5-Minute Read: Program Chamber and Elastic Works in Your Concert

Happy Spring, everyone! Hopefully, you have successfully completed your band’s concert festival adjudication for this academic year and are now turning to, among other concerns, your Spring Concert.

Each year, our Spring concerts provide a wonderful programming opportunity.  Unlike an adjudicated performance, Spring concerts allow us to take more chances, to stretch our performers’ abilities and repertoire. But sometimes it can be daunting to fill a concert with enough music that can be rehearsed in time, especially if your adjudicated festival is late in the year.  But if we think beyond traditional the concert band repertoire and model, there can be wonderful musical opportunities for your student performers.  I’m speaking of chamber music and elastic wind instrumentation!

Chamber Ensembles

Chamber ensembles are one of the best ways to further your performers’ musicianship. Every performer’s part is active, vital, and exposed, and students have to work to communicate with one another to blend, keep time, and match style and dynamic shaping.  These ensembles are also a great opportunity to showcase the very best performers in your ensembles. Best of all, they can rehearse on their own, in short, separate practice sessions that don’t use your valuable rehearsal time.  Simply pop in to coach them in their efforts and make sure that their progress is on track for the performance.

Chamber ensembles are an incredibly versatile tool because they are so flexible.  There is a vast compendium of music for every level of difficulty and for a spectrum of instrumentation configurations. Woodwind quintets, brass quintets and quartets, clarinet choirs, saxophone quartets, percussion ensembles, and duets and trios that can be played by any number of instruments with some simple transposition you help provide. If your area has a solo and ensemble festival, your students may have already prepared these sorts of works that you can fold into your Spring concert program!

Elastic Instrumentation

While much of the strength of the concert band has been in the 20th century efforts to standardize its instrumentation, there is no doubt that it can also be constraining.  Maybe you don’t have a great oboe player.  Maybe your woodwinds are far stronger than your brass, and they’re bored as a result of the literature this shortcoming forces you to select. You have a wonderful lyrical work you want to program, but your 16 talented and energetic percussionists are left with nothing to do while the winds tackle that composition. Elastic ensembles can allow you to avoid these pitfalls.

There are works written just for large woodwind choirs (visit this section of the J.W. Pepper Catalog). There are compositions for brass ensembles.  There is, of course, a wonderful concert percussion repertoire. Just because they aren’t a concert band doesn’t mean they don’t belong on your concert band’s program.  The wonderful and noble history of wind and percussion performance existed long before the modern wind band, and that heritage can be preserved when your students and audiences experience it first-hand!


Finally, if you have an advanced musician that you’d like to feature, don’t hesitate to spotlight them as a soloist.  This is most easily accomplished if you have a soloist who has already prepared a piece with a piano accompanist, either for a festival or a college audition. This is a great way to reward a talented and dedicated performer, and it has no impact on your band’s rehearsal time.

So get creative in your Spring concert programming this year! Careful planning can show your community the depth of sounds possible from the concert band’s constituent sections, and can provide your student performers with new opportunities to explore repertoire. Happy programming!

5-Minute Read: Shake Things Up with a Silent Rehearsal

By now, you and your bands have probably settled into a comfortable routine of warm-ups, sight-reading, and rehearsal of your pieces you’re preparing for upcoming festivals and concerts.  Maybe even too comfortable of a routine.  While process and habit are certainly key to successful teaching, there’s no doubt that things can become a bit stale and you can experience reduced response from your student performers. So shake things up with a silent rehearsal!

A silent rehearsal will not only be a nice change of pace, but it also has several other advantages, including heightened listening by both performer and conductor, increased response to conducting cues, and improved classroom management.

Carefully Plan

A silent rehearsal won’t be successful on the spur of the moment, so plan ahead.  Carefully lay out a written plan of the warm-ups, rhythms, and musical excerpts you want to rehearse, in order, with approximate times.  This plan should include the goals of each rehearsal region (i.e. “improve dynamic contrast in measures 24-26”). Then copy this plan onto your whiteboard/projected classroom lesson plan so that students will see it when they enter the room. This way silence can be established from the beginning, with simply pointing to the board serving the purpose of announcements.

Work on Your Non-Verbal Communication

Silent rehearsals aren’t silent just for your students, they’re (nearly) silent for you!  Though it may seem like a challenge, requiring your students to intently watch you and pick up on your non-verbal communication will translate into a much greater connection and response to your conducting and gestures.  Go ahead and have some non-verbal cues at the ready, such as:

  • Reserving finger pointing and other aggressive gestures for disciplinary and classroom management situations
  • Stopping the ensemble, waving to the section(s) you want to engage, then pointing to your baton. Rather than telling that section what you want changed in style and dynamics, show them with your conducting. Make sure that your conducting style and gestures truly reflect what you want to hear! Get them to exaggerate their response to your conducting style and cues, and when you get the appropriate response give them a smile and a thumbs up!
  • Show fingerings and slide adjustments to your wind players who are playing wrong notes.
  • Walk back to the percussion section to personally demonstrate technique, such as proper grip, more open rolls, or appropriate positioning for playing the cymbals or triangle.  This is a great chance for non-percussionist band directors to do some YouTube research on proper technique!
  • Shake your keys at the ensemble when they aren’t playing within the marked key signature.
  • Clap your hands in the rhythms with which your ensemble is struggling, then point to them and have them clap it back.  Once the rhythm is correct and fluent, then mime them into playing the rhythm on their instruments.
  • Show them a pencil and mime marking things down in the score.  There will probably be reminders for yourself to mark in your score, so make sure to point to yourself and make a show of writing things down!
  • Have them sustain chords or individual unison parts and point to your ear to improve intonation.  If they need to focus even more, have them sing through instrument on an “ah” while fingering the appropriate note. This can all be readily communicated with signs and gestures.

Leave Time for Reflection

Make sure you leave a brief interval at the end of class for a quick discussion with your ensemble.  What did they hear in this silent rehearsal that they never heard before? What did you notice now that you were silent and intently listening? What lessons on focus and non-verbal communication can be carried from this silent rehearsal into future situations? This brief discussion can truly focus your student performers on their capabilities of focus, and limitations in multitasking.

While it’s not something you’d want to do everyday, silent rehearsals can provide a boost to you and your students’ listening and communication skills.  The change of pace is fun for everyone, and the response to your conducting will be noticeable.  Finally, you’ll notice issues with your band’s playing that you’ve become deaf and blind through the daily classroom grind.  Give it a try this week!

5-Minute Read: “Help Your Substitutes!”

Hello, all!  This is the first 5-Minute Read of 2017, and I hope that the year is treating you well! For much of the country, this is the semester with a lot of music teacher absences, as we head to state conferences, festivals, and more.  And the eternal question lingers: “How do I leave an effective plan for my substitute teacher?”

When I was teaching high school, I dreaded leaving my band members with a substitute teacher.  At best, the kids would behave long enough to watch a video, and at worst we’d have a sub who didn’t monitor the students properly, leading to classroom disorder. But as with any procedure facing your classroom, some planning can turn this into an opportunity!

Find an Expert

While this is often difficult, your first and best substitute choice is always an experienced music educator.  Is there a retired director still living in your area?  Can the assistant director at a nearby program spare a day to sub for your ensembles?  It’s always in your best interest to work with your central office to get these kinds of options on the sub list.  When you know and can choose to assign your ensembles to a true music educator, then your absence has become a wonderful guest clinic paid for with district funding!

Give Student Conductors a Chance

There are certainly students in your ensemble who are aspiring music educators and talented leaders in their own right.  Your absence can be a great opportunity for them to get some podium time and for their fellow students to experience peer leadership and cooperation.  This is an especially great tool when you can’t get an experienced music educator as a substitute.  Your substitute can handle the nitty-gritty responsibilities of attendance, discipline, and other classroom management tasks that can’t be left in a student’s hands, while your student conductor (or conductors!) can rehearse your ensembles.

Provide a Seating Chart

As an experienced substitute reacher myself, I can’t stress just how powerful a tool the seating chart is. Simply calling out every name on a roll call is time consuming, opening up your classroom to behavioral issues, and it allows your students who shouldn’t sit next to one another to talk and disrupt rehearsal.  On the other hand, a seating chart not only allows your sub to properly set-up the ensemble, it allows them to simply scan for empty spaces in the group.  Finally, it’s far more effective to speak to students by their names, which is easily accomplished with a seating chart!

Provide a Real Plan

Substitutes dread the following two phrases: “allow the students to work silently on their own,” or “watch the DVD.” Babysitting students for 45 minutes to an hour and a half while making them be totally silent is boring, clearly a waste of time for all involved, and a guarantee of behavioral issues popping up.  And no matter what movie you put in, half of the ensemble will be uninterested and disruptive to the viewing experience of those who are interested.  So provide a detailed, written plan that details your ensemble’s rehearsal procedures and goals.  Include your warm-up and tuning process, what specific parts of which tunes you want rehearsed, and in how much time and what manner you want your classroom cleaned and “reset.” Finally, always include your e-mail address and phone number so that the sub can ask you any emergency questions, as well as provide you an end-of-day report on how the classes behaved.

It may seem like a lot of work, but doing this now during a planning period will ensure that your band not only avoids behavioral problems in your next absence, but thrives!


5-Minute Read: Make your Show Generally Effective

Every state, circuit, and show has a different word for it on their judging sheets. Showmanship. Entertainment. General Effect.  It’s meant to measure that very intangible, somewhat subjective idea of the impact your band’s show has on your audience.  Does it move them to excitement and emotion through your coordinated execution of demanding musical and visual elements.

For something so seemingly subjective and abstract, General Effect plays a huge part in your marching band’s success at contest.  At many captioned contests, it can count for 20%-40% of your overall score!  And even at uncaptioned contests, where some equivalent to “General Effect” doesn’t appear explicitly on the judging sheet, it is impossible for a judge to ignore how they are personally moved by the effectiveness of your show. Clearly, bands looking to improve their scores will want to raise their General Effect as much as possible. But how?

Execution is Paramount

Firstly, remember that your band will only be as effective as they are fluent in executing their marching and visual package.  Judges will only give you credit for what you do, not what you try to do.  To that end, at this point in the season, if there are difficult musical and visual elements of your show that your students can’t quite execute with full confidence and control, then a rewrite is in order.  Simplifying ever so slightly will ensure 100% execution.  So, maybe some of those 16th notes become 8th notes.  Maybe some very high-tessitura brass chords get voiced down an inversion (see my earlier article “Re-write” for some ideas on this). Visuals can be rewritten as well.  Maybe that bodywork during a woodwind technical feature can do with one less plié.  Maybe that step size can be reduced for your brass while they are playing a loud or difficult passage.  Anything you can do to improve your band’s execution will improve your General Effect!

Check Your Pacing

Just as in good storytelling, pacing is incredibly important to your show’s effect on the audience.  Taking too long during transitions, not maximizing big impact moments for a little longer, not filling the field with enough color during an emotional opportunity: all of these can negatively impact your show’s effect.  My suggestion: show your best show video to as many of your friends, musician and layperson alike, and ask them what they think about the pacing.  Are you taking too long to change equipment? Is there too much time between your drum major salute and the onset of the show? Do your impact moments excite your audience but leave them wanting a little more? Can every portion of a new feature moment be heard, or is it being covered by other on-field sounds or applause. All of these issues can be solved by adding or removing 2-4 counts at strategic points in your production. Conversely, if you are hearing from one or more judges that there is not enough “simultaneous demand” during a particular portion of the show, or that you’re “standing still too long,” then that’s the spot to add bodywork, horn flashes, or more to up the perceived demand!

Add a Little Something Extra

lit_prop_costumeSome of your audiences, judges included, have been seeing your show for several weeks. While you may have the ears and experience to see and hear the continuous improve your kids have achieved, it’s only natural that a certain level of fatigue can set in with your audience. So find a way, in these final two weeks, to add just a little something extra to your show.  It could be a change to large, colorful flags at the end of your show, a new set of visuals in the winds, a flashy new prop, or a tag ending to your production accompanied by the front ensemble. It may be as simple as adding some small lighting elements to your soloists, props, or equipment to highlight a big moment. Anything you can do to introduce an extra element to help your audience fall in love with your show all over again.

With these changes to your show, you could improve a major component of your band’s competitive success!  Give these a try in the upcoming week as you enter this last phase of your competition season.

5-Minute Read: Subsets Will Clean Your Drill

Visual. Marching and Maneuvering.  Whatever the contest sheet calls it, we all want a better score in how our marching band’s drill looks on the field.  But this is always a difficult task, because marching in a straight line with even-sized steps doesn’t come naturally to any human being! But using the process of cleaning subsets can vastly improve the look of your band on the move, creating a pleasing visual product for you and other discerning eyes!

Drill Sets are a Fraction of Your Show

Our students can often fixate on “dots.” Do they hit their spot or not. Are they in the form or not? And those things are very important!  However, this fixation on hitting a certain spot can sometimes overshadow how they look while they are on the move to that spot!  For example, in a 24-count maneuver from set 1 to 2, there is one count of standing in a form and 23 counts of movement!  That makes how your performers look during the maneuver about 95% of what the judge just saw.  Communicating to your students that it’s not just whether they hit the dot but how they look while they do it is tremendously important!

Determine Subsets and Clean Them

Cue the subset!  A subset is the form resulting in the midst of a transition from one drill set to another.  For example, take a look at the following progression of forms.  On the left is form 1.  On the right is form 2.  And in the middle, call it 1a, is the subset that exists on the halfway count between those two drill sets.


The key to cleaning this transition from set 1 to set 2 is to determine this subset position for all members and to repeatedly march and clean set 1a.  If your students can hit that set with their correct foot at the correct count, we know that they are taking the appropriate straight-line path and step size.

Use Technology to Help

The images above came from a great mobile app called DrillBookNext that runs on Android and iOS devices.  All you have to do is feed DrillBookNext your show’s coordinate sheets from PyWare, and it will generate animated, count-by-count, images of your show.  You can see what a form looks like at any sub-count between drill pages.

Another great technology is the online Midset Calculator. This free site allows your students to input their coordinates on two drill sets, and the calculator will spit out the subset at every count in between! This can be perfect for assigning dot books or for assigning isolated drill segments that are giving you some trouble.

Even if you don’t want to fiddle with these technological advances, you can always simply use the ubiquitous cameras on our smartphones to clean your subsets.  Simply video your troublesome drill segments, and afterwards you can pause and capture the frames where the subsets occur.  These screen grabs can be posted to FaceBook for your performers to reflect on for visual improvement!

If you dedicate significant drill cleaning time to your subsets, you’ll find that the visual clarity of your ensemble improves by leaps and bounds.  Try these techniques and technologies this week and see what they can do for your marching band!