with dexterity. I attribute this development to intense focus on concert band, which devoted the time needed to develop tone, intonation, balance, music theory, and sightreading at the beginning of the school year. This was possible only because of the fundamental change we had made in the program by practicing marching band after school and using the band period for concert band rehearsal.
    Programs big and small have voluntary, after-school marching bands that are quite successful. This is true of both competitive and non-competitive marching styles. There are several concerns that may arise when marching band is turned into an after-school activity, but these are usually easy to overcome.

Rehearsal Space
    Every band director will need to find the schedule that works best for the band, and flexibility is the key. At our school we tried many rehearsal times. One year we held rehearsals immediately after school, but there was a lack of outdoor space so we were relegated to a small field that was severely slanted. (Imagine having to high-step uphill for half of a rehearsal.) The following year we were assigned to a soccer field that slowly turned into a mud pit. Finally, we settled on a time that afforded us the football practice field, which was ultimately the best rehearsal space.
    None of these scheduling challenges detracted from the quality of the group. Overcoming the adversity was an experience that made us stronger and more cohesive.

Student Schedules
    Approximately half of the students in the marching band were involved in fall sports, and this unavoidably led to conflicts. The coaches, music staff, and administration all worked together to create a plan to handle scheduling conflicts in individual student schedules. Together, we found that the best solution was to have the students provide directors and coaches with copies of their schedules for each activity. This made it the student’s responsibility to alert each group leader to the conflicts.
    This system not only worked well, but it also provided students the opportunity to learn the importance of effectively handling their own schedules. When a conflict did appear between two activities, the time-conflict resolution chart was applied to resolve the situation. This usually involved a compromise, but it was for the benefit of the students.

Student Interest
    Another concern often expressed is that students will not participate in marching band if it is held after school. The reality is that when directors provide a worthwhile experience, students will participate. Many different traits are needed to form a successful, student-centered marching program. The aspects that keep students interested and involved include social activities, travel, student leadership, teambuilding, and school spirit. Although these elements are not exclusive to marching band, often they are already built into the program, and if they are not, they can easily be added.
    I developed an intensive leadership-training program for my students. The training started in March with an overview of leadership to prepare the students for interviews and auditions in May. Once leaders were selected, they were expected to attend a week-long leadership workshop and weekly meetings during the season. The leaders learned a great deal from the experience, and the entire band program benefited.
    Teambuilding was also a major part of the program at our school. We spent one hour a day at band camp on teambuilding to build our band community; this time was indispensable to group performance and cohesion. In my experience, performing quality marching music also motivated the students to participate. Travel was another key part of the activity because we went to every away game and took trips biannually; these extra-curricular activities unified the group. The small activities described above led to higher interest and involvement, even with rehearsals moved an after-school time, and most of these aspects of the program cost little or no money to implement.

The Best Music
    At our school we played a mix of off-the-shelf arrangements and music specifically arranged for the group. Usually the music that had been arranged for the marching band was the most popular because there was director oversight in making sure the arrangement was done well and fit the group. Some stock arrangements are great, but they are written with a one-size-fits-all mindset, which does not always work well.

Concert Band Participation
    Russel Mikkelson wrote in a March 2006 article in The Instrumentalist, “Some directors believe that concert band rehearsals should occur only when the weather is too inclement to march. This view has become so prevalent, a band director once ended a letter to adjudicators of a competitive marching event by writing, ‘See you in the off-season.’” This is the kind of viewpoint that leads to a lack of student interest in concert band. Instead, directors should view concert band as the premier musical group; those with this perspective tend to have highly successful concert bands. Conversely, if the band director believes concert band is an off-season pursuit, that viewpoint will flow through the entire program, and the student’s beliefs will follow.
    Directors who perceive low interest in the concert band should take a hard look at repertoire selection. A problem arises when the marching and concert music provide the same experience. The main qualification for a piece of music should not be whether the students will like it, or whether it will make them sound good. That kind of music rarely helps develop musical abilities; instead, it only creates the illusion of proficiency though mediocrity. Students recognize high-quality music, and they will enjoy this music. However, if the repertoire sounds the same all year, then students will become tired of the sound of band music because they are not experiencing the full range of available colors and styles the band can offer.
    Another advantage for schools with year-long curricular concert band is the opportunity to present more concerts than those with marching band during the school day. After we moved marching band rehearsal outside of the school day, students at our school were able to perform 33% more concert literature each year. These students experienced a more complete and diverse musical diet than the students who participated in the program in years before, and this provided more opportunity to focus on great works of literature.

Change in Quality
    Directors worry about the effect on marching performance if marching band rehearsals are moved out of the school day. A study conducted in 2000 found that marching bands that rehearsed after school earned higher ratings at contests than those that rehearsed during the day. It is a fair estimate that during marching season, roughly 30 to 50% of marching band rehearsal time is spent discussing movement and not music.
    Concert band rehearsals, in contrast, are geared toward teaching fundamental playing concepts that we want young musicians to strive for each day. Directors should always aim to teach fundamental musical concepts during marching band, but the multitasking involved in achieving movement while playing may inhibit students from applying these skills. Further, the development of musical skills that require higher-level thinking is often difficult for students. This is especially true when student abilities are highly taxed by the movement aspect of marching band. By moving to a schedule that allows year-round concert band, directors will have the opportunity to engage students in developing a deeper understanding of basic pedagogical concepts.

    During marching season oboists and bassoonists may not play their primary instruments at all, which could mean a break of five or more months without playing. If the rest of the students took that much time off, it would be apparent in their sound. However, some students are forced into this because they do not play a marching band instrument. Double reed players are not alone; horn, baritone, and tuba players often use a different instrument during marching season, and proper playing techniques may suffer. In addition, students who participate only in auxiliary groups will be in a similar situation if they are also members of the concert band. When students switch sections or instruments for the marching season, they usually lose at least nine weeks of time on their primary instrument, which is roughly a quarter of the school year. This adds up to an entire year of playing time missed through four years of high school. There are rewards to students being proficient at several instruments, which can happen if a student learns a second instrument for marching band. However, this should not be done at the expense of an excellent education on a primary instrument.
    When a student plays a primary instrument all year, then instrumentation, tone quality, and intonation problems in concert band will begin to improve. Directors also may see increased interest in instruments like oboe, bassoon, and horn.

No More Ultimatums
    The ultimatum that all students must participate in marching band to be part of concert band serves no educational value, and many band programs experience attrition when this requirement exists. A science teacher could not make participation in a robotics team mandatory; this sort of requirement would not be allowed for any other class, and band should be no exception.
    Moving marching band rehearsals outside of the school day and removing the requirement that students participate in marching can have a positive effect. With these changes made, students who might have quit band between middle school and high school because they didn’t want to march now will be able to stay in the concert program.

Making it Work
    When I first proposed this change at my school, I was told by many administrators, coaches, and other directors that it would not work in the district because the students would be stretched too thin; but it did work. Changing the status quo boosted the entire program. Teachers will encounter different levels of resistance to this change, but as a band director, the primary concern should be what is best for the musical education of the students. Directors who are unsure about making this change should give it a trial period of a year or two. If it does not work, then the switch back will be easy. Another possible solution is to rehearse concert band three days a week and marching during the other two.
    Most directors probably would agree that marching band is an important aspect of their program and the school, but they likely also would attest that concert band is the central musical experience. Music educators also might agree that administrators tend to feel that marching band and pep band are more important than concert band. The psychological effect of moving marching band to after school is that it will place concert band and marching band on a more equal footing. With this change, it is clear that concert band is the class and marching band is the activity.

    Any director who aspires to make this change in scheduling should do so, but approaching the change without a clear plan or administrative support can cause problems. The following four steps should help to ensure a smooth transition.

Step One: The Plan
    Scheduling: Decide when and where the marching band will rehearse. You may want to gather the schedules of other after-school activities to find the time with the fewest conflicts.
    Music Selection: Select the music you want to play for marching band and concert band. It is often best to have all the music for the next school year selected before the end of the current year. You can use music as a recruiting tool.
    Resolving Conflicts: Establish how conflicts with other activities will be resolved.
    Rehearsal and Attendance Procedures: Determine if you will need to implement new procedures for starting and running rehearsals. Keep in mind with later rehearsals that, as the season moves on, daylight becomes a factor. Attendance procedures may need to change to make rehearsals more fluid. Often having section leaders report attendance to a student leader or an assistant director will provide the most fluidity.
    Creating a High-Quality Activity: Decide if you will offer anything besides just the activity to increase student interest. As an activity, the social aspect of marching band can be quite important. Taking a trip to a theme park may become part of the way to gain and keep student interest. The activity itself must also be educationally sound, so music and rehearsal style are also important.

Step 2: The Pitch
    Colleagues: Discuss making this change with any marching band staff. Their support will be key to the success of the transition.
    Administrators: Once your colleagues are on board, schedule a meeting with the appropriate administrators. It may help to create a written report with  your step-by-step plan, objectives, and reasons why this is educationally superior for students. Provide administrators with the educational rationales for the change and the reasons why it will help the band program overall.
    Students: If you receive the approval of your administrators, introduce the change to your students. You must be excited and explain to them why moving marching band after school will make their bands better. If you make this change about the students, they will work with you to achieve great success.
    Parents and Community: Once the first three groups are excited about the change, these final groups are fairly easy to bring on board. When talking to parents, explain to them how it will help their children. When talking to the community, explain how it will improve the band program.

Step 3: The Follow Through
    Start to ease into the practice. Send out rehearsal schedules early in the first year of the change. At my school we held a meeting before the end of the school year during which we went through our handbook and the schedule for the following school year. All students in marching band were required to attend with a parent. We offered this meeting on two nights to accommodate schedules. Since it was a required meeting, we also had uniform fittings, and this helped boost attendance.
Let the students know the plan. Do not keep them in the dark when they notice a change. Sometimes students may not feel comfortable talking to you, but advise them to discuss it with their student leader and ask the leader to bring concerns to you. Either approach requires sound relationships built on mutual trust.

Step 4: Re-Evaluation
    Throughout the season evaluate the transition to after-school marching band. Make notes on what succeeds and fails. If something is not working, you may be able to correct it immediately instead of waiting.
    Include students when evaluating the progress of the change. Student leaders are often spectacular at holding honest discussions. If students are included in discussions of this nature, then they will become stakeholders in the success of the transition, and often they will become the biggest advocates of the new scheduling system. At the end of the season, decide what needs to be improved and changed for the following year.
    During your first few years after the change, you should provide a written report for the administrators, students, parents, and community. At our school we often provided examples of how the group had improved when compared to previous performances. This makes the reasoning for moving marching band after school plain and undeniable. Celebrate student successes.

    Many directors have made this change and found that their program improved, and many of the strongest programs in the nation have been using this practice for years. If more schools would adopt this change, the level of musical education would rise and the next generation of young musicians would have a greater love for and understanding of high-quality music as performers and listeners. My students benefited from consistent concert band rehearsals, and my experience as a student and teacher stands as proof that it can be successful in any place.