Featuring Fundamentals: FINDING THE TIME!

| January 17, 2008 | 4 Comments

Have difficulty finding time to maintain your rehearsal of fundamentals throughout the season?  This article has ideas for how to fit in critical rehearsal of fundamental skills at every rehearsal throughout the entire season even as focus shifts towards design and choreography.

Coaches and Adjudicators agree a strong training program with a solid foundation in technique can make the difference between an outstanding ensemble and a mediocre one.  Regular rehearsal of fundamental exercises serves to strengthen and train muscles, develop flexibility and coordination, increase discipline and build an attention to detail in your performers.  Performers with a strong foundation in fundamental skills also tend to learn routines more quickly.

Most instructors begin each season with a primary focus on fundamentals which, over time, shifts towards choreography and cleaning the show.  The challenge we are faced with is how to maintain daily rehearsal of fundamentals throughout the season with limited rehearsal time and increased pressure to clean the show.  This article focuses on a variety of strategies used by different instructors to overcome time crunches.  Perhaps one or more of these ideas will help you tackle this challenge within your own schedule!

Strategy 1: Lesson Planning

Lesson planning is as important a tool for coaches as it is for classroom teachers.  We must set goals, evaluate the time we have to achieve them, determine which exercises will be required to meet those objectives and then create a schedule.  If having a well-trained unit is your goal, you will want to work fundamentals at every rehearsal.  Lesson Planning can help ensure all of your rehearsal objectives are met!

The Big Picture

When sitting down to develop a strategy to incorporate “basics” throughout the season you will want to look at both the daily rehearsal plan as well as the “big picture” of the season as a whole.

Start by determining your goals and objectives for the season.

Then work backwards from your performances writing in your “goal dates” for having certain sections of the show taught.  (Remember…the whole show does not HAVE to be finished at the first performance.  In some cases it may be wiser to teach choreography more slowly making sure that performers have a strong technique rather than to teach it all quickly, glossing over technique and ending up with lots of bad habits that are difficult to fix!).  Establishing your goal dates will help you to make sure you are finished teaching when you really want to be.  While “winging it” may be easier in the short-term, it may leave you with an unfinished show for much longer than you had anticipated with too little time at the end of the season for critical updates, changes and cleaning.  After you’ve established your goal dates for teaching routine go through your schedule and determine how much of each rehearsal can be devoted to fundamentals and how much to choreography or drill.

The amount of time you spend on fundamental exercises at each rehearsal may change throughout the season as well as the types of exercises you choose to work on.

Start Off Strong

Early in the season, detail all of your standard exercises and explain to your performers both how to do the exercise and the purpose/goal of the exercise.  Review until they are demonstrating correct technique and the exercise is memorized.  At the beginning of the season you will probably be spending half or more of each rehearsal on establishing fundamentals.  Address each skill separately so it can be focused on and mastered before attempting to layer demands with beginning students.

Create a Schedule

While you want to rehearse fundamentals at every rehearsal, you may not have time to do them all at every rehearsal!  Here’s one approach.

1.  First, determine which exercises or combinations you consider so important you will require students to do them at every rehearsal (your “bare minimum”).  These are usually your strength-building exercises and those that increase flexibility.  Examples would be drop spins, double-time spins and flourishes on flag or hand spins, tosses and flourishes on weapons.  Many instructors also choose to isolate high-risk skills during the daily basics block to increase the odds for successful performance.  These might include tosses from the show or a particularly difficult combination.

2.  Next, list all of the other exercises that you believe are important for your students to rehearse on a regular basis.  These might include carving exercises, spins and stops, thumb flicks (aka wrist flicks), backhand exercises, pull-hits and a variety of tosses.

3.  Determine how much time it takes to work through your daily exercises as well as an appropriate amount of stretching.  Then, evaluate how much time you will have left and how many additional exercises you might be able to fit in each day.

4.  Create a weekly schedule to fill this additional time.  For example, on Mondays and Wednesdays add the carving exercise, on Tuesdays and Thursdays pull-hits, on Mondays and Thursdays double-time on rifle, etc.

The approach above works well for structuring the start of your season, However, as the season progresses, your daily routine or approach to block should be flexible according to the needs of your show and performers.  You should not feel limited by your plan or schedule.  Don’t be afraid to change things up from time to time.  Not only will this keep things fresh for your performers but you absolutely should feel free to tailor your time in block to the needs of the moment.  If you maintain your “bare minimum” you can use the remaining time to isolate a skill that needs improvement in the show.

For example, my performers this past fall season were struggling early-on with shoulder-alignment to the sidelines during marching band, especially during jazz running, and this was affecting their cleanliness.  So, after we did our “bare minimum,” instead of running one of our other standard fundamentals exercises I spent some time for a week having them work a variety of different exercises I created that required them to isolate and address this particular issue.  You don’t have to be limited to well-known or “standard” exercises in block.  You can make them up as you go.  For this particular challenge I worked with the kids first on marching with hand spins (rifle) and speed spins (flag) in a standard 8 to 5 step. I then incrementally increased the step size until they were doing a full jazz run because I noticed that their control of their upper body was better with smaller step sizes and less consistent in full jazz run.  We addressed all sorts of upper body alignment and control issues as well as reinforcing proper marching technique.  This was what was most important for us to progress during that particular week even though it wasn’t part of our typical fundamentals “catalog.”

John Burns, Director of Fluvanna County High School Band & Color Guard Shares his Daily Drill:

“My bare minimum daily drill for flags is that they will do one hundred drop spins with body immediately followed by 100 Peggy Spins, sometimes with body (we call it 1 and 1) no matter what time constraints we face.  If there is time we do both left and right, if we are limited we do the weakest side which is usually the left.  There may be a few timing ticks, but breaks are never permitted, no matter how little time we have.

The weapons are required to throw five of each toss that they throw in the show.  The clincher is, the entire line must catch five consecutively!  That means if one person drops, we go back to zero.  This helps mentally prepare the students for the stress of performance which is something that we as instructors must address!  On that fifth repetition, the kids are almost as nervous as they are at shows!  … they are preparing themselves mentally and physically for performance.”

Strategy 2: Layering Movement

Cheryl Myers, a dance instructor and equipment tech with Trumansburg High School in New York who also serves as a WGI Movement judge stresses, “…the extreme importance of not only an equipment block, but a movement training section incorporated into it also.”  What happens with the body is projected tenfold through the pole and silk.  Alignment, marching technique, a strong center, it all affects the carriage of the equipment and can make or break the uniformity of an ensemble.  However, movement technique rehearsal is often left for last on the priority list due to lack of time or instructor experience, taking a backseat to the more obvious and beloved equipment skills.  It doesn’t have to be so!  You can find time to train graceful movers every day by layering your movement basics beneath your most important equipment basics.  Here are some ideas:

1.  During your “camps” allow adequate time to isolate and teach movement fundamental.  Students must understand the basic movement principals before you ask them to layer these demands beneath their equipment work.  Some of these basic movement skills include traveling (marching, jazz running), plie’, releve’, tendu, passe’, centering and balance, basic turns, saute’, elements of posture and arm movement, etc.

2.  It is important for students to be able to march “in step” while performing their upper body skills.  Start by having them mark time under fundamentals.  Consider adding music to challenge them to respond to varying tempos in order to prepare them for the challenge they will face learning routine.

3.  Since drop spins are often performed daily, create a lower body combination for students to perform under drop spins.  This combination might include a series of marking time, plie’, releve’, tendu and even passe’.  Create something similar (only with different movement skills) under rifle hand spins.

Myers routinely advises instructors during critique that, “training on a regular basis, even if it is only 20 minutes at the beginning of a rehearsal will show results, and they will span not only the movement caption but bleed into all other captions as well.”

Strategy 3: Combinations

Many instructors create short combinations of moves which serve both to save time and to train students to memorize and focus in short chunks.  Determine what fundamental skills your students need to be able to perform both consecutively and simultaneously and create a combination for them to rehearse every day.

An example of this is the following combination which combines 3 fundamental flag equipment skills (performed on both hands) over a standard marching step (in our case a toe step).  It further challenges the students to change directions within a box formation, to maintain spacing (dress and cover) and to practice sliding (shifting) to the front sideline on their sideways movements.  Finally, they must memorize the exercise and focus throughout to perform it correctly.  We start the season with teaching the equipment demands separately from the movement demands and slowly add pieces (first marking time, then just the right side box, then the left) until the performers are able to perform the entire exercise.

Advanced Box Drill:

Starting Position: Right Shoulder Arms

Mark Time 8 then begin moving and spinning.

Forward 8 (8 counts right hand drop spins)

Slide Left 12 (4 sets of drop spin + thumb flip)

Backward 8 (8 counts of right hand speed spins)

Slide Right 12 (4 sets of speed spins (counts 1 & 2 only) + thumb flip)

Forward 8 (drop stop on 1-2, hold 3 – 6, bring let hand down to ready on count 7, hold 8)

Slide Right 12 (4 sets of left hand drop spin + thumb flip)

Backward 8 (8 counts left speed spins)

Slide Left 12 (4 sets of left speed spins (counts 1 & 2 only) + thumb flip)

Forward 8 (8 counts left drop spins)

Backward 8 (8 counts left drop spins)

Halt (drop stop)

The box drill can be simplified for beginners by making each leg of the box the same (perhaps 8 counts) and having them do only one skill (such as drop spins or speed spins) throughout.

Strategy 4: Basics Routines

Many instructors create a “basics routine” from the most common fundamental skills.  Sometimes this is set to a particular piece of music or may even be set to the band’s on-field warm-up.  Basics routines may be useful in situations where an instructor can not be present each day to lead warm-up or when the band and guard need to warm-up together on field.  Just be careful not to allow students to go on “automatic pilot.”  It is not advisable for instructors to leave the students to go through the basics routine on their own with no instruction or evaluation.  They will inevitably get lazy and you will see little growth.  If you do decide to go the route of a basics routine, observe the students as they perform it each day and take time afterward to correct any inconsistencies or mistakes that crop up by isolation and repeating that particular skill.

Strategy 5: Multi-tasking

You may be sitting here still thinking, “Yeah, this is all great but there’s no way it will help me in the ten minutes my band director gives us to warm-up in the fall!  We’re lucky if we can even find time to stretch!”  This is a reality for many coaches and this situation requires the most creativity.

During the fall season there are inevitably times where the band director is working with another section and the guard is simply waiting.  Scoop up these little chunks of time to fit in a few of your most neglected fundamentals exercises.  You will have to establish a discipline throughout the group that they should be looking to you (or their student leaders) for instructions during any downtime and you will need to identify a method for letting everyone know which exercise you are doing and how to start (whether that’s yelling it across the field or some type of hand signal).  But right there in their drill spots they can improve their technique while averting boredom!  This also works for rehearsing new or difficult sections of routine.  Look for any time you can get and challenge your performers.

You can begin using your time on-field to rehearse fundamentals at camp.  For any sections of the show that do not yet have routine, have the students spin a fundamentals exercise over it.  You might consider having them spin for one set and then stop spinning for the next, then resume spinning on the third, etc.  This helps them to learn how to spin and move through their sets and it is a great tool for the instructor to be able to identify who knows where their sets start and end as well as any front sideline body alignment issues.

Ultimately, it’s up to the instructor to set the goals and reinforce the importance of rehearsing fundamentals.  Some groups struggle to institute a strong fundamentals program because of time constraints while others note performer apathy or “boredom” with basics.  Using some of the strategies outline above, a creative and well-prepared coach can battle time constraints AND continually add demand through layering as the season progresses to battle the “boredom” issue.  In the end, an ensemble with strong technical training will learn routines faster and reach a higher level of performance.

Special Thanks to Cheryl Myers, Movement Instructor and Equipment Tech for Trumansburg High School and WGI Movement Judge and to John Burns, Band and Color Guard Director for Fluvanna County High School and Director of Impact Independent Winter Guard for their input.


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Category: Equipment Technique, Instruction, Rehearsal Planning & Management

About the Author (Author Profile)

Catina Anderson is the founder/editor of the Colorguard Educators blog. Color guard has been part of her life for almost 25 years. She began coaching in 1994 and worked with the Broad Run High School color guard in Northern VA from 1998 until 2010. She has also written for Halftime Magazine and served on the Executive Board of the Atlantic Indoor Association. A former teacher, she enjoys sharing what she has learned and hopes to encourage others to share as well. Together we can create even more positive experiences for performers and help to collectively strengthen marching arts activities worldwide.

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