When a great screen actor takes on a stage role, they significantly adapt their technique for the larger venue. I think that’s a reasonable analogy for the challenges we as educators face when taking the music ensemble to an outdoor setting. Today I’d like to provide you with some techniques, concepts, and tips that may be helpful for your program as you begin the marching season.
The following are basic considerations we need to initially consider when moving the music ensemble from inside to the outdoor stage.
- Your fundamental routine should begin to incorporate elements related to marching and movement training.
- The listening environment is much larger, always changing, and highly organic.
- Balancing musical elements becomes a bigger challenge, on a much larger scale, when outdoors.
- The range of dynamics and expression often need to be at a much wider level and intensity to reach and connect with an audience.
- Be aware of spatial demand challenges due to location of front ensemble, battery percussion and winds.
Maintenance and Overtraining
Let’s begin by discussing the fundamental routine. As we know, the basic training of skills is crucial to musical development and fundamental work is likely already a mainstay in your concert program. In addition to this, I prescribe to what I call the “Maintain and Overtrain” approach. This approach allows us to find a healthy balance between daily maintenance and overtraining exercises.
Overtrainers push us beyond what is typically expected and force us to work harder at basic skill set objectives. Be creative and think outside the box in your approach.
The fundamental program should be designed to make performance easier, not harder. For overtraining exercises I highly advocate the use of advanced breathing concepts, such as those found in the book, The Breathing Gym, by Sam Pilafian and Pat Sheridan (Focus on Music Publishing). There are also some wonderful exercises with balloon and resistance training that focus on airspeed matching and dynamic definition, which I plan to expound upon in a future blog post.
Incorporating movement training can perhaps be the biggest game changer in terms of your musical success on the field. Although many programs have separate musical and visual warm ups, very few combine these effectively as a regular part of the daily training regimen. We must learn to play simple exercises on the move before we can expect to achieve a high level of performance and musical demand on the field. I think of this as the “bridge.” To further enhance this concept, use show excerpts and rhythms in your daily fundamental routine. Be creative and explore!
Intonation and Outdoor Performance
Tuning becomes much more challenging when we are outside due to climate changes. Maintaining basic indoor tuning skills are appropriate for the outdoor arena, but we must also give consideration to matching wind tuning with mallet and keyboard instruments. As all instruments have different tendencies in hot and cold weather, we must learn these and relate them clearly to students and our ensembles to achieve great tuning in the marching activity.
Battery percussion tuning is very individual and while there are many different sound 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 always 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.
To Watch or Not to Watch, That Is the Question!
The marching activity places many timing and listening challenges on the performer that are not a part of the concert ensemble experience. Indoors, performers remain in a static position within the ensemble and essentially have one set of listening responsibilities for the entire process. During any given marching show, performers literally have hundreds of different spots where they are required to watch, listen and at times, both. We must also consider timing as it relates to “front to back” placement as well as “side to side” spatial relationship. Listen through the ensemble for time and balance and have a plan in place for each scenario and challenge.
You Want Me to Put the Beat Where?
Based on various field placements, performers will often have to adjust “where” they put their time in relationship to the drum majors hands and ictus. Adjustments both ahead and behind the beat may be needed based on field placement. Ideally, having the students playing as close to time on the hands is preferable, but the basic understanding of the various concepts should be clear to all members.
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
Balance and Staging/Acoustic and Electronic
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 material. Visually, trying to achieve great staging can help greatly in achieving this sense of clarity and transparency in your program. As we should work to present primary melodic material in the easiest listening environment possible, much of your success can be determined by the quality and staging of the overall visual design.
Electronics are becoming a major component in today’s marching arena and while they may add a wonderful element to your overall program, they can also present major problems if not balanced correctly. Balancing electronics to the acoustic performers should be a focal point of ensemble rehearsals. If all else fails, err on the side of caution as it is much easier to “turn it up” than to not overpower the acoustic performers.
Teaching like a Judge
As an educator who spends a great deal of time judging throughout the year, I have worked to align my own teaching with how I approach judging. A specific concept I use is objectivity in rehearsals. Look and listen to every phrase as experiencing it for the first time and ask objective questions during each repetition. Don’t assume that because you know the music program and the drill that everyone else will recognize all the elements upon an initial viewing. Treat every rehearsal as if you are judging this group and work to separate what you “know” from what you “really hear.” This will enable you to step back, be honest, and develop a more critical ear within your program.
I highly encourage all band directors to judge at least once per fall, especially if your primary area of expertise is the concert program. This will allow you to work side by side with other experts and grow and learn from each of them. This may be one of the most effective ways to help develop your own program.
“Top Ten” Adjudicators Comment List
Below is a list of top adjudicator comments complied from many of the premier judges in DCI, BOA and WGI. They present a cross section of concepts and can be used as a “checklist” to help guide you in design and rehearsal setting. They are presented in no specific order.
- Improve coordination of audio and visual
- Percussion writing should enhance, not compete with winds
- Balance of amplification to winds and percussion
- Transparency and clarity of musical voices
- Create a wider range of dynamic expression throughout the performance
- Give direction and completion to all musical phrases
- It’s ALWAYS about fundamentals
- Logical staging of musical elements – clarity of melody vs harmony
- Perform with the same level of consistency and musicianship throughout the entire show
- Vertical orchestration too thick – overuse of tutti writing (winds/percussion or alone), overuse of voice doubling, etc.
While there are specific differences in how we prepare an ensemble to be successful outside, our primary focus remains on music making and creating a great product for our organization, our supporters and the marching activity as a whole. By creating a healthier balance of fundamental skills, you will see improved success in not only your outdoor ensembles, but in your total program as well.
Good luck and see you all on the field!
Dr. Chip Crotts serves as director of jazz studies and assistant director of bands at the Georgia Institute of Technology. A GRAMMY nominated artist and a Yamaha Performing Artist and Clinician, Crotts has worked with artists such as Ray Charles, The Manhattan Transfer, Natalie Cole, Frankie Valli, The Temptations and Maynard Ferguson.
Presently the brass caption manager for the Santa Clara Vanguard, Chip also remains an active adjudicator for several organizations including Bands of America, Drum Corps International and Winter Guard International.
Dr. Crotts received degrees from East Carolina University, Penn State University and a D.M.A. in trumpet performance with a jazz emphasis from the University of Texas at Austin.