Mike Lawson • May 2002 • May 1, 2002

Designing a show for a small band requires special techniques to create the excitement of a large band show. For a group with 30 to 48 winds, plus percussion and auxiliary, the designer must select quality music and create as much visual excitement as possible. Also, because of the number of winds, the instruments must be placed in the proper field location to produce the maximum sound. The movement and sound are the most important elements when designing for a small band. These elements must be carefully examined for every step of the show. The possibility of error in a small band show is magnified because every person can be seen and heard at all times. If the techniques in this article are carefully followed, the show will be very exciting and entertaining to the spectator. The reality of field show design is that any show can be exciting regardless of the size of the band.

The Music

The first element for a small band is the selection of music and its tempo. There are a number of quality arrangements available. Choose music that the band can play well because the students are going to have to do a lot of marching to create excitement. If possible, select a theme that will give the guard more ideas to develop flag and dance routines.

The tempo of the music is more critical with small bands. A small band must have music that is high-energy throughout the show. The tempo should be 140 to 160 beats per minute. A tempo of 120 may not be effective enough to create excitement because the drill will lack velocity. Velocity of movement is one of the most important visual elements a small band uses to create excitement. Small bands must have a lot of movement. Whereas a larger band can rely on large, dramatic formations and a dramatic sound, a small band cannot. The 120 tempo will work if the music is very dramatic and is preceded or followed by music at a faster tempo.

A slow, beautiful ballad can only be effective if the band plays well in tune and has a balanced instrumentation. I have found that band movement is not an important factor with this type of music because the small band cannot create the attractive formations that the music represents. The designer should draw the most attractive formation he or she can create, then halt and let the auxiliaries or soloist interpret the beauty of the melody. Generally, this would be a short tune of 60 to 90 seconds. The ballad is primarily being used to contrast fast tempos. The ballad is most effective in the middle of the show. Avoid using a ballad to start or end a show.

When selecting the music, select tunes that lead to creative uses of the auxiliaries and their props. The auxiliaries are another important element that the small band must rely upon to create excitement. The music, band and auxiliaries must always play an equal role in a small band show. The designer must create the attractive ideas out of these elements every second of the show. Because of the band’s size, any mistake using these elements cannot be hidden.

Placing the Instruments

The placement of instruments is very critical in a small band – not only where they are on the field, but also where they are in the formation. Generally, the small band should be placed between the 30-yard lines and as far back as mid-field. This area should be used in its entirety so that the formations are not always centered near the 50-yard line. You want the spectators to turn their heads from left to right watching the drills develop. They will quickly become bored if all the attention is focused on the 50-yard line. Use the full area as a stage. In a stage play, you see actors on all parts of the area; do the same.

In a formation, keep like instruments together almost all the time. Keep the trumpets together, the horns, saxophones and low brass together. Also keep the clarinets and flutes together, but only move them close to the sideline when they have the melody. Frequently, the brass will be in the formation to create excitement while the woodwinds enhance the brass movements.

The percussion section can be placed several different ways. Generally, they are connected to the winds in a formation, or will float independently from the winds in one or two lines. Sometimes, in a small band, they are not experienced enough to march drills that are as difficult as the winds’ drills. Very young percussion sections can be placed in the pit on the sideline. A more desirable placement would be to put the entire percussion section on the field on the 35- or 40-yard line about 16 steps from the sideline. The percussionists would remain there for the entire show. The drill will develop around them.

The interval is also an important element when placing the instruments for a small band. Most of the time, band members will be at a three-step interval. This is especially important when the band is reshaping forms. But the interval needs to be changed at times throughout a drill for variety and special effects. For instance, the trumpets are going to move to a phrase where they alone are featured. I would move the trumpet section away from the rest of the winds at a two-step interval – before they are featured – and then have them move forward while the rest of the winds remain at a three-step interval. Also, if there are phrases with a lot of tension, I would contract the winds to a two-step interval and then expand them to a three- or four-step interval on the climax of the music. Sometimes I will have the brass at a two-step interval and the winds at a three- or four-step interval. Changing the interval creates a lot of interesting concepts in a small band drill. Even small bands that march seventh and eighth graders can do this successfully.

A four-step interval would frequently be used when the band forms solid wedges and blocks. Don’t be afraid to do this with a small band. As long as they are in front of the press box hash mark, they will be heard.
Types of Formations

With any size band, the drill must reflect the music. In a small band, all the winds must frequently be connected in a formation to interpret the music properly. Generally, many of the formations will have the winds joined. These formations then will reshape, with the melody instruments being the focal point. This is the most common type of formation.

Formations can also be fragmented for a different look. Cut the formations into segments of four to 12 people for variety, but join them together after 16 to 32 counts. Keep like instruments in the fragments. Smaller bands generally have less fragmented formations than larger ones. It tends to make the band look very small if it is fragmented too much, but is refreshing when used sparingly for variety and a new look.

When you are designing a transition, have the focal point be the instruments that have the melody. All the winds may reshape, but the ones with the melody will be moving toward the audience. A perfect time to fragment a form is to separate the melody instruments in the transition before they will come in with their part. Then they will move toward the audience while the rest of the band enhances their movement. This is a good technique, but don’t use it too much because it may make the band look too small. If the music is very intense, it can be used more often. The excitement of the music will override this visual problem.

When an instrument section is separated from a formation, move it to a one- or two-step interval while the rest of the band moves to a three- or four-step interval. This change will give the band a good effect because some of the marchers are contracting while others are expanding. This is a technique I use very frequently with middle-size bands, but less with small or very large bands. It adds a little variety in a small band drill.

Here is a list of types of formations that can be used effectively in a show for a small band. Use as many of these types as possible in the show without repeating them too often.

Linear: Intersecting lines, fragmented lines, parallel lines
Curvilinear: Arcs, “S” shapes, loops

Geometrical: Triangles, circles, squares, rectangles, solid wedges and diamonds (float, rotate, expand or contract any of these shapes)
Fragmented: Lines or arcs

Keep selecting from this list to keep giving the show a different look. Almost any formation used with a larger band can also be used with a small band. But remember, the formation must relate to the music. Listen to the music and make notes on which types of formations match a musical phrase.


Once a formation has been created, the next step is to determine how you are going to move to the next formation. With a small band, you must be sure the movement is smooth and attractive. The movement must relate to the music just as a formation does. The movement should be focused on those players that have the melody. After you move to a new form, then you must move in a different manner – again, related to the music.

Always watch the animation of your drill to see if there is a variety of movement. This is more important than the formation you are going to. The formation is only seen for a few seconds, whereas the motion is seen for eight to 16 counts.

If the music is flowing, you are not going to fragment the band; you would reshape a form. If it is dramatic, you may form and float a linear formation or geometric form. Or, the band may be fragmented a little, to separate the woodwinds or high, middle and low brass. This must be done very carefully with a small band because you may have as few as four players in a fragment.

Here is a list of movements that can be used. Often a transition will have two or three of these movements occurring at the same time. Use as many different types of movement to give your drills variety.

Reshape a formation
Float a formation
Expand or contract a formation
Rotate a form
Follow the leader (use a 30-inch step for more velocity)
Fragment the formation (use like instruments in fragments)
Move forward, backward or laterally

Also, when you have taken the time to build a formation, first see if you can do something with it: rotate, float, expand, contract or reshape it. Often, designers miss many very good chances for motion by constantly moving from one form to another without rebuilding a formation and then nurturing it. It adds a lot of purpose and creativity to a drill.

Also analyze the direction of motion. If you move to the left, move the next transition forward, backward or to the right. Motion alone will create a lot of interest in your drills and hold the attention of your audience. Play a game. Move in an unexpected direction most of the time, but after several transitions, move in a predictable direction. Especially if it is a climax. You don’t want to confuse the audience all the time. A small band can use this effect more than a larger band and will always have the flexibility to change a direction easily because of the small number of people.

Each composition you select should have at least one impact phrase. As with any size band, there must be a visual movement to reflect it. To do this, you must plan this two or three transitions before it occurs. Listen to the impact phrase, then decide what formation you would like to do. This is easier to do with a small band because you will be moving a shorter distance with fewer players. This is the chance to make a movement the audience will remember. It could be a dramatic form or a transition with a lot of velocity. The impact phrase generally occurs toward the end of a drill so now the drill must resolve.

To resolve a drill, the transition and formation must indicate to the audience that the drill has concluded. Because of the small part of the field you are using, drills will resolve close to the sideline. If it is a dramatic ending, form a linear or geometric formation. If it is a ballad, end in a nice curvilinear formation. The auxiliaries should also be included in this resolution of the drill.

Creating Velocity

This is an extremely important element to designing a successful show for a small band. More excitement will be created by the movement than the music. But remember, the music dictates the movement, and the tempo and distance create the velocity. Whenever a transition is written, watch the animation of the transition to see if it is creating enough movement.

You may have to redesign the new formation to add velocity. Generally, if the new formation resembles the previous, there could be a problem. Look at the two formations side by side. The more contrasting they are, the more probable that the velocity will be satisfactory to get to the new position. Frequently, designers will have two similar formations together. When you are designing for a small band, it is easy to draw formations that are contrasting. The larger the band becomes, the more difficult that becomes. This is one element that is easier to do with a small band and will make your show exciting to watch. It is easier to create velocity with a small band than a larger band.

Contrasting movement will create the illusion of velocity. A simple example would be a circle of winds outlined by a circle of flags. If they move in opposite directions – clockwise and counterclockwise – they will give the illusion of moving faster than they actually are. With this example, the velocity could be increased by having the flags take a 30-inch step, or larger.

When the band moves, have the guard move in an opposite direction. The guard could be behind, in front, or within the band doing a pass-through, moving in an opposite direction.

Be very concerned about the velocity in the drill, especially when the music is exciting. Move as many of the band members as possible in a 30-inch step and the guard in a four- to five-yard jazz run. Never have the band move at a step size larger than a 30-inch step unless they are a very mature group. Most students will look very awkward trying to do a larger than 30-inch step size. When you see this in a performance, the designer has made a mistake.

The Placement of the Guard

In a small band show, the placement of the guard is as important as the placement of the band. It is always difficult to create visual excitement with only the band. But when the guard is carefully placed with them, the excitement increases. Most of the time, the band design is written and then the guard is added. But with a small band, frequently the guard formation is conceived before the band’s.

Throughout the show, the importance of the band and guard will change. Each group has to be highlighted separately and then all together. When a transition is created, that places the importance equally on both groups. Then you will get the maximum effect from everyone on the field. A technique that works well is to place the band in an attractive formation and then place the guard in a diamond shape or other geometric shape superimposed on top of the band. If it is a very contemporary formation, a contrasting block or square ties everything together. For variety in the show, each group must dominate at times. It will add greater interest for the spectator.

When the band or the guard is featured, they can remain in position while the secondary group develops a drill around them. An example would be the guard performing a dance routine in a block. The band would reshape formations around the guard that bring the focus to the guard’s block.

Props are also more important when designing a small band show than one for larger bands. There are two types of props to discuss: the props that are placed on the field for the entire show, and the ones that are used by the band or guard members.

Because a small band uses only a small part of the field, props can be placed to outline or offset the marching area from the rest of the field. I have done shows where the percussion section has been placed on a stage on the 50-yard line and front hash with four-by-eight-foot panels in an arc beside the ensemble, outlining the performance area.

Also, if you are doing a musical- or movie-theme show, a stage can be placed on the field at an angle on the 35-yard line and 12 to 16 steps from the sideline. This can be used to stage band soloists, characters of the theme or guard members, and also to pick up and return flags and props. There are many variations possible, such as using a stage for a “Stomp”-style percussion feature or featured dancers in a “Riverdance” show.

Additionally, I have done a Civil War show with blue and grey cutouts of cannons facing each other on the 30-yard lines. Also, the performing area can be outlined with colorful disks that will be used by the band on a percussion feature. Extra drums can be placed on the sideline for a band section to join with the percussion on their features.

Vinyl tarps are another prop option. These are placed on the field and are generally a geometric shape. They can be used with a small band, but you must be careful. If they are on the field, the drill should develop on and around them, especially at the beginning of the show. As the show develops, they can be somewhat ignored, but as the show comes to an end, the drill must incorporate them again. After the band drill has used them in the beginning of the show, use the tarps as a stage for the guard or soloists. It is also a great place to hide props. Tarps work a lot better for larger bands because they use more of the field, but they be tastefully used with a small band. Don’t make the tarps too big because they may dominate the entire show and give the illusion that the band is smaller.

There are many other variations of using these types of props. The most important decision is to not overdo the effect. I saw a show with so many ramps placed on the field there was hardly any room for the band. This dominated the field so strongly that the band’s performance was overshadowed by the ramps. Whatever is used, be tasteful. And remember, the props must be taken in a truck or bus to away performances and someone is going to have to move them.

The other type of props are the ones that are used by the guard and sometimes the band members. These play an important part in creating excitement in a small band and should not be overlooked. Again, when you have a theme for your show, it naturally will give you ideas for various props. When they are presented, the props should not dominate the show. At times, the props can be used to highlight a band formation, but both the band and props should play an equal role. A simple example would be the band in a solid wedge and the guard outlining them with flags.

If the guard is using fans or colorful balls on a ballad tune, the band should not be doing any significant movement to draw attention away from the guard. Don’t make your show a contest between groups fighting for attention. Always have everyone coordinated together to make an entertaining presentation without a “carnival” atmosphere.

How props are picked up and returned should be decided before the drill is written – especially with a small band. It can be very distracting to see people running through band drills to get a prop. It is acceptable in larger bands, but add too much chaos to a small band drill. Sometimes they look like a herd trying to stomp on the band. All prop changes with a small band must be planned carefully and tastefully.

Designing a show for a small band can be a lot of fun. There are many creative ways to make the show as exciting as any larger band’s show. I personally have used these ideas with small bands throughout the country and they have been very successful. Your band can put on the most exciting show in a contest and outperform any size band.

Dan Ryder has been a professional show designer for more than 25 years. He has custom-designed 900 shows for high school and university bands. He has presented clinics and workshops throughout the country, and has written many articles and books on show designing. He was a band director for 13 years in Pennsylvania and Texas before becoming a professional show designer. He belongs to many professional music organizations, including NBA, TMEA and TBA, and is an elected associate member of the prestigious American Bandmasters Association. For more information, visit

UpFront appeared on pages 23 – 28 in the May issue of School Band and Orchestra.

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