Which is more important? The score or the score?

Marching band contest season is upon us. Bands from all over the country will travel to festivals or contest and compete against other schools. Judges will provide feedback and (hopefully) thoughts on how the ensemble can improve. Trophies or plaques are handed out and parents will cheer. Some students will be disappointed in the “opinions” of the judges and the score provided, while others will celebrate. This will happen every weekend between now and Thanksgiving.

Now, do not get me wrong. As a student, I bought into the power of the trophy. Hearing the name of my school called as “champion” or in “first place” made me smile. I was competitive – I wanted us to be the best. There was a time that my band director threw trophies in the trash due to the results of a contest. Looking back at all of it now, I placed value in pieces of plastic and not in the people around me.

Many directors take to social media to express opinions of festival results. Phrases like, “I am so proud of my students. They worked hard and placed (fill in the blank)….” or “rough run today,” are posted often. It is not just marching season, however. Similar posts come after the completion of concert band evaluations. And while there is nothing truly wrong with bands “making straights I’s” at a festival, we are missing the point.

Participating in musical ensemble is far more than just the score provided by a panel of judges. Emphasis on the musical score is necessary. Are your students performing music of merit, something that will challenge them both in personal proficiency and musical ability? Or are they provided opportunities for musical learning beyond just their concert or marching band music?

Two things to improve the “score” from festivals:


As a band director, understand your student’s musical ability and celebrate that success. If you know that your students often struggle with intonation, but during a performance that issue improved, let them know! Tell them you heard their success and ask how that moment felt to them. It is surprising how celebrating something small encourages more musical success.

Numbers are great because they are tangible. We can point to the assessed score as the grade. But, what earned the grade? The students’ performance. The problem with the score is that it does not reflect the true achievement of the ensemble. Directors, you know the day-in and day-out of the ensemble’s performance. You understand their struggles and the successes. If we make it about the score (points) and not the score (the music), we diminish their effort.

Directors, please, emphasize the music you task your students with making over the score from the judges. I witnessed bands come off the field feeling great about their performance only to be crushed after their placement was announced. They knew their performance was one of their best. The judges do not know that. They only see the one or two performances that day.


Judges need to be careful of their feedback. Yes, we are to assess what we hear and see, but we need to make sure our comments refer to the “next steps” for the ensemble’s success. Too many tapes lack true educational substance.

If you say “that impact just didn’t do anything,” state why and how to improve. For example, say “The impact you just performed can be more effective. For me, there was too much difference in volume between the measure before and the moment of impact. Make sure to exaggerate the crescendo more into impact and do not breathe before the impact.”

At the end of the day, there is some worth to music festivals. The students get to performance and receive feedback from other music educators. The effects on the program are detrimental when people emphasize the score (number) over the score (music). It is better to have a room full of students than have a room full of trophies.

Classification System: Time for a Change?

Classification systems for marching contests are never the same from event to event. Some contests organize be the number of performers in the woodwind, brass, and percussion. Others use the total number of performers on the field. And still others classify solely on the size of the student population at the school. In some states, there is a governing body that establishes one system to be used in all contests. Other states (Illinois, for example) allow each contest to set their own system, which means one week an ensemble could be in Class A then Class AAA the next. While each of the systems incorporated have their benefits, balance is never achieved.

Classification by Instrumental Members

Pro: Focused on musical/instrumental performers, allowing for consistency in volume

Con: Neglects the importance of auxiliaries and drum majors to the performance; Classification can be changed if members of the color guard or drum majors perform on an instrument at any point.

Classification by Total Band Size

Pro: Accounts for all members of the ensemble. Equal consideration for music and visual members.

Con: Some programs audition members to keep within certain classification levels. Additionally, larger classifications tend to have a large disparity of band sizes (for example, Class 4A in Kentucky use to be 120+ members, meaning groups of 120, 164, 225, 300, and higher could compete against each other), and resources available to programs can be widely different.

Classification by School Size

Pro: Programs from schools of a similar school size often draw similar financial resources.

Con: Bands sizes can vary dramatically. In some cases, bands of 40 members total can compete against those of 140 or more.

How can we achieve balance?

Each of the above systems are established and utilized regularly. But, what if there was a way to create a system that took the benefits of each and diminished their weaknesses? Is there a way to take the best of these systems and merge them into something that is more balanced?

While I was Assistant Director of Bands at Eastern Illinois, running the Panther Marching Band Festival was one of my main tasks. During my first year, I kept with the standard “Band Size” classification system already in place. What immediately worried me was the fact that bands from schools of 400 students were competing against those with 2000 students. The amount of resources (whether financial or talent) in which the schools could pull from were not equal. This is not saying that the bands did not perform well, because they did. However, when you see a band with three staff members and one with 14, the imbalance is apparent. For my following years at EIU, I incorporated a hybrid system. The structure was as follows:

Small Division (School Size of 799 or Less)

Class A (Total Ensemble Size of 40 or less)
Class AA (Total Ensemble Size of 41-79)
Class AAA (Total Ensemble Size of 80+)

Large Division (School Size of 800+)

Class AAAA (Total Ensemble Size of 89 or less)
Class AAAAA (Total Ensemble Size of 90+)

This system worked really well during the years it was implemented. Band directors enjoyed that fact that their ensembles were matched with other programs from more similar backgrounds. Adjudicators enjoyed the fact the bands flowed better together without large jumps in size, allowing for more even comparisons for scoring. Each class held 6-7 ensembles, which provided a balance for the entire event.

Was the system perfect? No. There were still bands of 140 (there was a band in which 40% of the school population was in marching band!!!!!!) in a class with a ensemble of 90, but the disparity was less apparent. The goal was to diminish the difference and generate a balanced contest. That goal was reached. Directors and adjudicators (including those with DCI and BOA experience) enjoyed the system. This could end the Band Size v. School Size debate.

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.