Design Your Own Marching Band Program

Marching band shows are amazing feats of coordination, creativity and skill that entertain, delight and inspire audiences. Whether it’s a marching band performing during halftime of a high school football game or a college marching band competing in front of a panel of judges, the music and pageantry should unite around a theme that the audience can relate to.

If you're planning to build a marching show, you could hire a drill designer to help you. However, one of the big benefits of designing your own show is that you can pick individual components and save a lot of money for your program by basing the show on your specific needs and budget. If you decide to go it on your own, you can use this guide as a starting point to build your process, as there are many elements to consider.

What are the steps to designing my marching program?

Each band director will have a unique process to creating a show, but the basic building blocks are planning, design and execution. It’s often tempting to jump right into the design of your show, but as with many things in life, upfront planning can save you time and money later in the process.

Step 1: Assess your current program and plan your desired program

Take some time to assess your current program. Ask the following questions and be honest with yourself regarding your answers. Answering these questions will give you basic guidelines when selecting appropriate music and arrangements for your group.

  • Do you have a large or small band?
  • How much performance space do you have to work with?
  • What’s your budget?
  • What’s your timeline?
  • Where will the band perform the show? Halftime shows might call for pop music while competition will require more difficult selections that will show off skills.
  • What are the skill levels and age groups of your students?
  • What are your current assets and their conditions (marching percussion and marching brass instruments, accessories, marching band uniforms, color guard equipment, etc.)? 
  • What are the strengths of your program? Is your group dominated by a certain section? How can you take advantage of this section?

You should also assess your staffing at this point. Is it just you and an assistant? Do you have the budget to have, at the very least, a percussion instructor and a color guard instructor? These are specialized roles and whether you have these staff members may have a big impact on the type of show you’re able to implement. If you do have additional staff, be sure to involve and include them with the planning from the very beginning.

Step 2: Design your marching program

Brainstorm and Music Selection

Brainstorming with your staff is a great way to kick off your design phase. Take time to listen to music (lots of it!), review video from last year, look at the answers to the questions from the planning stage and then start coming up with ideas. The key to brainstorming is to write down all options – don’t eliminate anything yet. Build off each other’s thoughts.

Once you have a bunch of ideas, organize them into themes or categories. Start to understand how those ideas could fit in and balance with your students and their skills as well as appeal to your audience. When you’re ready to select your band music, you have a huge selection of marching band scores & parts to choose from that will line up with your program’s skill levels, ages and instrumentation.

Drill Writing

Many band directors and drill designers say that they let the music guide their drill writing. You and your staff should listen to your selected music many times over so that you can start to note things like the peaks, the count structure, where the climax comes in, where are the slower points, etc. Much of your drill writing process will be highly subjective based on your specific program. This is where all of that upfront planning comes into play. When you understand the skills and strengths of your students, as well as when and where they’ll be performing, you can write drills to complement those elements.

Once you’ve figured out and mapped the main staging moments, then you can begin to fill in the blanks. Start to visualize how the show is going to unfold. Where are the transitions, where are the crowd interactions, where do you want the audience’s attention to be at certain times? It all seems complicated if you try to tackle it all at once, but the more you can break down the show and simplify the sections, the easier it will be for you and your staff to direct and for your students to follow.

Most programs these days use software to help with choreography after you’ve identified the big moments of the show. While some directors still use pencil and paper to map everything out, software can be a life-saver. Even directors on a tight budget can take advantage of software with the Pyware 3D Basic Edition Version 9, which is the low-cost version of the premier drill design product. Read more about using software on and off the field.

Note: Remember to maintain some flexibility. You can map everything using software, but once the kids get on the field, you’ll need to monitor and adjust as you go. Continue to keep in mind the audience perspective and your students’ strengths to help them shine.

Color Guard

As you’re going through this process of brainstorming, selecting music and drill writing, keep your color guard front of mind. Your guard designer needs to be involved every step of the way. Where are there big moments that the guard needs to be integrated into the band or featured out front? Staging for the guard is critical as they have equipment and possibly even costume changes to contend with.

Step 3: Execute your plan

Experienced directors will tell you to proceed carefully when it’s time to present the show to the band. And, as a first step, many will recommend that you prepare the field first. Mark up the field in whatever way works for you (and is allowed). Once it’s ready, that’s when you can present students with drill charts, field coordinates, or both. And then … it’s finally time to start rehearsing the marching drills.

As mentioned above, this entire process requires monitoring and tweaking. No matter how carefully you and your staff have designed and mapped the performance, once the students hit the field and are walking through the drills, you need to remain flexible to change. If something isn’t working or isn’t achieving the outcome you desired, take another look at it.

Additional resources

Designing a marching program is a huge undertaking. If you’re new to this, be sure to explore and utilize other resources out there. Take a look at various marching band forums to discover creative ways around budget/space/staffing limitations, uncover best practices that have worked for other programs and find basic support if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Also, be sure to tap band parents for help where you can, especially if you need props built for the show. You never know what hidden skills people have and how much they’re willing to help.