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.

Friend-raise before you fundraise

Cheese and sausage. Fruit, especially oranges. Cheesecakes. Car Washes. Concessions at athletic events. Magazines. Craft festivals. What do all of these things have in common? They are fund-raisers that every band director has either done or considered. We know these events are required in order to supplement the programs in which we work, but how successful are they in reality?

We have also stated our desire to see more people attend concerts or other music department events. We can advertise, send letters home, sell tickets, and drag people off the street but these numbers will not improve until we can do one thing effectively:

Friend-raise: Build relationships with people in our communities by showing support for them WITHOUT asking for anything in return.

Show genuine support of other programs

This can be a slippery slope, but one I feel we must traverse. If we want to have access to the football field for a rehearsal or if we do not want to see a kicker on the field during halftime, we must build a mutual respect for athletic teams and officials. As an avid sports fan, this has never been difficult for me. I love to chat with coaches about strategy, player attitudes, and recruiting. But, in order to get an audience with coaches, I showed support for them.

One day during band camp, I will take the band over to the football team’s practice and play a few songs for them. Before a big away game, students would volunteer to perform as a pep band as the team got on the bus. Many times, alumni donors and university officials would see the action and come talk to the students and show support. Those alumni would often donate money to the marching band and the University President to the overall music program.

The issue with this is that you may get asked to do more. What I have found, however, is that I had more room to decline because I was already doing more than expected.

J Corey Francis, Indiana State University
Butler University and Indiana State University performing together on Sept. 11, 2011.

Be visible to the community

When the community has something going on, be involved. Ask the leaders of a 5k or 10k race in your community if you can place groups of students towards the end of the course to play participants across the line. The students can cheer the runners on when no playing music. One group I worked with even sang “Happy Birthday” to “that guy” as he passed by (they did not know his name, but he said it was his birthday).

Being visible does not only mean playing. If there as a food bank in your community, challenge other band programs in your area in a contest to see which group can raise the most. Then, deliver the food as a group. Or, volunteer to help deliver Thanksgiving meals to those in need. Find a day that students can help serve at a shelter for those in need or animals.

Sure, all of this sounds planned and self-serving, but I honestly believe the students will learn life-long lessons through this type of service when genuine.

Publicize activities constantly

We all have iPhones or the Samsung Galaxy (or some sort of smart phone…). Taking pictures of your students at any event in which they participate and sending them to the local paper can show the community that you are more than a marching band.

Find ways to show all the extra things your students do well through pictures. Cheering on the football team? Take a picture! Playing at the nursing home? Take a picture! Auditioning for college, or performing in solo and ensemble, or working with an amazing instructor in a master class? Take a picture! Then, with permission of the parents and school, send them to the newspaper or post them on website or social media for the community to see.

Once you have spent time showing the your town that the ensemble is part of their community, they will support you and your students. This does not happen over night, but slow, thoughtful, and genuine work will bring results. Just like practicing. Get to know your community, and your community will get to know you.

Taking a lesson from Jake Arrieta

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs. I have been watching them play baseball since the mid-1980s, which means I have experience the roller coaster ride of the “Lovable Losers.” I have seen players come and go, heard Harry Carey talk about hats and beer, and watched the debacle that was the 2003 NLCS.

Unless you are a sports fan that has been living under a rock, you know that Jake Arrieta is the unbelievable pitcher on the Cubs current roster. His stats over the last two seasons have been stellar, including over 50+ innings of shutout baseball while pitching at Wrigley Field (which came to an end on 4/28), two no-hitters in his last 11 regular season starts, and an earned run average of 0.85 (for those that do not know, average ERA for baseball is 3.96). However, Arrieta has not always been this successful. Before coming to the Cubs via trade in 2013, Jake was demoted to the Minor Leagues by the Baltimore Orioles. He had great opening day starts for the Orioles in 2011 and 2012, but not much success after that. In 2012, his win/loss record was 3-9, with an ERA of 6.13.

What does this have to do with music? Many musicians, especially those in college, know all too well the struggles of working hard and not seeing the success we would hope. We spend hours in the practice room and in ensembles working on our craft, but progress can be slow. Sometimes, we find quick success but then hit a wall and progress comes to a halt. Jake Arrieta was the Mountain West Conference Pitcher of the Year in 2012, with 14 wins and a 2.35 ERA. The talent was there, but success did not come immediately in professional baseball. The talent has been there, even when the execution was not.

What we can take from Jake’s situation is his attitude and his work ethic and preparation. (Check out this feature on

Photo Credit The Fields Church
Photo Credit The Fields Church

There is no “one-size fits all” practice routine

Jake Arrieta’s daily workout is not your typical baseball player routine. In order to isolate and work the muscles required to execute pitching mechanics, Jake has incorporated Pilates. In order to help Jake, the Cubs purchased Pilates equipment and put it in their training facilities. While Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant may be lifting weights, Jake is putting his body through positions that encourage balance and strength.

For musicians, we can take this idea and use it for our own daily routines. Our teachers may encourage us to practice certain exercises, but there may be ones that suit our abilities better. Instead of playing scales in a short range or in the same rhythm each and every time, I use to practice them full range of my instrument in quarter notes, eighths, eighth-note triplets, and sixteenths. I found that this repetition work great for evenness in technique. Also, I structured my practice into a timed routine so that I did not get bogged down on one exercise or composition in which I was working. And, finally, I added in time away from the instrument withing my routine. This included vocally matching pitch to a piano, breathing exercises, or just closing my eyes for a few minutes to relax.

Stretching is important

Music is a physical activity, just like baseball and other sports. However, never have I been in a lesson or ensemble (other than marching band) that required me to stretch my muscles. Sure, many educators will do breathing exercises and have students twist or stretch their torso, but what about arms, neck, shoulders, and fingers? All of these muscular areas are vital to strong performance in music and, therefore, should be stretched and conditioned each day. Arm circles, stretching triceps, and hand tension/relaxation exercises will go a long way in performance improvement.

The right exercise equipment matters

Just like Jake uses Pilates equipment for his exercises, the right tools are necessary for us to improve as musicians. Always practice with a metronome, as it never lies about how you are performing  rhythmically. I also encourage using a pitch sounding source and not a tuner in practice. When we are performing, we do not have time to stop and check Concert F on our instrument and are forced to listen to others around us. Practicing with a sounding source will help train your ears and brain to make the needed adjustments and also educate you on how you perform in various keys. A popular resource is Tonal Energy, which is available on smartphones in the app store. This application can isolate single pitches, cluster of notes in various octaves, generate sounds for each instrument, and can serve as a metronome. Plus, it is portable and easily plugs into a speaker system.

Struggles will come, no matter what

Fact: struggles will find you. It does not matter if you work hard or not, if you have all the talent in the world, or if you have been successful in the past. Arrieta was a very successful pitcher in college, but when he made it to the majors, he struggled tremendously. So much so that the team  traded him to the Cubs (who were the worst team in MLB in 2013). He keep working, training, and trying……..


And in 2015, he won the Cy Young Award for the National League (that is the award for best pitcher).