Now that October is here, you’ve probably got most (if not all) of your marching band show on the field. You’ve had a number of performances and maybe even participated in a few contests. This is about the time many bands experience a mid-season “slump.” The newness has worn off and it’s easy to lose focus because the rapid improved you made early in the season—as you went from have very little of your show on the field to having most of it out there—has been replaced by the slow pace of working on the details. It takes a lot of patience because it’s actually harder to advance on your learning curve the better you get! The increments of improvement are much smaller, but those tiny increments are the very things that separate the average bands from the good bands. And if you want to go from good to great, you have to embrace and look forward to making those small increments. It’s a simple fact: Great bands go to lengths that lesser bands find annoying. Here are a few ideas to help you pull out of the mid-season slump.

Focus on procedures and stick to them—no matter what!

When rehearsal procedures are strong, morale improves because it’s harder for negativity to take hold. When you hustle back to your sets, remain silent during instruction and when resetting, vocalize energetically when called upon, and even just raise your hand fully and stand a little taller, you create an enthusiastic, purposeful environment. Think about it…if everyone is silent during rehearsal, no one is complaining! (If you’d like to get the full story on how and why procedures are so closely linked to morale, click here to read the blog I wrote for your directors a few weeks ago.)

The further you get into the season, the less it’s about the directors and the more it’s about the members.

By now, your directors and staff have given you the vast majority of the information you need to perform your show. If you don’t believe this, count the number of times your director gives you information you’ve already heard multiple times, but that the performers on the field sometimes ignore. Never let a staff member tell you something you can figure out for yourself! This wastes time and starts that downward spiral of tedium. Challenge your staff to give you NEW information and to tell you things that aren’t obvious. Rehearsals become fun and fast paced when everyone anticipates the next task. As one of my former students and System Blue Leadership staff member Ben Underbrink says, “Figure out where the teacher is going and work to get there first!”

Focus on your circle of influence.

I recently had some correspondence with a System Blue camper from this past summer. He’s frustrated because he doesn’t seem to be able to get his band to rehearse as efficiently and enthusiastically as he knows it can. My suggestion to him is that he focus less on the entire band and more on the people closest to him that seem to “get it” (or that just “get him”). I suggested that he identify four or five of his most trusted fellow band members and then sit down with them to make a list of procedures, tasks, and behaviors that they will demonstrate consistently and relentlessly during each and every rehearsal. (Keep this a very small and trustworthy group! It has to be personal. If you involve too many people, you’ll lose the personal commitment.) Then ask each of those people in your group to identify a few others with whom they are close but that may not be in your circle. Have them do the same with their group, and stress the importance of picking people they can truly count on! This is not a strategy that works with friends who have good days and bad days! Pick your people carefully!

Once you’ve done this, simply rehearse like you all agreed to, and BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN YOUR BAND (to paraphrase Gandhi). Avoid confrontation, and simply be the example of the best band member you can imagine. Focus on what’s working, not what isn’t. And when faced with negative people, let them motivate you to be even more positive!

There are no quick fixes.

Be patient. Things probably won’t change today or even this week. But you can be sure that if you do things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten (or worse!). Several years ago, a senior drum major by the name of Grant decided, along with his sophomore brother, Blake, to try this “circle of influence” strategy. Later that season, Grant emailed me and said that things in his band had gotten better. Procedures were stronger, but not as good as he had hoped they’d be. Attendance was up, but there were still a few people who were consistently late or absent. Here’s what he said in his email:

Though things have gotten better, and the band is definitely on the right track, it’s probably going to take longer than just this year for real changes to stick. It may not happen by the time I graduate, but I think Blake will part of a much better band when he’s a senior.

What a fantastic legacy to leave your band!

If you have any questions or if you’d like to brainstorm a particular idea, contact Frank Troyka at



The “Pass-Around” Ensemble Exercise

The “Pass-Around” Ensemble Exercise

Individual accountability is essential in creating a great-sounding band. I often observe band directors who have a well thought out warm-up and fundamental curriculum, but their students only play as an ensemble, rarely as individuals or as sections during this part of the rehearsal. The result is often the reinforcement of bad habits rather than developing good ones. The pass-around exercise is an excellent way to introduce higher accountability.

Primary purposes

·       To increase awareness regarding variations in pitch, volume, tonal energy, and tone color;

·       To help students understand that dynamics often affect pitch;

·       To help students learn how to manipulate changes in dynamics without altering pitch.

The “pass-around” is a wonderful tool for keeping students engaged and accountable for their contribution to the ensemble both as individuals and as a member of their sections. The pass-around exercise illustrated here employs an “overlap” approach whereby each new instrument that enters overlaps the previous section by a measure. Before using this count structure, it is recommended that the teacher simplify the exercise where each section plays by itself, one after the other, without overlapping in an effort to draw the student’s attention first to his responsibility to his section to play with good tone and in tune. This “back-to-back” approach exposes clarity of note starts (“attacks”), volume, steadiness of tone production, and an infinite array of other sonic characteristics that will continue to reveal themselves as the students and the teacher listen and react with increasingly critical ears. A metronome, audible to the ensemble without overpowering, is suggested to shift the responsibility for instant response to the individual players.

Once a satisfactory level of achievement has been reached, then the ensemble can take full advantage of the overlapping count structure as illustrated here. Now the students shift their focus from themselves and their individual sections to the responsibility of matching pitch and volume from instrument to instrument. When the teacher feels comfortable that students’ awareness and their ability to adjust pitch and balance is adequate, it’s time to move on to the “dovetail” pass-around.

The Dovetail Pass-Around

Introduce this exercise with the full ensemble playing in unison before passing from section to section. Establish and sustain the pp dynamic level (or whatever level is appropriate) then the f dynamic, being certain that the students are not outside the boundaries of an acceptable tone. In other works, avoid allowing them to play too softly or too strongly if the core to the sound is lost. Once those limits have been established, have the ensemble shape the changes in volume in unison to define the rate of volume change. The following 12-count visual reference is offered:


Intuitively, most students will visualize the crescendo and sustained forte as illustrated in counts 1 through 9 above. However, visualizing an ascending decrescendo as shown serves several functions. First, it suggests an energetic decrescendo in that any ascending object resists gravity, requiring an active approach to getting softer rather than a passive one. Second, it suggests visually that the pitch must remain constant (a problem most commonly encountered by young flute players who often play flat as they play softer). In a back-to-back “dovetail” pass-around, we have the following visual reference:


The above illustrates how sensitively the players must match the pp release (or whatever is determined to be the appropriate dynamic) to the pp start of the next sections. Again, when a satisfactory level of achievement is reached (and this may take anywhere from accumulated hours to weeks of rehearsal) the teacher may then introduce the dovetail pass-around as an overlapping exercise, as notated previously and now illustrated below:


The color of the parallelogram matches the corresponding colored dynamic marking. The illustration suggests that as one section decreases in volume, another supports it with the energy of its crescendo. When first practiced, the most obvious inconsistency will be that of pitch fluctuation as one section becomes softer while another becomes stronger. (Hold your ears! This takes some time and patience!)

Ultimately, the goal is to increase our students’ awareness and align their priorities more closely with ours, the teacher-conductor.  This basic model, the pass-around, can be applied to individuals with a section rehearsal, to short phrases of a chorale, or to excerpts from the concert program, all in an effort to help our students reach ownership of their contribution to the ensemble.

These and other topics will be the subject of future System Blue tips. As always, if you have questions or would like more information, contact Frank Troyka at







Disagreements are inevitable, especially when you work closely with others who care as deeply as you do about doing a good job. Sometimes you’ll feel very strongly that YOUR WAY will be the best way, and you may be right! But if you’ve ever been on the other side of that situation—where you want so badly to be listened to and taken seriously—you can understand how frustrating it is to be shut down. Remember, there’s more than one path to the top of the mountain! Be willing to listen to other ideas, and give them your FULL and OPEN-MINDED consideration. Allow others to take the lead and you’ll earn the respect worthy of a great leader.

On those occasions when problems arise, here’s a helpful way to remember how to maintain the respect of everyone involved.


Rather than just react, process your ideas and respond clearly. You mustn’t get emotional when you respond! That only escalates the conflict.


Let the person know that you also understand his side of the issue by listening actively and responding appropriately. But TRULY LISTEN! If you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next while the other person is talking, you’re not really listening and the other person will know it!


Be specific in what you are saying and where you want it to lead. Plan out what you want to say in advance and have a clear outcome in mind. Be able to state what the result will be.


Be supportive and positive in your choice of words and tone of voice.  Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements (e.g., “I feel like…” as opposed to “You make me feel like…”).


Make an honest effort to consider the feelings of the other person and imagine yourself in his situation.


You must remain calm, controlled, and clear in your tone of voice, body language, and choice of words.  Don’t interrupt and remember to “key down” below the emotional level of the person with whom you are dealing.


Whether you get what you want or not, remain friends and keep your emotions under control!  Be willing to give a little and you will find you have the advantage the next time a conflict arises.

If you have any questions or if you’d like to brainstorm a particular idea, contact Frank Troyka at





Recently, a colleague of mine asked me how soon in the school year I start working on our “indoor sound.” I hesitated for a moment because I didn’t quite understand the question. “What do you mean, our ‘indoor sound?’” I responded.

“You know, there’s a sound you have for your marching band and one for your concert band, right? When do you flip the switch? Do you wait until marching season is over?”

Again, I hesitated.

Sound: There’s only one.

In my experience, the bands that strive for their best, most characteristic “indoor” sounds are the ones that generate the most enthusiastic response from the outdoor audience and, naturally, from any judges. Back in “the day,” when drum corps played exclusively on instruments pitched in G with only two valves (or a piston and rotor!), there was most definitely a sound associated with the activity. Many marching bands erroneously modeled their approaches based on this sound. The color, intonation, projection, and timbre of these drum corps was restricted by the equipment allowed. These limitations were never a part of the marching band idiom, yet the success and visibility of drum corps influenced the way marching bands approached musicianship. In the last 20 years, with the addition of instruments pitched in orchestral keys, drum corps have evolved more in the direction of great marching bands than great marching bands have evolved toward drum corps.

Strategies: There are many!

Although I don’t believe there is a dedicated “indoor” or “outdoor” sound, there are undoubtedly indoor and outdoor strategies that can be employed to generate musical effect—not necessarily for artistry’s sake, but to overcome the limitations and to exploit the characteristics of an outdoor environment or a large indoor space. In addition to the venue, these strategies are also driven by another unique aspect of the pageantry arts: the brevity of the shows.

One such strategy falls under the heading of “scaled effects,” such as the enumeration of dynamic levels as opposed to the traditional Italian terminology. In the marching environment, dynamics often carry numerical values (ff=Level 7, pp=Level 2, etc.) with a specific objective that involves how exposed woodwind or keyboard percussion instruments are at specific moments in the musical evolution of the production. Perhaps because the marching band contains a more diverse cross-section of musicians, this concrete approach achieves a more unified result. In addition, I believe there is a greater range of nuance available on the concert stage which necessitates a more subtle and relative approach to musicianship (how often do marching groups compete with crowd noise, traffic, and other distractions!). But I would not enumerate dynamics within the concert band setting, regardless of the skill or maturity of the individual players. Working with a concert band, I refer exclusively to the standard terminology and conventions of the orchestral idiom. Dynamics are defined as fortissimo, pianissimo, mezzo, etc.

A distinguishing  characteristic of the marching idiom is the condensation of large scale works into much smaller, concise, “best of” versions of the original. Though I would not

abridge original works for the concert stage, I will, however, truncate works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, or Ticheli and Mackey to accommodate the time limitations and “short attention span” of the marching activity. Musicianship, unlike form, does not necessarily have to be a slave to construction or brevity. But in all cases, the concepts and goals of teaching musicianship must be the same. This is why I believe in only one basic sound for a band, marching or otherwise. I concede that this notion might meet with resistance initially. But who can argue that any band should strive to make anything less than the most mature and characteristic sounds possible? After all, that’s why drum corps evolved away from bugles pitched in G to more standard instruments in multiple keys. (Just look at the number of top drum corps using trombones in addition to marching baritones!)

What do your kids think you value?

Regardless of your approach, your students will come to value what YOU value. If you value playing loud, even if the sounds of the instruments are distorted, your kids will value that as well. They won’t know the difference. If you value playing fortissimo with a characteristic sound, one without distortion, they will strive to achieve an orchestral fortissimo (but only if you can define this for them through your pedagogy and through demonstration—that is, by playing examples of this for them).

So, is there really an indoor or outdoor sound?

In my opinion, there is no “indoor” or “outdoor” sound. There are strategies for achieving musical effect, but those are dictated by the environment as much as by artistic choice. If we put artistry ahead of everything, we’ll achieve a satisfying, artistic result. Of course, we have to be artists ourselves, and that demands a lifelong commitment, not a momentary competitive strategy.

These and other topics will be the subject of future weekly System Blue tips. As always, if you have questions or would like more information, contact Frank Troyka at




Despite your best efforts and your thorough preparation, some people will choose not to respond appropriately to your instruction. Off-task behavior (talking, making noise…), defensive behavior (put-downs, laughter, anger, contempt…), and refusal to participate are all behaviors you may encounter as you lead others.

Just because someone resists your help doesn’t necessarily mean they disrespect you or what you’re trying to do. These behaviors could be ways of dealing with feelings of inadequacy or failure. Negative behavior is most likely to present itself when the people you’re working with hit a plateau, when they see the task at hand as too challenging, and when they risk exposing their inabilities to their peers. To be an effective leader, you have to know how to respond appropriately to such situations. Remember…

You are responsible ONLY for your own behavior, not the behavior of anyone else. You are TOTALLY responsible for setting a consistent, positive example and for helping to create an environment (society) that encourages right choices.

Once you’ve made the decision to set the positive example—consistently and relentlessly—only then can you expect others to follow similarly.

State your expectations clearly and without emotion

When faced with resistance from your peers, it’s easy to let your enthusiasm for getting things done turn into anger and frustration. It’s alright to be firm but not irrational or overly emotional in your delivery to reluctant learners. Do not plead, whine, nor ask for permission (“c’mon,” “ok?” “alright?” etc.).  Otherwise, you admit your loss of authority and concede their control. Repeat your expectations (more than once when necessary) and wait for compliance.

Praise those who participate appropriately

You send the message that the way to get attention is to respond appropriately. When you spend your energies mostly on reluctant learners, you may actually encourage cooperative participants to misbehave. Everyone wants to be acknowledged and they’ll adopt a behavior that gets attention.

Acknowledge individuals

Move around the group, make eye contact, and call individuals by name. People respond when they hear their names and you reinforce their importance as unique members of the group. Calling people by their names is one of the most effective ways of keeping people alert and on task.

Rearrange the set-up

Rather than separate individuals who misbehave (and draw FURTHER attention to them by doing this), consider re-setting everyone in the group. This permits you to place individuals where you can monitor their behavior and allows you to separate those who misbehave without giving them special attention.

Follow the same procedures and structure as your director and the other leaders.

You’re not just teaching skills to your peers, you’re teaching them how to rehearse. All members of the leadership team must follow the same procedures and use similar technical vocabulary. Consistency in your expectations, in your delivery of information, and in your actions during and away from rehearsal are the keys to efficient, effective team leadership. People are more likely to respect you when your actions and words support each other on a consistent basis.

When you speak, have something to say

When you are unprepared to teach the material or if you run out of things to say, you lose credibility and you open the door to resentment from the group.

·      Memorize 5-10 key aspects of the skill you’re teaching and address them one at a time. If you’re not sure what to say, demonstrate the skill and describe how you do what you’re doing.

·      Relate the skills you’re teaching to previously learned skills.

·      Use humor to reinforce a point, not to win approval. Otherwise you are perceived as “off-task” (or worse, contrary to the other leaders and your director) and you set a poor example.

Team-teach with other leaders

Take turns being in front of the group and refer to what other leaders have said. You reinforce each other’s expertise and you can monitor behavior more effectively.

Allow others to demonstrate

If a reluctant learner possesses adequate skill, you might ask him to demonstrate for the group. This is particularly effective when working with reluctant learners who were not selected to hold leadership positions. Acknowledging their skill as a performer may help them feel more like they have a positive impact on the success of the group. Consider the following before having reluctant learners demonstrate

·      Be certain the individual is capable of demonstrating the skill successfully. Otherwise, you embarrass yourself and the individual you call upon.

·      Let the individual know BEFORE rehearsal that you would like him to demonstrate. This will keep him from feeling surprised or “on-the-spot.”

·      Avoid creating the appearance of rewarding inappropriate behavior by having a reluctant learner demonstrate, even if his skills are high.

·      Be reserved in your delivery and sincere with your praise. Don’t “gush.”

Move on to something new

If you sense that you are no longer making progress on a particular skill, review previously taught skills or move on to something new. Be sure to get approval from your director BEFORE introducing a new skill or concept.

Seek help from your director

Never threaten nor attempt to punish one of your peers. At an appropriate time, approach your director with your concerns and allow him/her to intervene. Focus YOUR efforts on the accurate delivery of information and the consistent application of procedures. Your commitment to consistency will eventually defeat the errant wanderings of reluctant learners.

If you have any questions or if you’d like to brainstorm a particular idea, contact Frank Troyka at





System Blue Band Director Tips and Strategies

By Frank Troyka, Band Director of 30 years & System Blue Director of Education

Whether you’re just about to start summer band rehearsals or you’re already in the midst of them, you can bet your student leaders are feeling the excitement and the pressure that come with their new responsibilities. Maybe they’ve been to a leadership camp; maybe you’ve held your own camp for them. No doubt you’ve spent time working with them personally in preparation for the season to come, but now that full band is upon us, the masses demand your attention. On the surface, it might seem like the leaders are ready to jump in and get the job done. But that may not be the case.

The training wheels are still on

If your leaders help teach music and marching skills to their sections, perhaps their summer training has involved opportunities for them to practice teaching each other. That’s a great way for them to get some practical experience, but it’s not the same as being in front of their peers. In a real sense, your leaders may still have the training wheels on, and until they come off, they won’t really know what it’s like to do without them.

As a parent, would you take the training wheels off your child’s bike and then send him on his way to figure things out for himself? Of course not! You’d be there to help him through that transition. You know they’re going to feel afraid. You know they’ll get frustrated. You know they’re going to fall. You know that the first thing your child is likely to experience when the training wheels come off is failure, and you’ll want to be there for him.

The same is true for your student leaders, even the experienced ones. Those training wheels come off the first day of summer band. And no matter how much they’ve trained and planned and prepared, they’re going to experience setbacks. They’re going to fail and they need you to be there to help them through the transition.

Finding their balance

You can help them find their balance in a number of ways. Permit me to offer a few suggestions.

Rather than send them off to work with their peers for an extended time, consider giving them small tasks for short periods early in the season. For instance, you might give them five minutes to teach their sections how to go to “attention” and “parade rest.” As they teach, you and other members of your staff float and observe them. Make notes on what they do well and how they might improve, and then “debrief” with them after rehearsal. As you give them more such opportunities, they’ll become more confident, which allows you to give them more complex skills to teach for longer periods of time. In any case, I recommend you and the other staff members observe and give feedback, as on-the-job training is the best way for them to become strong leaders. And your mentorship will build loyalty between you and them.

I would also recommend that you not do these “breakouts” for more than 15 minutes. Even 10 minutes can seem like an eternity to a student leader who has never had to consider pacing, sequencing, reteaching, and keeping kids focused.

Mix sections

When having your leaders teach skills that are not instrument-specific (basic marching skills, for instance) you might also consider mixing sections rather than keeping them together. I think we all know that certain personality traits seem to follow sections of the band (you know the stereotypes!). If you only do breakouts by sections, then those personality traits—good or bad—get reinforced and the differences among them is magnified and perpetuated. Consider mixing the band and allowing student leaders to work with those outside their own sections. This helps the band see the leaders as a team and provides the entire band contact with leaders with whom they might not ordinarily work.

Be there for them

Above all, your student leaders desperately want your approval and support. Make time for them and equip them with the tools for success. Be careful not to praise them falsely! Your approval will mean more when they’ve earned it.

The fact is, our student leaders have not completed their training when summer band starts. That’s when the real training begins and that’s when they need us the most.

These and other topics will be the subject of future weekly System Blue tips. As always, if you have questions or would like more information, contact Frank Troika at




Conducting is only a small part of being a good drum major. The drum major is also a rehearsal manager; a bridge between the professional staff and the other leaders, and between the professional staff and the members at large. The drum major is the conscience of the band, gently guiding the individual members to make good choices.

What follows are some thoughts about what a truly great drum major can be. Share this information with your director so you can both define the extent and the limits of your responsibility.

·      The drum major knows the musical score and the drill before the band begins learning.  He  knows how the musical phrases work with the drill segments.

·      The drum major takes responsibility for maintaining the pace of the rehearsal by anticipating  the directors’ instructions and by being alert to the immediate goal of the rehearsal.  He  looks for ways to assist in achieving these goals quickly and efficiently.

·      The drum major always takes responsibility when things are not working.  He looks to  himself for solutions to problems and does not blame others, even when others are clearly to  blame.

·      The drum major always promotes the right social environment by openly cooperating and supporting the professional staff, and by projecting his enthusiasm for hard work and quality.

·      A drum major never projects fatigue, disgust, discouragement, contempt, anger, or  hopelessness.  The band must see the drum major as confident, highly competent, energetic, driven, organized, and committed.

·      The drum major models complete respect for other leaders and directors.

·      The drum major never has a bad rehearsal.  By choice, he has only two kinds of rehearsals:  good ones and great ones.

·      The drum major is an excellent musician so that when others aspire toward leadership positions, his example suggests that they must first aspire toward musicianship.

·      The drum major conducts himself in such a manner that the person the band sees on the  podium is the same person they see away from rehearsal.

·      The drum major restates instructions as necessary to help minimize student errors.

·      The drum major knows the music to the show on his instrument and is familiar with all other  parts and how they fit together.

·      The drum major is able to identify problems with ensemble timing and offer insight as to the cause of the problem.

·      The drum major works at his conducting skills so that he is never responsible for problems with the ensemble’s musical cohesiveness.

·      The drum major recognizes that his first responsibility is to insure a successful musical  performance.  Showmanship never supersedes musicianship.

·      The drum major never takes breaks unless the band takes a break. He looks for ways to remain constantly engaged and involved when awaiting the next task.

If you have any questions or if you’d like to brainstorm a particular idea, contact Frank Troyka at





by Frank Troyka, Band Director of 30 years & System Blue Director of Education

When there are strong rehearsal procedures in place, rehearsals are more consistent and productive. On the surface, this may seem obvious since strong procedures ought to make a rehearsal more efficient. But there’s more to it.

Kids often bring their “days” to rehearsal with them, and they may not be mature enough to set aside a bad day in order to have a good rehearsal. They reinforce their emotions—good or bad—through physical behaviors such as how they move from one place to another, how they stand, how they respond to questions, etc. A snowball effect of lethargy and discontent build if negative physical “cues” are allowed to go unchecked. But strong, consistent procedures actually help mitigate the influence of these outside circumstances. Here are a few examples of solid rehearsal procedures and why they are so effective.

Hustling back to position

In the exercise physiology and kinesiology professions, there’s a principle I’ll paraphrase as “The Paradox of Energy Expenditure.” It states that the more energy we spend, the more we create. When kids “hustle” back to position, they actually create more energy both physiologically and psychologically as this behavior suggests enthusiasm. The act itself helps release chemicals in the body that elevate both the mood and stamina. Socially, when the entire group moves energetically and urgently—even when frustrated!—the bottom-line effect is positive, engaged, purposeful, and united.

Standing by

When receiving instruction or awaiting directions, I would have my students in the “stand by” position: feet together, instrument in a fully relaxed but uniform carry position in the center of the body, chins slightly elevated, and in “silence.” (Note: I put the word silence in quotes because students were allowed to ask questions and student leaders were allowed to give instruction. But there was no “chit-chat.”) A focused environment where instruction is being delivered quickly and energetically is also a positive one. And since there’s no casual talking, there’s no complaining!

Water breaks

In a typical rehearsal (90 minutes to 3 hours), we would not take “sit-down” water breaks. I’d have the kids “hustle” off the field to their personal water bottles and grab a quick drink. We did this frequently, but we would not sit down. When they sit, they lose energy and focus. But when they move quickly off and back onto the field, energy is both preserved and created. Another strategy is the “split” water break. Rather than have everyone vacate the field at the same time, I might send woodwinds and color guard to get water while the brasses and percussion reset for another rep (or odd drill numbers, then even ones). Almost ALWAYS, the kids taking water were quicker and more urgent with their breaks because they knew we were about to switch. What we might have lost from an ensemble standpoint, we more than gained in individual accountability and enthusiasm.

“Loaded” feedback

Another rehearsal procedure in addition to hustling to position or standing by uniformly is hand raising. I would teach my kids from the first day that we raise our hands with fully extended arms or not at all (the same is true when I ask them to point to sets, etc.). A fully raised hand suggests buy-in, commitment, and it communicates energy and effort. When things got tedious, I’d tell the kids, “Raise your hand if you’re working hard tonight.” When 200+ hands go high in the air, the kids have reinforced their commitment to hard work through mutual affirmation. “Raise your hand if you remember what happens on Count 5 of the next move.” Again, multiple hands fully extended upward—same message. Note that I didn’t ask, “Who is working hard tonight?” or “Who remembers what happens on Count 5?” Asking “who” implies an individual rather than the group. It’s more like asking for a volunteer to respond than for everyone to respond. When energy starts to drop, or we start moving lethargically, I’ll often call for a group response to a simple question or statement that allows virtually everyone to engage in a “gesture of commitment” (hand raising, hustling to sets, snapping to attention, etc.). Since all of these behaviors suggest unity, energy, and enthusiasm, other emotions tend to be shut out (or even shut down!).

SIDE NOTE: I remember distinctly a rehearsal when frustrations were very high. We were working on a particularly challenging drill transition and none of the strategies I came prepared to teach were working. After about 45 minutes of this, there was a palpable drop in energy and buy-in.

I took a chance.

“Raise your hand if you’ve been frustrated with me at some point in the last hour.” There was a moment of hesitation, then a forest of hands raised upward in a gesture of solidarity. Then, the unexpected. I raised my hand, too. “I’m with you. I’m frustrated with myself because what I thought would work, doesn’t, and you’re giving me everything you’ve got. But I’m not going to give up. Raise your hand if you’re going to give up.”

Every hand came down.

These and other topics will be the subject of future weekly System Blue tips. As always, if you have questions or would like more information, contact Frank Troyka at





Goal setting has become the motivation for success because it gives us something to prepare for and work towards. However, goal setting can actually be harmful if you think of the goal as the END RESULT rather than part of a bigger PROCESS. What if we decided to set HABITS rather than GOALS? If you are in the HABIT of producing results, you’ll achieve your goals naturally. Here are some suggestions to help you build those habits as you become the leader you envision.


Goals that are vague or too broad make it dif cult to feel like you’re making progress (even when you are). Keep

it real and keep it focused. For instance, learning all the major and minor scales AND their arpeggios is something all accomplished musicians do. Great musicians make habits of working on things that average musicians don’t like to do. Learning your scales is a SPECIFIC GOAL, but it might seem overwhelming. Read on…


To build a HABIT OF SUCCESS, start out by challenging yourself just beyond your ability. If you struggle with a particular scale because of tricky ngerings, then isolate just the rst four or ve notes and build from there. By making your goals SPECIFIC and REALISTIC, you’ll feel good about what you’ve done and you’ll start to build
a new HABIT.


Establish a certain time of day and a certain amount of time (for example, 20 minutes, 45 minutes, etc.) that you’ll devote to focused effort on your goal AND STICK WITH IT! Even when you don’t feel like you got much better, you’ll still know you kept your promise to yourself and that becomes a habit in itself! If you’re SPECIFIC, REALISTIC, and have a TIME LINE, you’re almost there!


If your goal is “to be the best you can be,” you really have no way of determining if you’ve reached your goal. How do you know for certain what your best truly is? Examples of measurable goals might include things like reading two chapters from a book over a weekend, memorizing the rst 36 measures of a piece of music from the marching show, or running a mile in under 9 minutes. When you can EVALUATE what you’ve done, you can determine your progress and make decisions about how to set new goals on the way to building lifelong habits.


Share your goals with others. When you make your goal “public,” you reinforce the promise you made to yourself by sharing your determination. If you share similar goals with someone else, you might be able to work together to achieve them so you have ongoing accountability to each other.

Focus on the kind of MUSICIAN, the kind of LEADER, the kind of PERSON you want to be and then make habits out of the day-to-day things those people would do.




Helping Your Leaders Become More Effective Communicators


Student leaders often fall into patterns of ineffectiveness because they simply don’t know how to communicate with their peers in a manner that invites respect. They whine or plead with their peers in a desperate attempt to get them to run back to their sets, remain quiet, arrive on time, or any number of other objectives. They may attempt to win them over through misplaced humor or by acting overly friendly. Consequently, the student leader is perceived as just another kid with no real authority. Fortunately, there are some very simple communication techniques that student leaders can use to help develop their expertise.

·      Have the student leader avoid the phrases, “Try to…”; “Make sure…”; and “See if you can…” These phrases weaken the delivery and often precede a comment that might best be stated more concisely. For example, rather than, “Try to keep your bell up,” simply state, “Keep your bell up.” “Make sure you lift your heels an inch,” becomes, “Lift your heels an inch.” “See if you can take a slightly larger step,” becomes “Take a slightly larger step.” Of course, tone of voice is critical, and student leaders may need to be coached on how they speak so they don’t sound bossy or overbearing. Leaders might reserve “Try to,” Make sure,” and “See if you can,” for the times when a skill they’re teaching is particularly challenging, unfamiliar, when the group is especially tired, or when they sense discouragement.

·      Favor closed statements and questions over open ones. Closed statements have four main characteristics:

1.     They’re factual.

2.     They’re fast.

3.     They’re easy.

4.     Most importantly, control stays with the person making the statement or asking question.

An example of a closed question would be, “How many counts to the next set?” (It’s factual, fast, easy, and the questioner is still in control). “Raise your hand if you heard the instructions,” is an example of a closed statement. Conversely, open statements and questions have the following in common:

1.     They’re based on feelings and opinions.

2.     They invite thought, reflection, and contemplation.

3.     They often take longer to answer.

4.     Control shifts to the respondent.

When addressing a group, an open question such as, “Do you want to try that again?” certainly shifts control away from the person asking the question (“Let’s do that again,” is much more effective). “Does everyone understand?” or “Does that make sense?” might work in a small group or one-on-one, but in a larger group it is ineffective. A better way of checking for understanding might be to say, “Raise your hand if you understand the instructions.” The delivery is stronger and control stays with the person making the statement.

·      Check that leaders use a confident tone of voice and a confident stance. They must speak in a voice strong enough for the person farthest away to hear instructions clearly. Have them make eye contact. It’s a powerful tool for effective communication. My experience tells me that it’s not enough simply to tell my leaders to make eye contact and speak confidently. These skills have to be practiced just like any other we teach.

If we think back to those effective student leaders we’ve known, they weren’t afraid to make demands and hold their peers to high standards. They were able to bridge the gap between the students and the professional staff because they possessed the credibility of an adult while maintaining proximity to their peers. Chances are they possessed three critical attributes of effective leadership in music: they were strong performers, humble followers, and good communicators.

Fortunately, all three of these can be developed “on the job,” which is where we all really learned to teach. Many of us have some sort of formal leadership training for our student leaders, but if we’re truly going to help them be effective, that training must be ongoing. Just like we constantly work on the fundamentals of playing and marching, the constant review of the fundamentals of leadership are every bit as essential to creating success for all our students.