Rehearsal Techniques

| February 1, 2007 | 0 Comments

This is an article originally written as part of a student leadership manual.  It outlines practical advice and strategies for student leaders (which may also be helpful for new instructors) on ways to teach and clean routines.

Group Teaching Techniques

The captain(s) are the primary officer(s) responsible for group teaching and demonstration at rehearsals.  The following are tips, suggestions and techniques for making sure you give clear instruction and that the group is following you.  There are also some ideas for what to do when things aren’t going as smoothly as you might like!

Teaching Tips!







1.  EXPLAIN IT: First, explain what you will be teaching.  Give a verbal explanation of your goals for the session.

For example:

“Today we are working on learning the fight song.  This is a short routine that we will perform to our school song at football games and parades.  We may also perform it to music other than our fight song in parades because it is relatively easy and it fits to any song with four beats in a measure!  We need to learn the entire fight song and clean it today in the next hour and a half.”

Define any terms or references new members may be unfamiliar with, set the goals or timeline (as above saying “we need to finish the whole thing today”) and explain why it is important for the performers to work hard on what you’ve just told them to do (“…because we will perform this routine at games and parades.”).

2.  DEMONSTRATE: If possible, show the group what you will be teaching first.  When you demonstrate, use good technique and REALLY perform it.  Smile.  Use Showmanship.  SELL IT to them so that they will WANT to learn what you have to teach.  This works very well with routine.  If you are only teaching fundamentals, you may have to rely more on explaining why it’s important rather than using showmanship.  Regardless, always demonstrate the move first.  Even with fundamentals, you can make it look cool with confidence!

3.  CHUNK IT:  Break the routine down into easy-to-remember “chunks” when teaching (usually four counts at a time works well – with no more than 8 counts).  Chunks can be a little longer for easier routine and as short as adding one more “move” to what has already been learned for hard sections of routine.  Again, demonstrate the chunk, then teach it slowly and clearly.  After you are satisfied that the group has learned the counts you are teaching them, move onto the next “chunk.”  When you finish the next chunk, add it on to the first set you taught them and see if they can remember both chunks in sequence.  You may have to have them repeat it a few times and if necessary, go back and review things they may have forgotten.

4.  LEAD THEN LOOK: When teaching the group, first take time to do the chunk with them.  Face forward so that they can compare their spin to yours and watch you to learn.  You can always use your peripheral vision to watch over your shoulder to get a sense of whether the group is following you or stand facing a reflective surface such as a glass window on the side of the school.  Repeat this several times.  By NOT watching them the first few times they try the work, you allow the more timid or insecure students a little bit of time before they feel put “on the spot” or judged.  With some students, having ANYONE watch them when they are first learning something is stressful.  Give them a few chances first without feeling like they will be criticized.

When you think they have had long enough to “get it,” turn around and make sure.  Ask them if they’re ready to try without you.  Count it off and watch to see if there is anyone missing any major parts. Look for problems with hand placement, people who are having more trouble than they should, anyone who seems confused or like they might have a question.  If you move on before the group is ready you will end up with frustrated students who will then find it very difficult to learn the rest of what you have to teach and you may find they won’t remember what you have taught through to the next rehearsal.  If you miss critical details such as hand placement you may end up with a great deal of cleaning to do later on when your teammates have developed bad habits that will be more difficult to break.

If possible, try to avoid correcting individuals at this early stage of the game, instead addressing your corrections to the entire group.  No need to have people feeling self-conscious and frustrated this early on.  If you notice that one performer is struggling tremendously, you may consider asking another officer or veteran to help that person individually so that you can move on with the rest of the group and that performer can get the individual attention he/she needs.  Sometimes you may even find that you have to totally re-explain!  Once they can do it without you, move on.  If there are some getting it really well and others struggling, consider dividing into groups for one-on-one instruction.

5.  DIVIDE AND CONQUER: Periodically, take a break to allow the group to divide into smaller groups (or squads) led by the other officers or your most veteran members so that the performers have a chance to review what has been taught in smaller, more individualized learning groups.  This also allows those teaching to be able to check individuals for details (hand placements etc.) that may have been missed in the large group situation.  It also allows performers to ask questions in a small group which is less intimidating or “embarrassing” than asking in front of the whole team.  Set time limits for these small-group sessions and try to make sure to stick to the clock in order to keep the rehearsal moving.  As the officers are working with their squads, wander around the room to see if anyone needs additional clarification, making sure the officers don’t have any questions on routines themselves (and helping out members who might still need even more one-on-one rather than small group help).

6.  SET GOALS AND TIME LIMITS:  Set goals and time limits and stick to those goals as best as possible.  Sometimes time limits are given by the coach.  Stick to these strictly.  Sometimes you will be running the entire practice and you will have to set your own time limits.  An easy way to do this is to think about what you have to teach.  Divide it in half and you have to teach this amount of work in half of the alloted time (if you’re teaching 64 counts in 2 hours then you need to be done with 32 counts in 1 hour).  You can divide this even more to help keep things on track and give yourself even more time checkpoints…so 16 counts per half hour or no more than 15 minutes for each 8 count section of routine.  See how this puts the practice into perspective!  Remember to take into account the time needed for water breaks, end-of-rehearsal announcements, warm-ups, stretching and review.


You should NEVER use sarcasm while teaching beginners!

While sarcasm can be fun between close friends, it can make people who don’t know you quite as well feel insecure and frustrated.  It is best to avoid it in teaching situations!  You should also avoid referring to “inside jokes” when addressing the group unless you plan on explaining the jokes to everyone there.  No one likes to feel “out of the loop.” 

Splitting into Squads/Small Groups

Splitting the large group into smaller groups is a tremendously effective teaching tool.  Provided that your officers (or veterans) are confident with what has been taught in the large group setting, small groups tend to be able to get much more accomplished in a much shorter time period if properly monitored.  Here are a few tips:

Tips for Captains:

  1. Ideally, when the coach is not present, at least one captain should remain free of a group while the performers are divided among the other veteran members.  The captain is then free to monitor the groups.  While monitoring, the captain should:
    1. Check to make sure the other squad leaders are reviewing the material accurately
    2. Monitor the time, giving a 1-minute or 2-minute warning as the time approaches for the groups to come back together.
    3. Walk around offering assistance to each group or to individuals that might be struggling within the small-group setting or who might need one-on-one attention.
    4. Make announcements to all squads should something pertinent arise (such as a correction to routine discovered in one squad or a helpful hint for performance of a skill).
    5. Make sure the squads stay “on-track” and that groups keep working without too much extraneous talking.
    6. Bring the group back together at the appropriate time and review what they just worked on to see if the group is ready to move forward.
  2. When the coach is present, the captain can take a squad or monitor as above depending on the desires of the coach.

 Tips for Squad Leaders

1.   Use similar techniques as you would in a group-teaching situation including demonstrating, review, watching, identifying problems and making corrections.

2.  In a small group situation it is okay to make specific corrections for individuals.  However, keep in mind that no one, necessarily, likes to be told they are doing something wrong.  Praise for what has been done well and then make “constructive comments.”  (For example: “That was good, you are performing counts 1 – 5 really confidently!  Just make sure that on count 7 you put your hand down here on the endcap.  Let’s try that.  Good!  Let’s do it again!”) 

3.  In many cases, the performer will be forthcoming with questions in the small-group setting.  Often they’ve been avoiding asking their questions in front of the large group and are eager to have questions answered in the small group situation.

4.  If it seems you’ve “run out of things to do,” begin to clean.  Sometimes your squad gets the routine or skill quickly.  DO NOT be tempted to work on something else, practice tossing or just talk.  Use the time to begin cleaning.  You can work on details from hand placement to “sharpness,” timing or even showmanship.  Set an example by encouraging your squad to keep working hard and to keep trying to improve.

5.  If you have a member who needs a LOT more help than the others in your group, figure out a way to give them one-on-one attention.  You can accomplish this either by asking the captain to come work with that person or by sending your stronger members to work with another squad while you work with the weaker member.

Tips for Cleaning

The “Count by Count Method”

This is the standard method of breaking down the routine and cleaning in detail.  Essentially, you break the routine down into tiny chunks, sometimes one count at a time, sometimes 2 or 3.  You define for the performers where their flag should be at the specified count and have them move to that count.  You then get even more specific, defining hand position on the flag or pole, body position, feet, even chin, body facing or facial expression.  You then ask the group to perform the move watching carefully to see if there are any discrepancies from person to person.  If there are, you correct them either individually or making a clarification for the whole group.  Then, have them repeat the move several more times to make sure everyone has it correct.  Once you’re comfortable that they can perform up to that chosen count, you add another count or another move (which may be 2 – 4 more counts) stopping at the next logical checkpoint.

If at any time you find that performers are making mistakes on a checkpoint that has already been cleaned you simply go back to that checkpoint and work through it again, the same as before.  Clarify, have them physically move through the position, then repeat until it sticks.

This takes a long time but is well worth the effort, as it trains everyone’s bodies to move the equipment in the same way.  This leads to uniformity and to an increased comfort level with the counts, which is the first step toward each performer being able to take the “moves” and add their own personality to make them into a performance!

Physically marking through Corrections

As you begin to clean you will undoubtedly find yourself pointing out specific mistakes within the group.  A common mistake of young teachers is forgetting to have students mark through corrections before running the routine again.  Performers finish a run, the teacher rattles off a series of corrections and then says, “Everybody got that? [a few reluctant nods] Okay! Do it again!”  Then the instructorfinds his/herself frustrated when the same mistakes are still present.

A better way to approach this is similar to using the count-by-count method only isolating the part you are trying to correct.  Have the students physically work through the correction with you before running the section as a whole again.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

It is only through repetition that the muscles begin to learn what it is you would like them to do!  The more repetition, the more “automatic” routines will become.  Just make sure that performers aren’t repeating mistakes!  Always look for proper technique and posture during repetition.


Remember that we all need to hear that we are doing well, especially when we’re working on challenging and sometimes frustrating tasks.  Don’t forget to give honest, positive feedback (and if you have to make many corrections, do so gently!).

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” – Mother Theresa 

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Category: 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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