Music Fundamentals for High School Marching Band Survey

After adjudicating music and music effect in several festivals this year, I am curious about practices in teaching music fundamentals in marching band.

The marching band season is winding down and directors are focusing on polishing shows for the final performances. Hours and hours of rehearsals are culminating into one last run through. Still, marching bands are part of the overall music education program for most schools.

With the amount of time and energy used during the marching season, opportunities abound in teaching music fundamentals. Work on air, tone, intonation, and articulation is important; however, many directions focus on cleaning the visual aspects of the show and not aligning notes and rhythms as much during this time of year.

I will be honest, this season has been better than other seasons in terms of musical performances. There is more uniformity in the execution of techniques. It got me thinking.

How much time are directions spending on music fundamentals? What types of exercises are they using? Is there an arrangement available for purchase or are directors creating their own?

So, I created this survey. It is a very basic survey, consisting of only 10 questions. Honestly, it should take no more than 3 minutes to complete. No personal information is needed, and there is no way for me to identify who submits which answers.

Create your own user feedback survey

I ask for your honest answers. Please, spend three minutes and help me see what groups are doing.

 

Three ways to increase music effect in marching band

Music effect greatly impacts your marching band’s overall performance. Three simple concepts will ensure your ensemble is getting the most out of every note.

The fall marching season has reached its mid-point. In some states, there are three weeks left for competitions. Other groups are performing well into November. Marching Bands should be performing their entire shows and making adjustments to cleaning their drill. While the visual aspect often requires most of our instructional attention, the music must get out attention.

Hopefully, you are no longer fighting the battle of notes and rhythms and can continue working on the nuances and details. After several weeks of adjudication in Kentucky, Tennesee, and Mississippi, Thankfully, there are some quick concepts that will help your group increase their music effect scores and overall performance.

Give me three step

  1. Hierarchy of impacts: As with any piece of music, your marching show has multiple impacts. There is likely one towards the beginning of show, a few through the middle, and one larger impact to close the program. The problem is each impact sounds the same. By labeling each moment by numbers (ideally 1-10), you assign priority. This also helps create ways to bring emphasis through dynamic contrast. Your students will understand the importance of these moments and execute them better.
  2. Move the dial each phrase. While every line has their dynamic markings, contrast inside each line brings more interest and excitement. Encourage your ensemble to perform each line with an idea of direction. Where is the phrase going? What is its important moment? Identifying these moments and leading to them with crescendos will draw audiences and judges in. It doesn’t have to be a major difference, but explore the different levels of mezzo-forte or forte. Or, dare I say, mezzo-piano.
  3. The back end of articulations is just as important as the start. Often times, our ensembles excel at matching timing and initiations of notes, but will not treat the releases in the same way. This could be due to slacking in the airstream or making notes too short. Take time to focus on the back end of notes, matching timing and style.

Five ways to improve individual practice

Finding individual practice time is crucial to any musician, thus making the most of your time is important. Here are five ways to improve practice time.

If you are a musician, you know the importance of individual practice time. If you are in school, your ensemble leader or private instructor likely nags you about finding more time in the practice room. It can be hard to find enough time, therefore making the most of the time you have crucial.

The way you practice matters as much as the amount of time. Maybe more. And there is not “one-size fits all” method. Many of us make similar mistakes which impedes progress in our performance. Playing a piece from beginning to end, for example, each and every time does little to correct the issue found in measure 52. Doing the same thing over and over again expecting difference results is said to be the definition of insanity. I don’t know about you, but not making progress in my practice is rather frustration.

As the school year enters its final months, here are five ways to improve your individual practice time.

Better Practice Time

1. Make a plan: Before you begin, create a plan. Layout the music you are working in front of you and figure out what passages need the most work. Write down what the biggest concern is, including why. For example, “the second beat in measure 52 includes four sixteenth notes and crosses the break.” Knowing the what and why will bring focus.

2. Go slow: Just because the tempo says  Allegro does not mean you have to work on it at that speed. Repetitive, slow practice builds technique and memory. Set the metronome between 60 and 72 and play everything slowly. You will soon find where your tempo fluctuates. Slow works cures  all.

3. Create a routine: Having a set routine improves focus. Start your time with some breathing exercises or even meditation. Then, spend time warming up and on technical etudes. Establishing  routine can lead to better practice times.

4. Record yourself: We listen to recordings of others and wish to sound like them. But, when was the last time your listened to yourself? For most of us, the only time you hear yourself play is when you are practicing by yourself. Recording to yourself and listening to that recording provides a medium for assessing your tone, rhythm, pitch, and musicality. Take the time to listen to yourself play.

5. Reflect: At the end of the day, reflect back on your time. Write down your thoughts on what went well and things which could have been better. Think over every part of your practice and compliment yourself on improving. Sometimes, the only compliment will be “good job for practicing today,” because our practicing was rough. No matter what, end your reflection with a positive thought.

Try these items over the next few weeks. The results will not be immediate, but you will find your practice time more enjoyable.

Rehearsal with your ensemble with a plan in mind

Each rehearsal provides an opportunity for your ensemble to improve. To make rehearsal more effect, each activity must have a purpose.

Rehearsal. They can be the highlight of our day or leave us dreading the next day. It is the time which we get to do what we love the most: teach music. However, with all the distractions – paperwork needing to be done, meetings with the administration about budgets, planning for a trip – we can often find ourselves “winging it” when it comes time to rehearse. We throw things together and pray it works.

Sometimes, we get lucky and the rehearsal goes well. Other times, not so much.

There is a problem with rehearsals. It often lacks a “why.” We all have the ultimate goal of improving whatever piece of music that happens to be in the folder. The music becomes the focus. A worthy goal, but is it enough?

Certainly, we all have a plan – a routine – in which we incorporate every rehearsal. It may include scales, long tones, chorales and the like. What is the purpose of these activities?

Understand the “why”

Everything we do in a rehearsal must have a purpose, and the students need to understand why it is worth doing. The “warm-up” needs to be part of the overall plan for the day and the year. Each piece performed should lead to meeting the plans you have for your students over the years you will teach them.

When planning a rehearsal, I often think about my work during individual practice. You know, all those hours we were told to work in a practice room in college.

  1. Breathing/Stretching: preparing the body and calming the mind to focus. Give the students a chance to clear their mind of the math test they just finished.
  2. Long tones: This is not just to warm-up the instrument, but a chance to build the best tone quality possible. Simply playing through a few notes without assess the sounds being produced does nothing to help you play the compositions in the folder.
  3. Technical exercises: This does not have to scale, but there should be something to help get the fingers moving. If you have to perform a piece with 16th note passages for any of your players, find a way to work on and teach how to achieve success. START SLOW and WORK WITH A METRONOME! But, teach your students how to practice.
  4. Sight-reading: How often do we practice sight reading? For some groups, it can feel like every day if your students don’t practice at home. But there is extreme value in sight reading: it provides fresh chances for your student to process unknown music, which leads to quicker reading and understanding on concert repertoire.
  5. Now, the music. Be focused, and assess based on the things introduced in previous activities. If students are not playing with the tone quality standard set, (kindly) remind and encourage them to meet that standard. Treat the technical passages in the music like practiced previously. Make the connection from “warm-up” to music.

It sounds simple and maybe you do this every day. I encourage you to keep asking “why” you are doing each activity. And make sure your students know it as well.

Indoor activity is changing marching band show design

Change can be a good thing. The creativity used in designing indoor guard and percussion shows has made its way onto the marching field.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Thus states Albert Einstein. Our thinking changes through experience, reading, and observation. Sometimes, changes are forced upon us due to circumstances. Or, change can just be a natural procession.

Over the last decade, marching band has witnessed significant changes in terms of design. While many directors will never fully embrace these new concepts, adopting a few would be wise. I certainly fall into the group which does not like all the new concepts.

What is causing all the changes? It is rather simple: indoor guard and percussion. Ensembles involved in Winter Guard International and other circuits are finding new ways to create drama and use all the design elements to generate effect. With their limited space on a basketball court, it becomes important to think outside the box in order to communicate your show to the audience.

The indoor activity has become theatrical. I do not use the term as an insult, though some people do. The ensembles are pulling ideas from the stage to build interesting and emotional performances. Props, costuming, blocking and staging, casting for characters. These ideas and more are being used inside.

And now, they are coming outdoors.

Marching bands are starting to draw more design concepts from the indoor activity. Sure, Bands of America has been around since 1975, but the progression of the activity is largely due to what happens indoors. The question is which of these changes should be incorporated into your program. Not all of the concepts are adaptable to every program. Nor are they cost effective.

Here are a few concepts I recommend incorporating.

  1. Tell a story: Music music and visual, tell a story. All parts need to work toward the drama production, from the music to the flags to the drill. Make your marching band a bit more theatrical.
  2. Useful props: Many groups incorporate props into their shows, but finding a way to make them integral into parts of your program is needed. Use them as platforms for a soloist, or an interactive piece that changes with your show.
  3. Levels of the body: By changing the height of body positions can add visual tension or impact to the music. This can be accomplished by laying down, squatting, or leaning.
  4. Staging: How you place your ensemble on the performance field is crucial. If the trumpet section is performing the most important content, they must be highlighted on the field. This could be by placing them in the center of the field in full view of the audience, or by grouping them together in a tight form off to the side while others move around them.Gone are the days of isolating the on-field percussion and guard/auxiliaries.  All parts of the ensemble can and should be mixed in the formations on the field.
  5. Casting of Characters: This one can be a challenge, but it just as necessary. Too many times I have witnessed ensembles trying to portray a character but the actors or actresses fall very short through their actions. If you are going to perform a show about James Bond, the actions on the field must fully evoke that image. Posture should be tall and elegant, and motions should be quick and exaggerated. Simply wearing a costume and moving around the field is not enough.

What about other ideas?

Good question. For me, they are optional or not needed.

Electronics are great for adding effects and percussion colors to your program, but amplifying top-performers in your ensemble to help your overall ensemble sound is over the top.

Getting new uniforms and costumes every single year is expensive. Not every marching band can afford such things.

Tarps can add great impact to your show, but can also be an obstacle in which performers lose footing and trip over. Or, it can be blown by the winds of Central Illinois on a brisk October afternoon.

The most important part of all this is doing what works for your marching band. If you can afford new uniforms, get them. Maybe start with the staging and story-telling concepts. Add as you move along. But the days of three tunes and one are in the review mirror.