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.

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.