Common Compositional Techniques

Scott Kurtzweil

Sounds of the Desert

Music: Lawrence of Arabia, Sandstorm from Hidalgo & Caravan

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Before we begin to discuss the drill design specific to this project, we first want to establish common compositional techniques used by all drill designers. These techniques are used individually and often in conjunction with others.

  1. Linear – straight line patterns either in verticals, laterals or diagonals.
  2. Curvilinear – Curvilinear patterns are combinations of arcs (parts of circles) or curves (parts of ovals).
  3. Single Line Manipulation – Single Line drill puts elements into a single line that is flexed and pulled to create patterns. The Cadets are best known for using this single line drill for their trademark “whiplash” movements.
  4. Follow the Leader – pulling elements around an established form from a single dot.
  5. Arcs – Using parts of circles.
  6. Mass form (blob) – pulling elements into a solid form without establishing any linear connection.
  7. Solid Form – Pulling elements into tight vertical and lateral lines. Can be in many shapes but the most common are blocks and wedges.
  8. Diffused / Random staging. Similar to mass form but the spacing between elements in much greater. Also known as scatter drill, a diffused set establishes no recognizable patterns or shapes.
Basic Staging

When writing for a band, the visual elements you offer are important, but don’t forget that marching band is first a musical activity and that the sections of the ensemble should be staged in such a way as to give the most visual impact without impeding the musical presentation.

The Power Zone
The area of the field between the 35 yard lines and from the front sideline to the front hash is commonly referred to as the Power Zone. A drill designer will place his strongest voices (brass) within this space to get the most volume impact from a particular moment in the show. In many cases, the drill designer for a small ensemble will keep the entire group in this space for the duration of the show.

The Winds

  • In general, try to keep like voiced instruments and similar musical parts together. This keeps the musical ensemble tighter and also presents a cleaner line for the eye to view forms.
  • Staging winds for the marching band is usually the opposite of the way a concert band is set up. Unless the woodwinds are directly featured musically, I prefer them to be staged behind the brass. As they project less than the other brass instruments, I also like to keep the basses more toward the front of the ensemble when possible. This keeps the pyramid of sound more intact.

The Percussion Battery
As we all know, the drum line works as the metric pulse that holds the marching ensemble together. It is important that the staging demands placed on a drum line match well with the strength and maturity of their playing. A strong drum line that has played together for some time can handle many high level visual demands placed on them and manage to drive the show well from any where on the field. Younger, less experienced drum lines need to be handled with more care to ensure good ensemble not only with in the line but for the band as a whole. Below are a few simple suggestions to keep in mind when writing for a young drum line.

  • Keep the battery together at all times. Young drum lines often rely greatly on the few strong players within the section to hold things together. Along these same lines, try to
    1. Establish your center and end snare drummers and keep them in the same order whenever possible. Many drum sections are set up with their strongest players in these positions to keep them set. Also, many drum lines are taught to watch or listen in to the center snare.
    2. Bass drum lines may be inverted but never change their order. Bass drum parts are usually written to walk up and down the section. Changing their order can cause too many ensemble problems with in the line.
  • Though you need no longer write basic “elevator” drill where the drum line simply marches up and down the 50 yard line, do try to keep the battery staged between the 30s and near the back of the ensemble when ever possible. This helps lesson the chance of side to side phasing within the ensemble and also makes the wind sections feel more comfortable hearing a strong rhythmic pulse at their backs.
  • If the band for which you are writing has sideline percussion, try to keep the battery forward of the back hash. Pushing the drum line too far back field can cause serious timing issues with the pit and will force the marching battery to play ahead of the beat to correct the problem.

The space between performers dictates clarity of your form development and also musical impact. Though these can be changed with in a show, below are a few rules of thumb that I try to follow when writing.


  • Snares – 2 Step
  • Tenors – 3 Step
  • Bass Drums – 4 Step
  • Cymbals – 2 to 4 Step


  • Tubas
    1. Sousaphones – 4 Step
    2. Over the Shoulder – 2 to 4 Step
  • All Other Winds – 2 to 4 Step


  • Weapons / Dancers – 4 to 8 Step
  • Silks – 4 to 12 Step
Step Sizes

Although step sizes will vary form position to position, below are a few of the most common

  • 8 to 5: Comfortable for all sections.
  • 6 to 5: More velocity. Only slightly larger than the step size of the average person.
  • 5 to 5: Larger than average step size. Should only be used for short periods and at moments that are not musically challenging.
  • 4 to 5: This is a standard “jazz run” step. Use only for short periods and moments that are not musically challenging. Avoid using this step size with tubas, bass drums and tenor drums.

While keeping these simple guidelines in mind, let’s begin to map out our show and start putting dots on paper.

Show Concept: Sounds of the Desert

Music: Lawrence of Arabia, Sandstorm from Hidalgo & Caravan


Because of the desert theme of this program, we on the design team wanted to open the program in a way that would evoke a sense of seeing a caravan coming into view from across the vast expanse of sand, moving closer and finally arriving in full splendor.

To achieve this sense of nearing proximity, the musical score utilizes a type of “Manheim Steamroller” effect by adding stronger voices in layers. The original trumpet fanfare of the Lawrence is given to the more muted voices of the flutes and clarinets. Voices are added until the texture of the score very dense in the first “hit”.

Drill Design
To visually portray our caravan coming closer from out of the empty sands, the band proper and guard begin staged in a wide open diffused (scattered) set with the guard hidden among members of the winds and percs. To further enhance the openness of this concept, we added 8 counts of “white noise” (wind machine, random sounds) in the sideline percussion.

As voices are added in the musical score, sections of the drill come into play out of the scatter. The drill is completely organized in curvilinear as the woodwinds enter with the fanfare theme and moves quickly to a solid mass form as the brass enter and deliver the first major musical impact of the show.

Page 1: Believe it or not, one of the hardest sets to clean is a diffused or scattered set. Because the human eye attempts to make order out of chaos, it is important to make the field positions look as random as possible. Changing the performer’s levels and adding poses to this opening set can enhance this lack of focus.

Page 2-4: When cleaning arcs or curvilinear sets, it is important to remember from high school geometry that arcs are parts of circles (or in some instances within curvilinear forms, parts of ovals or ellipses). To clean an arc or curve

  • Give your performers a better understanding of the form by turning them into the focus (or center point of the curve).
  • Point out that each performer is the furthest point out from the center and no-one should be “inside” the form.
  • Performers should dress the form through their heels because it is easier for them to see this line.

Once the curve is set, turn your performers again to facing the front sideline. In this position:

  • Performers should take note of the vertical spacing (how close are they front to back in relation to the performer in front of them in the form).
  • Performers should also take note of their shoulders. Specifically, the relations ship of their shoulder that is inside the form with regard to the outside shoulder of the performer in front of them.

Pages 5 – Hit: As the drill begin utilizing more solid forms, points of dress become very important.

  • Performers should be aware of from which direction the vertical lines are forming and establish that as their primary dress point.
  • Different visual staffs will recommend different approaches with regard to first, second and third dress responsibilities when it comes to solid forms. I prefer to have my performers dress first the lines that are most easily seen from the stands.
  • First line of dress should always be straight forward. These are vertical lines are the most easy to spot from the press box.
  • For short performance venues, I use the diagonal lines as secondary responsibilities and the lateral lines third because the lateral lines are not as easily seen from a lower vantage point. The exact opposite is true for higher performance venues.

NEXT TIME: Featuring musical elements with drill focus and guard staging.