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Tips for the Middle of Marching Season

Instrumentalist Editors | September 2013

    Although the marching season is still relatively new and this year’s shows are still fresh and exciting, routine sets in quickly, and students begin to feel the burden of all their classes. We asked six experienced teachers for tips on beating the doldrums in the middle of marching season and taking the final steps of making a good show into a great one.

How do you keep enthusiasm up in marching rehearsals in mid-season?

Anthony Pursell: Keeping enthusiasm up is much easier in groups that put on multiple shows each year, because there is always something new to learn. Change the rehearsal routine or the warm-up; this keep students on their toes. Using the same exercises each day quickly becomes monotonous. One easy change is to make games out of various elements in rehearsal. Although certain aspects of the fundamentals of marching may vary slightly from school to school, they are mostly the same, and unless you are working with students who have never marched before, working on them gets monotonous quickly. One way to make a game out of them was to set up one section of the band in a company front and have them march drill playing the fight song. Each section took a turn doing this, and the directors and drum majors evaluated each section before declaring a winner. Other ideas include a march-off to see which student can go the longest without making a mistake. This gets students enthusiastic with the monotony of fundamentals, especially when given commands from the press box.
    It is also important to remember that students start having papers and big projects due in the middle of the semester, and that creates pressure on them. Students who seem listless may have other things on their minds. Have a party for the students one night; either skip a rehearsal or end things a bit early. This can break the ice and interrupt the routine.

Mark Hosler: We used to have a battle of the bands within the band. This began with a music rehearsal in which the band was divided into two groups with equal instrumentation. Band A would stand on the field and play the show music while Band B sat in the stands and critiqued. Students would evaluate their section and give feedback, then trade places so Band B could play. It really helped students understand some of the musical concepts that we had been learning.
    This works for marching and playing the show, too. If there was balanced instrumentation on each side of the opening formation, I split the band down the middle, otherwise I removed every other player to create the two bands. Again, it was a great opportunity for students to engage marching and playing concepts in a different way. Occasionally, we even invited guest judges, such as the middle school band director, choir director, principal, or football coach, to pick a winning band. Both high school and college students enjoyed this experience, and I believe it helped improve their music and marching techniques.
    Keep coming up with new ideas. That can be difficult with high school bands that put together one competition show each season; it gets stale rehearsing the same thing over and over. I also occasionally switched things up by spending a rehearsal reading music to play in the stands.
    I was always on the lookout for ways to challenge students. We would watch a video of our most recent performance, and then I would have students help analyze what we saw and suggest ways we could do better. It might mean rehearsing the alignment of a particular formation or the intonation from a section of one of the show tunes, but because it was their idea to work on these things, there was more enthusiasm.

Gerry Miller: Raise the standards. The first time that students learn something, 70% success may be acceptable, but the next time they try, it should be 72%. As we consistently raise the grade, in terms of keeping their enthusiasm and interest, we set a bar. I tell students that we’re going for 90% on a repetition, and then after running it, I might tell one section of the band they were at an 88%, but that I’m sure we’ll have it with one more run-through.
    We also like to play games on the field. I might challenge the band to see which section can score the highest on a repetition of the drill. Too often we play punitive games designed to catch who misses. It is healthy and fun to play a game to see who is going to be best at something. It is almost tricking them into learning things. We have a squeaky dog toy that is given to the section of the week each week. Students decide who wins, and the section that wins squeaks it all the time. They use it at sectionals to get the section’s attention.
    In the midst of summer band, students have an hour break for lunch, and they spend it together. When school starts it gets trickier for students to socialize and find those opportunities. Marching band is always more work than play, but the workload gets heavier as the year goes on. We break that up by having social events. We also have a mid-season marching party for students, just so we are not working every time we’re together. We have gone bowling or rock climbing and have also had a movie night.

Stephanie San Roman: We try to have a goal the students are working toward. There always is a goal in mind, so we can encourage students that way. We also try to add things to the show, so if there is a place for a dance section or some body movement, that gives students something different to think about. It helps out the show, and students have a lot of fun learning the choreography at the same time.

Timothy Todd Anderson: Set a tangible goal. In some competitive programs at the high school level, this may be going to Bands of America Grand Nationals. For the University of Massachusetts Band this year, the goal is marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Knowing we will be on a big stage in mid-November will provide motivation in the doldrums of October.
    On the other hand, sometimes we lose focus when coming up on something big. It can become all-encompassing. Band is our lives as directors, and while it may be something students love, it is one of many things in their day and they can choose not to be a part of it. It may be necessary to get after the group at times, but avoid demoralizing students. That doesn’t mean every rehearsal has to be all lollipops and rainbows, but at the end of the day marching band should always be a good experience for them – something the remember fondly when the season is over.

Duane Chun: I schedule a mass band in the middle of the marching season. I invite the four middle schools in the county and the visiting school’s band, and we have a big pregame show. Right in the middle of the season, we have to stop what we are working on to learn this music and drill. It is a nice break in the routine, and then we are fresh after that.
    We have a choreographer who comes out in the beginning of summer to teach our color guard routines, and we bring her back out again in October as a refresher. Bill Humbert, the director of bands at Glendale Community College, is a great motivational speaker, and I also invite him out to build enthusiasm and remind us what we are doing and why we are doing it. Sometimes, however, I put it on my students to build enthusiasm. I meet with my student leaders, and we set short- and long-term objectives. Having both means we are building toward something big, but also experiencing success along the way.
   Some years the band parents have thrown a random pizza party for us after a long rehearsal. Such random acts of kindness are also good motivators.

What’s one quick and easy change you can make to add a new level of interest to a show?

Gerry Miller: Being an audio guy in the drum corps world, I notice those moments where things are together both musically and visually, but everything is not interesting enough. For these moments, I find sample sounds to help enhance or add character to the show. We had a judge who, after listening to a percussion program, called one of the phrases bland. We agreed, so we added handbells to the phrase, and when he heard it the next time, he said, “I love this, but I don’t remember it from last time.” With the handbell texture it became a beautiful section of music. I think we only added eight or nine notes, but it made a big difference.
Rewriting a trumpet part is easier said than done, but adding sample sounds or changing the synthesizer sound from a basic piano sound to something with a little more character can take those moments that feel flat stand out and be spectacular. Many marching bands are set up to handle electronics, so it never feels like an effect is crowbarred in.

Stephanie San Roman: Any sort of body movement is good. A horn flash or a step out work well in the right spot. Added movements should be dictated by the show theme. Last year our show included a lot of rock music, so it worked well to add different sorts of body movement with that. If a show is of a more serious nature, you can do contemporary-style movements, such as leans.

Anthony Pursell: With the high schools I write drill for, sometimes they ask how to make a power stand-still within the ballad more interesting. I tell them “On this chord, have the ensemble start on their left side and pan to the right side.” This creates an interesting audio effect and also produces a good visual.

Duane Chun: Last year, during some of our stand fast moves, we tried to incorporate some body choreography. We had one of our local dance instructors teach us some ballet moves. Look for those moments in the show where the music is rising and falling, and if the group is standing still, add some interest or flash to it.

What are the differences between a good and a great show performance?
Duane Chun: Do the groundwork before the show happens. We set the foundations for November in August. After we have learned all the dynamics, articulations, and moves, the mental challenge is making it fresh and exciting for the audience because the 50th time you run something might be the first time some of them see it. Others are seeing the show for the 10th time, in which case it is necessary to think about what you are doing to make it fresh. We spend a great deal of time discussing what we can do better now than we did in previous weeks.

Timothy Todd Anderson: Commitment from every member of the ensemble is important. Much of the time we get into a ballpark area where enough players know their music that it covers up some problem areas, or enough people know their exact spot on the field that the rest can figure it out. When every member of the ensemble is accountable for having the music and drill memorized, that takes a performance to the next level.

Mark Hosler: The precision of both the music and the marching is what makes a show outstanding. Sometimes bands try to rely strictly on volume change to make an impression. This is part of it, but the technical aspects of being able to play the music cleanly and in tune definitely make a big difference. In marching, precision is key. I have seen high school groups over the years whose drill was just too difficult for them. This makes it difficult to reach the level of greatness the conductor might be working toward.

Anthony Pursell: Enthusiasm is essential for getting students to step things up. I have students who just aged out of DCI, and from reading their posts on Facebook it is easy to see just how memorable that last show was. When students have that sense of urgency about the performance, they will usually turn it on. I invited the parents out to watch Thursday evening rehearsals, because they were usually working the concession stand during football games. We opened Thursday night rehearsals at the stadium, parents would come out and watch, and having an audience made students stand up a little straighter. Before a big performance, I would recommend opening up rehearsals or bringing in adjudicators to critique the group. I would tell students at the start of rehearsal, “We have some guests watching tonight, so let’s see what we’ve got.” Students of all ages usually want to impress who is in front of them. Changing the atmosphere of who we’re practicing for is a good psychological tactic.

Gerry Miller: Clean performances stand out to me, but the most memorable ones are those that convey emotion. There is a point at which the students move from a routine where they just go through the motions to really investing and communicating with the audience. This is difficult for wind players, who should focus on marching and playing a very clean show, but for other sections the opportunities for emotional communication are endless. When the color guard, front ensemble, and battery percussion show emotional intensity the show will be special. It does not have to be at the state marching contest; it might happen at a Friday night football game. It may only happen for two or three phrases, but it is important to point it out when we see it. Let students know they weren’t just playing and moving their feet out there, they were saying something to the audience without having to use words. Those are the shows the students remember over the years. We aim for that anywhere, even in a rehearsal at a last runthough.

Stephanie San Roman: It comes down to quality. Regardless of what the show theme is, students should be playing musically with good tone quality, and the visual aspect should enhance the music rather than detract from it.   

Timothy Todd Anderson is director of the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band.
Duane Chun has taught at Buena High School in Sierra Vista, Arizona for 21 years.
Mark Hosler is associate professor of music at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Gerry Miller is director of bands and Fine Arts Department chairman at Justin Wakeland High School in Frisco, Texas.
Anthony Pursell is assistant professor and director of bands at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas.
Stephanie San Roman is director of bands at Oswego (Illinois) High School.