The pressure to create visually spectacular marching band shows can be high in the age of short attention spans, reality TV competition shows, and social media.
Some large universities have met the challenge by creating exciting performances featuring drill sets with detailed picture formations and transitions. Many high schools have responded by incorporating creative and challenging shows. Regardless of the level of complexity, some basics need to be in place to help students entertain the crowds. Here are some ideas for how to help your students have the best marching experience possible.
Begin with Inspiration
Todd Marcocci is the color guard director and choreographer for the marching band at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and has directed and designed innumerable parades and programs. He says he was first introduced to marching band when he was a young child watching a group prepare for a parade. The inspiration led him to join his school’s marching band, where he was fortunate to have directors who took him to Drum Corps International (DCI) competitions. He says that helped him see what was possible.
“At a young age, I realized what excellence was,” Marcocci said. “It can really pave the way for the future if directors take students to drum and bugle corps shows in the summer.”
It certainly also helps to give students hands-on marching opportunities at a young age. Edward Otto, who is the band director at Downingtown West High School in Pennsylvania, began his marching band experience at the junior high level. After that, he not only pursued marching, but also learned from mentors how to design programs, which led him to a professional career creating 350 shows and directing bands in several high schools.
Both Marcocci and Otto talk about how everything with marching starts with a vision and a plan.
“On a sports team there is a lot of sitting on the bench. In the band, everyone is a starter, so you are as strong as your weakest link.” – Band Director Edward Otto
Planning Marching Band Formations, Choreography & Music
The first step often is finding the big idea, whether it’s a story, theme or focus. For Marcocci, those central ideas for a halftime show or parade program come from his imagination, based on whatever inspiration he may find in nature or life in general. Sometimes he starts with visuals that send him searching for music, and sometimes it’s vice versa where he starts with music that needs visuals.
There are a number of new complete marching shows that can help set the musical stage for the visual process. Whatever idea you choose, remember to consider:
- What works best for your particular group
- What limitations in instrumentation or experience your band may have, and how much of that is fixable
- How much time you have to learn new music: Is your band a class or an extracurricular activity? Do you have a long summer band camp?
- What does your audience want to see? Otto says he primarily considers the football crowd that’ll be watching the show.
- If you need to prepare for both shows and parades, how you may handle both
During the planning process, both Otto and Marcocci say it’s particularly important to think about your students’ ability level so that everyone can succeed.
“On a sports team there is a lot of sitting on the bench. In the band, everyone is a starter, so you are as strong as your weakest link,” Otto said.
“You want kids to walk off the field or street feeling great about what they did,” Marcocci added. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing your job.”
This will be easier if the music showcases different instruments playing the melody at times, allowing students to have their featured moment. It also helps to select music that has various tempo, rhythm, or key changes that provide more visual and musical opportunities.
Once the idea is in hand and the music is set, make a general schedule from springtime forward. Otto says he considers logistics to be the hardest part and emphasizes the importance of keeping on task.
Aspects of Marching Band Visual Design
Once you’ve selected the theme and the music, the drill design process gets underway. Otto points out that some marching show ideas require research before they can be turned into full productions. As an example, he mentioned a show his band did titled “A Night with India” that included the country’s royal colors and other cultural details that were used to design front drops and portray streets and cities. As part of the process, he consulted with parents of Indian descent to get their input on the show’s visuals.
Regardless of the show, Marcocci cautions against over-choreographing to keep the drill as clean as possible. Here are some suggested basic steps:
- Map out your show in time with details on where the hits are going to be—decide the initial punch to reel the audience in.
- Consider your balance between music and marching. Some directors prefer a ratio of about 60–40 for the band to have opportunities to stand still and play.
- Determine your drill shapes—do you want basic circles, triangles and wedges, rectangles, or variants of them? Do you want some asymmetrical formations that don’t require perfect lines?
- Find ways to feature the sections of the band carrying the melody.
- Program breath-taking time for the wind instruments.
- Decide what instruments should be together during a drill set. Otto likes to determine that by instrument voicing; for example, during a low brass feature, the bass drumline will likely be staged with the brass.
- Determine your color guard effects and placement, such as where you want the guard to be positioned in relation to the band members carrying the melody and where in a formation the guard should be located.
- Decide if you are using props; Otto had a show based on mirrors that were rolled onto the field—this required proper preparation.
- Spend a good deal of time planning transitions, including marching direction, pass-throughs, and intervals or distances between students.
- Define the refinement of movements—do you want a certain pose or arm movement?
- Decide how you want the show to end—do you want it to end with a crescendo or with music fading away?
“Ice skaters don’t just do a triple axel. It takes years of detailed technique work to get them on a path that advances their skills” – Color Guard Director and Choreographer Todd Marcocci
Teaching Drill to Students
When it’s time to teach the drill, Otto follows a system of alternating between older and newer members of the band during the drill—old, new, old, new. This helps the new members learn by modeling the more experienced band members.
Then, there are some basic questions that need to be addressed during drill rehearsal, such as:
- Are students standing the proper way?
- Does the movement come from the hip, ankle, toe?
- Are they properly hitting their heels on the beat, starting with the left foot?
- Are their feet passing by the ankle on the “and” of the count?
- How are they holding their instruments?
- Are they wearing their uniforms and hats correctly?
To help with uniformity of movement, Marcocci recommends giving visual descriptions. For example, rather than just saying “lift your arm,” you might say, “imagine a string a pulling your wrist towards the sky.”
A common practice that Otto recommends is using a metronome with a speaker system to help keep everyone on beat. Some directors use drones to video their band practice for later review.
One of the biggest focuses is teaching students where they should be in relationship to each other. Hash marks and cones can help, but generally, students who can assess their place in space will be able to fix errors more easily. Most importantly, students always need to know where they are going next. As mistakes occur, it’s generally better to stop periodically and fix them during a set rather than waiting until the end. Practicing mistakes creates bad motor memories.
“Make excellence a habit,” Otto said. “How the students practice is how they’ll perform.”
Joining the Parade
Marcocci and Otto are both big fans of having school bands perform in parades. It gives bands an opportunity to showcase their skill to a larger audience.
“A parade with 20,000 people on the road may be more significant than any crowd for a school sports team,” Marcocci said. “It’s a public relations tool—a chance to be an ambassador for the school and to showcase the school district. If I were a band director, I would make sure what we were presenting was top of the scale.”
At parades, the audience changes with every step the band takes. Otto recommends preparing a few set songs with a 110 or 115 metronome setting, including samples of marches. Then, it’s good to have a plan for some kind of drill that will give the crowd a visual show other than just marching forward. This may include a form within a form, such as having columns of people march through a shape.
To ensure success, Marcocci recommends finding a street with turns where the band can march. That is the best way to prepare for the width of the road and the necessary corners.
It also may help to add an element of surprise. Marcocci said when he directed a band in the Macy’s Parade, he received permission for the band to release confetti to simulate snow.
Whether it is a parade or a field show, Marcocci says that in the end, technique is most important.
“Ice skaters don’t just do a triple axel. It takes years of detailed technique work to get them on a path that advances their skills,” Marcocci said. “The biggest things are learned over time.”