A colleague of mine once asked, “Do our bands start sounding bad right before a contest or did we finally start listening?” The earlier we start to really listen, the better our marching bands will be.
As with concert band, jazz band and chamber ensembles, it takes daily cultivation and development over a long period of time to make your marching band sound its best. Your band’s sound is not something that can be fixed; it has to be nurtured.
Here are suggestions to keep a healthy sound present regardless of the volume level. It’s the same thing you would do anywhere, now just do it ‘on the move’.
Start with the breath
We start every rehearsal with some very basic breathing exercises to get the students focused on breathing and relaxed for the rehearsal.
Early on in the rehearsal, focus on actively cultivating the sound you want, and then, throughout the rest of the rehearsal, refer students back to that desired sound. It is all too easy to use this time instead to learn another page of drills or clean a visual, but staying true to the goal of the warm-up will pay big dividends in the long run. Don’t swap a long-term goal for a short-term gain.
Included in your warm-ups should be long tones, lip slurs, articulation drills, and scales. A good idea is to develop your warm-up routine based on the material from your show.
If articulation is lacking in a part of your show, develop that part into an articulation exercise on a unison pitch or scale from the show music.
Scale drills can be developed from your show music and directly applied to what your students are performing.
Buzzing on the mouthpieces is one of the easiest and fastest ways to improve your overall brass sound. During the warm-ups, have the brass buzz and the woodwinds play each of the long tones and lip slur exercises. Then take a section of the show and buzz through that as well when evaluating and cultivating a great sound.
Big moment chords
Identify the peak moments of the show and spend some time at these points in developing a better sound. To do this:
- Remind students to play – not with their loudest sound – but with their best sound possible.
- Have all of the brass buzz through this section while the woodwinds and percussion play. This gives you a chance to really hear what your woodwinds are doing. (This exercise works great inside as well on the field.) Do this two to three times before having the brass play on the horn itself.
- Balance the chord from the bottom up. Take care that you can hear all parts of the chord being presented. For big moments, this might need to be rescored to individual players depending on their placement on the field. For example, if you have too much first trumpet and not enough third trumpet, ask one of your first trumpets to play the third trumpet part on that particular chord.
- Remind students to stay inside the ensemble sound and to not stick out. Good sounds with great sonority project much more so than loud sounds.
Most important: listen carefully to your group when outside. It is so easy to get distracted by the visual aspects of your show that you forget to really listen.
Backing down dynamics
Unfortunately, a lot of marching bands have two volumes: loud and off. So much more can be gained from simply backing off the blastissimo playing and instead developing true dynamics and true musical moments. Find the big moments in your show, cultivate a good sound at those moments, and then build the rest of the show dynamically around those moments.
A good marching band sound with a great sonority does not happen by accident! Work to cultivate that great sound every day.
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Jon Bubbett has spent the past 38 years as a high school band director in Georgia and Alabama. He has served as the director of bands for Thompson High School in Alabaster, AL for the past 25 years. During that time the Thompson High School Wind Ensemble has performed at The Music for All National Concert Band Festival twice, has performed for the Alabama Music Educators Association 4 times and has made numerous conference appearances in throughout the southeast. Mr. Bubbett has received the National Band Association’s Citation of Excellence Award 7 times. He has also presented at The Midwest Clinic, the Alabama Music Educators Association and has been guest clinician and adjudicator in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. He has been married to Jeannie Bubbett for 38 years and they have two incredible children, Miles and Mallory!