Let me just say it: I think that competitive marching band can be a very beneficial activity for students. Many of our students are not in a sport, and marching band can be a great way (sometimes their only opportunity) to experience competition prior to the rest of their (post schooling) life. But as with all aspects of a carefully-structured music program, the framework and philosophy put in place correlates to the type of experience the students will have. It shapes their views on what it means to have a successful season and whether that amounts to something other than a trophy count.
I know there are probably some teachers reading this who (like myself) no longer compete...or perhaps never have. Please know that this article isn't really written for you. This is for the folks that compete and have a little knot in their stomach because something isn't feeling just right as they drive home from a competition.
I'm going to start with the most problematic aspect of assuring student success in competitive marching band, and then I'll touch on some other aspects that are equally critical to the health of the group.
Warning: This involves some serious gut-checking.
The most fundamental aspect of being successful in competitive marching band is the vehicle...your show. Unfortunately this foundation tends to be the weakest area for many bands. For many directors it is something that has to be merely checked off, or worse yet, something that gets put off. What some directors end up with is an odd combination of last minute ideas put together by committee because time has run out and we have to "go with something at this point."
If you are going to compete, you owe it to your students to provide them with an achieveable show that, when mastered, has the capability to receive a great score.
If you cannot grasp and actuate this important reality then it's going to be a long year (or career). Students deserve a vehicle that is both effective and achieveable given their current ability level. I think that many directors know that their show is not what it should be, but figure that if the students just work harder it will somehow be OK. This is simply wrong, and it will create a lot of frustration for your students. Over the years I have seen (and fallen prey to) things that prevent the students from doing well such as:
- A show concept that is too esoteric for the students (or anyone) to grasp
- Drill that is too difficult for their current ability level and/or does not serve the music properly
- Music that is too difficult and/or does not account for instrumentation issues
- Music/Drill that is too simplistic
- Show design/coordination that does not properly address the "GE moments" that are necessary to hold interest (BIG problem here for many groups)
- Program construction that has been turned over to staff rather than properly originated and guided by you, the teacher
Again, the vehicle is the most important factor in setting up your students for success. A compelling, thoughtful show with appropriate levels of difficulty will foster buy-in, capture/involve the audience/adjudicators, and create a synergy that will propel your students through the season in a postive manner.
Don't hire an arranger, give them a few titles, and wait for the results. Get the score and sketch out the edits YOU want and/or take recordings and splice together the general flow. YOU decide where the impact points should be. YOU decide where the woodwinds get their time in the sun, or where the percussion break will be. Then YOU meet with the visual designer and, arrangement in hand, talk about the required staging and coordination. Don't hope for compelling show, ensure it. And if you are the design staff...don't be proud, get some feedback early in your process from trusted colleagues. This season, while you are still thinking about it, watch the audience (not just your own band parents), and really listen to what your judges tapes are revealing to you.
Lack of commitment to this issue is the reason I refuse to adjudicate anymore. I just couldn't stand to put a number on students who are clearly working hard but have a vehicle that is lacking, incoherent, or mismatched to their abilities. I think some directors spend more time planning their awards banquet than they do envisioning every aspect of their show, and that's just not right. I think most current judges...if they could be completely honest with directors...would say that the main problem with marching bands is the vehicle, not the subsequent instruction and certainly not the students. Without a strong vehicle, your students have too much to overcome. They are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own.
It is your job to provide a vehicle that is as thoughtful and effective as those with whom you are competing. Anything less is an injustice to your students.
Now, let's assume that the vehicle you have put together can be successful. The next important areas are:
- An efficient system of learning music and drill, and appropriate contact time to accomplish it
- The right level of staffing (read "budget") for design and for proper instruction
- Participation in shows that have your group in similar company
- An enacted philosophy that defines competition as an internal quest for perfection
This last point is essential to a healthy marching program. As directors in the very top (state/national) echelons will tell you, there is only one band that can "win." So in fact groups at the top of the activity spend more time not winning than they do winning…most win nothing. And yet these upper level groups find the experience to be positive. This is because those teachers understand it is incumbent upon them to lay out a philosophy that takes this important truth into account:
The better you become, the less likely it is that you will receive any external rewards.
When a marching band consistently has a vehicle that fits them well, improvement ensues. This is most readily reflected in rankings initially. But after a time the band will reach a level where most of the groups are of a very similar ability. At this point there is very little "upward" movement. Does this mean the band is no longer having success? Have we stagnated? Why can't we beat anyone anymore?
See the problem with this method of measuring success?
You must prepare your students for this phase, otherwise you have set them up for disappointment that is no fault of their own. The real competition is the band's ability to master the vehicle, period. It is an internal quest that has very little to do with the event they are attending each weekend.
This is an extremely mature level of thought, and that is why I think marching band can be so beneficial if done right. But again, it comes down to the teacher's
mindset and the framework you
provide for the students.
Here are some things you must never do.
- Never...ever, mention other schools negatively as a way of motivating your group
- Never...ever, foster a dislike for judges within your students
- Never...ever, allow students to do anything other than support and appreciate other schools at a contest
- Never...ever, allow your students to think that success is manifested in the rankings...it's not
Be honest: How are you doing with the points above? Do you see the connection between these points and an unhealthy experience? If you won't or can't make it healthy, should your students be competing? If you don't have a choice, do you have some professional development to do? Like I said, there is some serious gut-checking here.
Golf is not, on the whole, a game for realists. By its exactitudes of measurement it invites the attention of perfectionists. ~Heywood Hale Broun
Marching band is alot like golf: It's the golfer against the course (for band students it's the vehicle). All pro golfers will tell you this is so...the more competitive you wish to be, the less you must think about anything except your own game. As soon as you begin to think that what you do has something to do with what someone else is doing, the wheels are going to come off. Like golf, marching band an internal effort: You do your best personal best, and the outcome is the outcome. That's how marching band works. Well, how it's supposed to work.
Now, golfers will also tell you that if they were forced to use inferior clubs, had a terrible caddy, or used a damaged golf ball all day, the experience would change drastically. This is why my first points about the vehicle, learning system, and staff are so important. Do not give your students the equivalent of crappy clubs, no caddy, dime store golf balls, and then expect them to be successful and enjoy the experience.
The bottom line: Watch your students as the scores are being read. You will know if your situation is healthy or not. If it's not, you know who can fix it.
(Join the discussion on our facebook group for band directors)