Greetings and happy fall semester to you! By now, I’m certain that you’re well on your way with your school band ensembles, and you’re looking to begin adding more polish for upcoming performances. And if those performances are on a football field, then chances are you are dealing with all sorts of timing issues in your performance.
The task of getting all of our performers’ sounds to reach the audience at the same time, especially when they are spread across a football field, is a daunting one. But with some careful planning, knowledge of acoustics, and the appropriate rehearsal techniques, you can tighten up your band’s timing to create greater impact on audiences and judges alike!
Demonstrate the Speed of Sound
As always, seeing is believing. You know that sound travels relatively slowly, and you’ve told your students this before. But take time to demonstrate this fact to your band members! Take half of your wind players and place them behind the drumline before playing a short show excerpt while listening to the drumline. Have the other half of the winds stand up front and listen to the fractured result. When they hear how timing is terribly affected by this situation, then switch those two halves of wind players. This way, every single one of your wind players knows and believes intrinsically that the geometry of their placement on the field, in relation to the battery, is highly important in their time-keeping responsibilities.
Use a Backfield Metronome
I’m certain that to many of my readers this may seem insultingly simple and obvious. However, in my experience, I have seen many bands that are reluctant or resistant to utilizing a backfield metronome during rehearsals. This simply boils down to a puritanical sense of pride: “We ought not have to use a metronome.” Trust me, no one likes listening to or putting up with a metronome. But remember that a metronome is simply a tool to keep you and your band honest about timing. More importantly, it also trains your performers to always listen back for their timing (more on that below). Also, a metronome is the only guarantee for the success of your auxiliary performers, who’s tosses and other maneuvers are tied strictly to the written tempos. Finally, one need not simply leave a metronome set to quarter notes throughout a rehearsal to develop timing. There are all sorts of metronome games you can play to develop your students’ sense of timing and subdivision.
Assign Specific Listening Responsibilities
Once your students understand the effect that the speed of sound has on their ability to play in time on the field, it’s time to give them some simple rules for when they can play with what they hear, and when they must play with what they see from the drum major’s hands. [Please note that I owe much of the following information to the excellent work of Andrew Rogers. To see his impressive discussion regarding the calculation of listening assignments on the field, then view his website and this video!]
A simple rule you can give your students is the following: “If you can draw a straight line from the drumline, through yourself, to the drum major, then you can listen, not watch.” Just as our front ensemble members listen backwards for their timing, so can your performers in this zone leading directly from the drumline to the drum major. For example, take a look at this spreadsheet (again, adapted from Andrew Rogers’ work). It shows the safe listening areas in green. The performers in this area can simply listen to the performers behind them, and those to others behind them, and on and on until reaching the battery. You’ll notice that these areas are in the cone leading from the battery (represented by the “M” for metronome) on the field to the drum major.
Also note that once outside of that cone, there is a narrow area of marginal listening in yellow, proceeding to a red area. This red area represents those parts of the field who cannot listen to the battery, or they will be behind to the audience’s ears. Here is another image that shows these various listening environments.
Develop the Winds’ Relationship to the Battery
Simply telling the winds to listen to the battery is rarely enough. You’ve got to tune their ears to those percussion parts so they understand how they fit in. To do this, take any set of drill that is giving you timing issues. Have the winds stand in that set and mark time in place, singing their parts, while they listen back to the battery playing. No drum major or field conductor should be used, and the percussion should tap off to begin the segment. After that, have the winds mark time in place while they play to the percussion parts. Again, no conductor should be used. Once the winds have learned how to play in time to the percussion parts coming from behind them, then put the chunk of drill on the move, playing and marching. You’ll find that the impact of sound is now lining up much more tightly!
Educate Your Field Conductors
This can all present quite the challenge for our drum majors and field conductors. In addition to having to provide clear, unchanging tempos, they must do this while ignoring some conflicting sonic information they are getting from the field. However, with some simple rules of thumb, you can help your drum majors can provide clear information to your field ensemble. Here are some important rules of thumb to remember!
- If the battery is behind the winds, then the center drum major should conduct to what they see the battery doing. Looking at the center snare’s sticks, feet, etc. are all excellent cues for maintaining appropriate tempo.
- If the battery is in front of the winds, then the drum major should be conducting ever-so-slightly ahead of what he/she hears from the battery. This will ensure that the wind performers’ sounds reach the audience at the same time as the battery.
- Side-field conductors and drum majors who are conducting to the areas of the field outside the safe listening environment must conduct slightly ahead of the center conductor’s hands in order to ensure that those performers’ sounds reach the audience simultaneously.
Figuring out how far ahead of the drumline a center conductor should be, or how far ahead a side-field conductor should be of the drum major, takes some work. First, place yourself in the stands to listen to a certain segment of drill where these timing issues are occurring. Secondly, place another staff member or trusted timing listener behind the wind section outside of the safe listening area. Have that listener stay right behind that wind section as they perform a section of the show. Have the field listener determine if the performers are actually playing in time with what they hear. If they are, use your ears in the stands to determine how far behind (an 8th note, a 16th note?) that wind section sounds behind the battery. That’s how far ahead of the drum major your side-field conductor must be.
If this seems complicated, it can be. However, it’s far better to have one side-field conductor in charge of anticipating the beat than two put that responsibility in the hands of 20+ field performers!
Reap the Benefits of Improved Timing
Besides just giving your band’s sound more polish and maturity, improved ensemble timing results in far greater volume and impact. When all of those sound waves arrive at the audience simultaneously, they add up and amplify to provide an incredible listening experience that gets a visceral response from audiences and judges alike. As you look for the next level from your marching band leading into the upcoming performances and competitions, try to implement these ideas in your show. It will yield tremendous results!