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Efficient Teaching in Marching Band Rehearsals

Christopher Hoch | June 2020

    Planning efficient and productive marching rehearsals is essential, especially because marching band directors face changing weather, scheduling for available outdoor practice space, and for some, rehearsals with hundreds of students. It complicates the situation that marching band directors perform many roles: teacher, counselor, accountant, cheerleader, and recruiter. The following tips will help you get the most out of the precious time you have with your students.

Planning Strategies
    Be an artist. The love of music is why many of us became teachers in the first place, and the creativity of programming and designing a marching band show should still excite us as we plan for the season. For the marching band, the art is not only in the music-making, but in the design of the show. As a marching band leader, being an artist means collaborating with experts on the different aspects of marching performance, including composing or arranging, drill design, dance and body movement, prop design, and marching fundamentals. Marching band is among the most collaborative art forms, but the band director should be involved in the creative process from start to finish.
    Be studious. Studying scores isn’t just for concert band, and marching band directors must know not only the music but the visual program as well. Learn how each transition functions, who has the most challenging step size, which sections will have difficulty seeing or hearing across the field, and above all, how the music fits with the drill. Look for errors or problem spots, even if you wrote the drill or arranged the music. Fewer errors in the finished product mean less rehearsal time spent correcting them. In addition, a thorough knowledge of the scores and drill will help eliminate unnecessary pauses or errors in teaching and down time between repetitions, which leads to fewer opportunities for students to lose focus. A thorough knowledge of every aspect of the artwork makes it possible to share it with others.

Rehearsal Techniques
    Be a recording engineer. Investing in a pair of high-quality microphones can pay dividends for any school band. Frequent recordings of music rehearsals, made accessible to students, can assist with daily rehearsal preparation. Recordings allow directors to address concerns during subsequent rehearsals, and recordings can help students learn to listen critically to their own performances. For less formal recordings, a tablet or phone will work well for students to get a good sense of the overall sound of their ensemble.
    In The Ohio State University Marching Band, we make new recordings almost every day. Students use these recordings to assist with music memorization and rehearsal preparation, and they can listen outside of class and discuss what they hear with their peers at any time. Finally, by marching to a recording, students can learn to combine the visual and musical elements of a show more quickly and confidently.
    Be a film producer. Because marching band involves musical and visual components, it is important that the drill, like the music, be recorded. These recordings can be done by borrowing a school camera or using a personal device to film the day’s run-throughs. Our section leaders use their phones and tablets to take low-level video of their sections during fundamentals practice, thereby helping to improve individual marching skills. A staff member with a camera on the band tower can take mid-range video, and we are fortunate to have a high-view camera that provides an overhead view of the field.
    In addition, some schools have begun using drones to take rehearsal video. Directors should investigate the available resources and find creative ways to adapt them for use with a marching band. Some of the video is shown and discussed during rehearsal, but most is made available for students to study on their own.
    Be steady. Using a metronome is a time-honored tradition of the marching band, but it is sometimes helpful to rethink how it gets used in daily rehearsals. We use a metronome as part of nearly every rehearsal. It is used to begin and end repetitions, both indoors and outdoors, so that students become accustomed to efficient starts and stops. Starting each repetition with four or eight beats from the metronome can reduce the amount of time between repetitions, and our students have learned to get ready quickly so that they don’t miss the count-off. The metronome is also used to isolate individual sections on the field. The brass section, for example, can work in isolation without the percussion, and the percussion use it when marching and playing without the winds.
    Be tech-savvy. Directors should embrace technology that handles the tedious daily routines that distract from the musical and visual learning at the heart of a rehearsal. In our band, daily announcements and assignments, music to be memorized, and the rehearsal schedule are communicated to students via social media, video screens around the rehearsal hall, and other electronic communications. Our students and band parents can download itineraries, calendars, and other important information online. Music is also downloadable, and drill can be accessed via a QR code that students scan with their phone or tablet. Students have apps from Pyware on their iPads. The app can allow students to see entire forms, full animations, and coordinates for their own dots as well as other members of their sections. The video features on their phones and tablets are frequently used to evaluate individual students on their execution of marching fundamentals, both in training camps before the season and during the season.
    In addition, there are numerous products that can help directors with musical assessments, memorization checks, and other evaluative measures. Here again, it is important for band directors to explore the available resources and find creative ways to use them. For those who are not as tech savvy as they would like, don’t be afraid to ask for help, even from the students, who can sometimes be the best resources for technological assistance.

Personal Skills
    Be consistent. It is imperative that marching band rehearsals follow a productive routine. This routine may include familiar warm-up exercises for both indoor and outdoor rehearsals. It may include a series of established rehearsal techniques including those described above. However, the routine must always be productive, and directors should not be afraid to remove elements of a routine that detract from the effectiveness of the rehearsal.
    Our early-season rehearsals are structured similarly to late-season rehearsals, although the content can be different. The consistency is important so that students know what to expect on a given day or in a given week. If we have to learn a show in a week, for example, the week-long plan has us sightreading music and blocking drill on Monday, running sectionals and blocking the remaining drill on Tuesday, marching and playing the first half of the show on Wednesday, setting props and marching the full show on Thursday, and conducting music checks and finishing dress rehearsals on Friday.
    If we have more time on a show, this basic plan is expanded to include more detailed cleaning of the music and drill. The daily two-hour rehearsal schedule usually begins with separate wind and percussion warm-ups for 10-15 minutes, a possible video review session (5-10 minutes), a music rehearsal during which we also make rehearsal recordings (20-30 minutes), 15 minutes to travel to the practice field, blocking or cleaning individual segments of the show (30-40 minutes), run-throughs of the drill to a recording or with the drum line and metronome only (10-20 minutes), and finally, a full run-through of the material we learned that day (10 minutes). With my high school band, I would have exchanged time in the first portion of the marching rehearsal for 10-15 minutes of marching fundamentals along with the metronome.
    Be trusting. Band directors like to have a hand in every aspect of their programs, and while knowledge of the details is important, we must also have faith in our student leaders to accomplish the goals we set for them. A thorough selection process and rigorous leadership training program can help student leaders understand the rules of efficient rehearsing. Student leaders can handle a certain degree of freedom, and they appreciate it, but they must also be held accountable for the responsibilities assigned to them. They must understand the daily rehearsal plans and expectations, and they must believe in the importance of following established guidelines. Although effective leadership models may not always be efficient in the short term (it can take time for students to learn them), they maximize efficiency in the long term. Directors need to trust that students who have a vested interest in the program will want to make the right decisions and work to achieve the expected results.
    Be transparent. Communication is crucial, but many of us don’t think about the ways in which communication can affect our daily rehearsals. Every member of the leadership team, as well as every student, should know the schedule for the day so that everyone works toward the same goals. Parents and administrators may prefer to know the long term plan, and weekly communication can be comforting to them while building their confidence in the band staff. Our regular communications consist of daily emails to the band staff that include the schedule and announcements; weekly emails to the students describing assignments, schedules, and upcoming performances; daily postings of the rehearsal schedule on screens around our rehearsal facility; regular memos to the administration about the band’s activities; and frequent updates to social media and the website.
    Be flexible. An established routine will contribute to efficient rehearsals, but directors must also use their creativity and ability to improvise to solve unforeseen problems, add new or creative elements to a show, or just lighten the mood when needed. While these skills come naturally for some, many of us can get flustered when plans go awry. We must learn to step back and let our creativity and passion for our art influence our rehearsals and challenge our routines. Students must see that passion every day, because they will emulate the attitude of the teacher. No matter how experienced we are, we must be willing to adapt and grow, especially if we expect our students to do the same.

    These ideas may seem commonplace or even obvious, but I find myself thinking about them every day. It is easy to forget that the simplest ideas can have a big effect on how our programs run. Reflect on daily rehearsals and be open to ways to improve them, no matter how efficient and productive you might believe they are. Perhaps a borrowed idea can save a few seconds, or a moment of creative thought can save a few minutes. That time adds up over the course of the season, and in the end, all of those details that we wish we had time to address – if only we had another hour or another day – can be given their due attention.