Practicing your way to a successful season…..and year

How many times have you attended a marching band performance (whether it was a contest or a football game) then said “I wonder why they are always so good?” Or maybe it was something similar to that, but you were awestruck and wished your group performed that way. We often justify it by the amount we assume is in their budget, or the number of staff members they have, or the amount of hours they must work on their show music starting in March. What if I told you the answer is simple and, yet, we overlook it every day. It is the way we approach practice.

J Corey Francis at Evans High School Marching Band camp, 2004

(Go ahead, insert Allen Iverson’s voice here……”Not a game.  Not a GAME! We talkin’ ‘bout…..practice.)

Okay, call it rehearsal if you wish, but the idea is the same. The way we approach our rehearsal time is not structured toward success.  The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s were one of the dominant teams in NFL history, making it to eight straight playoffs and winning 4 of 6 Super Bowls. How? I believe the answer is explained best by Coach Chuck Noll when he said, “We are going to do the simple things better than everybody else.” Or at least, that is how Tony Dungy said it in his book “Quiet Courage.”  Think about it. Doing the things that everyone else does (for example, roll steps, drop spins, diddle strokes, etc.) the best you possibly can will set you apart. That has been the philosophy of many of the most successful people ever. Steph Curry, Tom Brady, and Jordan Spieth have all been featured in Under Armour commercials showing them performing basic exercises and repeating the phrase “day in, day out.” And, didn’t your private instructors in college encourage the same idea for our DAILY individual practice?

I get it. We are so concerned about getting the show on the field and performing that we skip over what is needed to get other things done. Yet, we will comment on poor execution of technique more than anything else during rehearsals. Everything we ask our students to do in the drill goes directly to what we set them up for in fundamental techniques. In order to “do the simple things better,” we must work on them daily. Or, as one of my favorite teachers would tell me, “Constant contact with the subject matter brings about true knowledge.”

Make time for fundamentals, daily: Our time in rehearsals can be brief and we therefore prioritize the performance over the practical. Because of this, many ensembles will skip doing diligent work on marching and music fundamentals. The time spent on fundamentals is important. For every 2 hours in rehearsal, at least 45 minutes should be spent in marching and music fundamentals. This time of rehearsal will not only reinforce the proper techniques, but also serves as a mental transition from other classes to ensemble performance.

Find a way to make your ensemble smaller: What? Do we not want as many students to participate as possible? Of course we do, but we also can provide more individual instruction to smaller groups. Train your student leaders on how to perform and instruct marching fundamentals. Then, your leaders can teach their sections or small groups. I have found that dividing my ensembles into sections, by woodwind/brass (for example), and allowing leaders to instruct not only gives your students more ownership, it also gives more individual attention to each student.

Be creative in your exercises: Doing 8’s and 8’s down the field gets mundane, yet the focus on step sizes, posture, horn angles, and roll steps are crucial. Finding new ways to teach the same things can be a fun way to keep the focus and energy up in your ensemble. The video series Dynamic Marching, created by Jeff Young at Carmel High School, has some fantastic routines for teaching fundamentals. Also, they provide a way for your ensemble to receive more individual attention by performing the exercises one line at a time. I highly encourage investing in these videos.

Sound sound concepts: Let’s face it. The sound of the ensemble should be a priority all year long. The way you approach the marching ensemble sound should be exactly the same way that you teach concert ensemble concepts. Air is crucial, and you can work on simple air exercises while performing marching fundamentals. Additionally, using idiomatic exercise for each instrument should be encouraged daily. This can include scales and octave/register slurs for woodwinds, lip slurs of various difficulties for brass, and various rolls in duple and triple for percussion.

More fundamentals means less drill: Yes, if you spend more time on fundamentals there will be less time available for actual show work. Making your rehearsals more efficient is a necessity and finding a flow can help learning. For me, I prefer this method:

  • Ensemble learns or performs a segment of drill and freeze, percussion and guard always perform music/routine.
  • I simply say “Check” (silently look around your part of the field and assess), wait 5 seconds
  • “Fix” (address the problems and fix, quietly). During this time, I will allow leaders to make some simple comments in order to help adjust forms
  • “Staff” (staff gets 10 seconds to make comments to their area)
  • “Tower” (I get 15 seconds to make a praise and a correction)
  • “Reverse” (turn around and do the move again, which encourages path and step size repetition)
  • Repeat process. (Forward, back, forward, back)
  • After second performance in “reverse” have ensemble stand still and play music
  • “Forward, full out” (all members perform all parts)

What I like about this routine is that it defines the process and how many times we as directors have students perform a certain segment. (Less saying “one more time!”) It also saves times, keeping the pace of the rehearsal consistent and leading toward progress. At the end of the rehearsal, I always leave time for at least one full run of the show.

Yes, we are talking about practice, Mr. Iverson. Practices are important, but how we practice is crucial. As my friend Troy Bennefield would always say, “Performance = Practice – Distraction.” Better, more effective practices lead to better performances and growth. This will set the standard for your ensemble daily, monthly, and yearly.

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