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.

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 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.