Rob Stein on Marching Band and SmartMusic

Rob Stein

Musicians and superheroes have a lot in common. Besides both being forces for good, they also frequently fulfill different roles by day and night. Rob Stein is one such musician, working as an instrumental music teacher by day and a composer/entrepreneur by night (and weekends) as the owner of Standing ‘O’ Marching, creators of custom marching music. Rob also has a unique perspective on the world of his custom music customers as an educator, designer and judge, and he continues to be an instructor for the Blue Devils B, too.

In our interview Rob shares his experience in his many roles:

Can you tell me a little about your music education and music background?

I started playing trumpet in 4th grade, not because I knew it was the best instrument in the universe (which it is), but because my dad was a pro trumpet player and had an extra horn in the attic. I played through elementary and middle school, but joining the marching band in high school is what really lit my fire for music and the marching activity.

After my first year of high school marching band, I joined the Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps, based in Mt. Holly, NJ, and spent 6 years there (’99-’04), 4 in the hornline as soprano section leader and soloist, and 2 years as drum major. After that, I finished my DCI performing career with 2 years in the Concord Blue Devils on upper lead trumpet in 2005 and 2006. “The Godfather, Part Blue” was my age out show, with finals in Madison, WI, where I started in 1999 with my first finals in the Jersey Surf. It was an incredible experience to come full circle at Camp Randall Stadium!

I completed my undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA, earning a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance with an emphasis in jazz studies, and a master’s degree in music education with K-12 certification. The University of the Arts is an outstanding, unique institution, and while there I was fortunate enough to study and perform with some of the most skilled, renowned jazz musicians in the world. I was in at least six ensembles per semester, including playing lead for both school big bands, classical trumpet ensemble, jazz trumpet ensemble, handbell choir, choir, and various small groups.

Are there particular educators or musicians that really stand out as your mentors?

I’ve been extremely lucky to receive instruction and advice from some of the kindest, most experienced educators, musicians and composers in the country. George Colon was my very first instructor in high school; his enthusiasm for the activity, motivating instruction and drill writing skills immediately got me hooked. George is extremely humble, and taught me valuable lessons in recognizing and prioritizing the accomplishments of friends and students above all. I will always remember the energy he brought to the field every day: it was absolutely infectious.

While I marched in The Blue Devils, I was very fortunate to learn from brass caption head, John Meehan. John always had a way to push us to the next level, and had an uncanny ability to keep his finger on the pulse of the brass section. On tour, every day potentially brings a new set of tasks, challenges, and emotions. As a member, and as current instructor with The Blue Devils B, I was and still am blown away at his ability to understand the daily needs of the members, both mentally and physically, to keep pushing the horn line to its maximum potential. John has also been exceedingly kind to me over the years as I have asked for his advice on many occasions. He is always willing to take the time to help others succeed.

My parents are undoubtedly my biggest influence and role models. Music runs in the family, back to my grandmother, who graduated from Juilliard on piano and was Gene Kelly’s accompanist in summer stock theater. Both of my parents were musicians for much of their careers: my dad a pro trumpet player and music teacher, and my mom a piano phenomenon who was playing gigs at 10 years old. My parents have taught me the invaluable lesson of hard work, relentless persistence until the goal is achieved. Regardless of the obstacle, they have never let anything stop them from accomplishing their goals, for their careers and for their family.

How was Standing ‘O’ Marching formed?

I started Standing ‘O’ Marching during my time at graduate school in 2006-2007. After aging out of drum corps, I still wanted to stay as involved in the marching activity as much as possible. I was instructing numerous marching bands in my area at the time, and wanted to get more involved with writing marching band music.

I started by building my own website, which, in 2006, was not nearly as convenient or easy as it is today. While it wasn’t the most visually appealing, I was proud to have built it myself and have something concrete to get started. Before launching the website, I wrote my first three original shows so I could have some material available. In the spring of 2007, Standing ‘O’ Marching officially hit the web, and that year I started by arranging for two local New Jersey Bands.

Now wrapping up the 2015 writing season, I am fortunate to have 45 bands performing my music this year.

What is unique about the custom music that Standing ‘O’ Marching offers?

I have experienced the roles of being a marching band director, judge, show designer, instructor, and performer for bands ranging from 25 members to over 250. Understanding the time constraints and logistics of designing and implementing a marching show has been extremely beneficial, and is absolutely vital to consider while writing a show. I believe that the custom music I offer is not only effective and contemporary, but allows the members to achieve and perform at a high level sooner rather than later. As I write, I constantly evaluate various aspects of the music from different viewpoints:

– Is this passage effective for the current moment of the show? Does it clearly convey the theme?
– Is it achievable for the members given their rehearsal schedule, but also challenging enough to keep them interested?
– Is it exciting?
– Will the members enjoy performing it?
– Will the audience and judges enjoy listening to it?
– Will the judges clearly be able to hear what is intended?

As a performer, I remember playing music that made me feel like I was going to explode with intensity and pure adrenaline. When a band director tells me that the students love the music, that they’re excited for it and enjoy the show, it is a wonderful feeling knowing that Standing ‘O’ Marching is helping young musicians around the country to have that same experience of intensity.

What was your first introduction to SmartMusic?

At The Midwest Clinic in Chicago, 2012, I was exhibiting across from the MakeMusic booth, so I had the good fortune of watching the SmartMusic demo about 20 times a day throughout the convention. The guys giving the demo were outstanding and really showcased the program practically. By the end of the week, I was hooked and ready to dive in with my students. I had a flash drive from the MakeMusic booth loaded with information about SmartMusic, as well as product information to pass on to my school administration.

How is SmartMusic part of what you do today?

SmartMusic plays multiple roles in my day-to-day projects as a music educator, and composer. I teach elementary and middle school instrumental music at Clinton Public School in Clinton, NJ. Because it’s a K-8 school, I have a rare opportunity to start students in 4th grade and teach them through 8th grade.

I have one weekly 40-minute group lesson with each student, and a 25-minute weekly ensemble rehearsal, based on a 6-day rotating cycle. I teach multiple ensembles, including a 4th grade band, 5th/6th grade band, 7th/8th grade band, and jazz band. So, once every 6 days, I get a 25-minute rehearsal with each one of those ensembles.

Once I saw the SmartMusic demo in 2012, I knew it would be beneficial for my program. With minimal rehearsal time and widely varying instrumentation in each grade, I typically compose or arrange the concert music myself. With SmartMusic, I am able to make SmartMusic files of all of the concert music: either the music I select is already in the SmartMusic catalog, or I can simply make my own SmartMusic files in Finale.

As any music educator can imagine, 25 minutes, once every six days, is not a considerable amount of rehearsal time. Especially at the elementary/middle school age, students can get confused when hearing other instruments in rehearsal. Parts they consistently play well on their own will turn into mass confusion and hysteria as soon as the percussion kicks in (sorry, percussionists!), but practicing with SmartMusic allows students to have a full band rehearsal on their own any time they want. This has facilitated more individual progress, allowing me to begin focusing on more advanced concepts of musicianship during rehearsal. I also use SmartMusic during lessons and give weekly assignments, which has led to a rapid growth in my students’ sight-reading abilities.

As a composer, SmartMusic has also proved to be extremely beneficial for the bands that utilize the SmartMusic files available with every show on my website. Many schools across the country request SmartMusic files, and the ability to quickly convert a show into a SmartMusic file has allowed me to offer a higher level of service and assistance to my bands.

Do you hear from groups that will only purchase your music if SmartMusic accompaniments are included?

Yes, more each year. And I completely understand why!

What are you hearing from educators about the impact of technology as it relates to performance outcomes or rehearsal efficiency?

The band directors that purchase the SmartMusic files all tell me they have an easier time hitting the ground running, students can have more productive practice sessions over the summer and throughout the season. Anyone who has instructed a marching unit before understands what happens when individual performance breaks down; the entire show suffers, every caption.

Band directors tell me that on the competition field, individual music scores specifically have been a strong point as a result of the work students can do with SmartMusic, which benefits every aspect of the performance. I typically have all of my marching band writing completed by mid-June before I leave for DCI, with my earliest bands receiving their full shows in February/March.

Imagine having your complete show music, in SmartMusic form, before the end of the school year for your students! What an advantage!

Can you tell us about your workflow?

I start by writing in Sibelius, making audio, full show PDFs and scores once the show is completed. At that point, I am able to export the finished product to an XML file, open that XML file in Finale, and with a few tweaks and adjustments, make a fully functional SmartMusic file for winds.

MakeMusic has done a phenomenal job of allowing composers to work across platforms. I’m also fortunate to have assistance from a very good friend and colleague who is a SmartMusic wizard, Eric Weingartner. Eric is the Associate Director of bands at Homestead High School in Cupertino, CA, and the musicians he and director John Burn produce there are nothing short of amazing. SmartMusic is also an integral part of their program.

Have any suggestions for other composers/arrangers who’d like to begin selling their work?

Some of these may sound cliché, but nonetheless are absolutely true. It takes a lot of time and energy to build a library of music, to learn a composing program, and to become proficient enough to write at a good pace and make the music look professional. Time is one of the biggest factors that will make or break an attempt at a music writing career, especially as most of us who start out writing are typically working another full time job. I have to be careful in balancing school teaching, writing, and oh yeah, FAMILY! Maintain a consistent schedule that allows you to enjoy your life and still get a lot of productive work done.

Rob Stein ConductingAlso, (and I have to remind myself of this constantly) that the road to success is NOT a mostly vertical climb up. It’s more like a roller coaster: There are peaks, valleys, turns, challenges, and constant struggles. Every perceived failure is not actually a failure, but just part of your journey to success.

If I spend 3 hours writing 12 bars that I ultimately wind up deleting or changing to something completely different, those 3 hours were not wasted. That was time that was necessary for me to get to what I ultimately wanted to keep.

Stay positive, and always seek to continue improving your game anyway you can.

Thanks again to Rob for taking time out of his action-packed schedule to provide his insight. Have questions about SmartMusic and Marching Band – or anything else? Let us know by clicking on “Comments” below.

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