Ten Marching Band Show Design Tips

Ryan Adamsons

1. Know what your group does well.

Identify the specific skills and sections of your ensemble that perform at a high level and make sure they align with your show concept. This is not to say your show should not provide challenges and room for student growth, but if you have 3 total brass players then it is unlikely that you can create the same effects as a world class drum corps.


2. Have a plan to teach and clean your big moments.

Thinking ahead about how to approach the process of learning and improving performance at major impact points is invaluable. Not only will it raise performance level and make the intent clearer to students, it will often suggest subtle changes to design much earlier in the process.


3. Do something interesting at least once per minute.

This is great a general rule, and it doesn’t always have to be something that involves the full ensemble. Having a variety of effects helps, for instance playing impactfully, featuring a soloist, an intriguing visual development, etc, but going more than a minute between these kinds of moments is rarely successful.


4. Pacing, pacing, pacing.

In addition to having consistent moments of interest, getting between these moments in a way that makes sense rather than happening too quickly or slowly is very important. In general avoid repetition or at least provide variation when it occurs.


5. Make your transitions effective.

Part of designing a show is the need to transition from one idea to the next, especially with regard to visual staging and equipment for guard. If the guard needs to get to the front sideline and change flags, something as simple as making it choreography that takes them to their equipment in a ripple that draws the eye to an area of the field where something else is about to occur takes a potential problem and makes it an effective moment.


6. Key is important.

While it is artistically true that certain keys have different sounds and pedagogically important for students to learn to play in all keys, the fact remains that certain keys (eg. Bb and F) are easier to play in tune on marching band instruments and will project better. In general the fewer buttons the brass are pressing the louder and more in tune the note will be with the same effort because of the harmonic series and the length of tubing being used. If you prefer the sound of another key or think students should play in more than one key during the marching season I agree with you, but it will almost never be rewarded in a competitive setting.


7. Identify things that may not work and have a backup plan.

As you are coming up with the major moments in your show, identify what potential issues could come up and have a way to present the same idea differently, simplified, or with less risk of performance error. Don’t be afraid to stick with the original plan and get better at it, but be ready to change it if necessary.


8. It's easier to rewrite music than drill.

The tendency is to get stuck on what the music is and try to change the drill. Drill changes almost always affect more people, affect more things before and after the change, and take more rehearsal time to address, whereas music changes affect the specific sound and the individuals making them.


9. Be aware of how to create musical and visual impact.

There are numerous guides to how to do this and plenty of different opinions, but the important thing is to identify how your ensemble will create these moments and make them clear. One group may play loud long notes in a company front, another may play staccato notes with choreography in a clump; both are effective so identify how and why to make each moment have a distinct intent.


10. Evaluate if problems are performance or design and then apply the proper solution.

If a moment is not effective, determine if the best and quickest way to fix it is through addressing performance or changing the design. For instance, if a moment is supposed to be loud and impactful but is written low on the instruments, in B major, and staged behind the back hash, there is little that the performers can do to make that occur. If the same moment is written in comfortable or upper registers, in Bb major, and staged between the 40’s right behind the front sideline, then working on air support and tuning will make a bigger difference than any design change.

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