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.

 

Marching Band: Three words we dread hearing

Three simple words. A short phrase we hear all the time in marching band. We hate it, especially when it is the one last time.

October is done. The marching band season is drawing to an end for many participants across the nation. Sure, there are still some contests and games left, but for all intents and purposes, the season is coming to a close.

For me, marching in high school and college were some of the best memories I have. The trips to and from other schools, spending time with my friends. These people were family to me, and I them. It has been 21 years since I marched my last time in high school. Seventeen years since my last game in college.

The memories. The “OId School” saxophone section from Racer Band. Riding through Washington D.C. on Inauguration night seeing all the parties that were going on. Even after the bus broke down a few time on the way. Singing “Hello, may name is Joe” to keep warm before the 1993 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Criss-cross block during the Fiery Latin Cooker right before booking it to the track.

But, it was the people – getting to know people, work together, and complete a performance – that mattered.

The worse part of marching band? One phrase: One more time.

How many times did we hear our directors say it in a rehearsal? And, after they would say it, we would perform the task only to hear the phrase again. “One more time” became the annoying statement lacking truth. I can still hear and feel the frustration rise up simply typing the words.

There was never just one more time.
Until it is the last time.

As you march your final steps this year or ever, smile. You are doing something amazing. Together with your band – your friends, directors, parents, boosters, community – you are performing something that will never be done again. That moment, with those people, will never be replicated.

You may remember the trophies, or even the scores. But you will never forget the people. Your mind will recall the music and the routine. It does for me and my wife. Nothing draws the memories like the song “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago for her. As for me, my mind thinks about marching band all the time, but then it has been my life’s passion. But the people are what will matter.

So, as you take the field for the last time, whether it is this weekend or after a bowl game, smile. Look around at the people on the field and smile. Give them a high-five. The next 10 minutes, you get the honor to perform with them….

…..one more time.

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.

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.

Music Education: Let the Beginner you join the fun

When we started the process to be a musician, it started with excitement. What happened to it? It is time to bring it back in music education.

Think back to the day you made the decision to participate in band, orchestra, or choir. Reflect on the feeling you had the moment you received your instrument for the very first time. The excitement. The ignorant-filled joy that consumed your soul. It was an amazing time. Music education was fun.

For me, it was sixth grade. Sitting in the old band room of Browning Springs Middle School, waiting for Mr. Murphy to let me – and the rest of the class – to open the case. The anticipation crawled through my body in an attempt to squash all patience. Finally, the moment arrived and I was taught how to put my Yamaha 23 Alto Saxophone together. And then how to put it back in the case.

After school, I ran to my Mamaw’s house, just around the corner from school, and dropped everything on the front porch ready to take over the world of saxophone. Of course, my Mamaw came out side just in time to tell me to get inside before something bad happened.

From there, it was fun. Sure, it was work, but I enjoyed the steps. Learning songs that consisted of all of three notes. It was the start of an amazing journey. Work was involved. Practicing. Tests for first chair. Scale tests. Auditions. All-District. Solo and Ensemble. Marching and concert band festivals. All-State. College Scholarships. It was fun, but tons of work.

Then came college. Daily practicing was required, as well as music theory and history. But, all you want to do is enjoy friends, social activities, the results of the most recent campus beautification project. Intramural sports. Weekend trips to the lake. Yet, to be successful, you had to work.

Then came the real job.

After graduation, you looked for a teaching job. Then, the fun was pulled out and the responsibility of teaching the content became paramount. The daily struggles of reminding students the difference between B-natural and B-flat on clarinet or trumpet. Teaching the same drill formation because of the one or two players in the trombone section that just seem lost.

It became…..work. And the work was hard. And then the fear of everything may have overtaken you. There is a piece of music you really think your students should play, but that time signature of 5/8 will just be too challenging. But the piece is amazing and worth the work. Or, then there is another piece that is just amazing, but the second clarinets playing 16th notes over the break is not ideal.

That is a problem. Let the Beginner back in.

What would happen if you allowed The Beginner you back in to Music Education you? How would things be different? Instead of dreading the section in 5/8, remember the time you played the piece and the fun that you experienced. Remember the moments you spent on the marching band field and the joy you experienced after a good run. Recall the fun of moments of putting your instrument together for the first time.

How could The Beginner you change The Music Education you? What would happen if your showed more joy during rehearsal? How would your students respond? Would your group improve because your teaching improved?

We started the journey because of the joy music gave us. Why not let the joy and fun of music show in your teacher?