5-Minute Read: Take a Stand on Your Stands Layout

Mike Lawson • • March 7, 2016

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Let’s take a moment to talk about your marching band in the stands during football games. A few tips, when properly applied, can improve travel to and from the stands, increase sound quality, and better integrate your band into the fan experience at your games.

Have a Travel Plan

This is one of the most rushed, chaotic, and unfortunately an overlooked part of the marching band stands experience. Getting anywhere between 20 and 400 students, with bulky instruments, into and out of the stands can range from annoying to downright dangerous unless you carefully plan and practice. First of all, if at all possible, see if you can use more than one set of stairs to enter and exit the stands. The bottleneck caused by a single, steep, narrow set of stairs is the number one most inhibiting and often dangerous obstacle to stands travel. Regardless of whether multiple stairwells are available, make sure that your largest and most difficult-to-move instruments always get to enter the stands first: percussion and tubas. That means practicing holding back all other performers from the stands while these instruments enter or exit the seating area. Take the 15 minutes of rehearsal time needed to practice this travel.

Have A General Seating Plan

Like any other aspect of teaching, your stands layout must be clearly articulated and practiced with your band. Don’t just let them “figure it out on their own.” Think of the stands layout as your classroom. Are there students who shouldn’t sit next to each other (i.e. personality conflicts, boyfriends/girlfriends, partners in crime)? Is there a particularly strong performer around whom you wish to anchor your weaker players? All of these situations can be addressed through assigned positions. You needn’t assign every single person a particular spot if your band is so large as to make that unwieldy. But you can stop problems before they start and you can bolster you sound through strategic placement of your best performers.

Give Your Sound Room to Breathe!

There’s something very comforting and unifying about performers playing that fight song, shoulder-to-shoulder in the stands. Some of our best band memories are often made in that very environment. But unless your band is so large you literally are forced to stand your performers shoulder-to-shoulder, then avoid this strategy. This is important for several reasons:

• You make your band appear smaller by pushing them closer together both horizontally (shoulder-to-shoulder) and vertically (one row after another with no spacer row in between).

• You inhibit the sound quality and volume of your ensemble because close proximity of bodies and uniform fabric absorb much of your band’s sound.

• You invite the unappealing probability of spit valves dripping liquid directly onto the performers below your brass.

• You increase the serious issue of headaches and hearing loss amongst your students who, when seated closely, have drums and bells directly in their ears.

Instead, pick out upper and lower, and left and right, boundaries for your band, then spread them evenly across that entire area. If you have 10 flutes in one row and 16 saxes in another row, just let them spread out and fill the space in their row evenly. I know that this can sometimes irritate our band director sense of “cover down” in drill, but it’s for the best to correct the four issues listed above.

Proper Percussion Placement

Proper percussion placement in your stands layout is dependent on several factors. Some bands like to keep the percussion at the very front. Some bands put their percussion right in the middle of their stand setup. Neither of these approaches is right or wrong, but it’s important to know the advantages and disadvantages of each. Placing the percussion at the very front of the band can be helpful because:

They have a very short distance to travel in and out of the stands with the most difficult-to-carry instruments.

Their brutally loud sounds do not sit directly in the ears of any other musician.

However, the Percussion-Up-Front method can be a big problem for larger bands, or bands spread across a greater stands area, because it places the timing element of the ensemble in front of the band. This leads to phasing and rhythmic and pulse imprecision. Smaller bands are better of using this system.

Placing the percussion in the center of the ensemble is my preferred method, as it allows the entire ensemble to listen in to the drums for timing. It also only requires the percussion to move their heavy equipment halfway up the stands. Just remember that having the percussion in the center of your ensemble means you must place several rows of space between them and the next row of musicians below. This will prevent headaches and hearing loss in those players. If you can’t spare the room to provide that space, then provide earplugs for those performers seated in front of the percussion. This is a very important health issue, and disposable earplugs are very inexpensive.

Try it Out

Finally, don’t ever be afraid to tweak your band’s set-up using these tips, even in the middle of or late in the season. The stands should be a fun and productive part of your band’s performance that’s just as well-planned and executed as any other one of your performances. A great stands routine can leave a positive, lasting impression on casual fans and band supporters alike.

Dr. Ward Miller currently resides in Minneapolis, MN, where he spends his time arranging and composing, and working as a music education consultant.

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