Tips from Successful Marching Band Directors

Tips from Successful Marching Band Directors

Marching band alumni, from small high schools to world champion drum corps, often remain passionate about marching. Even though they no longer march themselves, they watch the next generations of musicians perform year after year. They remain active on marching-related social media.  I am no exception. I love seeing and hearing the shows that my high school puts together today just as much as I love re-watching our old shows.

Bands of America Regional competitions are a big measuring stick for successful programs. As a proud alum, I check in every year to see how my school is doing. I was elated to see names I recognized among the top placing bands at the regional outside Houston last month. My alma mater, Ronald Reagan HS from San Antonio, TX, won the event and our neighbor school, C.T. Johnson HS, finished 2nd, only 1.3 points behind Reagan.

Why should this matter to you?

Current Reagan and Johnson directors, Greg White and Jarrett Lipman have agreed to share their thoughts with us. I’ve asked them both some “post-game interview” questions about the experience and how they achieved such great results. Their responses appear below. Check them out to get some insight into the philosophies and strategies they used to prepare.

What went really well at the regional? Was it something you focused on in rehearsal before the competition?

Jarrett Lipman (C.T. Johnson HS): At both regionals, we felt like the kids raised their level of performances from prelims to finals. We have been taking our time this year with getting the show design out on the field. More so than in the last few years. So the product was “incomplete” for [earlier competitions at] Conroe and Austin, by design.

Our goal was for the kids to practice performing the material they did have at the highest level. This allowed us to gauge if it generated crowd response.  We also gathered feedback from judges for the long term goal: to have a great product at Grand Nationals. Our plan is for the kids to perform as strong as possible in prelims. Then in finals we’d try to correct anything that didn’t go well earlier in the day. In addition, our hope is that the “night show” environment gives that little extra kick of adrenaline to raise the energy levels. That happened. Both regionals were awesome.

Greg White (Ronald Reagan HS): Our students did a wonderful job in Conroe, notably in finals where we had the added difficulty of performing in the rain.  While we had no idea that there was even a chance of rain, the students handled themselves as well as we could have hoped.  

We talk a lot about consistency, and repeat-ability.  In other words, if our students do the jobs that they are trained to do, we will be successful.  That was more evident than ever on the Saturday night show of BOA Houston. The rain could have caused the students to react and perform in a way that they were not used to.  Instead, they rose to the occasion and performed beautifully.

What didn’t go so well? Do you know why not?

JL/Johnson HS: We had a few little ensemble rubs in both the Austin and Conroe shows. The reason? We’re performing hard stuff! We are putting “Pineapple Poll” (by Gilbert and Sullivan) and “J’ai ete au Bal” on the field this year. Both are hard sitting down, let alone moving and playing. We were thrilled with how the kids performed early season, and have worked to tighten down those ensemble challenges for the coming Super Regional and Grand Nationals.

GW/Reagan HS: I’m sure every group in the competition on that day could point to a laundry list of things they were hoping would have “gone better.” At early season performances like this one (on October 1st) students are still working to master their show.  While there were certainly little things that we would have liked to clean up before our performance, nothing went particularly awry.

How will you improve for your next  performance?

JL/Johnson HS: Practice. A lot of it. We’re also working on “addition through subtraction.” We’re making things easier that are just too hard, without taking away the overall effectiveness of the design. We find ways to be smarter! Our kids are playing hard stuff and when it’s not working, we will make it more manageable.

We have always believed in the importance of “marching and playing” versus using special effects, small ensembles, or deflecting to the visual side of things for long periods of time. This is an important part of our personality, and sometimes when you play a lot you bite off more than you can chew cleanly early in the year. We are delighted with the progress the kids have made on very challenging music and feel ready for the coming performances.

Editor’s note: Johnson won the award for Outstanding Visual Performance in prelims at Conroe, beating Reagan in this category. It’s great to see Jarrett recognizing that “marching and playing” is such a strength of the Johnson program that this year they’re focused on playing more difficulty music instead of working harder on the visual side.

GW/Reagan HS: We try and convey in our students the mindset that each performance opportunity needs to build on the previous one.  We often say after a great run of our show that we are defining our new minimum standard. Whether it’s the comfort of specific timing responsibilities, mastery of new work, or adjustments to musical choices, we work to develop comfort in our students so that by the time competition performances happen our students can execute at a consistent level.

What mistakes from previous performances did you really work to improve for this regional? (Only Johnson answered this, as Conroe was their second regional.)

JL/Johnson HS: We wanted to improve the color guard. Our color guard has been following the “slow and steady” motto this year, so many sections of the show had no work or were incomplete. What we have is of great quality, and we were pleased with the product early, but now we are finished and thrilled with the product!

Final thoughts?

JL/Johnson HS: Our kids are pretty good about delivering the same type of performance they do in rehearsal, so there were really no surprises. We have learned “if it’s great consistently in rehearsal, it will most likely be great in the performance … if it falls apart in rehearsal, it’s going to fall apart in performance.”

Thanks again to Jarrett and Greg for sharing their perspectives. I hope that you can find application for some of these insights in your marching programs!


Ryan Sargent, a proud alumnus of Ronald Reagan HS, is MakeMusic’s social media manager. You can see his fondest marching band memory in this video – performing at Grand Nationals in 2002. Ryan is the 3rd trombone player from the left. He can still perform a perfect 8-to-5 step. In the years since his Grand Nationals appearance, Ryan earned a degree from Baylor University and taught music to students of all ages in Texas and Colorado.

Ryan’s marching career was tragically cut short by a corrupting relationship with jazz. Nevertheless he still enjoys seeing and hearing marching bands in and around the Denver area, and delights in seeing Reagan HS at the top of the score sheet. 

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