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