by Tim Allen Director, Adair County High School Band, Columbia, KY Bands of America 2006 Grand National Class A Champion

While it is assumed (and understandably so) that smaller school bands have many obstacles to overcome in order to succeed in the realm of marching band,  there are some methods that have proven to be successful and, if pursued with persistence, these methods can somewhat “equalize the playing field” when competing with larger school bands. Here are five suggested methods that have served our small high school marching band well over the years.

Make the band larger

You can’t add more members to the band if you haven’t got them, so you create the illusion that the band is bigger than they really are by making the performance field smaller. How do you do that? By creating an implied stage back-drop using props, small stages, or simple black panels strategically placed on the field.

Imagine an arc or the top half of a linear picture frame positioned on the field that starts at the side one, 20 yd. line, 8 steps behind the front side line that arcs (or frames) backfield to a point on the 50 yd. line 8 steps forward of the back hash, and continues around and forward to a point on the side two, 20 yd. line, 8 steps behind the front side line. It isn’t necessary to fill up the field with props butted up end to end. Plenty of space can allowed between props as long as there is an “implied” connection  between the elements.

By utilizing this method, you have essentially shrunk the performance stage by nearly half, thereby creating the look and feel that the band is larger and is using virtually all of the “available” space.

Know your strengths and weaknesses

Band personnel changes from one year to the next, and as such, so do ability levels within sections. Whether you do your own musical arrangements or have someone else do them for you, tailor the arrangements to maximize your strengths and hide your weaknesses.

Don’t write the parts too thick. You wouldn’t want a woodwind section which consisted of 6 clarinets, 8 flutes, and 5 saxes to play an exposed 3 part harmony ballad segment. It simply would not be musically effective on the field because of limited numbers. Arrange it as a unison woodwind moment with pit or soft low brass accompaniment.

Feature some of your accomplished players as soloists. Consider amplifying woodwind soloists (assuming they have the artistry) for another type of woodwind moment. Edit, edit, edit! Don’t be a slave to the score. Adapt and make changes as necessary to obtain optimal effectiveness.


Proper staging for small bands is critical. Obviously, the musical element that has the important line – whether brass, woodwinds or battery percussion – should be staged with proper proximity to the audience, and be making the visual statement as well. To ensure effective musical impacts through volume, the winds (particularly brass) should be centrally staged (between the 35’s) and no further backfield than 8 steps forward of the front hash. Quieter musical moments are opportunities to explore re-staging and/or opening forms further backfield or laterally. Communicate with the drill designer, but don’t be a slave to the drill. Adapt and make changes as necessary to obtain optimal effectiveness. Sound familiar?

Have an identity

Try to convey to the audience a style and presence that is unique and memorable. It can be something as simple as the way the performers stand, or the manner in which they move. Is there evidence of multiple responsibilities from the performers? Can the guard play musical instruments? Can the winds and percussion perform guard movements? Confidence, aggressiveness, intensity, emotion and energy are evident in marching and playing. As the sheets say, the students must communicate their roles as “performers.” Make sure the students know that.

No dead wood

How do you make a small band sound like a large band? You don’t. Raising a small band’s volume level to try to match that of a larger band is only going to lead to overblowing, poor embouchure development and ultimately low music scores.

However, you can maximize a small band’s volume output, without over-blowing, by striving for “no dead wood”. That is to say that every single individual player is responsible to his or her part from beginning to end. Each musician is accountable for 100% contribution to the band’s sound. Basically – they all play – with a good characteristic sound. No dead wood.

Knowing that there are different ability levels within each section, it may become necessary to “groom” parts for younger players. A technical sixteenth note passage might be simplified to a pattern of an eighth and two sixteenths for younger players. But the important thing is that they are playing. They are contributing. They are important. This is actually a slight advantage for smaller bands, because time can be made to work with the individual musician, whereas larger bands may not have that opportunity.

Regardless of the size of the band, good tone quality is good tone quality, good balance is good balance and good intonation is good intonation. (as well as all  the other musical elements). And this, of course, is all made possible by good basic playing fundamentals.

These methods are not the cure-all remedy for smaller school bands, but when put into practice to the point that everyone in the program “buys” into the idea behind the methods, the chances for better success go up measurably.