Marching Band: Three words we dread hearing

Three simple words. A short phrase we hear all the time in marching band. We hate it, especially when it is the one last time.

October is done. The marching band season is drawing to an end for many participants across the nation. Sure, there are still some contests and games left, but for all intents and purposes, the season is coming to a close.

For me, marching in high school and college were some of the best memories I have. The trips to and from other schools, spending time with my friends. These people were family to me, and I them. It has been 21 years since I marched my last time in high school. Seventeen years since my last game in college.

The memories. The “OId School” saxophone section from Racer Band. Riding through Washington D.C. on Inauguration night seeing all the parties that were going on. Even after the bus broke down a few time on the way. Singing “Hello, may name is Joe” to keep warm before the 1993 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Criss-cross block during the Fiery Latin Cooker right before booking it to the track.

But, it was the people – getting to know people, work together, and complete a performance – that mattered.

The worse part of marching band? One phrase: One more time.

How many times did we hear our directors say it in a rehearsal? And, after they would say it, we would perform the task only to hear the phrase again. “One more time” became the annoying statement lacking truth. I can still hear and feel the frustration rise up simply typing the words.

There was never just one more time.
Until it is the last time.

As you march your final steps this year or ever, smile. You are doing something amazing. Together with your band – your friends, directors, parents, boosters, community – you are performing something that will never be done again. That moment, with those people, will never be replicated.

You may remember the trophies, or even the scores. But you will never forget the people. Your mind will recall the music and the routine. It does for me and my wife. Nothing draws the memories like the song “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago for her. As for me, my mind thinks about marching band all the time, but then it has been my life’s passion. But the people are what will matter.

So, as you take the field for the last time, whether it is this weekend or after a bowl game, smile. Look around at the people on the field and smile. Give them a high-five. The next 10 minutes, you get the honor to perform with them….

… more time.

Marching Band: Visual Effect a concern? Think musically!

Visual effect can be a challenging area for many marching band directors. However, instead of thinking in visual terms, think musical.

It is marching band contest season. Each weekend, bands from across the United States will travel to events in which they will be adjudicated on several different areas. Music performance, music effect, visual performance, and visual effect are the most common, though many contests feature judges for color guard and percussion.

Of those areas, several are straight forward. How is your ensemble’s sound production? Are they generating a quality sound and articulating in a stylistic manner? Is the drill performed clean, or are there some concerns? Does the ensemble create emotion through dynamic changes, energy through articulation?

However, visual effect is rather confusing at times. The adjudicator is watching for how the drill flows and how the ensemble performs each task. With terms like phrasing, continuity, and emotion included on the rubric, it is better to think musically when considering visual impact.

Think Musically

This weekend, I was able to serve as the visual effect adjudicator for a festival in Kentucky. It was a great day and each ensemble performed really well. Especially since it is still rather early in the season. As I went through the day, I found that many groups experience similar issues in this caption. Of course, many music educators are not visual designers. But, they can think musically about visual aspects.

When discussing music being performed, directors will often mention phrasing. We ask performers to connect one section of music to another, avoid breathing at a bar-line, and add musical inflection. The same can be stated about visual.

With visual phrasing, we are asking performers to connect one move to the next. Make a 16-count move and another 16-count move flow together. This can be rather challenging, especially because we more one move at a time so often. But, in order to connect the moves organically, performers must move in unison, with similar foot speed and step size. Those things we discuss. Often. What if we talked about them in musical terms?

Rushing feet before a visual transition is the same as getting to a downbeat too early.

Getting to a hold too soon is like releasing a note before the music calls for it. Or, moving after a hold is the same as a late release.

A form that is not controlled from one set to the next is similar to players being out of tune.

Color guard should perform with great extension, just like you ask wind players to use air support, or you get poor tone quality.

related read: Overwriting for color guard

Take the time to think musically about your visual package. The visual must match the music. When there are moments of tension or crescendo in the music, the visual should also generate tension. When you match the two areas together, your performances will reach new levels.

Marching Band: Electronics can hurt your performance

The use of electronics in marching band is nothing new, but can do more harm than good. Here are some things to consider when using this resource.

Drum Corps International wrapped up its season last night with World Class Finals. As fans watched around the world, one thing became clear: electronics in marching band are here to stay.

Okay. Maybe that is nothing new, but the use of electronics with an ensemble is always risky. The potential for problems is immense. The power could go out. A channel on the board could blow, or a speak could malfunction. Someone may not have replaced the batteries, or put them in backwards. Wind or rain may keep electronics from working properly.

Just ask Carolina Crown, who’s vocalist’s microphone kept going out on them in finals.

Now, I am not one of those grumpy fans that believes electronics should not be used. It is a great tool, given that it is used appropriately. Just like playing an instrument or tossing a rifle, electronics can add to your performance. As a matter of fact, it was Bluecoats program “Tilt” that sold me on the resource. The incorporations of pitch bends between powerful chords was stunning.

However, I do have some issues that should be addressed.

The List

It is unfortunate that the following statement must be uttered. Before you incorporate electronics, ask yourself if it is necessary. Then, ask someone else in the know. Be sure to discuss how you are going to use the resources you have available. Sometimes, just saying no can change the entire show. And make it better.

As an adjudicator, there were shows in which I had to mention speaker placement causing the ensemble’s sound to be overpowered. The speakers were pointed right at the center of the pressbox. Directors and ensemble staff must understand the range and spread each speaker provides and place them in a more appropriate manner. Personally, spacing them further way from the center of the field is better. But that is just my experience with the equipment available.

Yes. Feel free to use microphones to amplify soloist or to add sound effects. However, if you are going to amplify your best players in each section to bulk-up the entire ensemble’s sound, please don’t. What message is that sending to your ensemble?

Of course, then you require someone to sit in the stands with an iPad to manipulate the soundboard. How is that allowed? We can’t go on the field and tell that super-hero baritone to back off, so why can you control the volume on a sound board?

We can get into the argument of availability to all ensembles and the like, but each ensemble makes choices based on what they have on hand or can get. If you have electronics, use them wisely. Sure, there are great reasons for them. Adding microphones to the front ensemble has expanded the instruments performed exponentially. That is a good thing! Voices overs can be great, but also distract from the performance of the ensemble. Maybe not talking during a color guard feature will draw more attention to them?

Again, I am not saying do not use electronics in marching band. Rather, use them wisely. And verify everything is in full working order prior to performance.  Make sure it is a necessary part of your program, not simply to cover up the weak in the name of a trophy.

Marching Band: Visually speaking, simple is better

It is DCI Finals Week, which means marching band season for high schools is upon us. While DCI is thrilling to watch, simple is better for most high schools.

My fandom for Drum Corp International is long-established through years of viewership. That and the numerous CDs and t-shirts that litter my collections. Sure, it is not a full as others fans, but I still love watching groups perform.

And, through my years of teaching, opportunities to watch ensembles such as the Cavaliers, Santa Clara Vanguard and Madison Scouts rehearse provided some great insight on how they operate. We sit back in awe as we watch and listen to them perform. Often, we take mental notes on what is witnessed.

In that 10-12 minute span, we see the amazing visuals these students exhibit. Many of us want to bring those aspects to our programs. Our eyes glaze over and grow to twice the size of our “marching stomachs.” We “know” our students can pull off similar visuals, and we want to add them into our shows.

Not so fast my friend…

Yes, those visuals are amazing. But there is some truth we must realize: DCI participates are rehearsing and/or performing daily over the summer. The repetitions on each visual is astronomic compared to the few times per week most high school programs rehearse.

Instead of trying to mimic the awesome moves you see this week, try to do something else. Sure, the visual concepts you see can be applied, but maybe not replicated.

One aspect you can focus on with your ensemble is simple marching fundamentals. Posture. Equipment angle. Uniformity of technique. You know. That part of the judges sheet most of us ignore because we need to get the show on the field. However, fixing the simple techniques will cure many issues.

As I observed rehearsals from various corps, one thing stuck out. Staff regularly commented on the simple visual corrections than any other aspect. Sure, there were discussions on complex movements, but they reminded the performers about the basics constantly. It was reinforcement.

This goes for all parts of the ensemble. Color guard, drum line and front ensembles. Mastering the simple techniques improves overall performance.

Spend significant time daily on the fundamentals. Provide positive feedback when does well, and encouraging criticism as needed.

Keep it simple. Do the simple better. That will change how your student do everything.

Marching Band: Is DCI leading the way or leaving bands behind?

Over the last decade or so, ensembles in Drum Corp International developed into a more theatrical production. How has that impacted marching band?

I love marching band. There. I said it. It was the first activity that combined my love of music and the sports atmosphere. Marching band provided a social outlet as well as chances to visit New York City of the 1994 Macy’s Parade, and Washington D.C. for President Clinton’s inauguration in 1997. Many of the friends I have now are through marching band.

With that love came an enthusiasm for Drum Corp International. I remember sitting in the stands in Evansville, IN, in 1994, attending my very first show. The Blue Devils blew my mind. Then, in 1997, the Cadets wowed me. And again in 2000, it was the Cadets. The Cavaliers in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006. Now, it is the Bluecoats. What they are doing is amazing.

DCI has progressed over the years into a very artistic and theatrical medium. (And, I can hear some friends now arguing those terms, but in truth, there is an art to what they do.) Props on the field are necessary. Electronics have expanded the sound palette of the ensembles. New uniforms, often very extravagant ones, are created for each group every year. Especially for the color guard.

The Problem

Winter Guard International – indoor guard, indoor drumline, and indoor winds – have led the changes in DCI. Their use of staging, more thematic programs, and story-based uniforms significantly impacted the designs of DCI shows. And that, in turn, has flowed down to marching bands at the high school level.

Before I go any further, let me establish that I am in no way saying that WGI, DCI, or BOA are bad for music and music education. Like everything else, they have positive and negative aspects.

The problem is simple to see, but difficult to fix. There are several things that help these programs flourish: money, time, and talent. It takes a great deal of funds to pay for everything. The instructors, designers, choreographers. The equipment, uniforms, a tarp for staging. Travel and hotels. And, it takes time. Hours of practicing on techniques, fundamentals, routines. And talent, or just ensemble members. These things are not equally available. Still, that is not the true point of this post.

The point? Directors of high school bands cannot just follow the lead of DCI and WGI. I cannot count how many times directors and staff members have asked me to write or teach moves they found in a DCI show. It got to the point that I simple ask them if they plan on working on their show for 12+ hours a day, five days a week.

Again, some programs have the ability to do these things. But, that is a minority of all the programs that participate in high school band activities.

The Solution

What ever you decide to do, do it well. Do what works for your students.

I offer a simple solution to the problem, and similar to a post last year about color guard. Instead of copying from them, learn from them. Many of these ensemble cherish and follow their traditions. The Blue Devils are the Blue Devils, because they do things the Blue Devil way. You can hear it in their music and see it in their visuals. It has been done that way for decades. Sure, the designs have changed over the years, but they are who they are.

Not every community can support – or will support – a BOA caliber show. To some, it is just weird and not entertaining. However, you can watch Avon High School warm-up and learn ways to teach air flow and tone quality. It is okay to do that standard three-songs-and-gone shows, but adding a few appropriate visuals or using musical selections from a wider mix of genres should be encouraged. If you are going to play the music of Queen, find a different version of Bohemian Rhapsody that works for your students. One that the audience may not have heard before.

Why leave it all to the marching band? How about finding ways to be innovative in concert band? Add a light show to a piece, like Mike Markowski’s Shine. Or, find pieces that incorporate electronics. Maybe something like This World Alive by Steven Danyew, which is set with a film. Add in student compositions, or small ensembles performing around the concert hall.

What ever you decide to do, do it well. Do what works for your students. And for you community. Just remember, the Bluecoats are awesome, but they are not your ensemble. Be innovative. Try something new. And enjoy the show.