Marching Band Hornline: Getting to Each Individual

Posted July 19, 2018 by Ben Harloff

Making sure that each individual in a marching band’s hornline is playing and contributing at their best is one of the biggest challenges faced by any band director. That’s because the only way a full hornline can produce optimal sound is if each individual is maximizing their contribution to the line. 

Ensuring that every student is playing the music accurately takes time and organization. With only so many rehearsal hours available, how can band directors get all of their individuals onto the field to accomplish this goal? 

For insight, we asked band directors Dan Carlson of Sioux Falls Lincoln High School (Sioux Falls, SD); Corey Futrell of Kennesaw Mountain High School (Kennesaw, GA); and Evan VanDoren, former band director of Cedar Park High School (Cedar Park, TX) to share the tactics they use to successfully reach the individuals in their marching band hornlines each season. 

Tactic One: Test Memorization

Testing students’ memorization of a show’s music is an excellent way to help ensure that students perform at their best. When students know they‘re going to be assessed, they’ll often work harder to prepare. Corey Futrell shared his method of testing students in small groups.

“To check for memorization, we’ll typically do pass-offs in chunks for all pieces throughout the show,” said Futrell. “We also break the band into small groups of five or six people. All of the instruments are split into these groups and each student is asked to play parts of the show either in class or during after-school rehearsals. This method helps us see who knows the music and who doesn’t.”

Dan Carlson provides his students with multiple opportunities to check their music through memorization testing. “We spot check each student on each show song, as well as on our street song, warm-up chorales, the school song, and the National Anthem,” said Carlson. “Our students are expected to have everything memorized by the first day of band camp, which starts at the end of July. Most kids work to pass everything before camp begins. 

“Following sectionals with their section tech, students have the option of doing spot checks in the summer,” continued Carlson. “If they haven’t cleared everything by the time camp starts, they’ll be randomly pulled out during the music block and spot checked. 

“There are incentives for the first section that completes all spot checks,” said Carlson. “Students who haven’t completed and passed all of the spot checks in their section by the end of the first week of camp will lose some of their lunchtime—they must stay with their section leaders and practice music instead. This process goes on until all of the students have passed every test, which puts pressure on the students to get their testing done early so they don’t force their section leaders to lose out on their full lunchtimes as well.”

Evan VanDoren shared the testing methods used for his students. “We constantly assess students in informal ways during rehearsal by hearing small sections (or individuals) perform,” said VanDoren. “First, we hear the students play non-marching band music (their Texas All-State etudes) every other week in one-on-one, 10-minute private sessions with a band director. These sessions are played for a grade and result in a chair placement ranking for each section of the band. While these sessions are not directly related to the marching production, they help reinforce thoughtful practice and healthy playing habits. 

“We also assess our students weekly using SmartMusic learning software,” VanDoren continued. “While these assessments are not for a grade, they do impact the students’ level of participation in end-of-the-week football game performances.” 

Tactic Two: Electronic Submissions

Having students use technology to electronically submit recordings is another great way to get to each individual. Learning program software options for digital audio or video file submissions include SmartMusic, Google Classroom, Google Drive folders, and Schoology. Both VanDoren (as mentioned above) and Futrell use SmartMusic to assess their students. “SmartMusic is a great tool to use to develop skills and test memorization, especially at the high school level,” said Futrell.

Tactic Three: Modify Individual Music Parts

 Modifying individual parts is another method directors use to ensure that every student is contributing at the highest level of their ability. Because the marching band season occurs within a specific timeframe, some students will encounter technical challenges that are difficult to master during a single season. In these cases, directors can give students a certain amount of time to achieve the music and, after that date, can offer them a modified part, if needed. 

“[If a student needs more time], we‘ve simplified second and third parts that are playable by them,” said Carlson. “These parts are intentionally watered down and baked in from the beginning. The lower the part, the more of a skeleton of the first part it is while still being a different voice in its own right.”

Tactic Four: Establish Student Leadership Teams

When the number of students in a band program far outweighs the number of staff, assigning student leaders is an excellent way to assist those who need help while also giving exceptional students leadership experience, additional responsibility, and ownership within the band.

“We’re no stronger than our least proficient member so we work hard to get everyone up to speed. We try to have an “if you fail, I fail” mentality as much as possible,” explained Carlson. “In the summer and during band camp, our section leaders work with individuals. One-on-one help goes on at all times as well. In the summer, we generally have one music tech per section so a lot of individual attention is provided by the section leaders. They’re not allowed to do spot checks, however. There is also one-on-one time with the section tech, but it is very limited.

“The students really are in the driver's seat for the success or failure of the season,” said Carlson. “The good news is that the students have taken it upon themselves to be accountable. I think developing intrinsic motivation might really be the key. Students must have a desire to uphold the history of the organization and not fail their own, individual potential.”  

Tactic Five: Intentional Class Scheduling 

When school is back in session, directors can set class schedules to facilitate student assessment. For example, a marching band director can split the band into sections of like instruments so that the woodwinds are in one class, brass instruments are in another, and percussion or guard are in yet another. 

VanDoren explained how he uses this strategy. “We’re blessed to have three full-time, wind-specific band directors. With this advantage, we can split [classes] three ways (or however we need). In addition, our school is on a block schedule with four 80-minute periods offered every other day. Our band students are double-blocked, meaning that we see them every day for 80 minutes, and they’re scheduled by ability in four band classes. As a result, we’re able to teach each group at their experience level, which helps students understand how they need to improve.” 

Tactic Six: Rehearsal Strategies

There are many ways to assess individuals during rehearsal. Here are the methods used by Futrell, VanDoren, and Carlson. 

“We split the band into five or six groups and have one group play at a time, which allows the box to hear individuals as well as the field staff,” said Futrell. “We also have a slow process of learning the music from the beginning, ensuring every student has a chance to learn and review every part of the music. By using this slow process and pass-offs, we’re able to identify early on the students who are struggling. Then, we have leaders, section coaches or band directors work with those who need extra attention to achieve the music at their highest level.”

“We use repetition,” said VanDoren. “We work to have efficient rehearsal strategies so that students repeat many of their tasks and hear many repetitions. We also provide feedback to as many students as possible. Additionally, our student leadership team teaches at various times of the year, resulting in more opportunities to split players into smaller groups.”

“It’s difficult to work with individuals during the full coordination rehearsals,” said Carlson. “Although we do have staff listen to sections, we don't always have enough staff to go around, especially once school starts. 

“We try to expose the students musically as much as possible in as many different ways as possible to hold them accountable,” Carlson continued. “One method we’ve used is breaking rehearsal segments apart by class. For example, we’ll have just the seniors play, then just the juniors, and so on. We also have the classes critique each other. 

“Another thing we’ve done is ask the section leaders not to play so we can hear what’s going on when our strongest players are removed. This elevates the level of the entire group because students have nowhere to hide. We also divide the players by section so that just the high or low winds play.” 

Tactic Seven: Working With Limited Staff

When a program doesn’t have the funds to support a large staff, it can be difficult to reach individuals who are struggling. In addition to using student leadership (as suggested in Tactic Four), some directors invite alumni to return as volunteer staff members. 

This tactic has been used with success by Futrell. “One school day per week, we hire section coaches or teachers (usually professional musicians, college instructors, and/or retired band directors) to come in and work with each section,” Futrell explained. “We ask these coaches to work mainly on pedagogy to the specific instrument they’re working with. During concert festival season, however, we might also ask them to work on music with the students.”

Final Thoughts

When it comes to finding the best strategy or tactics for your school’s marching band program, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Each director must make decisions based on their school’s unique program and determine which methods will work best for their students. To that end, Carlson and VanDoren shared their thoughts on finding the right structure for their students. 

“The bottom line is: the kids have to want it,” said Carlson. “It’s no secret that we don't have enough staff to hold every individual accountable. The students have to uphold and maintain a standard and they know that. Building a standard is difficult—and it’s a delicate thing to maintain—but the kids figure it out. 

“The fun part of anything comes from doing it well,” Carlson continued. “It's fun to be good [at what you do] and our students feel a great deal of responsibility to make sure they’re pulling their weight and teaching younger members that there aren’t any shortcuts to success.”

“There are two critical components of our educational philosophy for marching band,” VanDoren told us. “First, we relate everything to our feet and we rarely practice without moving them. By having our students perform as much as possible from their show when rehearsing in other settings, they’ll be better prepared for the performance. 

“Second, we’re picky about breathing. Many band programs speak to breathing, but we’ve found it’s often less about the technical elements of breathing and more about simply remembering to do it. We use stagger breathing strategies and marked breaths throughout our entire show. We also speak often about the concept of ‘keeping your body full of air.’ By focusing on these two concepts, and applying the other accountability measures mentioned above, we have been successful.” 


Ben Harloff has two degrees from Indiana University: Trumpet Performance and Music Education. While at IU Ben studied trumpet with Edmund Cord, Stephen Burns, John Rommel and Dominic Spera. He had the privilege to play in Ray Cramer’s Wind Ensemble and Dominic Spera’s final Indiana University Jazz Band. Ben completed a Master’s Degree in conducting from Southern Oregon University in 2008. When he was twelve years old, Ben’s drum corps career began with the Phantom Regiment Cadets. Ben marched Star of Indiana from 1990 to 1993 at which time he had an opportunity to perform under an incredible instructional staff, including Star¹s Brass Caption Head Donnie Van Doren. He also performed with Star of Indiana¹s Brass Theater where he had the privilege of working with the prestigious Canadian Brass. Ben was one of the trumpet soloists in both the original London and New York casts of the show Blast!, which was the 2001 recipient of the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and also won the 2001 Emmy Award for Best Choreography. Since 1999 Ben has been teaching drum corps including The Cadets, Magic of Orlando, Crossmen, Syracuse Brigadiers, Blue Knights, Troopers, Minnesota Brass, and Blue Stars. He continues to be a proud brass staff instructor for Carolina Crown. Ben was a band director at Clay Middle School in Carmel, Indiana for two years and at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, Minnesota for three years. Ben has been a band director in the Wayzata school district in Wayzata, Minnesota and is currently a band director at Rosemount High School in Rosemount, Minnesota. Ben has been judging marching band competitions and arranging for marching bands since 2000.