“What is this column about?” you ask. Good question. My hope is that this column will provide helpful (and also entertaining) thoughts, approaches, techniques and occasional anecdotes to marching pageantry folk of all sorts. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to the questions and mysteries of the marching pageantry universe (i.e. “Who was it that first thought spats would be a good idea?”), but I have marched around the block quite a few times, so to speak.
I thought a good place to start would be with the new or first-time instructor. As luck would have it, I found an 18-year-old version of myself in front of a 160-piece marching band in the fall of 1994. My job was (mostly) to teach the students how to march. I had just finished my first summer of touring and performing with a drum corps (The Sacramento Freelancers), and my head was filled with lots of different marching exercises and techniques. However, I was unsure of where to start and how to transfer drum corps techniques and ideas to a somewhat “green” marching band.
Finding Your Voice
Besides not knowing exactly what to do in rehearsal, I also faced the challenge of finding my voice. I don’t mean the ability to speak loudly although that can come in handy, especially when trying to project across a football field without an amplification system or during a competition warmup when it seems like there are five or six other groups warming up in a living room. What I’m referring to is finding the right attitude, tone of voice and personality to use with your given group of students or members.
One of the most amazing traits of children of all ages is their ability to detect insecurity and nervousness. As a new instructor, whether your focus is musical or visual in nature, you have to be confident in order to get the best possible reaction and response from your students/members; on the flip-side, however, you must also avoid using a condescending tone or just being too aggressive. I made the latter mistake as a young instructor, overcompensating for the fact that I was not much older than my students at the time.
When students or members hear too much aggression from one voice, they tend to tune out that voice for the rest of the rehearsal and possibly longer still. I find that giving corrections and instruction as matter-of-factly as possible—not devoid of emotion or intensity, but also not overbearing or crass—works best for me now. I imagine that any new instructor would have at least some success with this approach.
If you are a new instructor and are part of an instructional staff, then your job is to fit into that staff, to follow the direction of your superior(s) and to give instruction to students/members. If you are the only instructor (or you are the only instructor in your given caption, such as music, visual, etc.), then it’s likely that you are at least partially responsible for teaching a technique or exercise program to your group. If so, my advice to you is to use what you know best.
Having a firm grasp on any given technique or exercise will enable you to focus on your group’s achievement of the exercise instead of worrying about whether or not you are teaching the exercise correctly. This is not to say that you can’t learn and/or implement new techniques; I encourage you to do just that. You just want to have a firm grasp on any technique or exercise before you’d use it with your group.
So, now that we have you walking into rehearsal well-prepared and confident, don’t forget to expect some setbacks and speed bumps along the way. The ability to learn by trial and error is a great skill to have as an instructor. Whether it’s completely scrapping a technique program because it’s too advanced for your group or just making a slight adjustment to a musical exercise, you should always be prepared to make changes and adjustments as needed. The ability to be flexible, especially if you work with other staff, can really help to smooth your path as an instructor because you’ll be able to sidestep some potentially stressful situations. As musicians and marching pageantry folk, we can sometimes be firm believers in “our way” of doing a particular thing; it often helps to remember that there’s more than one way to bake a cake!
I hope this first column has been of some help to you young instructors out there. While your responsibilities may be minimal, and you may struggle from time to time at the beginning of your instructional career, I encourage you to keep at it because you never know where you might end up.