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Marching Ensemble Timing

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

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.

Part One:


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 as, 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. Part Two:


Golden Rules

We all need some guidelines or rules to follow for successful rehearsals. The following Golden Rules will ensure you have many less “rubs” and “tears” in your show.

  1. The battery is the pulse when they play.

  2. Pulse comes from the back of the field, to the front.

  3. Staging of the winds is crucial to ensemble success.

  4. Prepare every tempo change.

  5. Sound travels slowly.

  6. BONUS RULE: Train your drum majors

Now that we have our rules, let’s dig deeper:

  1. The battery is the pulse while playing. Train, train, train your battery to be great individual controllers of pulse and rhythms. Then train some more. The most successful battery ensembles are built on the accuracy of rhythms and pulse by each student individually. Rehearsals should always include daily doses of fundamental rhythmic exercises, and there are no shortcuts.The winds, guard, and front ensemble depend on the battery. They have a responsibility to set, maintain, and control time.

*Potentially scary concept*

When the battery plays, they are the time on the field. This does not mean that everyone should listen to them! If your battery is playing on side 2, you cannot expect side 1 trumpets to listen to them. More on this in “Sound Travels Slowly.”

  1. Pulse comes from the back of the field, to the front. The front of the field can never control time for the ensemble, unless the front players (solo, or front ensemble) are completely unaccompanied. If you argue with this, you are arguing with physics. Science will always win on a field wether you embrace it or not. Ignoring science will just cause more headaches than you need.

  2. Pulse comes from back to front. Apply this concept and review it as you get your drill.

  3. Staging of the winds is crucial. By using the first two points above about timing, you can identify difficulties in the drill before you ever see or hear it. Are the winds staged in ways where pulse identification or performance will be overly-difficult? I think we are quick to identify the “hard drill moves” or the “difficult music,” but there are many times “ensemble difficulty” is overlooked when the drill is received, and we wait until the drill and music are learned before we discover the challenge. Many times, when a director gets the drill to a show, there is usually just a sigh of relief that they have material in hand, and it’s time to learn. I advise taking some time to study your drill before handing it out! Drill writers have a tough job, but just like music arrangers, can make mistakes. Sometimes you can be put in sets that accidentally or unnecessarily make playing to the pulse overly-difficult, or worse yet, impossible. The laws of physics are strong.

  4. Prepare tempo changes *HOT TAKE ALERT* If you get an arrangement with a subito tempo change, you may want to call the composer/arranger. Ask the them what their strategy is to perform it reliably. It’s possible there is an idea that has been worked out with the drill designer, so it’s best to check. An unprepared subito tempo change is an ensemble rub or tear waiting to happen.

  5. Sound travels slowly. We have all seen or heard this scenario at some point: “LISTEN BACK FRONT ENSEMBLE!!!” Simple, right? It’s just not always that simple. Sound travels so slowly, that it needs its own separate section in this article.

  6. Train your Drum Majors. We will discuss this in its own section. This is probably the hardest concept to adapt, as it takes time and trial and error. No two drum majors are exactly alike, and training the human element, can be the most complex of all.

Tune in for Part III where we will discuss just how fast sound is in Sound is Slow.

Part Three:

Sound Is SLOW

A disclaimer before we continue: I am not a scientist. Heck, the only “A” I ever received in a math class after 9th grade was in college. The course was border-line remedial and I managed to tough out… an A minus.

*One more disclaimer: for the scientists or scientific out there, sound attenuation and the proximity effect have been purposefully omitted in this discussion. Weather is also not near as impactful as distance, so it’s mostly omitted as well. Life is already complicated enough, so let’s push on!*

If you are comfortable with just how slowly sound travels, you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to understand the following concepts. In fact, if you understand thunder and lightning, which all band directors do, you are well on your way.

Lightning can ruin a rehearsal very quickly, and for good reason. We’ve all been there, and in TX this year, we are all there. We have apps to tell us how far away lightning is, but there are a few rules of thumb to calculate our distance from lightning. We count seconds to see how long it takes the thunder to reach us. I was taught incorrectly many moons ago, that for every second, add a mile (1s=1 mile). For years, I never thought anything of it, but we know how long a mile is, and since sound travels around 1150 feet per second, that rule of thumb can’t be right.

It takes the sound of thunder roughly 4.5 seconds to travel one mile. That means for every 5 seconds from a lightning flash, to the sound of thunder, add a mile and you’ll be close. That’s a long time! You saw the lightning in about 5.3 nanoseconds (thanks google), but heard it many seconds later. As a reminder, a nanosecond is a billionth of a second. Sound is so slow, I almost feel sorry for it.

All of this writing, and all of your reading comes down to this: How much distance creates a problem with how slow sound is? How far away do you have to be to create a “tick” or “rub” and how much time is actually between those notes for us to notice an issue?

Hearing a tick/bad attack/rub can be somewhat subjective. This helpful video can serve as a starting point for you to identify.

On the video, your speakers matter a bit, but I imagine most folks can hear the grace-note sneak in around 3-4ms. Starting at around 20ms, you can hear two clear and distinct sounds. So for the sake of argument, let’s agree 20ms is an unacceptable attack.

How far apart do two people have to be for them to experience that 20ms delay? Using the Audiofile Calc app, calculated at 80ºF at 55% humidity, or as we say in Texas, “winter,” the distance it takes to create a 20ms delay front to back is…

Brace yourselves.

Cue dramatic music.

22.9 feet. That’s it. That means in less than 8 yards front to back, two people playing at the exact moment in time will produce a very noticeable delay to the box and/or audience. If this number surprises you, as it did me, it seems like marching band is a giant Whack-a-Mole game of timing issues.

Have no fear. You have the Golden Rules that when followed, will eliminate a majority, if not all, of your ensemble issues. As a reminder, here are those rules again:

  1. The battery is the pulse when they play.

  2. Pulse comes from the back of the field, to the front.

  3. Staging of the winds is crucial to ensemble success.

  4. Prepare every tempo change.

  5. Sound travels slowly.

  6. BONUS RULE: Train your drum majors

We have rules, but let’s create two rules of thumb to follow, now that we know just how close people can be for their sounds to create a delay.

  1. If performers are 10 or more yards away from each other front to back, there needs to be a strategy for getting their sound to the front at the same time. Make sure there is a pulse for the front group to listen to. You may have several layers of this if it is a large set.

  2. Listen to the closest groups to you, especially those behind you. This is why the “listen to your threes” comment is so powerful for the winds. Remind your performers, “the pulse comes from the back of the field, to the front.”

Now we hopefully get a better sense of how the slowness of sound affects our group. In our fourth and final chapter, we will discuss some scenarios along with the BONUS RULE: Train your drum majors.

PART Four:

Drum Majors and Real-World Scenarios

Rule No. 6: Train your drum majors

Let’s be honest, we probably spend more time talking and telling to our drum majors than actually training them. If the band is large, and the tech staff is full, it is completely appropriate to dedicate some funds to train the drum majors. Make sure that if you do have someone coming in to work with your drum majors, that they discuss ensemble issues. Technique and pattern are very important, but knowing how sound travels and creates sound delay is key to their, and your ensemble’s success. Just watching the center snare’s feet, while a very good rule of thumb, does not fix all situations. In fact, where that snareline is, if they’re playing, what side the drum major is one, who holds time, are all issues to be addressed.

Here are some key elements in training your drum majors:

  1. Uniformity. How far the arms are out, how far down and out their pattern is, where the ictus is, are all elements that need to be defined and trained.

  2. Ictus placement is key. Decide not just where it is in space, but what part of the hand is considered hits the ictus has to be defined and communicated with your ensemble.

  3. Watch the center snare drummer’s feet. This is a pretty common tool, and while it works much of the time the battery plays, staging issues can cause break downs. If the winds cannot hear the battery, or they are far enough away to create a delay, they will have to alter their interpretation of the drum majors’ hands to play with the battery. This point could be an entirely new article, but why draw this out even longer?

  4. Show design. The drum majors need to know where and how all of the ensemble pieces work together. As well, they should not just know, but understand their role in pulling off a challenging production. Score study, drill chart study are required elements of any knowledgeable drum major.

Now, for some scenarios:

Scenario #1

In this set, z4 (in the front, 50yd line) is roughly 20 yards in front of F10 (+-4 steps behind hash, 50). If z4 and F10 play exactly with the drum major’s hands, z4’s sound will be roughly 52ms ahead of F10. Z4 has to listen as far back as he/she can, but it’s possible that F10/T4 are not even playing.

The Fix:

Use your rules: Staging of the winds is crucial to ensemble success. Meaning, ideally this set would not have the whole group playing. In fact, for this particular set, they are not. Why? The distance between the battery and the front winds is so large, there will be intense delays. However, if you have a tutti section and get this drill, use some other rules to help the group play together.

Rule 1: The battery is the pulse when they play and Rule 2: Pulse comes from the back of the field, to the front apply here. If the group in front of the battery, lets say F7 on side 1 to LB9 on side 2, is 100% with the battery, then the winds in front of those groups can listen back to their fellow wind players to play together. The distance from the bass drums is troubling, but I digress.

Lastly, z4 will not be able to play with the drum majors hands. In fact, z4 will have to play considerably behind the drum major hands to play in time. I mention this one last because it is so much more natural as a performer to listen to other musicians, versus play purposefully behind a conductor.

Scenario #2

With this set, we’ll pretend it’s the end of a drum feature. This happens a lot where the drums finish playing up front, then don’t have time to move back. Jonathan Yoo (the drill designer here) didn’t make this mistake, but I’ve seen and taught drill like this for other teams.

The Fix:

The first fix is on the front end: If your drill designer sends this to you, and the winds are playing with the drums, please ask for a rewrite. People like C9 and M9 have almost no shot at playing together. Unless you’re lip-syncing at the Super Bowl, trying to get performers to play with 70 yards between them is a mostly bad idea. If they were clustered together, or connected more as sub-sections, you could salvage the situation.

If you are forced to use this set, utilize RULE 2, as well as some of the advice in the drum major training. The players furthest back, have to play on top of the drum majors’ hands. Their sound has to get a running start for it to line up with the battery and to the front. And as many people as possible have to listen back. Most groups here cannot listen to the battery.

Scenario #3

Counting over the Speaker system Please do not do this. Especially while the metronome is on! We the people of the marching world beg of you, to please never count over a speaker system. If you are counting, you cannot listen. If you’re not listening, why are they playing? If it’s just drill, why isn’t just the metronome on? IF you’re counting while the metronome is on, by the time you hear the click, it has long left the performer’s ears. They now have two sounds to listen to for every beat. Their feet nor music will make any sense. Let’s just all hold hands together and agree to never do this as the great people of the marching arts.

Now that we’ve gone through all of these rules and scenarios, it is time to put them in action. May your rehearsals be filled with rainbows and beautifully-timed ensemble moments. Feel free to reach out to me on Facebook or by email All the best in the remainder of the marching season!

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