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.

The FFFF’s of Band Camp

We have reached the middle of July, and that means band camps are starting around the country. Break out the sunscreen, ear plugs, and Gold Bond! While band camp is crucial to the overall performance success of any ensemble, it is important to remember some fact that lay the foundation during this time.

Fundamentals

Band camp is the time to establish the foundation of musical performance throughout the year. Focus on the fundamentals of playing. Spend time discussing proper air control, embouchure, blending of timbre. These are all things that will lead to successful music making. Additionally, this time allows for directors to set expectations for all members. Students can learn time management skills, teamwork, ways to prepare for the next task, and working until something is complete. All of these are important life skills.

Folks

These kids are people. They have parents, guardians, friends, and responsibilities outside of band. You, in fact, are a person as well. You enjoy Games of Thrones, cooking, and time in the quiet. It is important to remember these things. it provides a great perspective for all of us. At the end of the day, no matter the quality of the rehearsal or what needs to get done tomorrow, everyone involved is a person. Treat them with the respect you with which you wish them to treat you. Lead with energy, drive toward the goal, but be mindful of the people around you. While you do spend a great deal of time together, you may not be aware of everything going on in their lives. Sometimes, they are distracted by an family issue and can only give you 70% of their focus and energy. Encourage them to give all of that 70%. Remember, band rehearsal may be the best part of their day.

Future

This topic goes hand-in-hand with fundamentals. How is each part of camp going to help build for the future of the program? Are the activities designed to generate closer relationships and trust through teamwork? Will the musical warm-up improve the tone quality of the concert band? What challenges will your arrangement provide that will lead to growth in performance?  It is important that you plan band camp with the full school year in mind.

Fun

I know there are many reasons why students are in band. They like the companionship or the competition. But, at the root of all of is they enjoyment of band. Students join beginning band because they believe it will be fun. Sure, it is a lot of work, but there is a sense of enjoyment as well. And, how many band directors truly choose this field because they like to work? No, they enjoy the work they do. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

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.