50 Steps to a Better Marching Band

Mike Lawson • Commentary • August 1, 2002

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As those associated with the marching band activity know, it’s quite a task to coordinate music, movement and auxiliary work into a unified field presentation. With band camp fast approaching, I began to focus on the many tips and techniques I’ve picked up as a student, director and adjudicator to make that job go a little more smoothly. Here are some ideas I’ve accumulated over the years that I will be using this fall with the Duquesne University “Pride Of Duquesne” Marching Band, located in Pittsburgh, Penn. Our students come from a wide variety of band programs – from highly competitive to “parade only” situations. These points have been helpful in unifying these students into a common style. Hopefully you will find some of these points useful, and add them to your teaching “bag of tricks.”

  1. If you can play in tempo, you can march in tempo.
  2. Take all of the counts to get to your drill set.
  3. Use subsets to clean drill. If it’s a 32-count move, stop at 16, check the form, then go.
  4. The auxiliary units should have the same marching basics as the winds and percussion, with slight variations to allow for equipment and dance concerns.
  5. Pulse is key. Use various devices (metronome and P.A. system, wood block, counting out loud) to set and maintain tempo while learning and cleaning drill.
  6. The integrity of the drill set comes first. All must adjust to make the “picture” work.
  7. Teach only the techniques needed for your show. Don’t waste time on counter-marching if you don’t use it in the show.
  8. New directors: It takes 10 years to build a program and one year to wreck one.
  9. As a rule of thumb, if your concert band performs grade four literature, then your marching band should march grade two music. Think two grade levels lower when considering music for the field.
  10. Don’t burn them out! Shorter, more frequent breaks work better than infrequent, longer breaks.
  11. Marching band should be an equal part of the total band program, with the center of your program being the concert band.
  12. Hint: Don’t be afraid to look in those gym classes to find potential auxiliary members. Some schools I know do a mini unit on flag right in the gym classes!
  13. Fix one mistake. Make a deal with your band: If you made nine errors in marching and playing during the last run-through, then make eight mistakes during this run-through. Depending on the size of your group, you could fix hundreds of mistakes at one time.
  14. Band Buddies – match up a veteran band member with one or two new members before the first practice. Allow time at the beginning and end of rehearsals for Band Buddies to meet. Example: “Do you have your hat? … I’ll call and remind you of our next practice… How’s your music coming? … Let’s sit down and play it together…You’re doing GREAT!! …Let’s practice a slide right… Band pants go on first, then the shoes… Hoagie orders are due tomorrow…etc.”
  15. Do playing exercises while you do marching basics. As soon as a marching technique is taught, add a playing exercise to it. How often does your band march in the show without playing?
  16. Budget time for marching basics. Don’t get down on your band for marching poorly if you don’t devote time to reinforcing the fundamentals.
  17. Prioritize your rehearsals. Pick a section of each tune in the show, maybe 16 to 32 counts, and work on just those sections for tonight’s rehearsal. It’s a long season; don’t be in a hurry.
  18. Don’t practice mistakes. If your practices consist of nothing more than doing “run-throughs” of your show, then you are simply practicing mistakes. Make sure section leaders and staff members – better yet, the whole band – have a copy of the drill. Make sure everyone has their copy at every practice.
  19. Get a sound system. A loud speaker, P.A. system, bull horn, or a “Long Ranger” are a must for every rehearsal. A sound system has many uses. For many years I didn’t use one, and I was hoarse by the end of band camp. Plus, your band thinks you’re yelling at them all the time!
  20. Define your/our style. Make sure everyone has a firm grasp of how you want the marching basics performed. Break things down; demonstrate. Demonstrate again.
  21. Start rehearsals on time. If practice starts at 6:30, and you show up at 6:30, you are late. You must enforce this from day one. Have a routine in place. Where is everyone supposed to be at 6:30? In the band room? At sectionals? On the field?
  22. When designing your show, use the ratio of 60 percent music, 40 percent marching. Snappy drill formations are great, but mean nothing if the tune that goes with it can’t be understood. Does the band need to be moving the entire tune?
  23. Down time kills progress. Keep a healthy pace to rehearsals. Try to anticipate potential problems in music or drill, and plan a way to work the problem out. Stopping a rehearsal to fix problems happens to all of us, but shouldn’t be a part of every rehearsal. Anticipate and try to keep down time to a minimum. Keep other sections busy while you are working with a particular group.
  24. March in relationship to each other, not the field. Hash marks and yard lines are reference points for teaching purposes; they’re not gospel. ‘Truth is, after a while, your students should be able to march your show on an empty parking lot, with a good deal of success. Students should learn to march in relationship to each other, and adjust for each other’s mistakes. Mistakes will become less frequent if the marching basics program is reinforced on a regular basis.
  25. Be realistic about the ability level of your students. Always take inventory of each section. Which ones are strong? Which ones are weak? Will you have any tubas?

    A good time to do this is right after the spring concert, when you start looking toward next marching season. Next year’s band, on the whole, may be much younger than the group you have now. Keep this in mind when you program your show. Your favorite drill move, where 250 people go from a “Condor” to a company front in eight counts, may have to sit on the shelf another year until your band matures.

  26. Fix it before you move it. When cleaning drill from set to set (or picture to picture), take a few seconds to stop and adjust each set. Be sure Set Five is correct before moving to Set Six. Fix the current set before you move it to the next set.
  27. Use marching fundamentals that pertain to your show – eight to five and box drills are great, but what about curvilinear forms? Most bands do some circle, arc, or curved patterns in their show. Devise exercises that address these drill forms. This may take some time to develop at first. Use cones and yard markers to set the area of your circle or arc, and make sure each student marches around the cone so the form doesn’t condense. Actually, your students will find in time that curved forms and arcs are easier to perform than company fronts. Again, once the students begin marching in relationship to each other, things will get easier.
  28. Make it work. Don’t get too bogged down by trying to stick exactly to what is on the drill sheet. The band roster may fluctuate many times throughout the season. I have never seen a drill that hasn’t had to be adjusted at least once during the marching season. Some of the best jobs of drill adjustment I’ve seen were done at rehearsals, on the fly. Also, don’t feel you have to have all drill changes down on paper. Major ones – yes. Interval adjustments, small form reshapes – no. Make it work on the field. Don’t worry so much about the drill sheet. It’s just paper!
  29. Teach the path. When teaching drill, go from set one to set two several times, then turn the band around and march them back from set two to set one. This way you are teaching your students the path from set one to set two, not just the starting point or ending point.
  30. The drill is the movement, not the pictures. A drill set lasts for a split second. Focus more on the movement from set one to set two (step size, step style, horn angles, body facings, etc.). True, hitting your drill set is important, but the band moving from set one to set two is much more important than just set one or set two.
  31. On some drill moves, many different step sizes may need to be used to make the “picture” work. Try to gauge a six to five stride as a “middle of the road” step size. (i.e.: try to make six to five the largest step size anyone will need to make their set.) This is not always possible, but try to keep most of the drill within that six to five step size range.
  32. Get to higher ground. It’s best to clean drill from a higher vantage point (tower, ladder, top of the school, press box, scissor lift). That way, music balances can be worked on at the same time. It’s also much easier to evaluate how the drill moves and flows. Try to have some staff members or graduate assistants on the field with the band to assist with cleaning. A high vantage point may not be possible at every rehearsal. Talk to the athletic director and the other coaches who use the football field. See if it is possible to wedge the band into the schedule once in a while. A great time to start “planting the bug” in the athletic director’s ear about the field is in the spring. If practice on the “main field” is rare, then make sure all staff and band members are present to take advantage of the opportunity when it should arise.
  33. Take advantage of performance opportunities. To keep the band in focus after a drill change or before a big contest, have them perform at soccer games held on the “main field.” Soccer games were sometimes held on the same night as my practice. We could simulate “game day” conditions and the routine of getting ready to perform. It built respect between the band and the athletic program (big-time PR points). The soccer fans loved us! It also made their sport feel appreciated. My band got to perform recently taught or changed material in front of an audience. And we accomplished all of this without ever leaving the school grounds.
  34. When choosing music, again be realistic. A tune featuring the University of Texas, with 50 trumpets and 25 tubas, may sound slightly different when played by your four eighth-grade trumpets, three beginner trombones and a bassoon. Refer back to points nine and 25. Practically all music publishers now offer music for limited instrumentations.
  35. Where’s the beat? Remember, the pulse for count one is found in the left heel. That’s what hits the ground first. Stress it.
  36. Make your situation work. The name of the game is “what you do with what you have.” Don’t complain about the instruments you don’t have out for band. Work with the instrumentation you do have. That may mean rewriting a line that features flutes and saxes instead of lower brass. It can be just as effective, and maybe more interesting.
  37. Don’t hide the woodwinds. One of the biggest drill mistakes bands make is in the placement of their woodwinds on the field. You wonder why you can’t hear the flutes and clarinets? Often they’re found in a pretty arc 12 steps behind the back hash mark with a wall of brass shaped like a bullet in front of them. Where are the woodwinds placed in your concert band? Why did you put them there? What’s the difference if they’re on a football field or in your band room? Woodwinds need to be placed on the field properly to be heard. Period.
  38. Bands with fewer than 50 players should be careful placing wind instruments behind mid-field. Also, try to limit spread formations that go past the 35-yard lines. Lastly, company fronts built with eight or more steps between band members don’t work. Sorry.
  39. Go one set “and one.” A good teaching tip when going from set to set is “and one.” That means, march from set one to set two, and then take one step in the direction of set three. It helps with body facings, weight transfers, and overall directional change. It also helps students learn the flow from set to set.
  40. And then what happens? In Little League, we were taught: “If the ball is hit to you, what are you going to do with it?” The same holds true when marching. If my next drill set takes eight counts, then I better know where I’m going next by count five. This concept of four counts ahead helps students anticipate and remember where their next drill set is. Their marching style tends not to be timid because they are thinking ahead and know where to go next.
  41. What will work for me? There are a thousand ways to teach drill. Unfortunately, many of these involve the time-robbing task of re-teaching. Hopefully it won’t take you years of aggravation to find out what works best for your situation. Consider the following when planning your drill teaching strategy:

    A. How long is band camp? Two weeks (10 days), one week (9 a.m. to 10 p.m.), eight to noon?
    B. How many actual teaching days are there in camp, not counting the picture guy and shoe guy and the Tombstone Pizza guy and the Marmalade Queen Parade?
    C. How many sets are in the drill? How many are hard? How many are easy?
    D. Do I teach all of the drill first and then add the music?
    E. Do I teach the whole band at once, or break it up by sections (brass, woodwinds, guard)?
    F. How many of your students have never learned drill before?
    G. Be careful what you teach on a Friday. That will be the first thing you will need to review on Monday. Many directors use Friday to simply review and clean what they have learned for the week.

  42. Asymmetrical vs. symmetrical. In terms of design, both are effective. I have found the asymmetrical forms are often easier to clean and march because they are not a recognizable or definite shape. A triangle may take you 30 seconds to design, but three months to clean. Be cautious of drill designers who write too many “obvious” shapes for you. It’s difficult for students to hold those three perfectly straight lines of a triangle on a 32-count rotation, too. Thirty seconds to draw vs. three months to clean.
  43. When teaching a pass-through to your band, try these steps:

    A. Line up the “backward” and the “forward” groups at the point of the pass-through.
    B. Set the interval of the pass-through.
    C. If possible, pick an exact count that the pass-through will occur on and be there.
    D. When teaching and cleaning, the folks marching forward are responsible for “directing traffic” for the group backing up. While practicing, tell the folks backing up how to adjust their marching angle to make the form hit properly.
    E. Practice running the pass-through to the point where the groups meet, then march back where you came from (see Point 29). Also, practice from the point of the pass-through to the new set.

  44. A game I play at the end of a basics session is “Simon,” based on that annoying game with the four colored lights. This is also a great way to incorporate all of the different marching techniques you have covered so far. Here’s how it goes:

    A. Tell the band you will start with one command (let’s say forward eight).
    B. Then add another command to it (forward eight, mark time eight).
    C. After you’ve got several commands in a row, practice them. The idea is to teach your band how to learn drill.
    D. After the first five or six moves are down pretty well, add some more.
    E. Also try having the band verbally repeat your command after you say it.”
    You: “Mark time four.”
    The band: “Mark time four.”
    You: “Forward 16.”
    The band: “Forward 16.” And
    so on.

  45. Marching is nothing more than synchronized walking, with some adaptations for instruments and style. Don’t break things down too far, or you’ll have your students questioning something they have been doing their whole lives – walking! I stress the following:

    A. Plant the heel. Get the toe as high as possible (to make room for the heel to land).
    B. Have the ankle bones pass on the “and” of the count.

  46. When teaching a slide left, push the shoulder forward, pull the right shoulder back. Do the opposite for a slide right. The more flexible your students are at turning at the waist, the easier it will be on the shoulders.
  47. When setting and cleaning a circle, have everyone point their toes toward the center of the circle. Adjust the interval, then check the backs of the heels. They actually set the area of the circle, not the body. Turn on the right heel to the front.
  48. Clean up the loose ends. Make everything as uniform and standard as possible, from how the hats are worn to how the instruments are held at attention. This takes up very little time, and shows discipline and attention to detail.
  49. Intelligent people understand the need for discipline. If you or the drum major call the band to attention, explain what it is you want to happen. No one talks, no one moves, head up, etc…. Are you going to accept several students moving at attention? Talking at attention? Address what you want from day one. Stick to it. Actually, when you think about it, discipline sets the tone for your band before you even play a note. Most people can tell a disciplined group by how they walk to the field, how they come off of the buses, how the uniform is worn. It’s also a pretty good indication of how they are going to play.
  50. You can’t do everything. Look for qualified, mature staff people to work with your band. Make sure all staff people understand exactly what you want, then let them do their job. Even Superman lets others help!

Donald Green is entering his eighth year as assistant director of athletic bands at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Penn., where his duties include drill design for the “Pride of Duquesne” Marching Band. A high school band director for 10 years, his marching bands at Yough High School were consistent class champions in the early and mid-1990s. Mr. Green is an adjudicator for the Pennsylvania Federation of Contest Judges. He is also a clarinetist with the Westmoreland Symphonic Winds, based at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Penn. He currently teaches elementary band in the Yough School District, and writes tunes for his fourth and fifth grade students. He is a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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