Getting the Most out of Your Front Ensemble

Getting the Most out of Your Front Ensemble

Now that school has let out hopefully your preparation for the marching season has already begun. The summer is an important time for front ensemble members to work on the mechanics of their technique as well as build muscle and consistency. As long as the students have mallets at home, they can work on these things even if they don’t have a full keyboard available to them. The floor or a counter top (Sorry, Mom!) works great for this task.

Learning Show Music

In addition to developing technique in the summer months, students should also be learning and memorizing their show music. This can be a bit more challenging when many front ensemble members don’t have a full-size marimba at home to practice on. The solution? Summer sessions. rehearsals — or just practice time — investing time this summer will pay dividends once the school year is underway.


A system to hold members accountable for progressing during the summer should also be in place. In many cases, having the section leader monitor everyone’s progress can be very effective. When students have an assignment given to them by an instructor, it is not always perceived the same as if it is coming from a peer. A peer has a lot of power in terms of making progress feel like it is the cool thing to do, rather than just another assignment.

Something that has proved successful in my program is setting up deadlines to upload videos on our Facebook group page. This has been a great motivator. It ensures students are progressing through their music and also can be used as a learning tool for the other students. Once a video is uploaded, students then comment on the videos with helpful tips on technique or something that is being overlooked in the music, etc.

Best Use of Rehearsal Time

Whether your rehearsals begin this summer, or after school starts, be certain that every student’s time in rehearsal is being used efficiently and effectively. For example, if your percussionists are standing idle while the brass and woodwinds are tuning or working a technique exercise, you are not making the best use of their time. Even worse is when everyone else is learning drill while the front ensemble is just waiting (this is more insulting than anything else).

I realize this is something we all probably know, but I see this happen more often than I am comfortable admitting. Sometimes we get into a mindset of needing everyone together in a full ensemble setting so that we can make a show happen! We’re short on time and need to pull it together for the performance next week! We all know this feeling, but often we simply can’t be as effective as we hope in this large setting.

Divide and Conquer

If you have enough staff to take over each section for sectionals, that’s great! If not, utilize your student leadership. Once again, good information coming from a peer is quite effective, as the other students don’t want to let a peer down. If you don’t trust your leaders to take on this task, invest more time in your leaders.

Now, full ensemble is certainly a vital part of making this thing happen, but I would recommend not bringing the front ensemble in until you are at least running enough sets of drill to make complete musical phrases. This is what the front ensemble needs to progress in full ensemble. Otherwise, let them go into sub-sectionals and let them work on defining stickings, mallet heights, or isolating runs. It makes total sense having the winds and battery play set-by-set with music to make sure they understand how it works with the feet.

However, the front ensemble doesn’t work that way. Playing set-by-set simply interrupts any flow within the phrase they have built up. That being said, I do think it is important for the front ensemble members to have the set numbers written into their music so they know and understand the phrases and can quickly be ready for a rep when set numbers are called out.

Additionally, in an era where the electronic mix is one of the most important aspects of the show, trying to adjust balance levels on a rep that is anything short of a complete musical statement might as well be a form of torture.

Other Sections

I suppose this argument could be made from the perspective of any section in the band. Basically, in full ensemble the members should feel like rock stars in the sense that they are proud of all the work they have done individually and in sectionals and are able to understand how it all comes together to make something great. They should feel like their time is valued and respected.

Don’t give students an opportunity to check out from rehearsal because they are not being utilized enough. If you see a problem that needs to be addressed in the trumpet section, write it down and knock it out in tomorrow’s sectional time. That ten minutes of isolating one section while the rest of the group mentally checks out just cost you the remaining fifty minutes of rehearsal.

Trust in the process. When you have a system for holding students (and leaders) accountable, a plan for learning the show, and productive rehearsal strategies, your ensemble will make progress. Students will stay engaged and your front ensemble will feeland playlike they’re part of a larger whole.   

Good luck to all of you this marching season!

Nicholas Fernandez is the director of percussion at Bentonville Public Schools in Bentonville, Arkansas, where he teaches percussion students from 6th grade through 12th. Previously, Nick served as the director of percussion at Owasso Public Schools in Owasso, OK.

He has performed with the Colts Drum & Bugle Corps, the North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Tulsa Signature Symphony, and various local bands in the Tulsa and Northwest Arkansas areas.

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