What's your favorite show?

So, today being #ThrowbackThursday, I am reminiscing about a show we did at the University of Kentucky this past year for our Thursday night football game against Auburn.  Based on a student-led idea, we came up with an idea to do a throwback show based on some of our favorite movies.  We made pictures of Star Wars characters, an E.T. icon, and images from Back to the Future.  The crowd loved it!

So, this got me thinking?  What are some of my favorite shows and what are yours?

Here are some of mine (definitely not all-inclusive, and in no particular order):

  • Phantom Regiment 1996
  • Cavaliers 2000
  • Cadets 2000
  • Blue Devils 1996
  • Santa Clara Vanguard 1999
  • Santa Clara Vanguard 1989
  • Madison Scouts 2011
  • Madison Scouts 1996
  • Carolina Crown 2013
  • Nishihara 2001
  • Ronald Reagan High School 2003
  • Richland High School 2005
  • Spring High School 1993
  • LD Bell High School 2007
  • Lassiter High School 2002
What are yours?

Elements of a Superior Band - Routine

What is the routine of the group that you work with?  Some band directors have a specific schedule that they stick to, others have a throw things at the wall and see what sticks style.  Of the groups that I have worked with (some on a regular basis, others for clinics), I have found that the most successful groups have a routine in place where students know exactly what to expect...BUT with the ability to flow the rehearsal and address things as needed. 

So, here are some things to consider:

1.  What is your routine?
  • Do you have an over-arching schedule to follow?
    • Here is an example:  Start in fundamentals arcs (or a block...or whatever your band finds best suitable for musical drills), do some stretching, musical daily drill, run musical needs and rehearse as needed, visual fundamentals block, visual ensemble rehearsal with or without music,.
    • Here's the thing, especially with younger and/or less experienced groups, have a routine that you follow and can be expected from the rehearsal.
  • Do you allow time to "fix" what needs to be fixed?
    • Some people have such a rigid schedule of routine that the entire rehearsal becomes routine.  Daily drill sounds the same as always (students are not engaged), music is not getting better (students are not engaged), visual looks the same (students are not engaged), show looks the same (students are not engaged).  Do you see a pattern? 
    • Make sure that you are enhancing the student's ability to address items on their own by creating an environment where they are forced to be engaged in rehearsal.  If the band director steps away during daily drill, not giving comments for success, not giving applicable standards to achieve during segments, the students will not stay engaged in the process.  Create an environment where students have to stay engaged!  No other options!
2.  Do you have a plan of what you want to accomplish in each rehearsal?
  • Create long and short term goals for what you want your ensemble to achieve.  Share these goals with your ensemble! 
  • Share with your students the goals for each rehearsal, each segment, each repetition.  Make the students responsible for achieving these standards and goals each time.  If you go on and say it's good enough, then good enough will be good enough.
3.  You don't have to do things the exact same way each rehearsal...but...
  • Have a plan in place.  The more you vary, the more inconsistency you will have.  However, as a group matures, the more variance will allow for more success. 
4.  Focus on small concepts before big concepts.
  • I have met many a band director who try and do visual and musical daily drill all at the same time in a methodical across the field standard.  This rarely develops ensemble cohesiveness or visual prowess.  Students many times are focused on getting through the exercise rather than ensemble perfection.
  • Think pedagogically:  what is the most important thing to your group?  Are you a musically focused ensemble (and I REALLY hope that you are)...spend time working to develop a musical sonority and identity to your ensemble.  Once this is done (in small chunks...once again think pedagogically and sequentially) add more layers.  If you start with the most complex ideas, the most simple details will be forgotten.
  • Accuracy then speed.  Do I need to say any more about that????
5.  Have routines in place for each facet of your rehearsal:
  • What is the sequence of learning for daily drill?
    • What do they need to do today?
    • What do you want them to know tomorrow?
    • What do they need to be prepared for in a week/month/year?
  • What is the sequence of learning for visual fundamentals?
    • Do you have a marching manual that you use?  Write it down...write down every detail of what you want your band to do visually.  If there is a question, you can reference your details.
  • How do you learn drill?
  • How do you clean drill?
  • How do you put music to drill?
  • How do you learn to play together (left to right and front to back)?
  • How do you handle a good rehearsal?
  • How do you handle a bad rehearsal?
  • How do you teach stands performances?
  • How do you teach marching contest protocols?
  • Have you communicated with your design team how these goals will be influenced by the music and choreography that is written?
6.  Anything worth doing well is worth having a routine in place for.  If you want your band to excel, then leave no stone unturned and do not let up until it is the way it needs to be.

7.  Don't forget to focus on the process.
  • So many band directors focus on the goals instead of the process.  Some processes take YEARS to complete while others seconds or minutes.  Focusing on the end leads to negativity and distress.  Focusing on the process leads to better performers and human beings!

Elements of a Superior Band - Fundamentals in music training, part 1 (Concert F)

For a long time, I viewed fundamental teaching as a "necessary evil" that I had to endure.  Sure, I would go through the motions and do what I thought I should do, but I did not listen -- really listen -- to what sounds my students were making.  For the first year or two of my career, I did this.  We played concert F to what I thought was "good enough."  Turns out, my standard of "good enough" was just how far the bands I taught were..."good enough."

So, how do you structure your daily routines for music making in fundamental training?  Do you just go through the motions of a certain drill (or set of drills), turning on the metronome and checking out while your students play them?  I BET that if you are checked out, so are your students!

Before I took my first job, I sat down with my high school band director.  I thought I had everything figured out.  But he told me "make your students play a concert F, make it their best note, then have them imitate it on every note."  There is a lot of wisdom in that.

So, when I stand before my band(s), or do a clinic, here is what my focus is on for Concert F:

1.  Is the pitch with a characteristic tone?

  • With some ensembles this will take time.  If there is a problem with fundamentals, don't blame the teacher before you, just fix it!  
  • Look at the player's setup:  posture, hand position, embouchure, breath, tongue position...all of these things effect tone.
  • Spend time daily making sure that this step is right, it pays off!

2.  Does the note start/end together?

  • Breathe Together
  • Start Together 
  • Have the same articulation and release
  • Does the note match tonal energy from person to person

3.  What shape do I want the note to be?

  • Experiment with different shapes (Squares, square start/diminshed release, etc)

4.  Is the note in balance?

  • Play in groups low to high, do not move on until the first group is set the way you want, then add groups.  Do this in brass choir, woodwind choir and entire ensemble
5.  Is the note in tune?  
  • Know tuning tendencies of concert F (can be really sharp on brass for example)
  • Teach how to match
6.  Sing the pitch in balance/tune/shape/etc.

This is just a smattering of things that I listen for each day with each group.  We do this in each ensemble:  Concert and Marching!  Do not think you can overlook the basics each day, start from the beginning with the end in mind.  Do not settle for "good enough."  

Elements of a Superior Band - Introduction

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series on what it takes to have a Superior ensemble.  As I left college, I really thought I had it all worked out:  if you are mean and firm with the students then students will know exactly what to do and fix all of their problems.  Turns out, I was wrong...ha!  Over the past 11 years, my teaching style has changed dramatically...but I do not have it all figured out yet.

So, here we go on this series.  It's more for me than it is for you, I promise.  I'll use it as something I can look back on when I have one of those "what in the world went wrong" rehearsals or performances.  Maybe you can use it as well.

Do you have a topic that you would like addressed in this realm?  Leave it in the comments!

General Effect - Timeline and Combination of Elements

When you are watching one of your favorite shows, do you wonder how they made it all work?

Occasionally, it happens by chance...and by occasionally, I really mean 1 out of every 100 times.  Maybe even 1 out of 1000 times does it all come together just by a great idea in rehearsal, or a "wow, how did that happen?"  If you get nothing else from this article, get this:  PLAN YOUR EFFECT!

So, how do you do this?  You start at the beginning.

1.  Make a timeline of what you want to achieve.

-  Start by looking big picture.  What is the concept that you want the audience to leave with?  Do you have a story to tell?  Do you have a particular emotion or concept to share?

Example:  The Seasons of Nature

-  After you have the over-arching idea, break that idea into sections.  Remember, you only have about 8 minutes max in a high school show.  Too many ideas in this area will lead to a poorly developed concept (or overly developed).  Think 3 to 4 segments to get your point across.


  • Spring
  • Summer
  • Winter
  • Fall

-  Next, describe what is to happen in your points so that a logical order can be produced.  Brainstorm here, you can use as much or as little as you have to work with.


  • Spring - A new beginning, the leaves are turning green, new life is begun
  • Summer - A hot day, relaxed on the beach, fun music, carefree
  • Fall - Leaves change colors to beautiful earth tones, the weather begins to turn cold
  • Winter - The arrival of cold, symbolic of death, snow, Holiday times
What order should I put these in?  Logically, it would need to progress in a way that is similar to how time passes.  I could recommend many possibilities, but it is important that you can logically explain your order with your words.  Try to keep the thematic elements similar for each season (in this example).  

2.  Now that you have a timeline, think about how each part of your ensemble can combine to create the effects that you are trying to communicate.  Here are different types of ensembles and ideas to consider (not exhaustive):
  • Brass
  • Woodwind
  • Percussion
  • Guard
  • Props and other objects
  • Solos
  • Small Chamber Groups
  • Guard - Weapons
  • Backfield winds
  • Spread out winds
  • Clustered musicians
  • Integrated guard and band
  • Front Ensemble moments
  • Battery Moments
Now think, how can you combine some of these elements above to create a joint enterprise for effect?

Once you have those ideas, write them on your timeline.  

3.  Consider how the effects you have lead an audience member progressively through your show.   Plan on some sort of eye catching (or ear catching) experience every 15-20 seconds at least.  However, if each impact moment (or effect moment) has the same strength, then the last moments will be diminished.  

Think about someone who yells all of the time.  We all know people like this.  If he or she continues down this path, will the effect of the yelling be the same?  

Progress your effect to grab AND release the audience.  Build to the ends of your segments (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter) and have each of those be a contributing part to the overall idea.

4.  This does not happen by chance, nor does it happen easily.  If you think that just having "fun" music will make this happen, it won't.  The combination of elements (Music, Drill, Choreography, Pacing, Theme, etc) working together creates effect!

5.  You still have to march and play well.  Nothing detracts from a wonderfully designed show more than out-of-step marchers, poor playing, and poor timing.  You will add to your effect in amazing ways just by having a well executed show.

6.  It is more than just the combination of elements, it is also the meshing of the performers, teachers and ideas together to PERFORM the concept!

This has been a quick overview, but I hope that it is very helpful to those working on planning a show currently.  I will continue to add to this as time goes on.

Big Announcement

Today, I am pleased to let all know that Dr. David Campo has joined Sweet Marching in offering great arrangements for marching band.  Check out his bio on the About page.

General Effect - Using digital prop covers and silks to enhance your show

Being a band director, I am always looking for economical ways to enhance my marching performances.  We all have seen great looking stage items from elaborate pirate ships, huge candelabras and portable stages.  Sometimes though, we can't use these things because we do not have the budget to pay for supplies, we do not have a work force to build these things or we just do not have the time.  If this describes you, keep reading.

I love it when my students are excited about a performance idea or theme!  When they buy in, they have a greater desire to perform and rehearse.  I always tell my students that they may not remember what place they received, but they will remember the experience they had.  

Back on point:
I love to design shows that the students, directors, fans, judges, alumni, and community can be excited about.  Here are some simple ways to tie it all together each year with digital imaging:

1.  Create sideline walls that you cover with a digital vinyl print that go with your program's vision.

This past marching season, we used the music of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite as our concept.  We made frames that were 15' long (5 yards) x 4 feet tall and then had an arm to angle them back that was 4' tall.  These were then covered with a fire image.  (We also scattered some of these forms throughout the field).  This gave the easy image that the field was on fire!  It was so easy and the crowd talked about it at every performance.

2.  Design flags with a digital print that go along with your theme.  In the same show as described above, we created three different flags to match our theme:  a fire flag (that was the exact image as the  vinyl coverings), an ashen flag and a phoenix (firebird) flag.  No more worrying about what flags to use or how they fit your theme.  Your theme is your flag!

3.  Have large squares behind your group in performance that can tell your story.  One of my clients this past year did a show called JOY!  They had pictures that matched the different phases of life (and subsequently each movement).  Christmas presents, graduation, etc.  They created frames from pvc pipe and weighted them down and they added the thematic elements to the program easily.

So, how do you get these things made?  There are a number of vendors out there and I have dealt with several of them.  My favorite is DigitalMarchingfx.com.  The great thing about these people is that they have YEARS of marching arts experience.  They can take the ordinary and make it EXTRAordinary!  Have a theme in mind, but not sure how to tie it all together?  Call them!

In conclusion, going back to my tangent...

When we pitched this show to our students we showed them how the props and silks tied the entire show together:  fire and devastation, to ashes to renewal through the phoenix.  It allowed for each audience member and participant to experience the show in their own unique way.  They (the students) were excited and did a marvelous job!  

So, how can you use these things to make the effect of your program greater next season?