Classification System: Time for a Change?

Classification systems for marching contests are never the same from event to event. Some contests organize be the number of performers in the woodwind, brass, and percussion. Others use the total number of performers on the field. And still others classify solely on the size of the student population at the school. In some states, there is a governing body that establishes one system to be used in all contests. Other states (Illinois, for example) allow each contest to set their own system, which means one week an ensemble could be in Class A then Class AAA the next. While each of the systems incorporated have their benefits, balance is never achieved.

Classification by Instrumental Members

Pro: Focused on musical/instrumental performers, allowing for consistency in volume

Con: Neglects the importance of auxiliaries and drum majors to the performance; Classification can be changed if members of the color guard or drum majors perform on an instrument at any point.

Classification by Total Band Size

Pro: Accounts for all members of the ensemble. Equal consideration for music and visual members.

Con: Some programs audition members to keep within certain classification levels. Additionally, larger classifications tend to have a large disparity of band sizes (for example, Class 4A in Kentucky use to be 120+ members, meaning groups of 120, 164, 225, 300, and higher could compete against each other), and resources available to programs can be widely different.

Classification by School Size

Pro: Programs from schools of a similar school size often draw similar financial resources.

Con: Bands sizes can vary dramatically. In some cases, bands of 40 members total can compete against those of 140 or more.

How can we achieve balance?

Each of the above systems are established and utilized regularly. But, what if there was a way to create a system that took the benefits of each and diminished their weaknesses? Is there a way to take the best of these systems and merge them into something that is more balanced?

While I was Assistant Director of Bands at Eastern Illinois, running the Panther Marching Band Festival was one of my main tasks. During my first year, I kept with the standard “Band Size” classification system already in place. What immediately worried me was the fact that bands from schools of 400 students were competing against those with 2000 students. The amount of resources (whether financial or talent) in which the schools could pull from were not equal. This is not saying that the bands did not perform well, because they did. However, when you see a band with three staff members and one with 14, the imbalance is apparent. For my following years at EIU, I incorporated a hybrid system. The structure was as follows:

Small Division (School Size of 799 or Less)

Class A (Total Ensemble Size of 40 or less)
Class AA (Total Ensemble Size of 41-79)
Class AAA (Total Ensemble Size of 80+)

Large Division (School Size of 800+)

Class AAAA (Total Ensemble Size of 89 or less)
Class AAAAA (Total Ensemble Size of 90+)

This system worked really well during the years it was implemented. Band directors enjoyed that fact that their ensembles were matched with other programs from more similar backgrounds. Adjudicators enjoyed the fact the bands flowed better together without large jumps in size, allowing for more even comparisons for scoring. Each class held 6-7 ensembles, which provided a balance for the entire event.

Was the system perfect? No. There were still bands of 140 (there was a band in which 40% of the school population was in marching band!!!!!!) in a class with a ensemble of 90, but the disparity was less apparent. The goal was to diminish the difference and generate a balanced contest. That goal was reached. Directors and adjudicators (including those with DCI and BOA experience) enjoyed the system. This could end the Band Size v. School Size debate.

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.