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



Trombones May Take the Field For Competition


John Meehan Talks Trombones

With certain rule changes over the past several years, allowing more “non-traditional” brass instruments onto the drum corps field, we decided to add Trombones to our brass choir for the 2016 season. At first, we battled issues like how many do we want to use, what style do we want to get (or do we want to get different types), and of course, silver or lacquer. Well, out of those questions, the easiest for me was silver, as drum corps brass instruments are typically silver, and we wanted to match the rest of our inventory. The others were a bit more challenging…

We decided to feature our entire Euphonium section on Trombone for a large portion of the first production, so we went with 24. We knew if we wanted to feature other groups of Trombones later in the show, we could without having to do 24 again (which we did, featuring 16 in our 2nd production).

We tested 3 different Trombones at our January camp, and made the decision to go with an F attachment tenor trombone, which allowed us to do pretty much everything we wanted.  W could now play in the upper register, as well as down to the low bass trombone register.

At our February camp, we had most of the horns. We started listening to segments of the written show music on the trombones, figuring out HOW we wanted to feature and write for them, as well as who in our Euphonium line actually had experience on the Trombone. Surprisingly, over 1/2 the section did NOT have a lot of Trombone experience. We then knew, while we’d be OK in the end, some extra work during technique blocks would need to be spent on developing and refining the sections skills throughout the season.

For us, utilizing Trombones in the show meant treating them like a specialized instrument. We didn’t want to write for them as you would a Euphonium, as we should then just play a Euphonium. So, we really took our time designing and writing around that fact musically, and looking back on it now, I LOVE how we treated that voice and can’t wait to hear those 24 musicians in the dome in Indy.

Oh, and as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, Trombones are loud 🙂



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


Notes From The Road – Meehan’s Muse


With the first 6 weeks of the season completed, and a much needed week long break starting, I wanted to share some “mid-season” thoughts. As much for myself as for you, the fans.

The 2016 version of The Blue Devils is a blast to work with. While I am the brass caption head and arranger, I like to get to know as many of the members as possible. Not only does the brass section have an infectious positivity, I feel the same from the guard and percussion performers.

Trombones are loud 🙂 When we decided to use Trombones this year, we wanted to utilize them in a way that was unique, but still drum corps. We purposely choose to use silver plated to match the other horns. As the show has developed, and the members have become more familiar with their new instruments (many hadn’t played Trombone before) we found the Trombone was a musical character in the show. It’s been refreshing seeing the acceptance of these instruments on the field!

The first 4-6 weeks of the season always seem much longer than the last month plus. It’s the “dog days”, learning the show, woodshedding your music/work, and getting to know your corps mates. Finally getting to that first show, then getting on the road, a new excitement begins to build. Having the Blue Knights and Madison Scouts in California along with our “usual friends” was a great treat!

Finally performing the last 2 CA shows in the Rose Bowl and Riverside Community College was a blast. The crowds were great, enthusiastic alumni as far as the eyes could see, and an amazing energy from the corps.

Well, time to go to Santa Cruz with my family, before joining my “summer family” in a few short days… Do it up Devils!



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