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!


7 thoughts on “The Marching Band Effect

  1. Very, very interesting. Not the results I would have guessed, but upon reflection makes a lot of sense. I imagine it has most to do with hypothesis #2 and #3. Do you have relatively strong student leadership? Upperclassmen demonstrating the attitudes and habits of excellence can do more for young musicians than anything else.

  2. Doug,

    Great post! I too march a number of 8th and 7th grade students – they have to pass an audition in the spring before which is pretty minimal. There are a couple of things I tell them after the audition: 1) “I am not taking you on the basis of how good you are right now. I am inviting you to be a part of this group on the potential of how good you can be.” I think it puts a tremendous amount of personal responsibility on them that they have passed the first hurdle, but still have work they have to do. 2) “You are going to help us, and become a part of our tradition.” Like you said in point three – they want to belong. Once they realize that, they don’t want to let anyone down, and they get to be part of something much bigger than themselves. I have been fortunate that the upperclassmen see them as people who can make a contribution, and take time to help them whenever possible. The support system from the top down makes a big difference. It has been obvious over the past four years the steps your group has taken – and your program is a great example of your philosophy, practice, and people all being on the same place. It was a pleasure hosting your group on September 19th at our show, and I am looking forward to seeing your group again in the future.

  3. Thanks Travis! It has truly been an exciting year for me! The program is really starting to get to the point that I envisioned 6 years ago when I started. Now, to expand on that vision and continue to grow the program! Hopefully! Thanks again!


  4. Hi Doug,

    I just discovered your blog and love it. Regarding the phenomenon of the middle school students getting better, I would certainly that your 3 reasons are on the money. Especially 2 and 3. I’m currently a graduate student who taught for 4 years prior to coming back to school. We had a guest conduct/band director who gave a clinic on marching band. He would always encourage his freshman to be in marching band. (He was fortunate enough to have a completely voluntary marching band). Part of it was because of the vast improvement. The other part was the fact that if these freshman were placed between two seniors or upperclassmen their tone quality improved with exposure. Basically because the students were exposed to upperclassmen and more challenging music they improved. I think that this phenom is incredible. It makes me wonder what I could get a middle school band to do.

  5. Thanks for reading Cornelius! Yeah, it really makes a big difference! My best players in the Jr. High Band are those that are in the marching band!

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