Over the past several years, I have served as an adjudicator of marching festivals throughout the southern part of the nation. Through this experience, I have watched hundreds of ensembles and found common concerns in a vast majority of their performances. This series, entitled “View from the Judge’s Box,” is designed to share those common areas of performance interest and help you plan for your upcoming season. Today’s view is focused on music.
Music Impact Points
The most common points I make when adjudicating music captions are focused on impact points, and there are several reasons for this. First of all, many ensembles will attempt to crescendo into important moments in the music but, when arriving at the impact point, the effect is lost. This is due to either arriving at the desired volume too soon (crescendo to forte and staying there at impact) or a dramatic increase in volume at the moment of impact (crescendo to mezzo-forte then a sudden fortissimo). In order for musical impacts to sound more organic, ensembles should consistently build to and through the moment of impact. A great visualization is the volume control on a stereo. On a stereo, the volume is often labelled by numbers, and there is a noticeable difference between one setting to the next. Ensembles can think of their crescendos and impacts in these terms as well. If the impact point is at a 7 (for example), the ensemble should build from 5 through 6 to the 7, achieving the desired volume at the right moment.
Secondly, ensembles will often take a breath or leave a gap between the end of the build or crescendo and the moment of impact. Leaving a gap between is like pressing pause, ruining the desired effect. To avoid this, directors should train musicians to stagger-breathe during the crescendo without losing intensity, allowing the performers to sustain through the build and impact.
There is one more issue I have noticed regarding impact points. Many times, they all sound the same. There is little to no difference in the level of intensity throughout the performance. Directors (and this works for all staff members, including visual), take the time to assign levels of importance to each impact using numbers. For example, there should be only one or two impacts in your show that get to a 9 or 10 level. Other moments are only a 7 or 8. By delineating the difference between each moment, you will notice improved musicality from your ensemble’s performance. (This also works for concert performance).
There are Dynamics Lower than Mezzo-forte
Contrary to popular belief, dynamics of mezzo-piano and piano are possible in marching band. The main problem is that we (I know I have been guilty of this in the past as well) use phrases such as “play with more air” or “if you want the judges to hear you….” leading students to translate that to “play louder!” That is not what we always mean or is needed. It is musically appropriate to play at a volume that requires the adjudicators to lean out the window a bit to hear the performance. Great sound is great sound all the time, and if we teach proper use of air and good quality tone, the students will be rewarded in score and in emotional performance (which SHOULD be the goal, but that is another topic for another day).
Percussion ensembles, this goes for you as well. Many times the battery sections of the percussion will over-perform the winds in volume, especially when performing at lower dynamics. Find ways to match the full ensemble volume by either lowering the stick heights, moving the sticks away from the center of the drum head and toward the rim, or eliminating notes in the music. One of the main contributors to the volume disparity between percussion and winds is the overall “notey-ness” of the percussion parts. More notes leads to faster hands, leading to louder volumes, and then to the Dark Side.
Balance in the Ensemble
Lastly, the balance of the ensemble should be continually considered. Often times, especially leading into impacts or when a section is being featured, one performer will be the “hero” and overplay the rest of the performers. Or, with the desire to amplify front ensembles, the woodwind and brass are drowned out by the volume of the sound system. Careful attention must be given to the balance of each section and ensemble as a whole. Work with your brass players to blend sounds and listen to other performers around them. Additionally, speaker placement and volume should match the performing venue as best as possible. When performing in a smaller stadium, facing speakers toward the outside of the seats or moving them further way from 50 yard line will help clarity of full ensemble. If allowed, train and station a student at the sound board to assist in controlling the amplified volume.