It is that time of year again! That time when band directors and their staff members are gathering together to begin the process of selecting the marching band show. During these meetings, idea after idea will be presented and discussed in hopes of finding the best show for the season. But the overall success or failure of these selections is not understood until the season is complete in October or November. In order to set up the students for success, there are several key areas that band directors and their staff members should consider before making the final selections.
What do you want your students to be able to do at the end of the year? This is a question that often does not get asked in March while putting show ideas together, but one that must be. The marching band season, while lasting for several months, should be considered part of the overall band program and not separate from concert band. The sound concepts and performance ideas ought to be aimed to the ultimate goal of year end growth and not just the last contest of the marching band season. The standard of performance need to be set from day one of the marching season and expressed daily.
Know your students. The shows designed for our students should reflect their abilities. Consider the ensembles strengths and weaknesses throughout the entire process. For example, if endurance is a problem for your brass, work on long tones and lip slurs, but also consider utilizing them less in the show by featuring another section. If you have a saxophone section that can play rippin’ jazz solos, show them off! If your French horns are weak, but your Euphoniums are strong, consider doubling their parts together in the score.
As important as knowing your students’ abilities is understanding their collective culture. Some musical selections fit your ensemble better than others. I can recall a year that, when wanting to perform some swingin’ jazz tunes, I found that modern rock compositions from the Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy felt musically and emotionally natural. Additionally, I worked with two different ensembles that performed the same music by Phillip Sparke. One ensemble performed the parts well and it felt comfortable, while the other seemed never to provide the energy needed to succeed even though they performed it well.
Know your community. This is probably the most overlooked concept when selecting a show. Each community’s traits may require special consideration for your performances. Performing a show that is artistically pleasing to students, contest adjudicators, and a football audience is a challenge; however, if we want more support, finding selections that fit the community should be considered. As support builds, find ways to educate your audience as well. When speaking with Alfred Watkins (who was the band director at Lassiter High School in Marietta, Georgia) many years ago, I asked how he got to the point to where his students could perform John Barnes Chances’ “Symphony No. 2” on the football field. His reply was enlightening:
“It took lots of time, and I don’t just mean this season. This school opened in 1981, and I started in 1982. I had to teach the students and the audience. We didn’t play classical music on the field at first – we had to build support from the audience. Once they started to support and enjoy what we were doing, and we as the ensemble improved, I could push the envelope a bit. Now, we can perform anything because our students are capable and our audience understands what we do.”
Know your season. Each school’s marching band season is different. Some ensembles perform only a few contests and end in mid October. Other schools attend state and national competitions that go into November and in venues like Lucas Oil Stadium or MetLife Stadium. Understanding the level of competition, the length of the season, and the places you will perform should guide your selections. Longer season require shows that have more challenges as being too easy could lead to a lack of learning later in the season. Shows during shorter seasons, while still being demanding, should not be too challenging, as the students may get a sense of failure and not progressing.