Survive and Advance, Secrets of Great Pep Bands

Robert E. Foster, Jr. | August September 2022

    For many music programs, whether you are teaching in secondary schools or at the college level, pep bands become an important part of school and athletic events from November to March. Because more community members will see and hear your pep band at games than will attend concerts, it is essential to give a strong performance every time your band performs. Social media gives enduring access to band performances, and parents and fans will frequently post videos when your bands perform. For this reason, it is important that pep band performances sound great and that you maintain the same expectations for pep band that you have with your top wind ensemble.
    What is the difference between a pep band and concert band? The venue switches from an auditorium to a gym, and the music tends to be pop/jazz oriented. For many pep bands, the higher, faster, louder approach to playing becomes quite common. In addition, directors often don’t rehearse pep band charts as much as they work on their concert band repertoire. Students can lose focus in the relaxed atmosphere of the gym, and they approach it in an entirely different way than rehearsing with concert band.
    Many pep bands are led by drum majors or student leaders, which is fine. However, the band director should still oversee each performance and provide feedback when necessary. Directors are in charge and responsible for the quality of pep band performances, even though they may not be conducting every song. When directors neglect to offer feedback, I have noticed there is a tendency for the ensemble to play out of tune with poor tone quality.
    Prepping ensembles for music festivals and regular concerts often takes priority over the pep band and as a result the pep band does not receive the attention needed to sound great. With concert bands, directors spend so much time focusing and trying to perfect every detail, bringing in clinicians to help with the process. While you want the band to do well at concert or contest, remember that your under-rehearsed pep band is performing at athletic events for hundreds or thousands of people.
    Many music programs give terrific performances with every ensemble – marching, concert, jazz, and pep bands. These music educators do a wonderful job, and most earn strong support from their communities. I also know many successful band directors who have great concert bands but allow pep band performances riddled with wrong notes and unmusical sounds. Band directors should hold their pep bands to the same standards as their concert bands.
    The high expectations and standards for your athletic band’s performance will have a huge impact on how the community values your work and the entire band program. If a director does not fix overblowing or poor intonation with the pep band, students will continue to play this way in the others bands, and they also will not sound good.
    The United States Marine Band is considered by many to be one of the top bands in the world. If you attend a concert by this group, you will hear precision and musicality unlike most other bands. When this group marches in a parade, listeners hear the same wonderful, musical band. The only difference is that they are marching while playing. They maintain the same performance standard in every venue.
    Whether you are teaching in a middle school, high school, or university maintain high expectations for all ensembles. With my middle school band program, we have a band sound that we strive for regardless of whether it is the festival concert band or the pep band trying to hype up the students for a school assembly. “Survive and Advance” is a frequently used phrase during the NCAA Basketball Tournament for teams moving on to the Sweet 16. All pep bands can adopt this saying and apply it. They are capable of surviving, advancing, and sounding great.   
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10 Ways to Improve a Pep Band

1.    Tune before every performance.
2.    Play with characteristic sound and control with no blasting or honking.
3.    Teach students to listen while they play.
4.    Balance and blend sounds.
5.    Play with appropriate dynamics, nuance, and musical phrases.
6.    Play with rhythmic precision.
7.    Don’t perform songs faster than your players can play them.
8.    Pay attention to entrances and releases.
9.    Record your band’s performance and have students listen to it.
10.    Don’t play louder because you are in a larger arena – mic your group when appropriate.