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