The College Marching Band as a Laboratory Ensemble

Mike Lawson • Archives • August 16, 2012

By Dr. Courtney Snyder

Most music education students will never get opportunities to direct a marching band on their own until their first teaching job. Even if they student teach in the fall, because of high competitive demands, directors do not typically give their marching band rehearsals over to their student teachers. Though many music programs require music education students to participate in their college marching band, students often come away from the experience wondering just how this participation prepares them to be a marching band director. To help bridge this gap, the college marching band can serve as a laboratory ensemble for music education majors, with the goal of providing students opportunities to help ready them for their future teaching careers, especially with regard to an ensemble as challenging as marching band.

Much of how these laboratory experiences are implemented is dependent on how a music education program is structured, but there is a wealth of possibility. It can start specifically with drum majors, but then grow to include section leaders and even students in marching band methods courses. Section leaders in the band can be provided more opportunities to plan and teach sections of the band while students in marching band techniques or instrumental methods courses can be given opportunities to run complete rehearsals with the entire ensemble. At the University of Nebraska, Omaha (UNO), all of these areas were a main focus throughout the season as it sought specifically to create a laboratory experience for its music education majors. Many of these methods can be replicated at any university.

Drum Majors

The drum majors were already responsible for teaching basic marching fundamentals during band camp. They met regularly with the director to go over techniques for what they would be teaching. Gradually, they have taken on more responsibility reaching the point where, now, they plan this instruction on their own over the summer, checking in regularly with the director to fine-tune their plans. They observe other marching band rehearsals from a list of approved directors and note how other teachers instruct their ensembles. The students come up with new ideas and plan how to include these ideas in their instruction and team-teach the band almost exclusively throughout the week of band camp.

Also – and this varies depending on their confidence in running music rehearsals – the drum majors warm-up the band using the standard practices already implemented through faculty instruction. At UNO, performances were already led by the drum majors, but now they take even more responsibility to arrange the students and prepare them for each performance.

Section Leaders

Section leaders were already expected to teach sectionals and provide comments regularly to members of their sections. Now they are more involved in the planning processes that goes into running each rehearsal. They meet one half-hour prior to every marching band rehearsal to discuss with the staff what the goals and expectations for the rehearsal will be. Though they are given a specific itinerary of events for the rehearsal, at times they may suggest adjustments it if necessary. Leaders also help make decisions related to the show, such as changes in the manner in which some drills are executed or adding visual elements to the drill to make it more stimulating to the audience. They take even more ownership of the band while also learning the importance of consistent planning in order to implement the most effective instruction.

Drill Writing

There is no marching band techniques course taught at UNO, although basic elements of drill writing and logistics of running a marching band are covered in Secondary Instrumental Methods. In previous years, students were required to write a basic drill to a selection usually taken from the marching band season. Now they not only write the drill, they teach it to the marching band. Also, through this process, they see how the drill communicates on the field and how it compares to how it looks on a computer screen.

Using drill-writing software already installed in the music computer lab, students write a minimum of 12 sets to one selection the marching band already knows. With only one week to teach the marching band, it would be unreasonable to expect the students to teach new music and drill when they have no previous experience teaching the full ensemble. There are very specific parameters for the project relating to the spacing between players with appropriate accommodations for color guard and drum line in particular, step size, staging, design and overall flow of sets and their relationship to the music.

Before students use the computer software, they write out count sheets and make sure the counts correspond correctly with the phrasing of the composition. They also are encouraged to create a drill flow chart to help them begin the process of seeing the drill in their mind’s eye as it flows with the music. After these preliminary steps are taken, they begin using the software to write.

Students are given a tutorial on the program before they have to use it for their projects. They are required to create specific shapes in the drill so that they learn to use various tools of the program. These drills are not meant to be intricate; more intricate drills would take much longer to write. The project is to help them understand the basics of the program with the mindset that they can continue to refine their skills beyond the project itself should they make that choice.

Methods classes at UNO typically consist of eight-to-10 students. Because this class teaches more than just marching band, students are paired up to create the drill. This helps the work be more manageable and hopefully the students can inspire each other with new ideas and perspectives. Once all the drills are completed, they are played on the computer for the entire class while the music is also playing in sequence with the drill. After several viewings of each drill, the students then decide which drill they will all teach to the band.

Once the final drill is determined, students are put into two teams of four or five members. Each team’s members choose specific teaching roles including field instructors (percussion, color guard, and marching techniques) and podium instructors (music and drill). They are encouraged to meet on their own time to plan, but are also given one regular class time to work out lesson planning with faculty guidance. After the planning is complete, each team is given one rehearsal to teach the drill.

Preparing the Band

The marching band itself is prepared for the experience. They are encouraged to be flexible as new teachers are not the same as experienced teachers. It will take time for new teachers to become comfortable and they will probably make some mistakes along the way, but these mistakes will ultimately allow for more learning. Once the first team teaches its lesson, members then collaborate with the members of the second team during the next class period so that the second team is ready to take over where the first team left off. They also discuss how the rehearsal process went, what things they did well, and what they could improve upon. It is a great opportunity for students to ask questions and critique each other’s performance. It is also a chance to discuss team dynamics – how the team works together and how that dynamic affects the rehearsal process.

Each team has different strengths and weaknesses and some things go very well while other things are a struggle. But, all in all, the students in the marching band are happy to help their friends while keeping things fresh in the middle of the season. Additionally, instrumental methods students are grateful for an opportunity to run their own rehearsal. They come away realizing how much it takes to be successful and how many elements they need to pay attention to at the same time. This provides for great discussion and helps reinforce the importance of proper planning and problem solving.

The Bigger Picture

After the first year of including this laboratory experience in the curriculum, each methods student said it was an incredibly invaluable experience. In some respects they were intimidated by just how much multi-tasking it takes to run a rehearsal effectively, however, they have been guided through the process step by step. They have a firmer foundation from which to build their own successful program. Now that they have had this guided experience in running a marching band rehearsal, they understand the complex demands of being the director and thus will be more prepared to run all of it when they have a band of their own.

Since 2009, Dr. Courtney Snyder has been an assistant director of bands, assistant professor at University of Nebraska, Omaha, where she directs the “Maverick” Marching Band. She is also the associate conductor for the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, teaches conducting and music education courses, and provides individual conducting instruction to both undergraduate and graduate students. In addition to her position at UNO, Snyder is music director for the Nebraska Wind Symphony, a community concert band based in Omaha, Neb. She serves as the faculty advisor for the Kappa Iota Chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi and is an active clinician and adjudicator in Michigan and Nebraska.

Prior to her appointment at University of Nebraska, Omaha, Snyder completed her Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in conducting at the University of Michigan, and taught instrumental music in the Michigan public schools for six years. Dr. Snyder received her master’s degree in conducting from Baylor University and her B.S. in Music Education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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