The Marching Band Student Leadership Team: Part 1

Posted June 18, 2018 by Ben Harloff

The success of the student leadership team in a marching band is crucial to the success of the band as a whole. You can look at the leadership team as being another band director — they can help with business items, lead sectionals, be role models, give private lessons, organize drill and music, and help students who need extra direction. The options are endless. It is important to know that every band is different, so every leadership team will also look different. The Pride of Broken Arrow’s leadership team, for example, might not look the same as Tarpon Springs’.

As a director, you know your program more than anyone, so you will know what kind of leadership team the band needs. Some of the determining factors for choosing your leadership team will be the size of the band, the culture of the school/band, the ability of each section, the age of the band, the size of the staff, the performance schedule, and the goals of the season.

“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”
— Steve Jobs

terms used to describe leadership qualities
Show Leaders How to Lead

As a band director, your students — especially the leaders — look up to you as their leader. Take that responsibility and be the greatest role model you possibly can be for your leadership team. When the band struggles in certain areas, don’t just tell the leaders how to fix the problems, show them. For example, if the trumpets are having problems with their tone quality, show the leaders how to work on tone so when they are outside of rehearsal, they know how to help their peers. If the band is struggling with staying positive, show the leaders how to keep things positive in rehearsal. If you have expectations of how leaders should act in certain moments of rehearsal or performance, show them, don’t just tell them.

Leadership Curriculum
It is important to have some kind of curriculum to train your leaders. Most of them will not have had much experience being a leader, so they will need guidance. If you are passionate about leadership and have the time, you might want to design your own leadership curriculum that you teach throughout the marching band season. If you don’t have the time, here are some great books you could either have the students read or use to guide their leadership:

  • “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” by Sean Covey
  • “Classic Leadership: A Curriculum for the Development of Student Leaders,” by Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser 
  • “Leadership Travel Guide,” by Scott Lang
  • “The Ideal Team Player,” by Patrick Lencioni

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you need a team.”
—John Wooden
birds flying in formation behind the lead bird

Key Questions to Ask

To find your ultimate leadership team you will need to answer many questions along with analyzing the needs of your program.

What is the role of the student leaders in your band program?
This is the first place you should start when choosing leaders. What will their responsibilities be? What are the responsibilities of the drum majors versus the section leaders? Will any of the leaders be running music or visual sectionals? Will these leaders be responsible for any business items like taking attendance, copying music and drill, managing instruments and uniforms, etc.? Defining the roles of the leaders will not only help you find the right candidates but will also help guide the leaders once they are chosen. This is where many bands struggle with their leadership teams because students tend to step on each other’s toes when roles aren’t clearly defined. The more specific you are in mapping out the responsibilities of each leader, the more successful the leaders will be.

“You don’t inspire your teammates by showing them how amazing you are. You inspire them by showing them how amazing they are.”
— Robyn Benincasa

How many student leaders do you need?

If you plan to give your leaders many responsibilities, an initial ratio to use is one leader to every 10 members. However, several factors will help determine the perfect number for your band. Consider the following:

1. Size of the band. If the band has fewer than 100 members, you might only need one drum major. For a band of 100-200, you will probably want two or more. The same goes for sections: If the number of flutes, trumpets or guard members is over 20, for example, you will want to add more leaders to those sections.

2. Number of staff members. If you don’t have a lot of staff on hand, you will want to have more student leaders to help teach music, technique and positions, along with helping with other office and organizational tasks.

3. Average age of the students. If the band is quite young, you might want to have more leaders to support the younger students.

4. Ability level of the students. If a certain section has a visual or musical weakness, you might want to assign it a few more leaders.

If you have a larger band, you may want to break down the sections into even smaller groups. One way to do this is to have one or two section leaders and four to five squad leaders. The section leaders will lead the full group, and each squad leader will be assigned five to six students to lead. The section leaders and the squad leaders will have different responsibilities. For example, the section leaders will direct full section rehearsals, but squad leaders can take over their smaller groups for quicker testing of music memorization or choreography. 

“Leadership is doing what is right when no one is watching.”
— George Van Valkenburg

What is your audition/application process, and how does it ensure the best candidates are chosen? 

The selection processes for the drum majors and the section leaders should be different because of their different responsibilities. Will you have interviews? Will you have the students submit an application answering a list of pre-determined questions? Keeping in mind the needs of your band program, you need to be as specific as possible when asking questions and auditioning students. Generic questions like “What does leadership mean to you?” might not help you find the best candidates. Instead, if one of the challenges your program has is training the younger students to march, you might want to ask, “What ideas do you have as a leader to help the younger students march at a higher level?” If one of your students’ challenges is keeping a positive attitude during long rehearsals, you might want to ask, “What ideas do you have to inspire the students to work hard during longer rehearsals?”

Also, consider whether it is more important that leaders lead by example or exemplify other leadership traits. It could be beneficial to a section, for example, to have one leader who is extremely organized and disciplined and another who plays and marches impeccably. The combination can cater to multiple learning styles among the other students. 

“If it came between being right and being kind, be kind. Because you can always go back and be right.”
— Dr. Tim 

Find Your Leadership Fit

The more you invest in the leaders, the more successful they will be. There is not a right or wrong way to manage your leadership team, and leadership is not one-size-fits-all — it must be custom to your program. You can take the ideas from this blog or read all the student leadership books in the world, but to be successful, it’s most important that you make your student leadership system unique to you and your program.

“Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other to surrender the ‘me’ for the ‘we.’”
— Phil Jackson


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.