Ensemble playing in an outdoor environment can be one of the most challenging endeavors we face as educators. Beyond just the sheer listening environment and spatial demands, we must have a clear understanding of how the various percussion ensembles fit into the picture and how they work and interact with the wind section. Issues of tuning, balance, staging all become much more amplified (pun intended) in the marching band arena.
Let’s take a look at some of the challenges and discuss concepts and strategies to help us work through them.
What Are Your Inherent Ensemble Challenges?
Every program has unique needs and requirements when it comes to ensemble playing. Many marching bands have a front percussion ensemble, battery percussion, and an overall wind section. While the ideal band has a healthy balance of instruments within a wind section, this is not always the case. If you have an overabundance of woodwinds and less brass, this is one concern. If you have a large wind section, but a small battery and no front ensemble, this is yet another concern.
Once you have established your specific ensemble challenges, you can apply the below concepts appropriately.
Tuning with Percussion and Winds
In a previous blog post, I suggested that tuning becomes much more challenging when we leave the friendly confines of the concert hall and enter the outdoor environment. Maintaining basic indoor tuning skills are appropriate for the marching arena, but we must also give consideration to matching wind tuning with mallet and keyboard instruments. As all instruments have a wide variety of tuning tendencies in hot and cold weather, we must learn these quickly and how they affect the overall ensemble. Being able to relate these tendencies clearly to students is crucial for our ensembles to achieve great tuning and balance in the marching activity.
Battery percussion tuning is in its own right a very individual thing, and while there are many different sounds and preferences, the importance is that there is a clear approach and consistency to tuning them as an ensemble. At the very least, having someone come and tune them several times during the season will ensure better matching and blend amongst the battery.
As the overall art of outdoor tuning is not an exact science, try to use the following creed when approaching this topic with your wind players:
Above all else, winds should focus on matching and playing in tune together.
This will ensure that priority number one is always to play together within your tuning and your ensemble. If the weather is extreme, this will be the only way to achieve some semblance of sound uniformity and balance within the ensemble.
Understanding Timing Between Winds and Percussion
For those who utilize a battery percussion line, field placement will greatly dictate a group’s ability to play in time as a total ensemble. Due to this, the wind players must know how to manage tempo with both a static and fluid percussion ensemble on the field. The following is a simple formula or checklist that may aid you in achieving a better overall listening environment for your ensemble.
- Drum major watches battery percussion feet (center snare)
- Winds watch and/or listen back to the battery when in given proximity
- Front percussion ensemble ALWAYS listens back to battery and/or winds, except when playing alone
At times, the wind section will not be able to listen and will have to rely heavily on their own sense of pulse and understanding of time. For wind players near the front of the field, they should listen back to wind players behind them. We typically want to think of time coming from the back of the field and is especially important for bands with a front ensemble.
Balance Winds and Percussion/Staging
From an acoustic standpoint, balancing the musical ensemble should always begin and end with attention towards the primary, secondary and tertiary musical lines. ALWAYS aim to give precedence to the primary musical materiaI. From a visual standpoint, you can really help your program out by making sure that important musical lines are staged in a way that helps achieve great clarity and transparency on the field.
Likewise, poor staging can play havoc with timing and the overall ensemble cohesiveness, requiring you to spend unnecessary time on sections that should come together much more easily with clearer communication between band director and drill writer. We should always focus on presenting primary melodic material in the easiest listening environment possible. In essence, much of your success as an ensemble can be directly affected by the quality and staging of the overall visual program.
Balancing Winds and Percussion/Acoustic vs. Electronic
Electronics are becoming a major component in today’s marching world. While they can add a wonderful element to your overall program, they may also present major problems if not balanced and approached correctly.
Balancing electronics to the acoustic performers should be a focal point of ensemble rehearsals. Waiting to add electronics at the last minute can be a recipe for disaster. Treat this as an additional section of the ensemble and work to integrate into your program as soon as possible. If all else fails, err on the side of caution when it comes to volume and dynamics, as it is much easier to “turn it up” electronically than to ask the acoustic performers to overplay. The reward can be great with this added element, but special care is needed if you plan to integrate within the percussion and wind ensemble.
Balancing Winds and Percussion/ Writing and Composition of Musical Program
Something else that can greatly improve the overall balance and clarity of your musical program is the approach of how the wind and percussion books are written. A wind book written with a lot of tutti parts and very few independent lines promotes one kind of sound, while a book written with more layers, textures, and colors may present a very different demand and approach. Likewise, a percussion book that is aligned closer rhythmically with the wind book can make things much easier, whereas a battery book written as an independent WGI type show that has little to do with the wind book can create quite a different challenge.
Making sure your arrangers are on the same page and have a consistent vision for the overall musical score is hugely important, and from an ensemble standpoint, can make or break your ability to present a high-quality music ensemble and program.
Achieving a successful and cohesive ensemble can be a challenging venture on the marching field. With so many variables inherently in place, we must work efficiently and clearly to make sure each aspect is thought out, worked on appropriately and given proper focus. By following the suggestions above, you will see great improvement in your band’s ensemble performance and create a much higher level of clarity and transparency in the process.