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.


Ensemble Director: More focus on fundamentals brings higher performance levels

While the focus for ensemble directors is often a long-term goal, regular focus on the fundamentals of playing bring higher levels of performance.

The struggle is real. As ensemble directors, we get focused on what pieces to perform for our next concert and want to put together a great program. We try to mix some challenging pieces in with something fun. We hope to entertain the audience. And, we pray our students are up to the task.

While going through this process, there are moments that give us pause. Can the clarinet section get this section of 16th notes that cross the break? Will the ensemble learn this 5/8 section? There are always questions crossing our minds as we select literature.

But, the answer to these questions is always the same. Spend time on fundamentals.

Monday Morning QB

Fact: I love sports. Something sports related is often on my television or tablet. Three pre-sets on my car radio are sports-talk stations. I even write articles for two sports pages.

One of my favorite shows in all of sports information is ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike. The comedic banter combined with the insights on the games I love make this show enjoyable to me. And, now that it is football season, guests from around the game are brought in to provide additional analysis. This includes former Indianapolis Colt (my favorite football team), Jeff Saturday.

This morning, while discussing offensive line play, Saturday said that we have moved to discussing scheme instead of coaching fundamentals and techniques.

The scheme and plays are important, but execution falters when fundamentals suffer.

I wanted to stand and applaud.

The same is true to music performance. Performing at the highest levels means having a solid fundamental and technical foundation. However, most ensemble directors breeze through the exercises that build these areas.

Best time spent

I recall a story told to me from a former jazz ensemble director about famous trumpeter Doc Severinson. The story goes like this: After a concert, one that featured Severinson for at least two hours, the artist returned to his room backstage. When there, he proceeded to play longtones. This lasted for about an hour. When someone finally entered Severinson’s room to ask about what he was doing, the reply was simple. “Somewhere out there, someone else wants my job.”

While I cannot prove the story to be true, the point is clear. The best work on fundamentals.

Long tones are paramount to success. The most important part of music production is the sound we create. Performing long-tone exercises builds consistency is generating the vibrations needed to produce a clear, full tone. It doesn’t matter if it band, orchestra, or choir. Sound matters. This must be done daily.

Technical work should be done daily as well. I don’t mean simply scales in a given pattern. I mean technical etudes. There are books out there for full ensemble technical work. My personal favorite is Foundations for Superior Performance, but you may find another resource that works.

Teach rhythm! Yes, I said it! Teach rhythm to you students. They can’t play in 5/8 if you never work with them on it. And, it must be done consistently as well.

Related Read: Let the Beginner you join the fun

Honestly, I know time is precious to ensemble directors; however, spending 20 minutes in fundamentals daily will lead to better performances abilities. That means more challenging music. Which, to most, leads to more fun playing.

And that is what this is supposed to be. Fun.

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.

6 Things You Learn in Music Class

For years the debate has raged on regarding the need for schools to focus on academics areas, such as math and science, over classes in the arts. While I do understand the need to improve in areas of deficiency (and am not diminishing their importance), the lessons learned in band and choir (I was never in orchestra in high school, but I am certain these lessons were taught) have been more valuable in my daily life.

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Strong Work Ethic: Music, when done well, requires hard work. Practicing on one short phrase or section could be required in order for the “correct answer” to be achieved.

These Is Not Always a “Correct Answer”: Speaking of “correct answer,” these are often a subjective matter in music class, and rarely are they answer replicated or achieved in the same manner.

No “I” in Team: Music demands a team effort. The performance of the whole ensemble depends on the efforts of all members. You have to work together, pay attention, adjust what you are doing to coordinate with others, and share the credit. In other classes, your grade does not effect my grade (for better or worse).

Diversity is Celebrated: In music classes, there are soprano, altos, tenors, and basses. There are flutes, saxophones, percussion, French horns, English horns, trumpets, cellos, viola……you get the idea. It is a community of instruments or voices, all performing different parts, at the same time and place. Oh, and people from all demographics can participate.

Being the Best is Challenging: In music, if you want to be good, you have to work hard. Once you are good, you can be on first part. You can audition for All-District or other Honor Bands. If you keep working, you can be first chair. You can participate in All-State, Solo and Ensemble, or audition for a competition. But then, there is probably someone else that is working just as hard and wants to be just as good. It is much like a career: work hard to be effective, do well and get promoted but earn more work.

Music is science, mathematics, and history: Let’s not forget this. Music requires understanding of creating waves and manipulating them in time and space. It is knowing fractions, division, multiplication, addition and being able to calculate this vast formulate over a specific time frame. And, music is about knowing cultures and historic events, and being able communicate them through use of science and math…….with a group of others that understand science and math.

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.