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.

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.

 

Marching Band: Three words we dread hearing

Three simple words. A short phrase we hear all the time in marching band. We hate it, especially when it is the one last time.

October is done. The marching band season is drawing to an end for many participants across the nation. Sure, there are still some contests and games left, but for all intents and purposes, the season is coming to a close.

For me, marching in high school and college were some of the best memories I have. The trips to and from other schools, spending time with my friends. These people were family to me, and I them. It has been 21 years since I marched my last time in high school. Seventeen years since my last game in college.

The memories. The “OId School” saxophone section from Racer Band. Riding through Washington D.C. on Inauguration night seeing all the parties that were going on. Even after the bus broke down a few time on the way. Singing “Hello, may name is Joe” to keep warm before the 1993 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Criss-cross block during the Fiery Latin Cooker right before booking it to the track.

But, it was the people – getting to know people, work together, and complete a performance – that mattered.

The worse part of marching band? One phrase: One more time.

How many times did we hear our directors say it in a rehearsal? And, after they would say it, we would perform the task only to hear the phrase again. “One more time” became the annoying statement lacking truth. I can still hear and feel the frustration rise up simply typing the words.

There was never just one more time.
Until it is the last time.

As you march your final steps this year or ever, smile. You are doing something amazing. Together with your band – your friends, directors, parents, boosters, community – you are performing something that will never be done again. That moment, with those people, will never be replicated.

You may remember the trophies, or even the scores. But you will never forget the people. Your mind will recall the music and the routine. It does for me and my wife. Nothing draws the memories like the song “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago for her. As for me, my mind thinks about marching band all the time, but then it has been my life’s passion. But the people are what will matter.

So, as you take the field for the last time, whether it is this weekend or after a bowl game, smile. Look around at the people on the field and smile. Give them a high-five. The next 10 minutes, you get the honor to perform with them….

…..one more time.

Marching Band: Visual Effect a concern? Think musically!

Visual effect can be a challenging area for many marching band directors. However, instead of thinking in visual terms, think musical.

It is marching band contest season. Each weekend, bands from across the United States will travel to events in which they will be adjudicated on several different areas. Music performance, music effect, visual performance, and visual effect are the most common, though many contests feature judges for color guard and percussion.

Of those areas, several are straight forward. How is your ensemble’s sound production? Are they generating a quality sound and articulating in a stylistic manner? Is the drill performed clean, or are there some concerns? Does the ensemble create emotion through dynamic changes, energy through articulation?

However, visual effect is rather confusing at times. The adjudicator is watching for how the drill flows and how the ensemble performs each task. With terms like phrasing, continuity, and emotion included on the rubric, it is better to think musically when considering visual impact.

Think Musically

This weekend, I was able to serve as the visual effect adjudicator for a festival in Kentucky. It was a great day and each ensemble performed really well. Especially since it is still rather early in the season. As I went through the day, I found that many groups experience similar issues in this caption. Of course, many music educators are not visual designers. But, they can think musically about visual aspects.

When discussing music being performed, directors will often mention phrasing. We ask performers to connect one section of music to another, avoid breathing at a bar-line, and add musical inflection. The same can be stated about visual.

With visual phrasing, we are asking performers to connect one move to the next. Make a 16-count move and another 16-count move flow together. This can be rather challenging, especially because we more one move at a time so often. But, in order to connect the moves organically, performers must move in unison, with similar foot speed and step size. Those things we discuss. Often. What if we talked about them in musical terms?

Rushing feet before a visual transition is the same as getting to a downbeat too early.

Getting to a hold too soon is like releasing a note before the music calls for it. Or, moving after a hold is the same as a late release.

A form that is not controlled from one set to the next is similar to players being out of tune.

Color guard should perform with great extension, just like you ask wind players to use air support, or you get poor tone quality.

related read: Overwriting for color guard

Take the time to think musically about your visual package. The visual must match the music. When there are moments of tension or crescendo in the music, the visual should also generate tension. When you match the two areas together, your performances will reach new levels.