Overwriting for Color Guard

Color Guard (or auxiliaries if you wish) is one of the most important and, yet, misused components of a marching ensemble. Many times, this portion of the group is left to fend for themselves creatively or just moved aimlessly around the field. Because of the significance both visually and energetically, Band Directors should show careful attention toward the Color Guard from day one of show design. Here are some tips for improving the performance of these teams:

Include Guard Staff in the Color Guard Design Process

When meeting to discuss show ideas, be sure to include all members of your design team and instructional staff. If you can design with all parts of the program in mind, the show’s flow will improve. Create a timeline of musical selections and begin outlining important visual moments as well. Once the entire show is in place, meet with your guard staff and begin to create a storyboard for the entire show. This type of planning will go a long way to composing beautiful moments to feature the winds, percussion, or color guard in addition to establishing when the full ensemble generate impact together.

Balance must be achieved for Color Guard

Band Directors, find ways to maximize performance and rest time during the show. The cardiovascular nature of this activity can take a toll on the performers. The winds and percussion do not play and move for every second of a show. Neither should the entire guard. Utilize small squads of the guard from time to time, especially when one section of the winds or percussion are being featured as well. Find balance in the routine and use.

Color Guard instructors, it is okay to write simple flag (or rifle, etc.) routines for a portion of the show. As Sara Gray (a Winterguard Adjudicator) has suggested- routines should be written FOR the music. If a simple routine matches musically, then allow the music to guide your choreography. Having the team do 16 counts of excellently executed drop-spins into a dramatic toss while leading to a major impact point in the winds and percussion is appropriate and more visually effective. Visual energy and musical energy must move together.

Guard Staff: Remember Your Guard Members

A common problem of Guard routines designed for high school programs is that the choreography is overwritten. Groups attempt to perform movements that the students are not comfortable in doing. Staff members will simply say “they will do better once we clean it.” Some times, yes, they do improve. But many times, they do not find success. Just because Carolina Crown’s guard executed this amazing trick does not mean the 9th graders on your team can do it as well.

After agreeing to design a visual book for a high school once, it was requested that I allow room for visuals performed by the Cavaliers in 2002 to be inserted. It was my recommendation that the group not attempt these motions and find something that fits their ensemble. Long story short, this ensemble never performed the moves quite like the Cavaliers and it effected their overall performance.

The team of young women and men under your instruction deserve a show that they know will challenge them in some way, but also be attainable. The abilities of your team must be a priority and, much like the winds and percussion, routines should be drawn from the fundamentals that you work on daily. Write for the people in front of you.

Photo Credit: Indiana State University/Courtesy Photo
Photo Credit: Indiana State University/Courtesy Photo

Seven Things to do on Your College Visits

Many high school students are starting to plan college visits to schools in which they are interested. While many schools offer tours and standard activities for prospective students, the visits tend to be generic. In order to make the appropriate choice, here are some practices I recommend for students interested in music activities (not just a music major) during a campus visit.

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King
  1. Attend a class in your planned major. Get a feel for the way the class operates and a feel for the facilities.
  2. Meet with a professor in your academic area. Talk with them about the programs they offer and opportunities outside of the classroom (honor societies, team activities, newspaper/radio, small ensembles, etc).
  3. Attend a music rehearsal. Many conductors may allow you to sit in with the ensemble. After rehearsal, talk with the conductor and ask questions.
  4. Eat lunch on campus and around other students. Get a feel for the overall attitude and energy of the school.
  5. Visit the bookstore and buy a hat or keychain. Can you see yourself still using those after graduating?
  6. Always make an appointment with the Financial Aide and Scholarship offices!
  7. Before you leave, take the time to walk and drive around campus on your own. Imagine yourself as a student. How does this campus appeal to you? Does it fit your personality and your needs? Nothing is more important than finding the right fit for you, regardless of school name or program. If you cannot feel at home on campus, the likelihood of being successful decreases.

Why should I march in college?

Congratulations! You are graduating high school and plan on attending college in the fall! Many choices are going to be presented to you and decisions will have to be made.

  • Your major.
  • What classes to take.
  • Which meal plan to select.
  • Who is going to be your roommate and in which dorm will you reside.
  • Do you join the band.

Let me answer one of these questions for you. YES! Join the band! I do not say this for the benefit of the college directors and their ensemble growing in number. This is about you – the one that has spent a great deal of the last four years riding on a bus to and from ball games, contests, and other events. For you – the person who built relationships with others that you may have never met otherwise. You – the one who enjoyed the atmosphere of performing. Here are a few reasons why I believe participating in marching band (or concert band for that matter), regardless of your major, is beneficial.

J Corey Francis, Eastern Illinois University Marching Band

Build a community of support while away from home/in a new stage of life.

One of the best benefits from participating in marching band in high school is the relationships you build with other people. These are the ones you hung out with after school and shared some of your most secretive and embarrassing moments with during these formative years. Your time is college is no different, except the people are from all over the state or nation, not just your community. And, many of you will be away from home.I have witnessed students flourish and fail in college, and all have one thing in common: the support system they created.When you attend college, you want to feel as if you are at home. Finding a way to build a support system become crucial, especially during the first few weeks on campus. Those students that I witnessed build a solid system of friends succeeded while in school, especially compared to those that did not find their community. Many college marching ensembles will have camp a week before classes start. While the time in rehearsal is important to prepare for the season, it is the creation of friendships and the knowledge of campus the allows freshman band students to walk around in comfort on Day 1 of class.

Become part of the college spirit and traditions of your school.

Each college and university has it’s own vibe, it’s own spirit. For many schools, this is shown at its greatest during athletic events. Part of that spirit is the band. When they play the fight song, fans sing. When the drums play cadences, they dance. When the band cheers, many of the fans will join in. The band performs an important role in the overall spirit of campus. And, it is through participation in band, the students feel that they are part of that spirit and become attached to the school in a way that is deep and long-lasting.

Continue playing for fun.

You spent many years performing in marching band in high school. What would you do with that time now? Seriously. You worked crazy hours in hot weather or in liquid sunshine (my high school director’s term for rain), to perform 8-10 minutes of music while running across a football field.

Let’s be honest: none of us started playing in band back in 6th grade (or 4th or 5th) because we thought it was going to be hard work and stressful at times. We wanted to play because it looked like fun. We would be in parades and people would cheer for us! We loved listening to music on the radio and dancing along. We just wanted to be part of the fun. And then we had to learn scales (which are extremely important, but that is not the point now). And then we had to do playing tests. Our directors would get frustrated because we were not performing up to standards. Band was hard work. I am not saying band is all fun and no work in college. It takes time and effort. However, college bands are more interactive during games. They dance. They cheer. They play!!! And, you are with your friends.

What are you going to replace marching band with in college? Many people say, “I want to focus on my studies.” This is a valid and important concern. Most of those same people often came to me during the beginning of the semester proclaiming how much they miss marching band and that they want to join. The benefit for many students in this situation is learning to improve time management and balancing studies with marching band or other activities. (NOTE: STUDIES ARE THE REASON YOU ARE IN SCHOOL. I AM NOT SUGGESTING TO IGNORE STUDIES FOR MARCHING BAND…..EVER!!!!)

It’s fun! You do like fun, right?

Practicing your way to a successful season…..and year

How many times have you attended a marching band performance (whether it was a contest or a football game) then said “I wonder why they are always so good?” Or maybe it was something similar to that, but you were awestruck and wished your group performed that way. We often justify it by the amount we assume is in their budget, or the number of staff members they have, or the amount of hours they must work on their show music starting in March. What if I told you the answer is simple and, yet, we overlook it every day. It is the way we approach practice.

J Corey Francis at Evans High School Marching Band camp, 2004

(Go ahead, insert Allen Iverson’s voice here……”Not a game.  Not a GAME! We talkin’ ‘bout…..practice.)

Okay, call it rehearsal if you wish, but the idea is the same. The way we approach our rehearsal time is not structured toward success.  The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s were one of the dominant teams in NFL history, making it to eight straight playoffs and winning 4 of 6 Super Bowls. How? I believe the answer is explained best by Coach Chuck Noll when he said, “We are going to do the simple things better than everybody else.” Or at least, that is how Tony Dungy said it in his book “Quiet Courage.”  Think about it. Doing the things that everyone else does (for example, roll steps, drop spins, diddle strokes, etc.) the best you possibly can will set you apart. That has been the philosophy of many of the most successful people ever. Steph Curry, Tom Brady, and Jordan Spieth have all been featured in Under Armour commercials showing them performing basic exercises and repeating the phrase “day in, day out.” And, didn’t your private instructors in college encourage the same idea for our DAILY individual practice?

I get it. We are so concerned about getting the show on the field and performing that we skip over what is needed to get other things done. Yet, we will comment on poor execution of technique more than anything else during rehearsals. Everything we ask our students to do in the drill goes directly to what we set them up for in fundamental techniques. In order to “do the simple things better,” we must work on them daily. Or, as one of my favorite teachers would tell me, “Constant contact with the subject matter brings about true knowledge.”

Make time for fundamentals, daily: Our time in rehearsals can be brief and we therefore prioritize the performance over the practical. Because of this, many ensembles will skip doing diligent work on marching and music fundamentals. The time spent on fundamentals is important. For every 2 hours in rehearsal, at least 45 minutes should be spent in marching and music fundamentals. This time of rehearsal will not only reinforce the proper techniques, but also serves as a mental transition from other classes to ensemble performance.

Find a way to make your ensemble smaller: What? Do we not want as many students to participate as possible? Of course we do, but we also can provide more individual instruction to smaller groups. Train your student leaders on how to perform and instruct marching fundamentals. Then, your leaders can teach their sections or small groups. I have found that dividing my ensembles into sections, by woodwind/brass (for example), and allowing leaders to instruct not only gives your students more ownership, it also gives more individual attention to each student.

Be creative in your exercises: Doing 8’s and 8’s down the field gets mundane, yet the focus on step sizes, posture, horn angles, and roll steps are crucial. Finding new ways to teach the same things can be a fun way to keep the focus and energy up in your ensemble. The video series Dynamic Marching, created by Jeff Young at Carmel High School, has some fantastic routines for teaching fundamentals. Also, they provide a way for your ensemble to receive more individual attention by performing the exercises one line at a time. I highly encourage investing in these videos.

Sound sound concepts: Let’s face it. The sound of the ensemble should be a priority all year long. The way you approach the marching ensemble sound should be exactly the same way that you teach concert ensemble concepts. Air is crucial, and you can work on simple air exercises while performing marching fundamentals. Additionally, using idiomatic exercise for each instrument should be encouraged daily. This can include scales and octave/register slurs for woodwinds, lip slurs of various difficulties for brass, and various rolls in duple and triple for percussion.

More fundamentals means less drill: Yes, if you spend more time on fundamentals there will be less time available for actual show work. Making your rehearsals more efficient is a necessity and finding a flow can help learning. For me, I prefer this method:

  • Ensemble learns or performs a segment of drill and freeze, percussion and guard always perform music/routine.
  • I simply say “Check” (silently look around your part of the field and assess), wait 5 seconds
  • “Fix” (address the problems and fix, quietly). During this time, I will allow leaders to make some simple comments in order to help adjust forms
  • “Staff” (staff gets 10 seconds to make comments to their area)
  • “Tower” (I get 15 seconds to make a praise and a correction)
  • “Reverse” (turn around and do the move again, which encourages path and step size repetition)
  • Repeat process. (Forward, back, forward, back)
  • After second performance in “reverse” have ensemble stand still and play music
  • “Forward, full out” (all members perform all parts)

What I like about this routine is that it defines the process and how many times we as directors have students perform a certain segment. (Less saying “one more time!”) It also saves times, keeping the pace of the rehearsal consistent and leading toward progress. At the end of the rehearsal, I always leave time for at least one full run of the show.

Yes, we are talking about practice, Mr. Iverson. Practices are important, but how we practice is crucial. As my friend Troy Bennefield would always say, “Performance = Practice – Distraction.” Better, more effective practices lead to better performances and growth. This will set the standard for your ensemble daily, monthly, and yearly.

Marching Band Show selection

It is that time of year again! That time when band directors and their staff members are gathering together to begin the process of selecting the marching band show. During these meetings, idea after idea will be presented and discussed in hopes of finding the best show for the season. But the overall success or failure of these selections is not understood until the season is complete in October or November.  In order to set up the students for success, there are several key areas that band directors and their staff members should consider before making the final selections.

What do you want your students to be able to do at the end of the year? This is a question that often does not get asked in March while putting show ideas together, but one that must be. The marching band season, while lasting for several months, should be considered part of the overall band program and not separate from concert band. The sound concepts and performance ideas ought to be aimed to the ultimate goal of year end growth and not just the last contest of the marching band season. The standard of performance need to be set from day one of the marching season and expressed daily.

J Corey Francis, Indiana State University

Know your students.  The shows designed for our students should reflect their abilities. Consider the ensembles strengths and weaknesses throughout the entire process. For example, if endurance is a problem for your brass, work on long tones and lip slurs, but also consider utilizing them less in the show by featuring another section. If you have a saxophone section that can play rippin’ jazz solos, show them off! If your French horns are weak, but your Euphoniums are strong, consider doubling their parts together in the score.

As important as knowing your students’ abilities is understanding their collective culture. Some musical selections fit your ensemble better than others. I can recall a year that, when wanting to perform some swingin’ jazz tunes, I found that modern rock compositions from the Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy felt musically and emotionally natural. Additionally, I worked with two different ensembles that performed the same music by Phillip Sparke. One ensemble performed the parts well and it felt comfortable, while the other seemed never to provide the energy needed to succeed even though they performed it well.

Know your community. This is probably the most overlooked concept when selecting a show. Each community’s traits may require special consideration for your performances. Performing a show that is artistically pleasing to students, contest adjudicators, and a football audience is a challenge; however, if we want more support, finding selections that fit the community should be considered. As support builds, find ways to educate your audience as well. When speaking with Alfred Watkins (who was the band director at Lassiter High School in Marietta, Georgia) many years ago, I asked how he got to the point to where his students could perform John Barnes Chances’ “Symphony No. 2” on the football field. His reply was enlightening:

“It took lots of time, and I don’t just mean this season. This school opened in 1981, and I started in 1982. I had to teach the students and the audience. We didn’t play classical music on the field at first – we had to build support from the audience. Once they started to support and enjoy what we were doing, and we as the ensemble improved, I could push the envelope a bit. Now, we can perform anything because our students are capable and our audience understands what we do.”

Know your season.  Each school’s marching band season is different. Some ensembles perform only a few contests and end in mid October. Other schools attend state and national competitions that go into November and in venues like Lucas Oil Stadium or MetLife Stadium. Understanding the level of competition, the length of the season, and the places you will perform should guide your selections. Longer season require shows that have more challenges as being too easy could lead to a lack of learning later in the season. Shows during shorter seasons, while still being demanding, should not be too challenging, as the students may get a sense of failure and not progressing.