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The West Ranch Way: An Interview with Jason Marshall

Dan Blaufuss | November 2013

    Jason Marshall is the director of instrumental music at West Ranch High School in Santa Clarita, California and an adjunct faculty member at California State University-Northridge, where he teaches a course on marching band techniques. West Ranch is ten years old, with the first freshman class meeting at the junior high school across the street. Marshall came on staff nine years ago, when the high school building opened with freshmen and sophomores. From there, the program has grown quickly and is already a three-time Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association State Marching Champion. “I did not march until college, at which point I started to see the value of it. Through marching band, students learn teamwork, discipline, perseverance, and how to handle multiple responsibilities at the same time. Teachers who simply decide they are not going to have a marching band because it has worn on them are depriving their students of a valuable component of music education. I would love to never ride a school bus again, but we make those sacrifices because it is important to our students. The positives of marching band far outweigh the negatives. However, West Ranch is not a marching band school – or a concert band or jazz school; our aim is to do everything and do it well.”

What are the keys to building a strong music program?
    At first building a strong program meant having to swallow my pride. It is important to get students out performing, even if the quality isn’t what you’d like. With just freshmen and sophomores from different schools and with differing skills, we did not compete our first marching season. I bought a stock show, figuring we could learn and perform it at the two junior varsity football games scheduled. In the entire season, we only made it through the first movement of that show, but the parents and administration thought it was wonderful, because it was something new. Marching band is by far the most visible ensemble at most schools; more people will see the marching band than are likely to see the concert or jazz groups. If we do produce an excellent marching product, it is something the principal can use to promote the school and students and parents can be proud of.
    A high school program improves by investing in the junior high. Merely being at the junior high can sometimes help recruiting, but high school and junior high teachers should find ways to work collaboratively so students see it as a seamless transition. It shouldn’t be “Am I going to continue band in high school?” but “Of course, I’m going to stay in band. That’s what you do.” Our district is a junior high/high school-only district, and everything is dependent on each school to do as they wish. We have determined that the best approach is to collaborate closely. One tradition we have established is for all of our students to participate in the solo and ensemble festival, so when they get to high school, they will have had that experience. We also co-host a number of events that permit our students to interact with each other, including the district band and orchestra festival. In addition, we make a point to speak highly of each other’s programs. Aligning our mentalities with each other helps ensure consistency with students, and they see the good working relationship we have.
    There is a new junior high director this year, and we have worked on curriculum to make sure that all students know the same skills by the time they get to high school. Ideally, students should come in to high school knowing all twelve major scales. They do not have to be played in multiple octaves, but being fluent in eight and knowing all twelve would be ideal. From there I can build range and move to the minors. Musically, students should be able to play in all keys from C to Db; we definitely want to avoid only playing in Bb. Students should know how to transpose on their instruments. If I ask for a concert F, all students should know what note that is for them. In junior high, students should have an introduction to compound meter so they know what 68 time is. The same goes for cut time. None of this is too difficult. Students can do anything, as long as you teach them how. If you want to play a piece in Db, teach students the Db major scale. Then give students some technical exercises in Db. After that, students should be able to handle music in that key, even in junior high. Students can be given the skills necessary to do well.

When building a program from scratch, what pieces are the most important ones to have in place?
    West Ranch High School is the second high school I have opened. I started my teaching career at a new high school in San Jose. Teaching high school right out of college and getting to open a school seemed like a great opportunity, and I learned quite a bit going through that, which helped me at West Ranch. The essential first step is to develop a vision for the program. I modeled much of what I wanted to do at West Ranch on my experiences in high school. Our town only had 7,000 people in it, but we qualified for the state band contest twice while I was in high school. Only 20 bands in the state were invited each year. My director also made a point of introducing students to good music. The primary difference between my high school experience and what I wanted for West Ranch was marching band. We did not march in high school. Looking at things now, I have no idea how my high school director would have had the resources or staff to run a marching band – to say nothing of the fall weather in rural Oregon.
    The next step is putting all the little pieces in place. At a brand new school there are no support organizations, so boosters have to be established. This entails such tasks as filling out tax forms, opening a bank account, and writing bylaws. Further, no forms have been created and no policies for checking out instruments or music exist. All this must be produced.
    Ordering equipment is a daunting task. Administrative support for music was strong, and I received about $300,000 when the program started. It didn’t buy everything I thought we should have, but it was an excellent start. I wanted the foundations of a strong music library and spent $20,000 on music. This was not the newest works, but the classics that I knew would work and were good. I bought this music knowing that we would not play all of it right away, and there is much that we have yet to pass out. Over the years, I’ve added newer music, but I felt it was important to establish a music library with the tried and true band works. If nothing else, we had some charts we could sightread to prepare for festivals.
    After that, I wanted to get good instruments. I got professional models for the most temperamental instruments: double reeds, horns, and tubas. I don’t want oboes that will permanently play out of tune. The instrument is difficult enough regardless. It is important that these players have access to excellent instruments. Also, I can tell oboists that they are using a $3,000 professional model instrument, and they should treat it like one. I bought intermediate models of the large saxophones and clarinets. Getting the opportunity to do this twice in my career definitely changed some of my instrument choices. There were instruments I learned not to bother with. I bought no contrabass woodwinds this time. These were extremely expensive, unreliable for what I could afford, and much of the music published today lacks these parts. I feel like I wasted $30,000 buying those instruments the first time.
    The biggest lesson I learned was in buying marching tubas. Right out of college, I was excited about marching and bought contras. Then I saw my students trying to march with them and realized I had made a horrible decision, so this time I bought sousaphones. We have a high school marching band, not a drum corps, and I don’t have the build of students to make marching tubas worth it.
    Fielding a marching band also means such purchases as uniforms, a sound system, front ensemble instruments, uniform racks, and a trailer to haul everything. The list of things needed to outfit a music program is extremely long.

What is the best way to get rehearsals off to a good start?
    A controlled environment is essential for instrumental music, otherwise it is difficult to get anything accomplished. Routines help keep order in the classroom and on the marching field. Students who know what to expect every day will do what is asked of them. For band and orchestra rehearsals, students come in and set up, and at three minutes after the bell rings they are to be in their seats and ready to go. Whether I am on the podium at that precise moment is irrelevant; they should be ready to play. Many directors are shocked when they watch my marching band, because the students automatically start themselves at six o’clock. I teach the students to rehearse from day one, and we call it the West Ranch Way. Establishing these routines helps keep everything else in order.
    At six o’clock on the dot, the drum majors call students to attention. Every rehearsal starts with a callisthenics block, which includes stretching, strength building, and conditioning. Marching band is an athletic activity, and it behooves us to build strength and stamina because students have to get through an eight-minute show while playing their instruments. With the fast tempos in our shows, we cannot have students tiring out, so we train them with 15-20 minutes of daily callisthenics. After that we move to a marching fundamentals block for 20-45 minutes. This happens throughout the season at every rehearsal. After that, we start rehearsing the show. We have two three-hour blocks per week, plus a weekly one-hour sectional.

What advice would you offer to a new band director?
    Be organized. Communicate frequently with staff in a professional manner. I email a schedule that lists exactly what we will be doing in advance of every marching rehearsal. At the end of rehearsal we meet to discuss what the next step is. Also communicate with uniform, equipment, and food parents to make sure that everything they are supposed to handle is getting done.
    As a tournament host, I see disorganized bands often. They do not turn in all their paperwork or pay, or even submit an application. They arrive and do not know where to park because they did not read the packet. They do not know when to be at the gates, and then they are angry because they are late getting to their performance. Such teachers put their students through much unneeded stress. They rush around and are poorly prepared because they did not plan rehearsals properly. It all stems from being disorganized, and I do not know many unorganized directors with strong programs. A lot goes into making a program excel, but simple things like organization make a huge difference.

How do you teach style?
    Last year, the wind ensemble struggled with style. We were rehearsing a piece by Thom Ritter George called First Suite in F, a very programmatic work in the style of a British folk song suite. It was a bear for us, and students really struggled with the styles necessary to play the piece, especially the articulation. With it being such a rough area last year, I wanted to address it this year. When considering good works to teach style, the first one that came to mind was Robert Russell Bennett’s Suite of Old American Dances. The wind ensemble rehearses all year, but our first concert isn’t until December, which gives me the time to work out some of these difficulties without a fast-approaching deadline.
    Part of teaching style is getting students in the right mindset about the purpose of the music. These are dances, and with that should come knowledge of how the dances are performed, so we watched examples of each and discussed how the music represented them. I had to teach the difference between staccatos and marcatos. It helps to try playing it multiple ways. First I might have students slur everything. Then we will try it all staccato or marcato, and finally I tell them to play as written, and everything clicks and students realize how much better it sounds when played the right way. The key is that all students have to play the same articulation. If only half of them articulate correctly, the effect is lost. When students do it incorrectly on purpose and then make it right, it is easy for them to see the comparison.

How did you overcome your lack of experience with string instruments?
    As preparations were being made for the opening of the high school, the principal knew he wanted a big music program. A parent who was going to have a student at the school was a headhunter, so the two of them worked together to come up with the most wonderful-sounding job post that I have ever read for a high school band. Anybody with any desire to teach music at all who saw this would have jumped at the opportunity, but nowhere in the post did it say anything about orchestra. In my interview, the principal asked, “Oh, by the way, can you teach orchestra?” I told him I had never done it before but was pretty sure I could figure it out.
    It was clear early on that I was really bad at teaching strings, and that was not okay with me. As a saxophonist, this was a gap in my knowledge. Luckily, my ability matched that of the group early on, and we helped each other get through it that first year. After that I started doing research and found a book called Orchestral Bowing: Style and Function by James Kjelland. I still have sticky notes in it. My biggest disadvantage was that I’d never played a string instrument. I had to learn quickly how to produce a good sound on the string and how to use the bow to create dynamics and good tone. I started going to string sessions at conferences; I do not remember the last time I attended a band session. I was lucky enough as well to have a student in the orchestra whose mother played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She came early on and would help when she could. I watched everything she did, and she gave me feedback on my teaching.
    I remember an early struggle to get students to play piano with a good sound. It seems like a simple thing, but there were getting a scratchy, broken tone. We learned that you still have to have decent bow pressure but can move the bow closer to the fingerboard or move higher up on the bow or use less of the hair to get a good piano. There were different things to try, and suddenly, they could play quietly and the sound was good. That was one of my first a-ha moments and the point where I started to understand the instruments enough to make that change. It made the orchestra sound much better.
    By year three, I started to get some talented students into the orchestra program, and I used them to demonstrate technique, something I still do. I learn from my students every day; many of the top students have been studying privately for many years. Students tend to morph toward the center of the bow on their spiccatos, but it is difficult to play spiccato on the middle or upper third of the bow. For stylistic bowings like spiccato or col legno, I will defer to my concertmaster. Students also help with writing in bowings. My first-chair players make choices and give them to the entire section, although sometimes we make changes. Bowing affects the music and should be adjusted to phrase better or sound more powerful or be easier for the students.
    Now it is to the point where I feel competent in getting students to play high-quality music and have it sound good. This year the orchestra had to be split into two classes; there were roughly 30 students who were excelling at a much higher level than the other students. They needed more difficult repertoire than the rest of the string players were ready for. The younger orchestra needs more guidance; there is a lower percentage of students taking lessons, and they haven’t played as long.

What are the biggest difficulties in teaching high school string orchestra?
    Full orchestra is difficult to put together. We only perform one or two full orchestra pieces per year, and to pull this off we have to rehearse after school, during lunch, and during breaks. The block schedule here does not lend itself to full orchestra. I cannot double block students, and there are not enough musicians to pillage the wind ensemble of the best talent and put them in the full orchestra, so we have to be creative about it. It is difficult to put together. This limits me to strings-only literature, and there is not much of it past grade 4. Some of the greatest pieces ever written are for full orchestra, but it is difficult to find high-level music for strings only Last year we played the full version of Sinfonia 9 by Mendelssohn. I had never heard of it, but it was wonderful. I get lists from repertoire sessions and order much of what is on them. I have found some string-only suites, such as the St. Paul Suite and the Holberg Suite, that are great string pieces. Sadly, there are few composers today writing at that level for just strings. I am unsure why that is; my hunch is that orchestras just are not as big as they used to be. In southern California, there are only a handful of string programs. I am glad that in a time when that has dwindled we have been able to bring it back.