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







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




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




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


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.




Something that continues to frustrate me as a teacher is the reluctance students often reveal when called upon to respond to a question or offer an opinion. I know they have answers, and as soon as they’re out of the room, there’ll be no shortage of opinions! There are times when I’ve asked a very simple question—one I know they can all answer, yet they sit in silence and stillness. Are the social pressures really that great? Have I done something to make them afraid to respond? Regardless of the reason, I refuse to accept this complacency, especially among the student leaders whom I count on to set the example.

A culture of commitment

I want to instill in my students not just a culture of excellence, but a culture of commitment. This starts with something as simple as how they raise their hands. So, on that first day of summer band, we have hand-raising practice! With all the incoming freshman gathered with the upperclassmen, I say, “Upperclassmen, show our new members how we raise our hands around here.” Instantly, 200 hands shoot skyward, elbows extended as if reaching for some invisible prize. Then I say, “Now, everyone, show me how we raise our hands.” All the new members raise their hands just as enthusiastically along with the vets. Why? They’re just copying what the “big kids” do. Now, I’m working the social pressures in favor of that culture of commitment. “From now on, that’s how we raise our hands. All the way, or not at all.” Then I follow up with a few simply questions to which everyone can respond in the affirmative, and we’re practicing this simple skill. But how powerful it is in influencing that culture of commitment!

So what’s the big deal?

Much is communicated nonverbally when people interact. Near the end of a long marching band rehearsal—when everyone is hot, tired, maybe frustrated—I might say, “Raise your hand if you’re working hard tonight.” If those hands are raised high and with enthusiasm, not only have we acknowledged as a group that we’re working hard, but we’ve shown enthusiasm for hard work. The WAY they raise their hands sends a powerful message.

When we return to the previous set, an urgent “jog” or “hustle” back to the start communicates enthusiasm (whether they’re really enthusiastic or not!). When kids move slowly and lethargically, a much different message is sent, and these complacent behaviors can often contribute to a tedious rehearsal.

Why “beware the bystander?”

Bystanders can be very influential because their non-involvement strengthens the prevailing attitude. When they choose not to respond, or they respond reluctantly, others can interpret this as disagreement, apathy, or even contempt. But when there are strong behavioral procedures in place, it mitigates the effects of fatigue, frustration, and even apathy. The behavior itself influences the mind and we redefine “fun” in the context of commitment! So we must beware the bystander because of his subtle but powerful influence. His lack of commitment allows others to see what they want to see to feel better about their own complacency.

A couple of recommendations

There is a wonderful Ted Talk that illustrates the power of body language in influencing attitude. The speaker is Amy Cuddy, and the talk is entitled, “Your body language shapes who you are.” Click here to see the video.

If you’d like to delve more deeply into the subject of bystanders and their influence, I’d like to recommend a book entitled, “Followership,” by Dr. Barbara Kellerman. In her book she identifies five types of followers: Isolates, Bystanders, Participants, Activists, and Diehards, and she discusses how individuals move from one level to another. Fascinating reading for those of us leading so many!

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

Video Link




Very soon, we’ll be in the midst of a new marching band season and there will be an overwhelming number of things pressing down on us. There’s a good chance that last year you thought of some things you’d like to do differently next year with regard to rehearsal procedures, show design, and maybe the timeline for learning the show. You may not be thinking of them right now, but it’s guaranteed that when the season begins, those changes you wish you’d made will haunt you for another season. This is the time to think through what you want to do differently and come up with a plan for change and action. Here are a few suggestions….

Involve others on the staff.

Get together with the others you work with and brainstorm ideas. You might do this in a social setting rather than at school so there’s a more relaxed, peer relationship. Involvement creates ownership, and when others on the staff feel like they have a part in developing a successful program, you build loyalty. Encourage even the wildest ideas! You never know which one will lead to a breakthrough.

Involve your student leaders.

As connected and aware of our students as we might like to think we are, there’s a dynamic at work within the band that only the students are privy to. You can create the same kind of ownership within the students that you do for the staff by listening and acting on their ideas. BEWARE! If your students have “concerns,” do your best to listen to what they’re actually trying to say rather than HOW they say it! Emotions run high when you’re a teenager (remember?) and they don’t always see themselves they way adults see them. SUGGESTION: When you invite the leaders to share their ideas, any concern should be accompanied by a solution. They’ll discover that solutions are much more challenging to come up with that problems, and this teaches them how to think through a problem rather than just amplifying it.

Have your own list of changes you’d like to make.

Rather than just list your ideas, consider discussing the scenarios that brought those ideas about. Then you can gently guide them to the conclusion you may already have reached. Then give them the credit! If you lead your staff and students without regard to who gets the credit, you’ll create even more loyalty and ownership in every stakeholder in the organization.

A few of the things I wanted to improve over the years were…

  • Better rehearsal pacing
  • Consistent attendance and punctuality
  • Higher individual accountability without seeming oppressive
  • Greater social responsibility

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




Most bands have different categories of student leadership opportunities. These may include:

·       Instructional leaders (drum majors; section or squad leaders; brass, woodwind, percussion, and color guard captains)

·       Logistical leaders (loading crew, field set-up crew, electronics crew, librarians)

·       Elected leaders (president, vice-president, secretary, historian)

For those programs that send their students to leadership camp, or who host their own leadership camp or retreat, it’s common to require instructional leaders to attend because they are most directly involved in the rehearsal process itself. I was one of those directors. Early in my career, I sent only the core leaders—the instruction leaders—to camp in order to develop their teaching, communication, and performance skills. My thought was to go “lean and mean” so we could focus more on the individuals and thereby develop their potential more fully. But there were always kids who tried out for instructional leadership positions who were strong in many ways, but who were not selected because there may not have been a need for additional section leaders, or perhaps they were strong marchers but not strong enough as players. These students were often encouraged to pursue positions as logistical or elected leaders instead, but I stopped short of including them in the leadership camp. I missed a great opportunity!

Then it dawned on me. If I send ALL the leaders—instructional, logistical, and elected—to camp, then I would have three times the number of students who received advanced training. I would encourage the non-instructional leaders to participate in the teaching and communication activities which gave everyone a greater insight and, more importantly, greater empathy for what it takes to be an effective student leader. And the additional students became a larger group of marchers for the instructional leaders to practice the teaching skills in a more realistic situation. Rather than return to summer band with only 20-25 well-trained instructional leaders spread across a 270 to 300-member band, now I had 60-70 students who had gone through the leadership training, forming a much larger core of kids who “got it.” Their influence by example transformed the effectiveness of the instructional leaders and, in effect, transformed the entire band into better leaders.

“Lean and mean” may have its advantages. But for me and my circumstances, being more inclusive helped develop a more pervasive culture—a culture of leadership.

If you have questions or would like more information, contact Frank Troyka at






Don’t Tell Them What You’re Going to Teach Them


As a young teacher, I was told that when in doubt, default to this three-step teaching strategy:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to teach them.
  2. Teach them.
  3. Tell them what you taught them.

This was good advice for a young teacher because it was concise, it was manageable, and it was effective for someone who hadn’t yet found his own voice and his own method. By and large, this strategy worked. But in retrospect, it was more about me finding MY way than finding a way for THE KIDS. To give an example using this method, allow me this fictitious narrative that I might have used in my early years as a teacher:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to teach them.
    Today we’re going to learn about Hector Berlioz. Berlioz was a composer who is best known for his “Symphonie Fantastique,” written in 1830. It’s a five-movement work subtitled, “An Episode in the Life of an Artist.” A unique feature of this symphony is the recurring use of a five-note motive that would become known as the “idee fixe,” or fixed idea. Berlioz used it to represent his beloved. (Not very engaging, even to this writer!)
  2. Teach them.
    At this point, I might have elaborated on the five movements, played examples of the idee fixe as they are presented in each movement, and then asked the kids how they thought each version of the motive applied to that particular movement. All of this is well within the scope of “good teaching.” (Still not very engaging, but at least there’s action.)
  3. Tell them what you taught them.
    Also known as “closure,” this is when I might have summarized the content of the lesson and referenced my “anticipatory set”. (My “tell them what you’re going to teach them” introduction).

There’s nothing wrong with this approach technically, but it doesn’t genuinely engage the student the way it’s intend to. By telling them up front what I plan to teach them, I allow them to formulate an opinion about the subject matter. And unless I get to the “good stuff” right away, the non-verbal cues are likely to spread rapidly and my lesson is sunk before it even launches.

How about we eliminate Step 1 and go right to a modified Step 2? Our new Step 2 is, “Go where the student is and employ SNEAK-ATTACK TEACHING!” Our new lesson might sound like this…

Have you every been so passionate about someone or something that you thought about it all the time? Maybe it was a car you dreamed of owning, or taking a trip somewhere exotic, or maybe it was someone you really liked but didn’t know just how to express it. Have any of you ever felt like that? Me, too! You might express your feelings in a blog, or maybe a diary (if you know what that is!), or maybe you’d write a poem or a song.

Now imagine you’re so deeply attached to someone that you think about — even dream about — him or her all the time. And in your dreams, you’re found to be so uncommonly passionate that a judge and jury find you guilty of a new crime, of being criminally ‘In Love.’ In your dream, it’s 19th Century France, and the punishment for your crime is to face the guillotine. Well, it just so happens that such a person existed. He was never actually executed for his obsession over this woman, but his passion haunted him so greatly that he imagined it to be a criminal act. In an effort to reveal his emotions, he set his feelings to music and, if you listen closely to what he wrote, you can hear his footsteps as he marches down the street to the scaffold. Then you hear the music build as he ascends to what will be his final living moment on this earth. Now, you hear a musical depiction of his final thought of this woman, interrupted by the swoosh-slam of the blade racing downward. And next — as morbid as this is — you hear his head bounce into the basket as the crowd cheers this ultimate act of atonement. This man was Hector Berlioz and his composition is entitled, “Symphony Fantastique.”

I think you’ll agree, by going through the back door and using a “sneak attack” approach, the lesson becomes engaging and, perhaps, even relevant. This approach doesn’t diminish our lesson. It capitalizes on the very thing that music does so well: it tells a story. And if a story doesn’t exist, then we, the teachers, might have to create one!

As a young teacher, I often thought I had to bring the kids to me for them to learn. Now I know that I must start by going to them, and then lead them gently and persuasively in my direction.

Selection Of Student Leaders


System Blue Band Director Tips and Strategies

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


March 2016

As you start your selection process for next year’s student leaders, System Blue would like to offer the following for your consideration:

  • Let the audition reflect the duties of the position.
  • Be sensitive to the other demands on students’ time.
  • Make the audition transparent.
  • If your student leaders help teach marching, then consider having a marching component to the audition. Similarly, it’s seems only logical that student leaders should have to demonstrate musical competency as leaders of a musical organization. Consider an achievable playing audition as part of the screening process.

Training student leader candidates may take several weeks. When designing your training schedule, keep in mind that the spring is often a very stressful time for high schoolers with AP exams, term papers, and other big projects on the horizon. Rather than post a “mandatory” schedule of training sessions, consider offering a “pick one” approach. That is, offer 2 identical training sessions (or even 3) per week and allow the students to select the one that works best with their schedules. This keeps them from being so stressed and shows your sensitivity to their lives outside of band. You’ll be surprised at how many kids show up to the duplicate sessions to hone their skills.

The more skill-based the audition, the more likely everyone will be ok with the outcome. I used a three-phase audition: Phase 1, playing and marching; Phase 2, teaching; Phase 3, conducting (not every student participated in all three phases.

For more detailed info, contact Be specific with your expectations and be certain the student understand those expectations clearly.

This will help them see themselves more objectively. When the audition is too subjective, it can appear that the directors are “playing favorites” rather than selecting the “best” leaders.

SIDE NOTE: I once had a student say to me, many years ago, “Why do we even have a tryout? You’re just going to pick who you want.” My response was, “Of course we’re going to pick who we want! Why would we pick who we don’t want?” This actually validates the student’s question! The answer is, “So that each student, by way of the training and tryout process, has a chance to reveal his potential and his worthiness in ways that may not be obvious in any other context.”

A good training and selection process will almost always select the best leaders, but only if the tryout is congruent with the job itself. Here’s another strategy to consider as you design your tryout. In the words of author Stephen Covey, “Begin with the end in mind.” That is, ask yourself what you want in a student leader, and design training and tryouts to identify and reveal those individuals.