The Marching Band Effect

xl1The title of this post may be misleading. You may be thinking, “Ah yes. I’m familiar with this effect. This is when students play with poor tone quality and intonation, etc…” But, this is not exactly what I’m talking about.

Over the last several years, I have noticed an interesting phenomena that occurs when I have young middle school students play in the marching band. They get better. Way better. Quickly. It’s almost mind-boggling.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I preach all of the same principals of good musicianship to my marching group as I do to my concert band. It’s just different music and a different venue. I still tune the group carefully. I still expect them to play with good intonation. I still expect them to play with good characteristic tone quality. I still expect them to play correct dynamics and articulations.

For the first few years in my program, I only allowed select 8th grade students to join the marching band. Given the situation that the program was in, the marching band band played much more difficult music than the middle school. But, if I felt that students were “up for the challenge” then I would invite them to participate in the marching group. After a year or two of this system, I started to invite 7th grade students into the group as well. Admittedly, this was an attempt to get more bodies in the marching band, as I was feeling some pressure from my community as to how few students were in the group…about 30 musicians. Over the next few years, I began to notice a trend.

These middle school students that participated in marching band got to be much better musicians very quickly. Students that were previously on par with the rest of the middle school students ability-wise, were now far surpassing their peers at a rapid pace in the concert band setting. Now, I am at the point that I will take any 7th or 8th grade student that is interested into the Marching Pride.

Here is what I have found this year. A flute player that was average at best last year has improved immensely in note-reading, and rhythm-reading ability. I have 3 middle school trombone players that started off the season pretty weak, but are now incredible. They now play with immense confidence and a great sound! I have clarinetists that could barely play over the break last year, let alone with a good tone. Now, they do it easily and sound good too! These are just a few outstanding examples.

When we then get together for concert band at the beginning of the school year, they find the concert music easy. I can see that their peers that aren’t in the Marching Pride are struggling with notes, and finger placement, and slide positions, while they are playing the music with no problem. As you can imagine, this has greatly improved the quality of the middle school band (not to mention the marching band!)

I don’t know if I can put my finger on what exactly it is, but here are some factors that I think are contributing to their success:
1.They like the music. I really went out on a limb this year, and picked “popular” music – Fallout Boy, Rihanna, The White Stripes, Katy Perry – I think this motivated them to learn the material.
2. They have no choice. When they get to band camp it is kind of like, “Here’s the music (which is much more difficult than anything you’ve ever played)! Good Luck!” They have their peers to help them learn the music in sectional rehearsals, but they are basically expected to learn it. They are forced to step it up.
3. They want to belong to the organization. I think what is really key here is that they are excited to be a part of this great group, and have a sincere desire to do the best that they can. I attended a summer class co-taught by former University of Illinois Director Gary Smith. One of his main philosophies about marching programs was “System + Spirit = Success.” I have really made this a guiding principle for my group too. The idea is that if the students really buy into your system, i.e. how the program is run, and it’s philosophies and procedures, then the group will be successful. I really believe that nearly %100 of my students believe in our system and are passionate about it.

Having middle school students join our marching band has been an outstanding experience! Without fail, those students have improved immensely as musicians at an impressively rapid rate. This is something that I will continue to do, and I know that the quality of all of our middle high school band groups will improve because of it!

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