Tired of Box Drills? Try Flip Flops (Not the Shoes)

Mike Lawson • Commentary • August 29, 2019

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Slides, or lateral marching, is one of the more challenging fundamentals to teach in marching band.

Most directors are familiar with box drills and starburst (or asterisk) drills that require students to travel in various directions while maintaining a single upper body orientation. Alternatively, the “flip flops” exercise addresses all four 90-degree slides (forward-and-left, forward-and-right, backward-and-left, and backward-and-right) while the body travels in one direction across the field. Note: I am unsure of the origins of this exercise and its name, of which I have heard several variations over the years.

In addition to working on slide technique, this exercise can be used to teach concepts such as hip switches, direction change footwork, and form maintenance on the move. A big reason to incorporate flip flops into your fundamentals regimen is that students experience both physical and visual feedback in-the-moment, allowing them to make adjustments to their technique on-the-fly, without the need for feedback from an instructor.

The exercise consists of seven phrases, marched consecutively, traveling in a singular direction. See the figure for a visual representation of the exercise (the direction of the feet is represented by the thin black arrows, and the direction of the upper body is represented by the wide red arrows). I suggest beginning with phrases of eight, 8-to-5 steps each.

Flip flops begins by marching forward one eight-count phrase. On count one of the second phrase, the lower body continues to march in the forward direction of travel, while the upper body snaps to a 90-degree slide facing the left. On count eight of the second phrase, students should use whatever footwork is part of your defined technique to prepare for a hip switch on the next step. On count one of the third phrase students should leave their upper bodies facing where they are, and perform a hip switch, alternating to a backward march, which flips their left-facing forward slide into a right-facing backward slide. On count one of the fourth phrase, the lower body continues to march in a backward direction of travel, while the upper body snaps to face the direction in which the students are marching away from.

On each subsequent count one, either an upper body rotation or hip switch will occur. Take note that the pattern of facing changes does not simply alternate between the upper and lower body. The break in the pattern happens at the beginning of the fifth phrase, when a second consecutive upper body rotation happens. I suggest teaching the exercise using the add-on technique. In other words, have the students march eight counts forward and freeze, then eight counts forward plus one step in the slide and freeze, then two phrases forward, freezing on count eight to practice the hip switch footwork, then two phrases forward and freezing one step into the third phrase to practice the hip switch, etc. Once students have learned the entirety of the exercise, I recommend having them chant through the order of changes a few times before attempting the entire thing (e.g., “upper, lower, upper, upper, lower, upper”). Then, as students are counting through the exercise, they should replace each count one with the words “upper” or “lower.”

Teaching Strategies and Variations

I like to march this exercise without instruments at first, with students’ arms out at their sides in second position. Students often cheat on 90-degree slides by rotating at the neck and shoulder joints to get their face and instrument around, rather than opening the hips and rotating the lower abdomen to get their shoulders square. When students march flip flops with their arms out at their side, if their shoulders are not square, they will get immediate physical feedback during the hip switches because their upper bodies will snap around rather than stay stationary.

Students should have “crazy eyes” throughout the exercise, working to maintain the form throughout. If marching in a block, during the fourth and seventh phrases, students will be facing down their cover and can see how much the form has morphed during the slides.

They should use those counts to adjust the form on the move. This is great practice for adjusting actual drill sets while marching. Another option in a block is to have every other column face and march the opposite direction (e.g., columns one, three, and five marching north, while columns two, four, and six march south). As the block breaks into two separate blocks, students should cross paths, facing another student, every four or eight counts, depending on the front-to-back interval of your block. Students will discover if they are drifting as they creep closer to their peers. Another way to have students check for drifting is to have them line up on the sideline and march the exercise down a yard line.

The count structure and step size can be altered to address several issues your band might be struggling with. Phrases four and seven can be extended if you want students to have more time to adjust the form. Phrases can alternate between single time and double time. Horn moves can be added. For example, adding a simple horn snap up or down on every count five will give even your strongest marchers difficulty the first time. Another variation involves snapping the horn up on count three and down on count seven of every move. And of course, as is true with any marching fundamentals exercise, adding breathing or playing of any sort will add complexity and better prepare your students to march and play their show.


Because students can evaluate themselves during the exercise, and because there are endless possible variations that can be applied to maintain student interest and stretch their mental focus capabilities, flip flops are a beneficial use of marching fundamentals rehearsal time. I do not advocate replacing the traditional box drill. Rather, use flip flops as a supplemental exercise to the others in your slide teaching toolkit.

Michael Alsop is pursuing a PhD in music education and is a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Georgia. He holds prior degrees in music education from DePauw University and the University of Louisville. He has spent summers working with the Madison Scouts and Phantom Regiment drum and bugle corps, as well as BOA finalist and Indiana state champion marching bands. Before returning to graduate school, Michael taught middle school band in Brazil, Indiana for six years.

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