concert band · marching band · teaching

Are we being educationally dishonest in marching band?

I attended the Central States Judges’ Association fall seminar last Saturday in Indianapolis, and while we were having our discussions I made some notes. Generally, they were about things that occurred to me as we discussed marching music that I wanted to discuss in my arranging book. Yes, that book which is taking far longer to write because I keep thinking of things to add!

(By the way, if you are looking for a highly-trained cadre of adjudicators for your marching contest, I urge you to consider CSJA. Our training and quality control is second to none in the industry, and we pride ourselves on our status as an independent organization that can effectively serve in many different markets.)

Sometimes, though, I wrote down questions. Not things we actually discussed, but things that occurred to me as result of the thought process I was going through during the sessions.

Here’s the big one: I started to write a section in the book on maximizing your band’s strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. I think that’s been a staple of arranging classes, seminars and books for decades.

Suddenly, though, it hit me: Is that really what we should be doing?

Hear me out – this will take a little explanation.

Many states have required music lists for large group contests. Orchestras, bands, and choirs have to perform at least one of the pieces on their contest program selected from a list arranged in levels of difficulty. How these lists are used, how they came about, and how they are updated varies, but they all share one fundamental bit of philosophy: all the groups of a similar size or ability level are required to perform one selection that “levels the playing field” and makes comparisons against a standard easier.

Generally, the list doesn’t require all groups to play the same piece. There are at least several pieces at least in each level, sometimes quite a long list, to choose from.

Almost all the pieces on such lists are added as a result of some kind of committee decision made by directors familiar with the musical works. The pieces are there partly to “encourage” bands to play something of “good quality” regardless of what the director might pick for his other contest repertoire. So the contest is, essentially composed of compulsory and optional elements.

The larger the number of pieces on the list, the more difficult the comparison of the bands, of course. And comparisons there will be! Not all comparisons are bad, but if that is the primary tool the adjudicators intend to use, there is a problem. There must be far more objective musical criteria the judges should be using.

Marching band contests have no such compulsory requirements. Each judge sees a completely different program with each band, each with its own interpretation and style. There are generally, of course, a specific set of criteria for each judge to use within his or her caption, and those criteria provide the best “anchor” for the judge’s deliberations. This is used along with all the judge’s experiences to try to make assessments, knowing that band (a) rehearses 9 hours a week and has six sectional instructors, a music arranger and a drill designer, and the next might rehearse 3 hours per week and one director who wrote everything!

Whether we are selecting music from the required list or the other pieces of a contest concert band’s program, or if we are creating a marching band show, one thing that always goes through the director’s mind is how to maximize his group’s strength while minimizing its weaknesses.

I know I’ve used that thought process myself many times. I don’t think I ever thought of it before as perhaps an educationally dishonest plan. (If dishonest is too strong a word, how about “misguided”?) Or at least, that shouldn’t be your primary priority.

Let’s say you have a band program with, say, 160 students in it. (First of all, give copious thanks for that!) You have them divided into three concert bands during the school year. When concert contest season arrives, you decide to take your most experienced group but not the other two.

Another school in your school size class has only two bands. They take their top group and compete in your class.

Yet another school in the area, in your school size class, has, for various reasons, a single concert band, grades 9-12. Another school has the ninth graders in a separate building, so that director has one band but no students under grade 10..

The using a required list of five to twenty  (or more) pieces could still result in each of these bands playing completely different repertoire for the contest. One any one of the pieces is considered to place all groups at the same ability level – but how much does that really work?

These are only some of the factors that keep the playing field from being level. Of course, scheduling, private lessons, sectional instructors, availability of good-quality instruments, and many other factors also “unlevel” the field. It is rare for a band to have a piece specifically written for them to be performed at contest, but that is usually not prohibited by the contest rules.

So, while the “compulsory” piece is a help, perhaps, at holding the bands to a specific standard, as we can see there is not that much of a standard really involved. The “maximize your strengths” thought process still kicks in.

From the beginning of the development of the concept of the marching show the designer(s) music consider the ability levels of their students. (My arranging book has an entire chapter just devoted to how to determine those levels.) No one is crazy enough (I hope) to say that they design the show with no regard for their students’ abilities. Some designers are better than others at assessing and projecting the abilities of the members of the next year’s band, of course.

So far, except for the fact that it makes the show more difficult to evaluate on one viewing by the judges, this sounds like a logical and essential plan for the astute designer. But the point of the title of this piece is that we can do this so well that as the season progresses we only really make our band’s strengths stronger and practically ignore the weaknesses. For some schools the marching season includes up to six months of preparation time. Do we really believe we should ignore the students’ weaknesses for half a year?

But, you say, “We have lots of other ways to work on those weaknesses, and we’ll be doing that.” Maybe, but for many schools the marching season represents the largest outlay of time spent on music instruction for those students.

I’ve come to the realization that as we design a show we should be looking for ways to improve our performer’s weakest skills, not just hide them from view. I am not advocating exposing such areas so much that we set the kids up for failure, but through a more careful design process and a modified set of priorities we can do a great deal to help our kids to grow during the fall marching season. We are trying to build musicians, are we not?

I’d be interested in your comments. What are your suggestions on ways to  accomplish this: how do we help our students to improve their weak areas using the context of the competitive marching activity?

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