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Home > Spotlight > Marching Band Show Planning

The Competitive Edge: Planning for Success

Considerations for planning your next marching band show

By William Spencer-Pierce, Author of Marching Band Arranging

The endless cycle of planning continues from one season to the next. It's an endless cycle. One marching season comes to an end and it's time to start thinking about another. Directors and staff members will spend many hours reviewing what went well the past year, what could've gone better, and what to do next season.

Many aspects come into planning. Personnel must be addressed: what holes or gaps will be left by those graduating or moving on? How does the incoming class look? What changes in writing or instructional staff are anticipated? Is the group engaged in competitive activity, and if so, are there impending changes in judging sheets or approaches that need to be taken into consideration? Intended audience and venues?

Budget, scheduling, and other logistical issues must be considered. What kind of resources of time, talent, and money will be available? Many school districts are feeling increased financial pressures; will these impact schedules or staff expenditures? If new equipment, uniforms, or costuming will be introduced, how will these influence show planning?

Once these types of questions have been looked at, it's time for the actual show planning process. Although no one can anticipate everything, it's safe to say that few activities will have more impact than planning on the degree of success a group will experience.

Generating Ideas

Many directors enter into the planning process with at least a couple of ideas. These could range from a particular piece of music to a thematic approach or visual idea. Many ideas are generated over a period of time in a kind of ongoing conversation between classes and rehearsals.

Remember to factor in the performers as you begin thinking. They're going to spend a considerable amount of time playing this stuff, so at the very least try to use music that has some substance and will wear well over the course of a season.

Consider your group's identity and tradition when selecting a show concept. Although trends come and go, a lot of groups are currently having success by finding music that supports a themed presentation. In this approach, the original intended purpose or title of the work is subordinate to its use as a vehicle in playing out the theme or main idea. There are many concert band selections that can nicely support any number of such ideas.

Group identity should be considered. Does tradition or costuming imply a certain direction, or is it time for a change? Directors who find themselves in the first year or two of a new position are advised to tread lightly here, as traditions die hard.

Concepts or show ideas must be easily communicated and readily discernible to the audience. As a rule, the marching band idiom is not the place to be subtle. Avoid planning themed presentations around nothing but song titles unless the selections are so well-known that everyone will recognize your intent.

Planning Sessions with Staff

The best and freshest ideas usually come from meeting with staff members. Such meetings, formal or informal, provide a certain synergy in which people can bounce ideas off one another. Try to find a time when all stakeholders—directors, writers, and instructional staff—can meet face-to-face.

Leadership styles in these sessions are as varied as one could imagine. Some directors have a very clear view of what they wish to accomplish, while others may hand off creative decisions to a show coordinator or trusted subordinate. Most fall somewhere in between.

Keep sessions relaxed but try to stay on task. Follow the brainstorming model in which the generation of ideas is the important thing—their value or worth can be judged later on. More often than not, you'll walk out of a planning session with a very different idea or direction, but hopefully one that will give the group its best chances for success.

Communicating with Writing Staff

Once music has been selected and copyright clearance has been obtained, it's time to formally lay out the show with the writing staff.

The writing staff needs to know if props, set pieces or tarps will be used in your show. When communicating with your arranger(s), you'll need to provide either written scores or some kind of recording. Some directors prefer to make their own cuts, others leave it up to the arranger.

You'll need to provide some very specific information for your arranger, including probable instrumentation, relative strength of various sections, and whether or not there are particular sections or soloists you want to feature. Be specific in addressing emotional contour, segment/show length, and continuity.

If more than one writer is working on the music book—for example, a wind score person and a percussion writer—try to find people with compatible schedules and working procedures. In any event, unless you have a long-standing relationship with a writer, it's a good idea to draw up a simple agreement as to expectations on product, delivery time, and compensation.

Since most writers are working with computer software these days, a lot of communication can be done via e-mail. Scores, MIDI, and audio files can be exchanged efficiently between arrangers and visual designers to keep everyone on the same page and speed the writing process.

As to your visual people, they'll require information from you as to projected numbers, instrumentation, and so forth. Make sure that arrangers and drill writers are on the same page when it comes to handling sections—e.g., are you wanting the Tenor Saxes supporting low brass parts, or do you want them musically and visually grouped with the woodwinds?

Be specific in addressing exactly how you want instruments placed and guard integrated into the drill. Will large props, set pieces, or tarps be used? Where exactly on the field will these be placed? Spend adequate time with the color guard people in coordinating and integrating guard work, costuming and props, and equipment exchanges into the total package.

Be realistic and conservative in estimating numbers. Filling "holes" is time-consuming and hard on the morale of a group. Better to have a couple extra or alternate marchers on hand than to be scrambling all season to re-assign spots.

Writing to the Judging Sheets

Consider what the judges expect from your show, but don't forget about the crowd. Assuming you are planning a competitive show, there's a lot to be said for spending some time with the judging sheets at the start of the planning and writing process. The sheets vary from one judging association or state to another, so make sure your writers are up to speed on this (the best ones already are).

Although most scores ultimately come down to execution, there are numerous aspects of musical and visual book design that can help push scores into the higher boxes on judging sheets. Continuity, variety, pacing, integration of guard, and demand all play parts in the scoring process, and your writers can either help or hinder your efforts. Re-read the sheets with an eye toward those things that your writers can fulfill, and communicate these to them.

Though your intent may be in writing for the "special audience" that comprises the judging panel, remember the "general audience" as well. And watch out for taking the whole thing too seriously—some light-hearted moments or a little humor go a long way in reaching an audience.

The show that reflects and enhances the group's identity, communicates its intent in a clear and coordinated manner, and challenges your performers without overwhelming them gives your band the best chance of success. Good luck, and good planning!

With hundreds of successful shows to his credit, veteran teacher and arranger William Spencer-Pierce has a long track record in writing for competitive bands. His new book, Marching Band Arranging, is currently available through

Text by William Spencer-Pierce exclusively for Photos by

Copyright 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published or redistributed without permission.

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