Indoor activity is changing marching band show design

Change can be a good thing. The creativity used in designing indoor guard and percussion shows has made its way onto the marching field.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Thus states Albert Einstein. Our thinking changes through experience, reading, and observation. Sometimes, changes are forced upon us due to circumstances. Or, change can just be a natural procession.

Over the last decade, marching band has witnessed significant changes in terms of design. While many directors will never fully embrace these new concepts, adopting a few would be wise. I certainly fall into the group which does not like all the new concepts.

What is causing all the changes? It is rather simple: indoor guard and percussion. Ensembles involved in Winter Guard International and other circuits are finding new ways to create drama and use all the design elements to generate effect. With their limited space on a basketball court, it becomes important to think outside the box in order to communicate your show to the audience.

The indoor activity has become theatrical. I do not use the term as an insult, though some people do. The ensembles are pulling ideas from the stage to build interesting and emotional performances. Props, costuming, blocking and staging, casting for characters. These ideas and more are being used inside.

And now, they are coming outdoors.

Marching bands are starting to draw more design concepts from the indoor activity. Sure, Bands of America has been around since 1975, but the progression of the activity is largely due to what happens indoors. The question is which of these changes should be incorporated into your program. Not all of the concepts are adaptable to every program. Nor are they cost effective.

Here are a few concepts I recommend incorporating.

  1. Tell a story: Music music and visual, tell a story. All parts need to work toward the drama production, from the music to the flags to the drill. Make your marching band a bit more theatrical.
  2. Useful props: Many groups incorporate props into their shows, but finding a way to make them integral into parts of your program is needed. Use them as platforms for a soloist, or an interactive piece that changes with your show.
  3. Levels of the body: By changing the height of body positions can add visual tension or impact to the music. This can be accomplished by laying down, squatting, or leaning.
  4. Staging: How you place your ensemble on the performance field is crucial. If the trumpet section is performing the most important content, they must be highlighted on the field. This could be by placing them in the center of the field in full view of the audience, or by grouping them together in a tight form off to the side while others move around them.Gone are the days of isolating the on-field percussion and guard/auxiliaries.  All parts of the ensemble can and should be mixed in the formations on the field.
  5. Casting of Characters: This one can be a challenge, but it just as necessary. Too many times I have witnessed ensembles trying to portray a character but the actors or actresses fall very short through their actions. If you are going to perform a show about James Bond, the actions on the field must fully evoke that image. Posture should be tall and elegant, and motions should be quick and exaggerated. Simply wearing a costume and moving around the field is not enough.

What about other ideas?

Good question. For me, they are optional or not needed.

Electronics are great for adding effects and percussion colors to your program, but amplifying top-performers in your ensemble to help your overall ensemble sound is over the top.

Getting new uniforms and costumes every single year is expensive. Not every marching band can afford such things.

Tarps can add great impact to your show, but can also be an obstacle in which performers lose footing and trip over. Or, it can be blown by the winds of Central Illinois on a brisk October afternoon.

The most important part of all this is doing what works for your marching band. If you can afford new uniforms, get them. Maybe start with the staging and story-telling concepts. Add as you move along. But the days of three tunes and one are in the review mirror.

 

View from the Judge’s Box, Part 3: Effect

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.

Stage Blocking

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.

J Corey Francis, Eastern Illinois University Marching Band

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.

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.