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.

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