Tag Archives: marching band education

A Few Tips on Selecting Your Halftime Show Music



By Michael Story
Composer, Arranger, & Editor

Times sure have changed since I was in high school band. We used to perform a different halftime show for each home game. Nowadays, most bands perform just one show a year, which makes it even more important to select a show that truly fits your band. Although marching band students are not exposed to as much music as we were, the advantage to doing just one show a year allows for a much higher level of achievement in performance quality. Here are few tips to help you in your halftime music selection:

  • Type of Music: Although many bands have had success with original compositions for their show, there are many good reasons to consider a show based on pop music. Sure, there is good and bad pop music (just as there are good and bad original compositions), but many popular songs offer great teaching opportunities. The added benefit is that you will generally have a better opportunity to connect with your audience.
  • Difficulty Level: You want to choose music that is neither too easy nor too hard. Students will become bored with music that is too easy, and discouraged with music that is too difficult. Choosing music that is right at your band’s ability level (or slightly easier) allows you to focus on increased musicality and polishing the drill.
  • Quality: Are ALL the parts (not just the melody) interesting, musical, idiomatic, and written in a comfortable range for your students? Has the composer or arranger chosen an appropriate instrument or section to play the melody? Do the interior parts, countermelodies, and bass lines make musical sense?
  • Form: Does the show achieve a balance of REPETITION and CONTRAST? Examples of repetition include recurring themes or ideas, or an ending reprise of the opening melody to tie the show together. Contrast is achieved not only from varying the musical content, but also through textural and instrumental changes, including solos or ensembles within the show, musical highs and lows, and percussion or other section features.

Good halftime show music can come in all shapes and sizes–there can be great educational opportunities in all genres. Whatever music you choose, have fun with it, and have a great year!

Visualization and Mental Rehearsal: The Power of the Movie Theater in Your Mind

Thomas J. West

Any good music teacher and most accomplished music students will tell you that repetition is a key ingredient in mastering any musical instrument. Repetition of a physical skill makes that skill become automatic. Often with my students, I use the analogy that learning to play an instrument is like learning to tie your shoes. When you learn to tie your shoes at the ripe old age of 4 to 6 years old, someone has to teach you the steps of the shoe-tying process. You have to follow that process step by step, and therefore one shoelace may take up to two or three minutes to completely tie.

Now, fast forward to today. How long does it take to tie a shoelace now? Can you do it without looking? And the big question: what is the difference between then and now? The answer is usually fairly obvious to most students: since you learned that skill you have practiced it nearly daily for years, subjecting yourself to hundreds of repetitions of the action until it becomes “automatic.”

We learn nearly everything we know how to do in a similar fashion. Babies are born with only a few genetic reflexes and parents literally teach them how to roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, make noises, and learn to speak. We do this same learning process over and over our entire lives.

But how does the brain and body get to the point where the skill being learned becomes automatic and mastered? The millions of neurons that make up the brain literally send electrical signals from one neuron to another in patterns that cause the skill to be performed by the muscles. The more often that sequence of neurons fire their signal, the more associated those neurons become with one another, forming a neural network, or neuronet.

The more a neuronet is fired, the more “hard-wired” that neuronet becomes. The muscles develop what seems like their own “memory” for the skill. This is the normal process that each of us does daily in our lives without a second thought.

Now here’s the interesting part!

Neurologists have shown in clinical tests that a person can visualize in their mind’s eye completing a physical motor skill and can mentally rehearse the skill with significant effect on actually performing the skill physically. In an article in the 1995 Journal of Neurophysiology, [1] a research group showed that mental rehearsal produced significant results. Individuals participated in a five-day study of practicing the piano.

The first group memorized a short sequence of notes and practiced for two hours every day for five days. Another group did not touch a piano, but observed the first group being taught the sequence of notes until they had memorized the sequence. Then they mentally rehearsed their exercise by imagining themselves in the experience for the same length of time per day as the first group.

At the conclusion of the five days, researchers used modern scanning equipment to measure the amount of neural growth in the motor cortices of the brain. They were surprised to find that the group that did only mental rehearsal showed nearly the same expansion and development of neural networks that the participants who physically practiced. This kind of learning in neuroscience is called Hebbian learning. [2] The main idea of this type of learning is that “the nerve cells that fire together wire together.”

The Power of Imagination

Mental rehearsal is a real technique that can reduce the amount of physical practice time by a significant amount. The human mind’s ability to imagine something that isn’t there is at the core of every great invention, scientific discovery, musical masterpiece, and memorable sports performance. Before the body can DO an action, the mind must first SEE the action being done.

What is true about this human ability, however, is that a person can only learn something through mental rehearsal if they already have knowledge and memory of the skill they are attempting to master. For example, you can’t become the next Tiger Woods by simply sitting in a chair and imagining you are 20 under par. You have to have developed the knowledge and physical skills necessary to play the game of golf at that level. Similarly, you can not play a musical instrument simply by imagining you sound great. Knowledge acquisition builds the neuronets that then makes mental rehearsal an effective method of mastering specific musical skills.

Imagination is something that most people in our society consider to be something reserved for children, daydreamers, and TV screenplay writers. “Imagination” is literally “the ability to form images in the mind.” If you can imagine it, you acquire the knowledge to sharpen that image, and you focus on it and repeat it, you can make that image a physical reality.

Here’s How to Mentally Rehearse

Arrange for a time and place with a minimum of distractions, just like you would for a traditional practice session. Sit comfortably in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and bring your mind and body to a relaxed state. Once you are relaxed, begin to visualize yourself as the active participant in the skill you are practicing. Perhaps it is a specific passage of music you’ve had trouble with, or perhaps a specific technique on your instrument you need to work on. It is critical that you see yourself performing the skill to be learned as if it were happening in the present.

If you experience any stray thoughts or “voices in your head” telling you that you are doing it wrong or any other negative comment, simply allow that thought to flow through and resume your mental practice. Repeat the skill you are practicing over and over for as many times as you can before you begin to lose focus. When you finish, open your eyes and smile. The smile is important, because it attaches positive emotions to the memory you just created.

When you get out your instrument and perform the skill you have mentally rehearsed, you will get amazing results. It is especially effective if you mentally rehearse for several days before attempting to perform physically. Like any other practice method, mental rehearsal is itself an acquired skill. It has applications far beyond the scope of playing a musical instrument as well.

If you try mental rehearsal and have great results with it, please contact me and share your story.

Visualization and imagination are the true language of our minds. Everything springs forth from imagery, including the written and spoken word. Imagination is the tool that many of us lose as we enter adulthood. Imagining what you wish to see happen literally helps you become that which you imagined. The reality of playing a musical instrument with great skill comes forth from inside of the mind of each player, not from the words of a teacher or the repetition of a demonstration.

Thank you  to Thomas J. West for letting us use his blog!
Check out Thomas J. West’s blog: http://www.thomasjwestmusic.com/

Developing an Entertaining and Effective Book of Charts for Athletic Bands

Image“Some people don’t like scat singing!” This was a phone-in remark from a listener to the weekend big band jazz show I hosted on a local radio station many years ago. In my former life as a college band director, I found that – like programming a good radio show on big band music – finding a balance of fun, effective, and easy-to-put-together charts for an athletic band “book” could be challenging. It was important for me to face the fact that musical taste varied widely depending on the venue and the sport (not to mention the age ranges of the audiences). It also occurred to me early on that bands have to compete with pre-recorded music and advertising over a public address system that can be turned up to eleven (just like Spinal Tap). The resulting plan developed a system that allowed the band to be flexible with regard to events occurring in real time. It also involved teaching all of the student musicians, especially the student conductors, an understanding of the sport being played, a how to read the “room” (players, crowd, etc.) and adjust the bands performance accordingly. In order to make this work from year to year, I developed a standard book that was adjusted each year. At the beginning of each year, our staff and students would meet and discuss to retire some charts (those that didn’t get the response we had hoped), give some others a year or two off (great charts, but we all need a break), and audition new charts for the marching band folio and/or basketball/volleyball band book. Frankly, athletic bands enjoy a high public profile and need to be able to provide a variety of music in addition to the marching competition show book. The charts do not have to be difficult to be effective.

Being in a college situation, I was fortunate to have students every year interested in studying arranging (I have also witnessed this in many high school situations, as well). Each student was provided the opportunity to audition charts during the folio/book “reboot” at the beginning of each season, starting with the basketball band book then graduating to the marching band folio if the chart was successful. The chart audition process I used on these students is the same process I used for the published charts that I would buy, which provided the majority of music in each book. It is important to note that I still impose these guidelines on myself when writing marching and pep band charts for publication:

  • Is the song instantly recognizable? (Most of the time, simple tunes need to be played simply – that is, folks don’t care for extended harmony in your everyday pop tune)
  • Are the parts and score clean? (Easy-to-read, no complex instructions needed, no “Dead Sea Scrolls”)
  • Is it 1:30 in length or less? (Let’s face it, attention spans are short. So are time-outs.)
  • Can it be adjusted/edited to fit into 30 second segments or less?
  • Does it have additional parts for maximum flexibility? (Keyboard, drum set, electric bass, optional bass clef parts in treble clef)
  • Can the chart be played in public on the third or fourth read down? (When you’re preparing 20-30 charts, they need to read down fast and easy)
  • Bonus points: does the song transcend age? (Jump in the Line – Shake Señora comes to mind as an example, known by people ages 5 to 85)

After the new charts are in place and prepared for public consumption, it is time to watch and read the atmosphere they do or do not create in a real time, live situation. Those that worked as planned were performed more often. Those that did not were placed in secondary mode and tried a few more times to double check their effectiveness.

The strangest story about the short life and rebirth of a chart was my arrangement of Peter Gabriel’s cool tune, Sledgehammer. The year I wrote the chart, it failed the basic audition criteria. It was moved to the book anyway where it was met with a total lack of interest by the band and the audience. Needless to say, that chart was quickly retired. Fast forward ten years: a student librarian discovers Sledgehammer in the library and asks to add it to the reading session. It was an instant hit with the band, the team, and the audience, becoming one of the most popular recurring charts for the next ten years! Be flexible, be interested in current music and music trends (stay hip, my friend!), and remember to observe the atmosphere that is created by the band.

Ralph Ford
Composer, arranger, conductor, and clinician

Competitive Marching Band and Indoor: Who Benefits?

Thomas J. West
It’s an age-old debate – is competition for scholastic music ensembles helpful or harmful? The correct answer is simple: it depends upon the community your school serves and their expectations. Large affluent suburban school districts have the resources to hire the best staff, recruit the deepest talent pool, provide the best equipment, and create a rehearsal environment that minimizes distractions and allows students to hyper-focus on their competitive show. Anyone else without those resources who tries to compete with that are doing their students a disservice. That is not to say that a smaller school can’t strive for excellence, but directors need to keep their egos in check and keep their choices student-centered. Does the community support that kind of aesthetic and artistic elitism? Do the students really understand and connect to the repertoire and skills that they are investing so much of their life on?

I know what it’s like to spend three months, 24 hours a day, focused on a 10-minute presentation as a member of a championship-winning drum and bugle corps. The life-lessons learned there were invaluable, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. There needs to be a place in the world for that kind of activity. Where I diverge from this, however, is when high school bands and other competitive scholastic programs become a snobby, egotistical display of extravagance with a poorly-contrived attempt to be innovative or gregariously artistic.

Over this past weekend, I watched video of several of America’s top competing high school bands as part of our judge’s clinic for the Cavalcade of Bands Association. There were two presentations that stood out of the lot for two very different reasons. Both of them were large, affluent suburban programs with more in common with each other than not. The results of their efforts were also comparably excellent in execution and performance quality. The differences, however, were literally night and day in an odd, backwards and upside-down fashion.

The first band’s show was technically challenging (but not overly so – which is what probably cost them the championship), visually stimulating, and extremely emotional. The energy and emotion pouring out of the students was palpable, even on DVD. As the finale of the show was in progress, you could see tears of pure emotion on the faces of students in the band.

The second band’s show quite possibly cost the school district and parents over $100,000 to put on the field for the season. It had an extravagant amount of props, staging, and costumes. The faces of the students is this band was one of disengagement and rote regurgitation. There was little or no emotion communicated from that show.

Both bands had a product and a season that would leave long impressions on the students and families involved. Both bands had student musicians who spent countless hours invested in their participation. Yet, what would the students in those bands come away with from the experience? On paper, just about anyone would rather be a student in Band A than Band B. And yet, Band B is an all-too-common sight on the competitive field.

When design teams sit down to design a program for their competitive season, I believe that the guiding principle behind the decisions they make should be “who benefits?” Every decision made, from repertoire to color choices, should be made from a student-centered point of view rather than a mature music staff’s personal need to display their artistry. All of the arts are about communication. If the show designed does not communicate to the student, it will communicate nothing to their audience other than a sense of “what was all of that?”

Here is another example of a staff decision that was not student-centered from that same Band B from above. Part of the band’s show involved costume changes. The front ensemble (percussion pit) were not involved in the color change, but were garbed in a unitard that matched the theme of the show. From an artistic standpoint, the costume choice worked. If the looks on the faces of the students in the pit were any indication, there were students who were not comfortable wearing the unitard. Yes, part of the lesson of being involved in a music ensemble is that you have to sacrifice personal tastes and preferences for the benefit of the ensemble. But, there is something to be said for taking the age and maturity of the ensemble’s participants into account. For how many of those students was wearing that uniform a barrier to being able to completely invest in the show? Again, who benefits?

Repertoire selection is one of the most important decisions that a music teacher in any scholastic performing setting has to make. In the case of designing a competitive music presentation, repertoire selection is only the tip of the iceberg. Drill design, choreography, staging, equipment, and transportation all take a part as defining factors, to name but a few. Unlike many other scholastic performing settings, students involved in the competitive arena spend a significantly higher amount of time and attention on a comparatively smaller and more focused musical product. They eat, sleep, and breathe that work for months. If anyone is going to spend that much time and effort, it needs to be something they can intellectually and emotionally buy into. If the students fail to grasp the content of their competitive show intellectually or emotionally, it will take a large amount of extrinsic motivation on the part of the staff to get them to perform, and the end result is a student ensemble that performs an emotionally flat, over-rehearsed show with the demeanor of a group of prison inmates. But, the staff will have the artistic vision that they labored for.

Who benefits?

Thanks goes to Thomas J. West Music for letting us use his blog!

Thomas J. West is an active music educator, composer, adjudicator, clinician, and award-winning blogger.

Keeping Your Eyes (and Ears) On the “Prize”

Danny Ursetti
Around this time of year most high school programs are in the thick of their competitive marching season. Rehearsals during the week are intensifying and weekends only exist for Saturday rehearsals and competitions.You’ve spent months preparing for your band’s 12-minute time slot to perform your show for an audience and the judges. The band performs its best show of the year but does not earn the score that you think they deserve. What now?

This happens all too often in this sport called marching band. That’s right, I said it, marching band is a sport. Hours and hours of rehearsal time are spent practicing and perfecting a drill set or a musical run, all for everyone to end up disappointed at the competition. We have to remember why we do marching band or music at all for that matter. It’s not for the thrill of winning a trophy, or taking the top score. Music is fun. It’s fun to listen, dance, sing, and play. And not to mention march to!

Art is subjective
Unlike other sports, where you have more control over whether or not you earn enough points to win, marching band is a judged competition. You can tune every chord, align every form, nail every transition and still not get the score you were hoping for. Music is an art form. Art is not created to be judged and/or critiqued.That being said, I do believe unbiased feedback is essential in getting the best out of your students and staff to help them improve throughout the season. It’s ok not to win. Competition is a great way to motivate students to do their best and to encourage them to learn how to deal with the end results, no matter what the results may be. But the most important thing is: If you perform your best, you win!

Take pride in your work
In a high school setting, playing music for fun isn’t quite enough. We have to help the students take pride in the work they are putting in. Yes, music is fun, but you know what’s even better? Sounding and looking your very best. The hours and hours of rehearsal time should not be geared at winning the competition or beating the cross-town rival. The goal should be to perform the best show of the season every time the band steps on the field. One thing or another will most likely go wrong at a show, but if the band takes everything the staff has given them and plays and marches their very best, that is a successful show and season.

Most students will not remember what score they received, place they took, or what trophy they won (which will most likely be covered in dust on a shelf in the band room), but what they will remember are the times they spent learning, practicing, and performing music with their friends to the best of their ability. That is something to be proud of. So as you are starting to go to competitions this season, and with championships on the not so distant horizon, try to remember why we learn (and teach) music: It’s fun!

Do you have any “fun” ways to motivate your students? In what ways do you motivate younger musicians to do their best? Please share your thoughts and insights below!
Good luck and have a great season!

Danny Ursetti
Music Caption Head, Royal High School

The New “Super Heroes” Are Band Directors!

Victor LopezBy Victor Lopez

Due to the significant changes in public school instruction system in America, it has become extremely challenging for a band director to have an outstanding band program. The changes mean students will have more customized options tailored to their particular needs and interests.

The amount of challenges affecting the band program is overwhelming. Let us consider some of the most recent ones: Academic achievement was set as a priority in public education with stricter attendance rules; adoption of a no-pass, no-play rule prohibiting students who were failing courses from participating in sports and other extracurricular activities for a six-week period; and national norm-referenced testing throughout all grades to assure parents of individual schools’ performance through a common frame of reference; school choice programs; grade level configurations; and, the push to increase the number of students enrolled in advanced placement courses. Additionally, many band directors work in high poverty area schools where they experience the following: high student mobility rate; diminished pool of talented students; lack of equipment; limited feeder programs; declined attendance at performances; and, the shift of program funding from the school to other sources, just to name a few.

These challenges, one way or another, have been in existence for several decades and many band directors continue to face them on a daily basis. It does not take long to realize that it is a tug-of-war between the band program and the rest of the school, not to mention the personal life of students. However, year after year, these new ‘Super Heroes” manage to have quality programs despite the hurdles they face. Above all, they have a passion for music and the band program, provide musical direction, find scholarships for the students, accommodate special needs students, implement differentiated instructional techniques, support district mandates for raising student achievement and closing achievement gaps, are responsible for fund raising activities and yes, in many cases have become community leaders.

Overcoming all of these challenges is certainly not an easy task. We must continue to be strong advocates fighting to keep music alive in our schools.  We must continue to promote music and communicate to policymakers the value of what music education can do for a child — whether it’s academic, whether it’s social, whether it’s emotional — so that they understand the benefits of music education.”

To our Super Heroes, I say … keep the music playing!!!!!

Are there ways that you are advocating to keep music alive in schools that would be helpful to share with others reading this?

Magical Travel Tips: Traveling Efficiently

By Elizabeth Geli
Posted June 2011
Courtesy of Marching.com

Traveling with hundreds of marching band students can sometimes be a headache, but with proper preparation and communication, your trip can go smoothly and without hold-ups. Band Director Matt Lovell from the Burlington (Mass.) High School “Red Devil” Marching Band shared some of his tips for efficient and speedy travel.

Evaluate Your Students For smooth travel, a good ratio is to have one adult chaperone for every six to 10 students.

Before he even starts to pick a trip location, Lovell carefully evaluates that year’s band — including the students’ level of maturity, behavioral history and the strength of the student leaders.

“That’s the key to it: the first thing is you have to make sure that the band you go with is a band that can take the responsibility of a trip,” Lovell says. “I know them at their best, and I know them at their worst. The question is not how they are at their best but how will they be at their worst. If I know that they will fulfill their responsibilities even when they’re not ‘on,’ that’s a group that can go.”

Find a Travel Planner

Once Lovell has decided to go ahead and take a trip, he looks for a good travel planner or student tour operator related to the trip location, in this case, one with personal contacts at Walt Disney World and Boston Logan Airport.

“Travel has gotten a lot more complex since 2001,” Lovell says. “We used to be able to be pretty happy with putting the trip together ourselves, but now we go with a travel planner who works specifically with bands, and it was much more successful.”

To read the full article, please visit Marching.com.

Boot Camp for Bands Builds Strength, Stamina, and Confidence

Boot Camp For Bands
By Michel Sorrentino-Poole
Runonheart Personal Training
Courtesy of Marching.com

Although the concept was relatively obscure just a decade ago, today you’d be hard pressed to find a professional sports team or elite athlete who does not use the services of a functional trainer.

Functional training works to strengthen the body by using movement without machine assistance. The exercises are integrated and utilize muscle groups rather than isolation because the body works and moves in an integrated fashion.

But how does functional training translate to the field where marching bands compete?

Pretty well, according to the Lincoln-Way East High School Griffins, who have two Illinois state marching band championships in their pocket.

“The inclusion of core and strength training in the marching program at Lincoln-Way East has transformed our students in remarkable ways,” said band director Cliff Smith. “In addition to a significant increase in stamina, the students now have a far better understanding of the relationship between their own personal strength and their ability to move well on the field.”

As owner of Runonheart Personal Training, I began working with Lincoln-Way bands six years ago. In summer 2010 I will continue my work in a “boot camp” setting to share functional training techniques with more than 700 marching musicians from six different bands. Our objectives are to build basic strength from the core outward, correct muscle imbalances and build strength and endurance.

To read the full article, please go to Marching.com.

For a Better Ensemble, Give Your Attention to the Individual Student

Jack Bullock
Music ensembles in public schools are formed of students with varying degrees of musical ability and accomplishments. The ensemble, whether it be Concert Band, Orchestra, Jazz Band, Marching Band or small groups of like or unlike instruments, as the saying goes, is only as good as the weakest performer. Let’s think about individual performers and methods to improve the performance of each member of the ensemble.

Most schools offer instrumental music lessons in small groups of like instruments. It is possible for students to get “lost” in these groups and need individual attention, especially at the beginning level. You, the teacher, are completely scheduled and this individual attention is impossible in your availability. What do you do next?

Consider a “Buddy” Teacher, an older student playing the same instrument well, who can help the young student with basic musical problems (counting, fingerings, tone production, stickings for percussionists, etc.). Prepare the older student in basic teaching approaches and briefly view the two together during the first “lesson” to insure that the combination will work. This will be effective in two ways – for the older student who will take pride in helping another with his or her “expertise;” and the younger student who will look up to his “buddy teacher.”

On a broad basis, try a solo and ensemble requirement of every student in your program that will help all become better musicians. One teacher I observed had such a program and it was very successful. Each student had to perform in two recitals each school year, on one recital as a soloist and the other as part of an ensemble. The recitals were held in the school auditorium, sometimes in the evening after school hours or held during the regular daytime instrumental lesson classes. The performance materials were compatible to their ability and the older students were instructed to memorize their solo performance. Young students were given songs or exercises from their lesson books and performed them in class as a solo generally standing in front of the class.

Give each student in your program “individual” attention to their “individual” needs. Sounds tough for you? Probably, but it will make your ensembles better.

Classical Music for Marching Band?

Artist Pic

By Patrick Roszell
Alfred Marching Band Writer

Some purists in the band world just rolled their eyes so far back in their heads that we heard a collective thud. A few of my former teachers would argue that the only place for “The Classics” are symphony hall or in the symphonic band/wind ensemble literature. However, a point made to me many times by my first arranging and composition teacher, who incidentally, was a classically trained oboist with degrees from the Eastman School of Music, was that more people see marching bands in the course of their lives than they will ever see a symphony orchestra, a wind ensemble or a symphonic band.

We live in a culture that loves football! Both of my alma maters, the Jacksonville State University Marching Southerners and the Troy University Sound of the South, have very fine marching programs. Each group has membership well over 300 and both perform for hundreds of thousands of people each fall either at football games or at marching band contests as the exhibition band. If one of these ensembles played Carmina Burana (both have) or A New World Symphony by Dvořák, how many people would hear these spectacular pieces for the first time and realize they like something they had never heard before?

If we are to truly educate our audience as well as entertain them, doesn’t classical music make sense for the marching field?