How to Take Your Marching Band to the Next Level? It’s in the Roots!

Stephen A. Salem • May 2022UpClose • May 2, 2022

Finally, the time has come to take a deep breath and moment for ourselves. Our bands have worked hard to perform well at Festival and a huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders. We take a moment to look outside and realize temperatures are rising and the sun is out once again. Just when we think we have reached a state of calm, we open our email to see advertisements from the latest marching band vendors. We hear the latest buzz around the band room. Forget sitting down at your desk! It’s time to prep for marching band season. We have had successful seasons previously, but we are ready to take the marching band to the next level. Where do we even start? We all know success requires intense preparation and planning; nonetheless, we must keep focus that this success is rooted in the daytime concert band program. After all, we just did well at festival! Take a closer look at your concert program. How is it structured? How do you establish a positive culture? How do you nurture the program as a whole?

Ultimately, it’s important to create a symbiotic relationship between ensembles. After all, isn’t marching band just a concert band that moves? Think about a tree. What you see on the outside are the healthy trunk, strong swaying branches, and beautiful leaves. Underneath all of this are strong roots and a circulatory system. By focusing on the core of the program, the tree’s roots, we have allowed all parts of the band program, including the marching band, to flourish. We continue to cultivate the outside beauty of the tree, while never losing sight of feeding and nourishing those roots.

This symbiotic relationship between the concert and marching program is a major key to our success. This is a philosophy we believe in and never lose sight of. It has pushed our marching program to grow musically and in numbers. Because the directors of these ensembles believe this, so do our students. We believe in exposing them to the greatest music and composers, creating chamber opportunities, and working to lay a foundation based on perfecting the basics. Undoubtedly, all these elements influence the success of a marching program.

As teachers, we always strive to offer our students the best music education possible. In the concert band program, it is imperative our students are exposed to and play music of the very best composers. If they can perform a musical phrase of Holst, articulate with proper Grainger style, or demonstrate the newer techniques required of today’s composers, they can perform with maturity on the field. In the concert band setting, we focus on making music at the very highest of levels, playing with characteristic tone and intonation, listening for one another across the ensemble, and developing an advanced musicianship and artistry built on trust of one another. We ask for our students to transfer these skills and this elevated standard into the marching band; our philosophy toward making music remains unchanged regardless of the ensemble.

I have been asked many times after marching competitions how our low brass section sounds so rich and full. Here’s the truth: as a tuba player, I began a tuba euphonium ensemble at Liverpool ten years ago. This has strengthened the number and level of low brass musicians in all our ensembles. This ensemble was founded out of my love for low brass chamber music, and it was an opportunity to create a core group of low brass students that play together all year long. The pride that stems from this group pays dividends in all our ensembles and serves as a wonderful tool for recruiting and retaining low brass players. It’s important to recognize how chamber music can impact your program positively.

So, what’s the other secret in creating a brass line that sounds rich and full? Invest in proper fundamentals. After all, great brass playing is great brass playing no matter the ensemble. I firmly believe getting back to the basics has always been key. Our older students serve as role models for their younger peers who are eager to please and hungry to learn. We’ve learned to take a pride in how we warm up together, how we perform musically together, how we strive to plan extra sectionals throughout the season, and how we plan week in and week out for small goals that help us to achieve the bigger picture.

Consistency through all aspects of the program is the key. This means consistency from teacher to teacher and consistency in verbiage and how we address material with the students. Consistency in the culture we create. Consistency in our expectations and standards. Consistency in our rehearsal process and teaching approach. Consistency in our schedules. Consistency in our positive reinforcement. This helps to elevate all elements of the program.

Consistency is crucial within any staff. It is also important to work with the feeder schools to align all goals and standards. Take the time to talk with your middle and elementary colleagues. What do they already teach to set up students for success? What warm-ups and fundamentals do the young students enter the first rehearsal already knowing? Maybe those teachers have some insight about which students might be best to switch to mellophone. Those teachers are an incredibly important part in establishing the high standard and consistency we strive to create.

So, it’s time to open your laptop and get to work again. The marching season is here. We can feel it, that crisp night air and the smell of fall, bright stadium lights illuminating shiny metal to a stand full of eager and excited fans. It’s time to reflect and ask ourselves where the focus of music making is. What is the core? If we keep this centered, the whole band program can reap the benefits for many years to come. Taking a marching band to the next level is not always about more money or more students. It’s about detailed planning leading up to the first downbeat of rehearsals followed by continued planning at every rehearsal. It’s important to spend that upfront time finding quality arrangers and quality drill writers you believe in, and who you feel resonate with your program and its vision. And then most importantly, keeping that concert band program at the core to which all other elements of the program are based on.

Stephen Salem is currently in his tenth year as a music educator at Liverpool High School, where he is director of bands. The Liverpool High School Marching Warriors sailed through their 2021 season undefeated. The season culminated in a victory at the New York State Field Band Conference Championships held Oct. 31 at the Carrier Dome. With a score of 96.6 out of 100, Liverpool took first place in the National NYSFBC Championship Show category. 

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