Best Practices in Preparing for Marching Band Season

Marching band season is slowly approaching, and Dr. Nicholas Holland, Lead Director of the United States Army All-American Marching Band (USAAAMB) in 2014 and 2015, offers advice and insight on how to best prepare your group.


Nicholas Holland headshot
Photo courtesy of Dr. Nicholas Holland


Dr. Nicholas V. Holland, III is the Associate Director of Bands and Director of Athletic Bands at Charleston Southern University. At Charleston Southern, he directs the Pride of the Lowcountry marching band, the 6th Man Band basketball pep band, and is the musical director and conductor of the CSU Symphonic Band. He holds BM and MM degrees in music education from East Carolina University and a PhD in music education from the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Dr. Holland joined the staff of the U.S. Army All-American Marching Band in 2012 as the piccolo/clarinet instructor, and since has served as the Lead Director for 2014 and 2015 USAAAMB. He is an active adjudicator and clinician of marching and concert ensembles throughout the country, and is an active percussionist who performs frequently with orchestras, community bands, and praise bands. Dr. Holland performed with the Bridgemen (1985) and Sky Ryders Drum and Bugle Corps (1986-1988) and was Front Ensemble instructor for the Sky Ryders in 1999. He resides in Mount Pleasant with his wife Karen, their children Nicholas and Caroline, and their Boston Terriers Otis and Lexi.


NAfME: How do you adjust your instructional style to cater to many different learning types in a short frame of time?

Nicholas Holland: I focus more on what we want to install from a visual and musical performance standpoint, rather than the myriad backgrounds of students. We basically employ a visual system that we can clean most quickly while unifying various techniques. Essentially, I present the rehearsal technique and etiquette/flow at the beginning of our band camp, and then hold everyone to that standard. Members are provided a detailed handbook with images that include exactly what we expect from a movement and musical performance perspective. Understanding is the doorway to execution, and I constantly ‘preach’ to my ensembles that their primary objective is to clarify/know our expectations, and then subsequently meet or exceed them.


NAfME: How do you determine the repertoire for each year’s show?

NH: We typically use themes at my school, but that can be very broad. I select/program music with my design team (musical and visual staff) with our target audience and the maturation/preferences of our members in mind. We attempt to design shows that offer ‘something for everyone,’ or at least as much as possible in our program.


NAfME: How do you determine the instrumentation for each year’s marching show? Is it by theme of the show, how well students perform, or simply by population?

NH: For our current institution, our instrumentation is determined by population to a point, but also based on available equipment. We don’t have a deep inventory currently, which limits what we can put on the field. That being said, I’ll also ask students to switch to instruments of need/power regularly (woodwind players with brass experience to switch to a brass instrument). I have to be careful not to do so with music majors however. They don’t need to be playing on instruments that will hamper their maturation on their primary one.

One challenge is always what to do with double-reed players: they either learn colorguard equipment work, or learn a secondary instrument that is the ‘path of least resistance and harm’ to their own development. For example, it’s a common practice to put oboe players on a saxophone instrument for marching band, but that’s not very good for their oboe embouchure. It’s easier on fingerings, but may cost them down the road. I put them on euphonium or mellophone because of the lower impact on the brass embouchure (unless they really want to participate in the colorguard).


Nicholad Holland USAAAMB 2
Photo courtesy of Loran McClung;


NAfME: Do you establish student leadership in the United States Army All-American Marching Band?

NH: In the four years I was associated with the USAAAMB, we didn’t establish any student leadership other than the Drum Major. Essentially, there was no need for it, as they were all student leaders. Typically, student leadership is to assist in accountability and quality control in a program. The USAAAMB members don’t need the external motivation to excel—they have it already. There are always members who rise above their sections (albeit slightly above), but there is no need for student leadership and external motivation at the individual member level. They are already intrinsically charged to be the very best they can be. We foster this with our welcome dinner, and by simply clarifying the goals for the week, and that inherently includes the challenge to be the best version of the USAAAMB in history; the recent trend of extremely talented and high-achieving students makes that an easy sell on the part of the staff/leadership.

Nearly all of the lessons we teach in the context of music are truly life lessons or skill sets that students can employ in nearly every facet of their lives.

NAfME: Do you teach anything to the students about life outside the classroom, or continuing to be involved music without necessarily becoming a music major beyond their high school years?

NH: Band directors (and I would suggest that particularly marching band directors) are by nature much more than teachers of instrumental music. Nearly all of the lessons we teach in the context of music are truly life lessons or skill sets that students can employ in nearly every facet of their lives. Such skill sets include self- discipline, goal-setting, teamwork, cooperation (especially under duress of fatigue and the elements), and self-assessment. Competition has a tremendous benefit as well, if kept in the proper perspective.

I spend a good portion of my days/weeks serving as a counselor/mentor as well as a conductor/director. I enjoy keeping up with my former students as they continue to mature as people and as successful contributors to society. The bonds formed in musical experience are typically very strong and lasting.


NAfME: What is something you that believe is most overlooked in preparation?

NH: The longer I teach, the more I try to prepare for the unexpected. We have to be several steps ahead of potential pitfalls. For example, what happens if your buses don’t show up on time? We have to be proactive to do everything in our power to prevent that from happening, long before it ever happens. Directors who regularly have things happen like this need to be proactive or preventative. If you call yo ur bus company once a week for several weeks before the event, you likely won’t have this problem.

Unfortunately, I’ve made the mistake of assumption too many times: we can’t assume that folks will do what they’ve said they would do based on a single conversation anymore. So follow up, thoroughly communicate with all parties involved: travel companies, staff, parents, students, administrators, faculty, coaches, building managers, etc.

That being said, I believe the most overlooked component of any performance is the musical sensitivity/depth of expression in the ensemble. Unfortunately, the execution of the ensemble quite often suffers because of the demands mentioned above. We have to be ultra-organized, always thinking ahead.


NAfME: How far ahead of time do you prepare for the marching season? What is the first thing you prep for?

NH: This is different because I teach at a university. I follow similar patterns from my high school days, but the timeline is typically later. Personally, I’m always thinking of marching shows in the back of my mind, year round. I don’t get serious about those ideas until mid-spring when concerts are nearing completion.

At that point, usually in April, I meet with my staff, and we kick around various ideas. The best-case scenario is to have music in the hands of members before the end of the spring semester (at least the winds). The percussion arranger needs the score as soon as possible to write the battery/front ensemble book (unless you’re using all stock charts). I use stock charts sparingly, mostly because of the percussion scoring. Lately, the battery scoring has come a long way in stock charts, fortunately.

I currently write my own drill to save money, but previously I would send scores and flow charts to our visual designer in June (for a HS band this is too late typically). He would then write for a set instrumentation that I would adapt depending upon the numbers in camp. Because college marching band rosters are somewhat fluid until band camp, I had our visual designer have sketches and basic flow ready, and would send him the actual numbers on the evening of the first day of band camp. I would then teach our Pregame show first (which I write each year), and our visual designer would have the first show to us in a few days. This wouldn’t work for a competitive high school band production, but it works really well at the collegiate level.


NAfME: What do you think is the best way to keep your progress in check?

NH: I have a great checklist that I use every year, and it begins in the spring semester.

  • Spring: Music selected, purchased or arranged, and delivered to percussion, colorguard, and visual designer.
  • Before the end of the spring semester: leadership selected, drum major auditions. Inspect uniform parts and order replacements as needed.
  • June: music posted to our band website, Band Camp Schedule and Handbook posted on the website, Band Camp rehearsal spaces reserved on campus. Purchase sticks, mallets, heads, flags, and take instruments for repair. Stand tunes selected, master books created.
  • July: section leaders contact members, informal section meetings (mixers/team building), music sectionals. Pick up repaired instruments.
  • August: Prep instrument and uniform inventory for checkout. Flip folios for stand tunes prepped. Write pregame drill, sketch halftime flow charts and visual ideas (coordinated with colorguard instructor), adjust musical arrangements, colorguard and drum line mini-camps, Full Band Camp.


NAfME: What was your biggest struggle in preparing for the marching season when you first started as a band director? How did you overcome it?

NH: When I first started, my biggest struggle was the timing of my job. I graduated with my master’s degree in the spring, and I landed a one-year interim position at a small university in late July. I didn’t have a strong organization plan or structure to implement, and was essentially starting from scratch. I relied heavily on the existing student leadership my first year, learning ‘how they do things’ and creating a structure that honored their traditions but also balanced my convictions. I cannot say that I ‘overcame it’, but more appropriately ‘survived it’.

After that year, I made sure to identify and clarify visual technique that works for various backgrounds, and seek out great resources to get organizational structure in place to help everyone raise their level of both expectation and success. Essentially, I learned very quickly to better plan the work, and then to work the plan during the season.

Identify and clarify visual technique that works for various backgrounds, and seek out great resources to get organizational structure in place to help everyone raise their level of both expectation and success.

NAfME: Do you have recommendations in terms of delegating work to marching staff prior to the season? Do you have any recommendations for band directors who may not have the financial support to hire multiple staff members to assist with marching band?

NH: I believe the most important attribute of any manager/supervisor in any organizational structure is the art of delegating well. There are many things that can be delegated, but at the end of the day, the director is responsible. Delegate detail-oriented tasks as much as possible: have a student field painting and setup crew is a great example. BUT, make sure that crew knows exactly how to do their job. A poorly painted field is a rehearsal death sentence.

Upperclassmen can effectively assist with inventory, library, room setups, etc. I would not use student leaders in roles that would put them in difficult positions, such as attendance taking or graded music pass-offs. Those are the responsibility of a director. In short, delegate as much as possible, but remember the director is responsible for the product. A head football coach can blame poor execution on their players and/or coaching staff, but the head coach is ultimately responsible for the program.


NAfME: What other advice can you share?

NH: One of the greatest mistakes I made as a new director was to think that I had to have all the answers. My best advice?

  • ASK FOR HELP—network with your friends, make solid professional connections, and seek out best practices that will work for your group specifically, because every situation is different, and requires a unique approach.
  • Seek out the best arrangements you can find/afford, because at the end of the day, a great arrangement has the possibility of sounding great. An average arrangement will at best sound average.
  • Finally, work hard to keep the main things the main things: we are in the business of teaching music. A great deal of the organizational stresses may get in the way of that, but always remember why you are there—to change lives through musical experiences.


USAAMB Rotator 4-20-15


It’s not too late to apply for the United States Army All-American Marching Band. The deadline for applications is May 1st!Click here for the application to forward to your students for this all-expenses paid opportunity. 


Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, and Ronny Lau, Special Assistant, Center for Advocacy & Constituency Engagement. April 22, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (