Marching Ensemble Timing
Strategies for cohesive performances
For many of us, full ensemble is the most enjoyable part of rehearsal. We hear the full sound of the band and see the full production from the guard. It can be exhilarating. Yet, we frequently find ourselves battling timing issues, and especially when they appear in unexpected ways. We have all been there.
My hope is that by going into depth on this issue, that you can have some more tools to solve your ensemble issues. The good news is, some timing issues can be fixed on the front end, before your students even learn a note. I realize this series is being released during the season, but maybe next year goes a little smoother with some of the information mentioned. Hopefully with some new tools in your toolbox, you can get the most out of your rehearsals and competitive season.
Individuals make up the Ensemble
Your ensemble cohesiveness is primarily contingent upon your students’ individual timing. Promoting individual timing through playing tests, rhythmic exercises, and metronome training to promote individual timing will pay dividends later. Little will be together if individuals are not confident in their own timing. In a helpful and fostering way, few exercises are more valuable than hearing individuals play with a metronome. A good tool is hearing a rhythmic passage on one pitch to check the rhythm. Sometimes this can cause some student anxiety, but I believe there is a healthy way of doing this! Learning your students tendencies helps you learn your tendencies as a teacher/staff as well as hearing the gaps in student proficiency.
*Personal timing and rhythms are not one in the same. They are highly related skills, but they differ in key ways. To me, timing is the combination of applying rhythmic control to pulse control. It takes mindful training of both pulse and rhythmic skills, independently and together, to hone a performer’s time.*
Timing is largely contingent on pulse and pulse control. Rhythms are figures inside of that pulse. Pulse is the start of each heartbeat, and rhythm is what happens in between. This may seem overly simple, but it’s quite common to combine them too soon and too often. You cannot always assess a student’s timing based on their ability to play rhythms. Case in point: I have heard students play a rhythmic figure they clearly learned by rote, but they could not slow the figure down because they didn’t understand the rhythm in the relationship to the pulse.
So, first thing’s first: Train PULSE.
Connecting the body, not just marching technique, to pulse is quintessential because the body helps train pulse. Moving down the field with a metronome on quarters or with music is a great way to connect the body and help you assess individuals’ timing. Connect the body to pulse, play simple rhythmic exercises (quarter, eighth) at different tempi, and you’re on your way for better pulse control. There are many creative ways to get there, but training pulse is just, if not more, important than teaching rhythms.
Rhythms are much more complex as a skill, but in some ways, they can be simpler to teach than pulse. If you have great pulse, rhythms are not nearly as complicated. If you think about when you learned rhythms formally, the difficulty was not usually performing the rhythmic idea, but relating it to the downbeat. Without great pulse, you will have very unpredictable results. Rhythms can only be correctly applied to great pulse.
If we can use tone as an analogy: You cannot tune a chorale perfectly and omit the musicians’ characteristic tone. Their tone doesn’t have to be perfect, but every shortcut taken on developing tone, will yield unpredictable tuning results. The same is true between pulse and rhythms. When we take shortcuts on training pulse, we will yield unpredictable timing results
Pulse and Rhythms combine to create our students’ sense of timing. Without a highly developed sense of timing, no ensemble (especially one on the move) can perform at a high level.
If you are having ensemble timing issues, the tendency can be to rep and rep during full ensemble to fix. The first step to fixing ensemble timing issues, is to train your performers’ full sense of timing first.
In Part Two, we will dive into some Golden Rules of full marching ensemble. They are keys to success that will pay dividends in your ensemble timing.