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.

Marching Band Show selection

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.

J Corey Francis, Indiana State University

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.

Hello world!

Welcome to my new page! I am very excited to start this resource that is dedicated to music performance in concert and marching bands. It is my hope that some of the ideas and concepts presented will assist you and the programs you associate with regularly. Enjoy and leave comments!