View from the Judge’s Box, Part 3: Effect

In this week’s volume of “View from the Judges’s Box,” we address concerns with the overall flow and design of marching band shows. Over the years, there has been a shift from simply performing music and visual to the overall effect of the performance. The struggle with this view is that sometimes, groups do not focus on ensemble musical achievement but the complete package, often pushing ensemble members beyond their comfort zones. The goal of this article is to provide some ideas that will help improve the overall effect of your ensemble’s performance.

Stage Blocking

During the planning process, diagram staging options before writing drill (or having it written). When theater directors start looking through a script, they will block scenes and play choreography before setting foot on the stage. The bands that excel in effect will often do the same. Some directors will simply create a flowchart in Microsoft Excel with a phrase-by-phrase breakdown of all musical selections. In this chart, the will include counts of each phrase, the section of the ensemble to be highlighted, and musical intensity. This assists the drill writer in staging the ensemble and allowing groups to be featured  prominently. When clear staging is designed, effective movement can be generated. The designer can use the entire field. They can establish flow and provide moments of visual tension. The stage is set for success.

J Corey Francis, Eastern Illinois University Marching Band

Music and Visual Design Must Match

One of the major deficiencies I have noticed when judging General Effect is the music and visual designs do not match. In order for the overall impact of the performance to reach its pinnacle, the visual must enhance the music…..or music must match the visual.

Think about a great movie. For me, I default to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope or On the Waterfront. In movies, the musical score either enhances or detracts from screenplay. Darth Vader’s impact is only improved by Imperial March being performed when he appears. The mixed meters of Bernstein’s score to On the Waterfront plays well to set the tension of the overall theme of the movie. Even Wagner utilized this concept, which he called “leitmotif,” in his operas. Musical themes play a crucial role to the visual play on the screen or stage.

Similarly, the visual aspects of a marching show should enhance the musical performance of the ensemble and the score they are performing. Moments of musical tension can be increased by adding a visual crescendo. This could be a unison move across the field, a quick collapsing of a form into a tight interval, or using contrary motion within a form. Additionally, changing the timing of foot movement can be powerful. There are moments in many shows that have a fast, driving tempo in 4/4, but melodic content can feel in halftime. The musicians that are performing the melody can move their feet at speed of their music. This small change can draw the eye and ear to the important part and, thus, increasing effect.

Casting the Characters

Have you even watched the YouTube video featuring the voice of Darth Vader by the person in the costume? The voice is far less threatening than what James Earl Jones delivered. My ears akin it to how Rick Moranis played “Lord Helmet” in Spaceballs. Just like finding the right voice for Darth Vader, selecting the proper performers to play roles in your show is crucial.

Think of it this way: the students on the field are performers. Some can be lead actors, others may be supporting characters. But they are all performers. If you are doing a show incorporating James Bond movie themes and wish to use the character on the field, cast a lead actor that can perform the role with appropriate flare and charisma. If you are doing a show about boxing, select students that look like boxers. If they are going to throw a punch, throw a punch as if it was Rocky. This goes for soloists, guard features, drum line moments, and for the front ensemble.

The most important part of all of this is simply getting the performers to do one thing: perform. This activity can be musical theater. A great performance is one when all parts and players achieve excellence by working together and exuding high levels of energy. The music. The visual. The winds, percussion, and guard. All important parts individually, but greater when working in unison.

View from the Judges Box, Part 2: Visual

Part two of the series “View from the Judge’s Box,” brings us to a discussion about visual concerns during performances. While this topic could have several posts just on it’s own, let’s focus on a few concerns that, when addressed thoroughly, will benefit all.

Posture and Visual

Of course, we have to discuss posture, as it is the most crucial element visually and musically. Poor posture leads to collapsed rib cages and, thus, improper breath support. Visually speaking, posture effects everything from the performers’ step sizes, instrument carriage, and endurance. Proper posture is the foundation for everything we do and must be a daily focus for the performers.

When discussing posture, there are two main concepts to consider: alignment and relaxation. The latter of these is rather self-explanatory. The position of the body should feel relaxed, with no tension in the shoulders, back, chest, or legs. More tension means more air must be used in those muscles in order for them to work. The more the muscles work, the more tired the performers will become. With shows of high musical and visual demand, along with their increasing length, it is imperative that relaxation of the body be encouraged.

Alignment is also an easy topic to discuss, but harder to achieve on a regular basis. In my opinion (and in the opinion of my chiropractor) this is due the ever expanding reliance on technology. We sit at desks with computers, play video games, or have a smartphone attached to our hands at all times. These settings have forced our shoulders forward and put strain on the middle of our back. This is evident when performers put an instrument in their hands.

In order to produce proper alignment the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and “ears” should be in alignment. Technically speaking, instead of “ears,” we should strive to align the Atlanto-occipital (a/o) joint, which is where the spine and the skull meet. This joint is responsible for the nodding of the head, and is located just behind the ears. Thus, using the word “ears” when discussing the alignment of the body may be more readily understandable. When this alignment is achieved, the performers should feel a natural elongating of the body. Because of the difference between this posture and our technology-induced slumping, the new position will feel awkward and students will want to revert to their normal position. To practice this, perform some simple Pliés and Relevés while maintaining the ankle/hips/shoulder/ears alignment. The students will try to lean forward initially, but encourage moving the upper body straight up and down, and knees moving out over (not passed) the toes.


Photo Credit: Dynamic Marching
Photo Credit: Dynamic Marching

Instrument Carriage

The way performers carry their instruments is directly related to their posture. In order to maintain good posture, a uniform method for instrument carriage must be created. When instruments are not being played, performers should have 90 degree angles in the elbows. This mean that the elbows are bent at a 90 degree angle and create another 90 degree angle where the hands intersect. The combination of these two angles generate an open and relaxed carriage with the instrument away from the body. This carriage must be used for all movements and slide positions. (Note: On flute/clarinet, the hands are separated, but if they were together on the instrument a 90 degree angle would be produced. Saxophonist only follow the 90 degree angle in the elbow part.)

Body Movements

With the increasing focus on effect scores has come a reliance on extra body movements, especially when standing in place. While these movements may be visually appropriate, many are executing in a manner that negatively effects posture. For example, when asked to step to the right, raise the right arm, and lean to the right, students will often lean with the upper body instead of the legs. At no time should the posture of the upper body be compromised for additional body movements. All motions should extend away from the upper body and and lengthen in a way that does not allow the torso for lean and break posture.

Extension. That is another concern, in particular with Color Guard. Many times, groups will perform routines with a bent elbow and a lower arm angle. This, in turn, shows lack of energy in performance and will impeded choreography from moving fluidly. Also, small bends in elbows and arm angles on tosses will prevent the equipment from traveling straight and lead to poor catches or bad placement for the next move. Extending up and lengthening the arm will produce a straighter toss and move dramatic energy.

View from the Judge’s Box, Part 1: Music

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).

University of Southern Mississippi

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.

Summer Recharge Plan

School is out but, before you know it, you will be return to the office in preparation for marching band. It is important to take time away and recharge the mind and body over the summer. Recharging the musical soul is just as important. Here are some ways to prepare yourself and grow musically while on summer break:

Stay Away from the Office! – Easier said than done. One summer, I worked in my office at least 3 days week. The next fall was a struggle for me personally and musically. I felt tired and burnt out quickly. It showed in my teaching and in my arranging. If you must go to the office, limit your time and stick to a basic plan. Do not get caught up in other tasks and stay longer than you need.

Find a place to recharge!  Photo Credit: Shelley Kuhlmeyer
Find a place to recharge!
Photo Credit: Shelley Kuhlmeyer

Get Out of Town! – This sounds like a simple idea, but it is really effective. We live, work, and spend most of our time in one location throughout the year. We become blind to our surroundings and settle into routines. Getting away for a while, even for a day, will help you recharge and escape the monotony of daily life. Go to a baseball game, find a new place to eat, or discover a hiking trail along a river. Or, attend a conducting symposium. This will allow you to be around other musicians and study your craft!

Photo Credit Troy Bennefield
Photo Credit Troy Bennefield

Find a quiet place. – As music educators, we deal with noise constantly. Whether it is instruments playing, voices singing, metronomes blaring, or kids talking, there is always sound. Spend time over the summer in a place of quiet. Go to the mountain or find a safe place to sit and look over the landscape to recharge. Lay out on the shore of a lake or a beach. Find a quiet room with dim lighting and just breath. The silence can do wonders for your mind and soul.

Study a New Score. – When was the list time you bought a score and just sat down to study for pleasure? Okay, maybe never, but the study of a score is important to our jobs. Find a piece that you enjoy that you most likely would not do with your ensemble. Get a recording and listen to it while looking at the score one time, then dive in with a pencil and a cup of coffee. Look for the important motives, the structure, and styles. A few suggestions would be Jonathan Newman’s Symphony No. 1: My Hands are a City, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, or  Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy.

Listen to Good Music. – When is the last time you heard the Chicago Symphony play Mahler? Or, heard a choral work by Eric Whitacre sung by a professional group? Take time this summer to listen to great musicians making great music. Attending a live concert is preferred since we rarely get to sit in the audience and enjoy a performance.


Recruiting in 2016: Something old, something new

Recruiting in 2016 can be one of the most difficult tasks for college band directors. While there are several events directors attend in which they can meet prospective students, finding a variety of ways to keep your program in the mind of these students is important. Many directors are being creative in accomplishing this task, but some old practices work just as well. Here are a few ways that I have found successful over the years.

Phone Calls – While emailing students can be easier – mostly because you can email on your schedule and they can read on their schedule – it is less personal than a phone call. Additionally, I have found that high school students do not check their emails as often. Spending a evening making phone calls to students can be very effective. Many universities have call centers that are willing to allow you and some of your students to come in a perform a calling campaign. I encourage representatives from your program calling prospective students as they can answer more specific questions regarding the ensembles and requirements than admissions counselors (who are also vital to your efforts).

Work with Admissions Offices – Remember how I said that admissions counselors were vital to your efforts? Get to know them!  Make yourself known to them and give them information that prospective students require. Because of the relationships I built with counselors at previous positions, they would often call me when students were visiting campus. This allowed me to meet the students or set up a time for them to meet with a current band member. When it came to band events, counselors would often ask to assist or send materials. These relationships are crucial to meeting your program’s needs.

Get students to campus – The best way for prospective students to get an understanding of your program is to get them on campus. Invite them to concerts, honor band festivals, or other campus events. One of my favorite ways is to have student attend a football or basketball game and sit with current ensemble members. Many of the prospective students may not be music majors, and sitting with current members who represent the university as a whole will allow them to talk to each other and get a sense of group expectations.

Go to Prospective Students! – It is great to get out of the office every once in a while. It was my goal to visit at least one school a week. This not only allowed me to meet students but build relationships with band directors. The more often students see you, the more comfortable they will be when the attend classes. When you go, try to take some university memorabilia (check with your admissions office to see if they have anything) to hand out. This is the main reason I do not put dates/years on band t-shirts. You can hand out left over shirts!

Special Moments – Find ways to celebrate your current and future students. Have current members write a personalized postcard to prospective students or former band director. If the prospective student lives in the same or surrounding communities, put a sign in their yard. Do a “Letter of Intent” signing like you see with athletic teams and get the local media to come out. There are many ways to accomplish this, you just need to be creative.

Dr. Corey Francis with Mr. Dan Tripp and students from Paris HS (IL) for signing day.
Dr. Corey Francis with Mr. Dan Tripp and students from Paris HS (IL) for signing day.