View from the Judges Box, Part 2: Visual

Part two of the series “View from the Judge’s Box,” brings us to a discussion about visual concerns during performances. While this topic could have several posts just on it’s own, let’s focus on a few concerns that, when addressed thoroughly, will benefit all.

Posture and Visual

Of course, we have to discuss posture, as it is the most crucial element visually and musically. Poor posture leads to collapsed rib cages and, thus, improper breath support. Visually speaking, posture effects everything from the performers’ step sizes, instrument carriage, and endurance. Proper posture is the foundation for everything we do and must be a daily focus for the performers.

When discussing posture, there are two main concepts to consider: alignment and relaxation. The latter of these is rather self-explanatory. The position of the body should feel relaxed, with no tension in the shoulders, back, chest, or legs. More tension means more air must be used in those muscles in order for them to work. The more the muscles work, the more tired the performers will become. With shows of high musical and visual demand, along with their increasing length, it is imperative that relaxation of the body be encouraged.

Alignment is also an easy topic to discuss, but harder to achieve on a regular basis. In my opinion (and in the opinion of my chiropractor) this is due the ever expanding reliance on technology. We sit at desks with computers, play video games, or have a smartphone attached to our hands at all times. These settings have forced our shoulders forward and put strain on the middle of our back. This is evident when performers put an instrument in their hands.

In order to produce proper alignment the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and “ears” should be in alignment. Technically speaking, instead of “ears,” we should strive to align the Atlanto-occipital (a/o) joint, which is where the spine and the skull meet. This joint is responsible for the nodding of the head, and is located just behind the ears. Thus, using the word “ears” when discussing the alignment of the body may be more readily understandable. When this alignment is achieved, the performers should feel a natural elongating of the body. Because of the difference between this posture and our technology-induced slumping, the new position will feel awkward and students will want to revert to their normal position. To practice this, perform some simple Pliés and Relevés while maintaining the ankle/hips/shoulder/ears alignment. The students will try to lean forward initially, but encourage moving the upper body straight up and down, and knees moving out over (not passed) the toes.


Photo Credit: Dynamic Marching
Photo Credit: Dynamic Marching

Instrument Carriage

The way performers carry their instruments is directly related to their posture. In order to maintain good posture, a uniform method for instrument carriage must be created. When instruments are not being played, performers should have 90 degree angles in the elbows. This mean that the elbows are bent at a 90 degree angle and create another 90 degree angle where the hands intersect. The combination of these two angles generate an open and relaxed carriage with the instrument away from the body. This carriage must be used for all movements and slide positions. (Note: On flute/clarinet, the hands are separated, but if they were together on the instrument a 90 degree angle would be produced. Saxophonist only follow the 90 degree angle in the elbow part.)

Body Movements

With the increasing focus on effect scores has come a reliance on extra body movements, especially when standing in place. While these movements may be visually appropriate, many are executing in a manner that negatively effects posture. For example, when asked to step to the right, raise the right arm, and lean to the right, students will often lean with the upper body instead of the legs. At no time should the posture of the upper body be compromised for additional body movements. All motions should extend away from the upper body and and lengthen in a way that does not allow the torso for lean and break posture.

Extension. That is another concern, in particular with Color Guard. Many times, groups will perform routines with a bent elbow and a lower arm angle. This, in turn, shows lack of energy in performance and will impeded choreography from moving fluidly. Also, small bends in elbows and arm angles on tosses will prevent the equipment from traveling straight and lead to poor catches or bad placement for the next move. Extending up and lengthening the arm will produce a straighter toss and move dramatic energy.

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