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Planning a Marching Show

Gerry Miller | May 2014

    Before any great chef begins cooking, he will spend hours planning, researching, and practicing to ensure that, when the diners arrive at the table, the meal will be second-to-none. In preparing for next year’s marching band show, there are numerous techniques that we employ to create a seamless process as the drill writer, colorguard choreographer, and percussion arrangers begin to put pen to paper and flags to music. These techniques apply to everyone, whether it is a large staff or a one-person operation.

Music Arranging
    Methods abound for selecting music for marching shows: browsing the internet, listening to pre-arranged shows from large and small publishers, hiring custom arrangers, or writing it ourselves. In selecting music for our shows, we are looking for a set of pieces that creates a tableau and communicates a concept to the audience. I recently viewed a superb documentary film, Six by Sondheim, which explores Stephen Sondheim’s approach to composing musicals (and which I would highly recommend for its many insights on composing and music making). At one point in the documentary, the interviewer asks Sondheim if he considers himself a poet. Sondheim rejects this idea of the composer as a poet, explaining that when he writes for musicals, “there’s music, there’s costumes, there’s lighting … there are a lot of things to listen to and look at. And therefore, [what we write] must be simple. It can be full of complex thoughts, and can certainly have resonance, but it must be easy to follow. That’s not necessarily true of poetry.”
    Sondheim’s remark about musicals is good advice for planning marching music – that is, keeping the concept simple is best. We aim to choose music that best communicates the main idea of the show, and we try arranging it in a way that best showcases the talent of our students. There are a few important considerations that we make as the design process takes shape. We begin by looking at the identity of our marching band within the greater community. Some parts of the community (most specifically, our football spectators) are comfortable with concept shows that are non-traditional and out there. We also consider which shows our parents discuss after a marching contest, attempting to give our stakeholders the most memorable impression. Finally, we consider which shows will be most interesting to our administrators. It is always good when a marching show can get the administration excited about the band.
    Next, we consider the musical performance level of the ensemble coming out of spring semester. We usually aim to have a marching show arrangement that is approximately two grade levels below where our top concert ensemble performs. Thus, we consider what the students are able to achieve in a calm environment while seated and then set the marching show two levels lower than that. This approach usually offers the greatest chance at success when on the move. There are no precise rules about how difficult the music needs to be, and we try to select or arrange music based on the ability level of the ensemble that is on the field. As a general matter, we have taken the view that marching band is not a place to seek advancement in musicianship; rather, it is an opportunity to showcase the fundamental skills and musicianship that we have worked to develop in concert band from November to June.
    To simplify the arranger’s work in making the music well-suited to the group, each section of the ensemble is graded by skill level, based on a scale of 1 to 10. Sections that have multiple All-State and All-Region performers may be given a 9 or a 10, while sections that are younger, or in a rebuilding phase, might score only a 4 or 5. As part of this process, potential soloists within each section are also identified. The arranger should not be limited to just one option for a soloist.
    Finally, we try to identify sections that might need a break from playing at some point during the show. It is generally a good practice to provide the trumpets with an occasional break from playing, as is allowing time for the mellophones, trombones, and euphoniums to take a phrase off now and then. For the purposes of arranging, we additionally discuss which sections are young or are likely to encounter endurance difficulties as the show progresses, and we attempt to have our arranger give these sections some much-needed rest during the middle of the show. Because our students will perform this music for several months, it essentially will serve as their textbook for the fall semester. We therefore seek to ensure that the arrangements are suited to our students’ skill sets and will be a worthy and defensible curriculum for our band program.
    The next area of focus concerns the frequency of viewing for the different audiences of the band. The judges, for example, will view the show only once or twice in a season, and for them, we try to ensure that all our ideas can be easily communicated on a first read. Shows that can be comprehended only after several viewings are generally not well-received. With the football fans who see us perform more often, the concern is different, and we evaluate whether the show will remain interesting from week to week. One practice we put into place many years ago was to change something noticeable every week. For example, the marching band might begin the season with the guard in dance blacks and with practice flags. Then, as the season progresses, the band would unveil new costumes, prop artwork, and show silks to add a level of interest for those who are seeing us regularly.
    Once we have selected a set of literature for the show, we consider the amount of contrast offered by the music. We want to ensure that it offers multiple highs and lows, that it has loud and soft sections, and that it features intense moments to contrast with lighter moments. Above all, we are seeking to avoid sameness. We do not want the trumpets to have the melody throughout, nor do we want the percussion to just provide time without taking the lead here and there. We also look at the length of phrases, making sure that it is varied throughout. Another goal with the music is to be sure that the music supports the visual effects we are striving to achieve.
    Finally, we focus on pacing. To do this, we will listen to the show over and over again for several days or weeks to ensure that the entire field production has a sense of flow. When we go through this listening process, we are seeking music that has breath, resonance, life, and motion. We are also checking that there are no awkward moments that will leave the audience wondering what they should be listening for or looking toward.

Sketching the Show
    As we address all of the aforementioned considerations, we also begin sketching what we will listen and look for during the seven or eight minutes of show. To begin this process, it helps to ask how each production should end – both visually and musically. Usually the ending is far more important than the beginning of each production. Even programs that use stock arrangements for music should consider asking a seasoned arranger to dress up the endings of each work a bit. A little extra work on the endings of the music can make a tremendous difference in creating effective moments, and it can greatly enhance the audience’s engagement with the show.
    We also take a look at how the melody is voiced throughout the show. Ideally, the melody should move around the ensemble. Of course, some melodies will work only for clarinet, for example, because of its wide tessitura, while other melodies will just sound naturally as trombone or euphonium features. These natural considerations should be respected, but apart from that, it is vitally important to spread the melody equally around the ensemble, ensuring that each section is given at least some small feature or a combined-feature moment.
    Next, we focus on contrast, considering how many loud moments are written for the ensemble as compared with the soft moments. We also look at whether there is a good proportion of fast to slow productions and phrases.
    Lastly, we talk about how to generate intrigue. We consider whether there are moments in the show that will make the judges watch with rapt attention as they wonder what will happen next. A related consideration, however, is that the program shold not raise too many questions or any questions that go unanswered. We do not want a post-show critique with the judges to be about the program raising confusing questions. To avoid this, we seek to create a format not unlike the music of Mozart, with its antecedent-consequent phrase structure, and so we try to create a program with musical and visual questions that are asked and then answered in the next phrase or two. This is often the hardest concept to develop across all the productions. Research helps. This usually involves lots of video watching. The advice of experienced colleagues is very helpful too. The more time we spend on planning these aspects of the show, the better the chances are that we will have a successful start to the marching season.

Coordinating Musical and Visual Moments

    One of the most time-consuming tasks is achieving good coordination between the sound and visual aspects of the show. The main goals are to ensure that the sounds heard by the audience will match the ensemble’s visual presence on the field, and to develop visual presentation and staging that will support the musical mood. Typically, much of our discussion on this subject focuses on the colorguard and its role in the show. We first consider how much equipment we want to perform with, and how we will transition from one piece of equipment to the other while causing the least disruption in the flow of the overall presentation. The standard arsenal of our colorguard includes 2-3 standard flags on 6′ poles, rifles and sabres (although not all guard performers spin a rifle or sabre in the show), swing flags (shorter poles, larger silks, mostly for impact in the slower productions), and show-oriented props. We also focus on color. Each show needs to have a color palette that complements the marching uniform (which is a fixed element, unless you can change it easily), the green grass of the marching field (also a given), and the color of our school-owned brass instruments (lacquered brass or silver finish). We typically try out a number of different color palettes before deciding on a look for the ensemble. A key question we often ask is this: does the color palette alone let our audience know what the show is about?
    We also talk quite a bit about the use of props in the marching show. Props can create a number of logistical roadblocks, but with the manpower and budget to make them a priority, props can have the benefit of greatly reducing any empty space on the field while offering a large visual obstruction that can allow for easy transitions and add visual appeal.
    Once we have set up a plan for the colorguard and the props, we can begin to discuss the coordinated musical-visual moments that we would like to create, and how we see these moments appearing on the musical canvas that we have created. We always try to open each production with some level of intrigue – something that will make the judges and audience curious about what is going to happen next. After we have generated a level of intrigue, we then start to build toward the climax. In some works, the climax may be a drum feature, while in others, it may be a scintillating ballad high point. Once the beginning of the work is correctly designed, both visually and musically, and once the apex point is identified and programmed, we then turn our focus to the ending of each production. We attempt to end each of the first few productions in a way that will both give the audience a reason to applaud and lead into the next work. The vast majority of our time is spent developing the final ending for the show. Our goal with the ending is to ensure that the audience and judges will have a feeling that there is resolution, purpose, and growth to all of the works performed.
    We do most of our work planning out moments for the show using a large cork board that has labels like a storyboard, although this work can also be done on a computer. Once the musical productions are paced and timed out to the second, we create dividing lines for every 30 seconds or so, so that the show is segmented into 14-18 small parts. The beginning of each production, as well as the apex, will each occupy around 6-8 of these segments. The remaining 8-10 segments will need to be created in a collaboration with the music arranger, the drill writer, and everyone else who plays a role in managing the show. We look at the ideas presented in the show and the various aspects that we might expect to see as judges, and we try them out on the storyboard in a number of different configurations. We work on this storyboard process until we find a pattern that appears to flow seamlessly.
    To develop ideas for the group’s creative process, each staff member who works on the marching show employs the following process individually. First, we each begin with a copy of the score with the measures numbered and phrases labeled, along with a recording of the midi file and a handheld digital recorder. Next, we let the recording play and talk through what we see happening, what side of the field we see it happening on, and how we transition into and out of each moment. As we do this, it may help to pause the midi playback; sometimes, there are too many words and too little time to get all of the ideas out. Then, after each staff member has completed this exercise, we compile the results onto a spreadsheet. As a result of this process and with multiple people doing the exercise, there will be many ideas generated. All of these ideas are worth mentioning to the drill writer so that they can be used if the primary idea does not fit in with where the students are staged. This creative process has proven to be incredibly helpful in generating a productive visual and musical dialogue.
    We also look to create variation in the key performance moments. Each effect cannot just be based in the colorguard, and it cannot always be visual. We should strive to create a variety of effects that are produced through interesting musical and visual combinations. The idea of producing coordinated effects, between the musical and the visual, is central to a high-quality, well-composed marching show.

Assembling the Sketch with Details
    Once every effect is planned, we begin to work on transitions. If 14-16 events have been planned for 7-8 minutes of show, the key question to resolve is how to transition from moment to moment. Some transitions will be achieved through drill, while others may make more sense as choreographed dance moments. Still others work better as a scatter drill. We consider the full palette available for transitions and try to avoid repeating any transition more than twice. We also avoid having the guard running at the end of a production to retrieve new equipment. The drill should bring the guard performers and soloists to their new equipment, creating transitions that feel smooth and effortless, rather than forced and labored. It is important that every staff member involved in the design process talks through every transition.
    We also consider carefully how to stage events. Just as we want to avoid musical sameness, which can occur if the trumpets were to play the melody on each phrase, we also want to avoid visual sameness by staging events around the field and not allowing one area of the field to serve as our only feature stage for the whole show. Changing stages can create different moods and can also communicate tension and resolution. In addition, the ability to draw the audience’s attention from one stage to another can create a sense of interest and intrigue. One of the best ways to observe this effect in artistic productions is to view a memorable scene from an Oscar-winning movie with a laser pointer. In each scene, follow the action with the pointer. Notice how a great director will draw our eye across the scene in a number of different ways, moving quickly at times and slowly at others. This movement can have a great effect on our opinion of a character or a scene.

The Final Test
    Once we have finalized all our plans for the show, we test the show with a set of questions that can help us identify any shortcomings in our planning or in the structure of the show. This helps us determine if the visual presentation and music have merit before we move forward and begin teaching it to our students. Here are the key questions we ask:
•  For each production in the show, is there a clear beginning moment, a clear apex or middle moment, and a clear ending moment?
•  Is there a memorable ending for the whole show?
•  Is there evidence of contrast throughout the show?
•  Are there clear high points and low points within the overall framework of the show?
•  Does the show unfold like a canvas that develops across the production?
•  Does the show offer builds, climaxes, as well as down moments, with coordinated contributions from the winds, the battery percussion, the front ensemble, and the guard?
•  Is the drill set up to focus on the motion more than just the pictures?
•  Are we consistently guiding the audience and judges to where we want them to look?
•  Will the students be able to relate to the show?
•  Will the audience/football spectators be able to relate to the show?
•  Will the judges be able to understand and relate to the show with only one or two viewings?
    If the show concept and ideas pass the test, we can then begin communicating firm ideas to our drill writer. The set of instructions given to the drill writer will serve as the blueprint until the show is written and becomes concrete.
    It is always our hope to create an enjoyable, interesting, and intelligent show for all of our audience members and adjudicators each season. It is also our hope that the advice shared here will help to generate a productive dialogue among your band staff and colleagues. Much of the information shared here has been gained from the many talented individuals with whom I have worked over the years. It is always a pleasure to be a part of a collaborative creative process and to benefit from the group’s collective wisdom.