15 Rules for a Successful Small Pep Band

I wonder how many band directors would cancel pep band for a basketball game if they found out less than 30 students were coming. How about 20 students? How about 15? How about 7?

I wonder how many pep bands play at a girls basketball game each year. How about 2? How about 5? How about every single one?

The Southwestern Jr./Sr. High School Pep Band plays at almost every boys and girls varsity home game. We accomplish this despite being a small band program at a small school. We are not afraid to play with small numbers as long as it is a workable combination of students. One of the games where we sounded best last year was a game where we had 7 students there.

We accomplish this through careful planning leading up to and during the season. Here are my rules for successful small pep bands:

  1. Keyboard bass. It is your best friend. It’s a great part for a double reed player or a percussionist to play… or a flute if it’s that weird year when you have 5 flutes in a band of 18. It allows you to get by without a tuba player. It can be louder than a tuba player. If you have a tuba player also capable of playing baritone or trombone, they can do that instead.
  2. Drum set. No marching drums except maybe a marching bass drum. If you have more than 1 percussionist, bring out the crash cymbals, tambourine, cowbell, etc. Don’t cover up your winds with marching snare drum popcorn.
  3. The director and drum major should be playing too. Don’t waste a body conducting. What a great opportunity for your drummer and bass player to work on time-keeping and have more people playing winds. I play whatever my band needs most that night–usually piano bass, trumpet, mellophone, or drum set.
  4. Google Forms. Send out a schedule of all games for the semester as a grid question. Students check their calendars for their families and their school activities and replay with a “Yes” (definitely going), “No” (definitely not), or “Maybe” (not sure yet) for each game. Google Forms creates a spreadsheet you can use to sort and check your projected instrumentation for each game. If we don’t have a combination that will work, I double check with my maybe list and try to get better confirmations. If that doesn’t settle it, we take that game off the schedule. I have found counting each “maybe” as 0.5 players on that instrument to be a surprisingly reliable way to count. That method has only done me wrong 2 times in 4 years.
  5. Grade requirements. Don’t get carried away here, or your students feel like band is too big of a time commitment and they quit. I ask my high school and junior high students to each play at 1/3rd of the games for each semester. My students pick which games they go to, so it feels less burdensome. Some students will do more than required and get extra credit. Some play at almost every game because “band is life.” The kids who have a life outside of band fill in their share, and it all works out. I have some students who play JV and varsity basketball. Since we play at both boys and girls games, I ask the boys basketball players to play at a percentage of girls games and vice versa.
  6. Pizza. When grades aren’t motivation enough, you can always count on food to get teenagers to show up. Some bands provide food every game, and if you have the resources to make it happen, go for it. I provide food for our homecoming double-header and any post-season trips. It is practical to feed them for those longer commitments, but it is also a good motivator for students to show up at these more publicized games. We have sometimes had parents or other community members offer to buy pizza for a game, which we welcome of course.
  7. Don’t be afraid to cancel a game. Just do it in advance. I emphasize this with my students: communicate with me and help me plan so that if we have to cancel we do it in advance. If we get no-shows that force us to cancel that night, people show up for nothing. My students are getting really good at communicating and it is super helpful. I warn the AD and cheerleaders in advance that there won’t be a band that night and why. It assuages some of the cheerleaders’ anxieties and helps the AD be able to explain it if a parent or fan asks. We usually have no band for about 1-2 boys games and 1-2 girls games each season. They tend to be games over breaks or Saturday games. For various reasons, it can be difficult for my band to get enough people on Saturday night games. We do so many games for both teams that the community is very understanding if we miss 1 or 2. I am grateful to work in a place where it makes no difference whether that is a boys game or girls game.
  8. Practice the National Anthem first at every rehearsal and pre-game warm-up. It is the most important song we play. Even if it isn’t that important to you, you have to know your audience. It means a lot to some spectators, especially veterans or their family members. Always perform it professionally, and never get caught off guard. Even if there is a performer scheduled to do it that night, there’s always the chance the singer doesn’t show up or starts feeling sick, and the band better be ready. If your band struggles with the National Anthem, consider getting another arrangement or write your own. Orchestration is half the battle with making a small band sound good.
  9. Practice the school song second at every rehearsal and pre-game warm-up. It is the 2nd most important song we play. You are less at risk of offending someone if you mess it up, but people still definitely notice, and they get a lot more mad about it than they do if you mess up “The Hey Song.” We practice it more than we probably need to in the first half of the season just in case. By mid-season I relax on this rule.
  10. Be selective about music. We have maybe 50-75 songs in our pep band books, but we don’t play them all. We focus on the ones that are the best fit for each year’s band, and we vary the selections on a nightly basis depending on that night’s instrumentation and the experience of the players. We have quite a few easy songs, mostly unison, that we can always play no matter what. Some of the more challenging and/or thinly orchestrated songs only come out for the games where we have a lot of strong players.
  11. Have a core song list. These are the songs you know you can play every night no matter who is there or what happens. The songs you couldn’t screw up even if you tried. For us, it’s “The Hey Song,” “Seven Nation Army,” “Bad Romance,” “Dynamite,” and “Firework.” We also have some short time-out vamps that never fail. Check out Hal Leonard’s “Easy Marching Band” and “Esprit de Corps” series. These easier arrangements tend to be arranged with more tutti sounds that make your band sound bigger and better.
  12. Organize the book. We have our timeout songs in the first section of our book, starting with the school song and “Hey Song.” I put short songs back-to-back so we can cram 2 into a timeout if there is time. Our longer songs that we use for pre-game and half-time are in the middle of the book. Special songs are in the back. Each section is numbered and color-coded. All our time-out songs are red. Long songs are blue. Special songs are green. I hold up a marker board with the number in that color.
  13. Get T-shirts. A full formal uniform isn’t necessary for pep band, but the band should do something to look similar and professional. We have T-shirts with cool instrument graphics all over them and sponsors listed on the back. You’ll see more photographs of your band in the newspaper if they are all wearing the same shirts. That’s free marketing for your band program to get you more kids! I tell my students that if you realize before a game that your shirt is dirty or missing, grab another shirt that is the same color or wear your band polo that we use for more official performances instead. Just make sure you show up looking like you are in the band.
  14. Ask for help. Quite often, pep band seems to be the only thing administrators care about. It is probably the most visible part of your band program, unless your school is big on football and marching band. If you want to order some fresh new music and don’t have the funds, hit up the athletic director or principal. They may help you out (mine did). If you don’t have any mellophones or marching baritones, put in a requisition with the school corporation, and make sure you mention on there that it will help the pep band at basketball games. We have had our athletic boosters split the cost of Homecoming pizza with our band boosters. We have had our school alumni association buy pizza for us on Alumni Band night. We received some administrative rainy day funds at the end of a year to buy us a marching baritone that they knew we needed. The community often loves having the pep band at games. Don’t be ashamed to ask the community to pitch in if it will get the band there and get the band sounding good.
  15. Bring your friends. We all have friends who played with us in college, who play professionally, etc. Invite one or more to join you for a game. It is a great way for students to see adults still playing and see music as a life-long hobby, not just a high school extra-curricular. Invite alumni to come back too. Every time you do this you add an instrument to your band for that night, and you are building community and band morale too.

Think outside the box. Don’t do things one way because it’s what you have always done or what you have seen other people do. This isn’t concert band contest. There is no rule book. Add a vocalist. Play jazz band charts. Turn that groovy section of last year’s field marching show into a time-out vamp. Break all the unwritten rules. Use your community and whatever resources are at your disposal. Just make it work so that the band has fun, sounds good, looks professional, and adds energy to the game.

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