In this week’s volume of “View from the Judges’s Box,” we address concerns with the overall flow and design of marching band shows. Over the years, there has been a shift from simply performing music and visual to the overall effect of the performance. The struggle with this view is that sometimes, groups do not focus on ensemble musical achievement but the complete package, often pushing ensemble members beyond their comfort zones. The goal of this article is to provide some ideas that will help improve the overall effect of your ensemble’s performance.
During the planning process, diagram staging options before writing drill (or having it written). When theater directors start looking through a script, they will block scenes and play choreography before setting foot on the stage. The bands that excel in effect will often do the same. Some directors will simply create a flowchart in Microsoft Excel with a phrase-by-phrase breakdown of all musical selections. In this chart, the will include counts of each phrase, the section of the ensemble to be highlighted, and musical intensity. This assists the drill writer in staging the ensemble and allowing groups to be featured prominently. When clear staging is designed, effective movement can be generated. The designer can use the entire field. They can establish flow and provide moments of visual tension. The stage is set for success.
Music and Visual Design Must Match
One of the major deficiencies I have noticed when judging General Effect is the music and visual designs do not match. In order for the overall impact of the performance to reach its pinnacle, the visual must enhance the music…..or music must match the visual.
Think about a great movie. For me, I default to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope or On the Waterfront. In movies, the musical score either enhances or detracts from screenplay. Darth Vader’s impact is only improved by Imperial March being performed when he appears. The mixed meters of Bernstein’s score to On the Waterfront plays well to set the tension of the overall theme of the movie. Even Wagner utilized this concept, which he called “leitmotif,” in his operas. Musical themes play a crucial role to the visual play on the screen or stage.
Similarly, the visual aspects of a marching show should enhance the musical performance of the ensemble and the score they are performing. Moments of musical tension can be increased by adding a visual crescendo. This could be a unison move across the field, a quick collapsing of a form into a tight interval, or using contrary motion within a form. Additionally, changing the timing of foot movement can be powerful. There are moments in many shows that have a fast, driving tempo in 4/4, but melodic content can feel in halftime. The musicians that are performing the melody can move their feet at speed of their music. This small change can draw the eye and ear to the important part and, thus, increasing effect.
Casting the Characters
Have you even watched the YouTube video featuring the voice of Darth Vader by the person in the costume? The voice is far less threatening than what James Earl Jones delivered. My ears akin it to how Rick Moranis played “Lord Helmet” in Spaceballs. Just like finding the right voice for Darth Vader, selecting the proper performers to play roles in your show is crucial.
Think of it this way: the students on the field are performers. Some can be lead actors, others may be supporting characters. But they are all performers. If you are doing a show incorporating James Bond movie themes and wish to use the character on the field, cast a lead actor that can perform the role with appropriate flare and charisma. If you are doing a show about boxing, select students that look like boxers. If they are going to throw a punch, throw a punch as if it was Rocky. This goes for soloists, guard features, drum line moments, and for the front ensemble.
The most important part of all of this is simply getting the performers to do one thing: perform. This activity can be musical theater. A great performance is one when all parts and players achieve excellence by working together and exuding high levels of energy. The music. The visual. The winds, percussion, and guard. All important parts individually, but greater when working in unison.