Monday, November 5, 2007

Where the posts at?

Due to my hectic fall schedule, I have been remiss in my postings...I'm hoping to start posting again on a somewhat regular basis by Thanksgiving...
sorry for the inconvenience....

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

The "Broken Windows" theory of marching bands.

The "Broken Windows" theory of crime was first put forth in 1982 by James Wilson and George Kelling. Crime rates at that time were through the roof and scholars were seeking some type of explanation. Criminal Psychology at the time was almost entirely focused on crime as a function of violent, individual, anti-social behavior. In short, people committed crimes because they were criminals.

Wilson and Kelling were some of the first scholars to theorize that crime had a basis in environmental factors, not simply individual behaviors. The "Broken Windows" theory speculated that perceived decadence in a neighborhood is a major contributing factor to crime. They used the example of a neighborhood with a few broken windows. If the windows go unfixed, it sends a signal that 1.) people do not care about things such as that in the neighborhood, and 2.) there is most likely no consequences for minor vandalism. This view of a decadent environment is extrapolated and projected into other situations throughout the neighborhood creating crime of ever increasing magnitude - in other words; minor infractions beget major crime.

The City of New York decided to heed the advice of criminologists subscribing to this theory and by the mid 90's, crime was at the lowest rate in 20 years.

Now, how does this relate to marching band?....

It is quite simple - the details and small things are the foundation of a successful band program. Many directors stress over the big picture too often - rehearsal times, show concepts, uniforms, guard flags -while letting the seemingly insignificant things fall through the cracks. They think of the program in terms of the giant pieces - if they could just get the right giant pieces in place they could make a great program. It is like an construction worker thinking only of giant steel beams and oceans of concrete while ignoring the mortar and rivets that hold everything together. Truth is, all buildings are made of essentially the same big materials, what makes them different are the details of how things fit together.

Practically this means that instead of focusing on how much rehearsal time is scheduled, maybe you should focus on starting on time and following a schedule? Rehearsals that do not start on time send the same message as a broken window in a bad neighborhood. Students will begin to expect a late start and the line between free time and rehearsal time will be perceived as being blurred. As a director, you must make sure to mend the broken window as quickly as possible to send a message that these things will not be tolerated.

As for schedules, a giant broken window that many groups create is ignoring them. If students and staff expect schedules to be inaccurate, they lose all meaning and thus the goals set out in the schedule lose meaning as well. Make sure everyone knows the schedule ad be very rigid in sticking to it and the goals for the rehearsal.

Rehearsal scheduling is just one facet of the program that a good director cannot ignore. There are many other "windows" out there that a director must keep an eye on to prevent minor infractions from snowballing. These include:

1. Keeping the band room/equipment room(s) clean and organized. The worse state the rooms are in, the easier it is for students and staff to justify perpetuating it. If everyone expects cleanliness and order, they will most likely do things to preserve it.

2. Making sure instruments are in good workable condition. This is a huge budget issue, but if students do not have quality instruments in their hands, they perceive disorder and decadence in the program and will perpetuate it.

3. Proper Attendance and Absence requests. This seems like a no brainer but you would be surprised to find out how many directors fail to take accurate attendance or have official means of student absence requests. Making sure to do this is not only a way of asserting control over the group, but also makes students accountable for their time.

4. Always fight to make sure the band has the best. This means fighting to get lighted fields; or more paint to keep the fields lined; or enough paper to copy drill for every member; making sure the band is fed on long days; getting nice buses; clean uniforms; and much, much more. Basically, if you give the perception that the band is getting the best, then students are more likely to give you their best.

I implore all directors to take a look at what is going on in their band program and scrutinize how you deal with small things that may come your way. Sometimes the smallest things can be the most important to a great band program.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Breathing Exercises for Marching Band and Drum Corps

Welcome to the wonderful world of breathing exercises! Popularized by the great tuba player Arnold Jacobs, proper breathing is now approached as a fundamental of musicianship. While many of his methods required one-on-one coaching and a variety of breathing "toys" - methods that are impractical for large group settings - in recent years they have been adapted to the world of the marching arts by teachers such as Patrick Sheridan and Sam Pilafian. The duo's "Breathing Gym" has become standard pedagogical fare throughout both the Drum Corps and Marching Band world. Many of the exercises below are based upon ones you can find in their breathing method. Since these are only verbal descriptions, I highly recommend you purchase their DVD "The Breathing Gym" for a complete visual representation of the method.
The exercises I describe below are a compilation of exercises I have been taught and teach. I in no way claim to represent the above mentioned DVD and am posting this simply for pedagogical purposes.

Free Breathing
Free breathing refers to exercises that focus solely on inhaling and exhaling full breaths of air. There are literally thousands of different permutations on this exercise and everyone seems to have an opinion on how to do it best. The most common is the metered breath, where performers inhale and exhale based upon certain timings that gauge the rate of breathing. This is usually done without instruments in hand and a raising arm motion used to visually indicate the breath. The arms move from the relaxed position at the side of the to touching over ones head on the inhale, then they are lowered back down to the resting position on the exhale. The arm motion also serves to stretch and open the chest cavity allowing a fuller breath.

Typically, the exercise will start with performers inhaling for four counts and exhaling for four counts. The focus is to move the air freely with no restriction or tension. The breath should occur evenly throughout every count of the exercise. Inhalation through the nose is sometimes implemented as it forces air to fill the lungs from bottom to top. When the mouth is opened for breathing, inhalation should be silent and also create a "cold spot" on the back of the throat. Exhaling should also be silent, however performers should feel like they are blowing out hot air. A good visual is to imagine fogging up a mirror that is placed in front of the performers' mouth.

After the "in four, out four" has been established, the inhale and exhale counts should be moved around. Shorter inhales with shorter exhales will work the lungs hard, but will teach them to move lots of air quickly, while longer inhales with longer exhales will teach how to budget the air to make it through long phrases. Some instructors dislike meters and just breath without a tempo by using a visual indicator. Some instructors will also do this exercise with instruments in hand, exhaling through the instruments. This provides a more realistic situation and also gives a little external resistance to the airflow.

Visual Breathing
This I believe comes straight from the "Breathing Gym" exercises and focuses on air at different volume levels. There are three different parts to the exercise;air at a piano dynamic, air at a mezzo-forte dynamic, and air at a fortissimo dynamic.

1. air at a piano dynamic - have the performers visualize making a paper air plane and throwing it. The goal is to link the idea of the smooth gentle toss of the the paper airplane to the gentle slow air that they use to play at a piano dynamic. As they toss their imaginary air planes, have them exhale and visualize their air gliding along the flight path of the plane.

2. air at a mezzo-forte dynamic - have the performers visualize throwing a dart while exhaling with their air. The air is faster and a little more directional. The gentle air that pushes the paper air plane will not work for a dart.

3. air at fortissimo - this is the fun one. Visualize using your air to shoot a bow and arrow. Have the performers pantomime pulling back the bow in the inhale then shooting the arrow forward with a very fast and directional stream of air.

During every step a "hiss" may be added to the end of the exhale when the performers feel they have expelled 90% of their air. The hiss is used not only to aurally indicate when the performer runs out of air, but also to engage the abdomen in expelling the last bit of air out of the lungs. Personally I do not find this helpful to do as it introduces unneeded tension into the exercise.

Fight for air
The purpose of this exercise twofold - 1. to get as much air into the lungs as fast a possible without tension; and 2. to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the chest and diaphragm.

The exercise begins by performers exhaling all of the air in their lungs (this means pushing out the air that naturally fills the lung cavity for equalizing pressure). Immediately the students are to cover their mouth with the back of their hand to create an airtight seal. Students then "suck" on the back of the hand as if they are fighting to pull air through the hand. After a few seconds (5-10) of fighting for air, performers are to pull their hand away from their mouth and allow their lungs to naturally fill with air. The inhale should be free from tension and obstruction and should happen immediately upon removal of the hand. Students should then exhale naturally. If this exercise is done correctly, the ensemble should be coughing their brains out afterwards. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Coughing can be good if it occurs as a result of air rushing into new areas in the lungs that are not used to being filled so quickly. Coughing is bad if it is the result of some obstruction in the throat cavity on the inhale.

The sip
The goal of this exercise is to increase the lung capacity of the performers. Performers take in a full breath and hold it in. After a moment or so, they sip in more air into their lungs. This is repeated a few times before finally exhaling. The performer is encouraged to try and fill up completely on the first inhale so it is impossible to sip any air. The body heating the inhaled air, coupled with the forcing of more air into the lungs on the sips leads the lungs to expand and stretch. Over time, lung capacity is increased.

The Blade
This exercise is more about perception and psychology than actual breathing technique. The performer holds his hand in front of his opened mouth longways so that his index finger is touching both the upper and lower lips and the point is touching his nose. The hand should have fingers closed and be oriented so the pinky finger is furthest from the face.

The performer inhales and exhales in one count pushing his hand away from the face with his airstream. The goal is to completely fill the lungs in a single count by inhaling with your hand obstructing the air stream. The only way to be successful at the inhale is to stay relaxed and open the airway to allow more air in. The only sound heard should be that of air rushing around the front and back of the hand to get into the lungs.

The next part of the exercise is to move the hand so it is about an inch away from your face. When you inhale this time, you mind still perceives you hand as an obstruction to the airstream and the inhale should be just as relaxed and open. This is good for replicating the obstruction of the mouthpiece when playing an instrument.

All of these exercises are only effective if done consistently and if the performers have a full understanding of the goals and reasoning behind each one. The goal of all of these exercises is to create, as habit, taking in full relaxed breaths when playing an instrument.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Tuning, a quick survey of different techniques...

This came up in a DCP post and I thought it would be good to kind of expand upon this idea....

From my point of view there are three different methods to approach tuning - electronically, aurally, and mechanically. I will survey each one as a separate method, however they are not exclusive methodologies - meaning a combination of the three can be effective as well.

This approach seeks to tune the instruments first using an electronic tuner. The tuning note is generally a concert B-flat, however some people swear tuning to a concert F is better. Personally, since on a brass instrument the inherent tuning difference between an F and a B flat is so insignificant, I like the getting the B flat in tune because it is higher and generally right in the middle of the register for players. F is generally a little easier to bend, so it is harder to get a true read on where the student is placing the note. A student may be playing with a loose embouchure, causing the F to read as flat...the student pushes the tuning slide in to adjust and throws other partials extremely sharp. when the student tightens the embouchure to reach higher notes, he is suddenly badly out of tune with the rest of the ensemble. A popular method to minimize the "bending" effect is to have the students play up to the tuning note starting on F. They play "F-G-A-Bflat", holding the B flat at the top to be tuned. This is a more natural and realistic approach to the note and can sometimes help in getting a true read of a players tuning.

Electronic tuning has the advantage of being fairly accurate and immune against human error. Sure embouchure problems might throw student's pitch out of whack, however that is more a problem of playing fundamentals than it is tuning. It is also quick, speed being limited to the number of tuners available at the time. Another advantage is that no real training is required of the people using the tuner - just a simple knowledge of what to do when the tuner reads a certain way.

The disadvantage of electronic tuning is that students become dependent upon the tuners to play in tune. Using this as the only tuning method in a technique program is not recommended. Students should have an understanding of a basic concept of playing "in tune" and have advanced listening skills before this method can be totally effective. If you are using this method, take the time to make sure students know exactly what is going on and the reasoning behind how to adjust for tuning.

Aural tuning
This is the approach championed by The Cavaliers recently. It involves no electronic tuners and is focused on developing the listening skills of the performers. Tuning notes often originate from the bass voices and work their way upwards to the high trumpets and piccolos. The goal is to listen to the tuning note and attempt to match the sound, not only in pitch, but in quality as well. Often two players who can register as in tune by an electronic tuner can sound out of tune because the quality and timbre of their sounds differ. The reason for this perceived difference is while the fundamental note is in tune, the overtones that create timbre are not. This can be fixed with some individual work with an advanced electronic tuner that displays overtones, however not many programs have the time - much less the actual tuner - to spend fixing individuals. On the field, techniques that develop sound, "air and valve/key", mouthpiece buzzing/squawking, and simply listening to a pure characteristic tone can help. I run into this problem a lot with Saxophones and Trumpets. Saxes range from a very mellow, clarinet-like sound, to a harsh jazz timbre. Depending on your ensemble you may want either one. Trumpets have either a "stuffy" sound or a "bright" tone. The factors that go into these and how to fix them are many, but that is a topic for another post...

Anyway, the aural tuning method trains the performers to match their tones to to one another. This becomes useful in actual performance when they can recognize they are out of tune and respond by independently adjusting it. Performers also become more aware of the tuning tendencies of their instruments and can better anticipate when adjustments will be needed.

A good method that I use is the idea of a "tuning trio." This is a good extension exercise that uses skills from aural training to help with blend and balance. After being tuned in some fashion, three students with like instruments will face each other and play the three notes of a B flat major chord. On a signal, the students will switch and pass around the notes, the goal being to keep the sound consistent. This is quite difficult to achieve as not only do performers have to listen and be aware of tuning and timbre matching, but also be aware of their chordal responsibilities.

Mechanical tuning
This third method is definitely in the minority in terms of use. This is the method that was championed by The Blue Devils in the 90's and, more recently, by Gino Cipriani and The Cadets. The basic premise is that instruments of the same brand, using the same mouthpiece, played in the same manner, will be in tune mechanically at the same point as a function of the air temperature. This method is only applicable to bands and corps who play on instruments of the same brand, and whose mouthpieces are the same. This is very important, because different mouthpieces and bran of horn have different tuning tendencies.

What happens is the staff carefully make marks on the tuning slides of instruments a few millimeters apart. Each day,a small group of players representing each type of instrument will tune using one of the methods described above. The air temperature will be recorded as well as which mark on the tuning slide the instruments were in tune at. The rest of the ensemble will move to the mark that their instruments are in tune. After enough data is collected, the staff can make pretty good estimates on where to set the marks on the tuning slide based on the air temperature alone. From there only minor adjustments can be made on an individual basis. As with the electronic method of tuning, exclusive use of this method is not recommended as students should have an understanding of tuning on a functional level.

The advantage of this system is, while data collection takes time, once it is in place it is by far the fastest way to get a group in tune. Also, it creates consistency throughout the hornline, especially if a last second adjustment is needed. It is a lot more precise to say "move out two marks" instead of the vague statement "pull out." This method also allows for changes in air temperature in the performance venue - for instance if performing in a dome. The staff can set the hornline to be in tune at the aur temperature inside, instead of having tuning go bad because they tuned in a warmer environment.

The disadvantage of this system is it requires absolute consistency, not only in horn and mouthpiece selection, but also in the approach to playing the instrument. Every program has the goal of consistent approaches to playing, however it is up to the individual directors and staff to recognize when there are exceptions. Each player has different tuning tendencies that are discounted as part of this process. Certainly individual work and identification of a player's tendencies can happen, however it is time consuming and ever changing depending upon circumstances.

Also uncertain is how this system could work with woodwinds. I suppose one could mark the corks in a similar manner as tuning slides, but I can't speak to this as I have never seen it done.

None of these three approaches should ever be used in isolation. As educators, we should all strive to help performers understand tuning and how to play in tune, and not glance over tuning the same way we would gas up a car.. Our approach to tuning should be from a variety of angles, recognizing that students learn in very different ways. What a student sometimes cannot hear suddenly may become very clear to him after seeing the needle on a tuner, for instance. We should mix up our routines and not be afraid to try new methods.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Competition...Blessing or Curse? - Part 1 - Drum Corps (cont.)

This is the 5th installment of my series on Competition in Drum Corps - I encourage you to read the four previous installments found below...
Educational Value

Drum Corps is an excellent educational tool for teaching a variety of things. What are some of the things that are taught? Musical excellence, Discipline, Physical excellence, and hard work are four that come to mind. So lets examine how competition affects each of these lessons. Also for consideration is the trickle down effect from having so many music educators marching in corps today.

Musical excellence -
As examined in the previous post, competition has driven corps to explore extreme musical complexities. The musicians that march today are, overall, more trained and have a better background in music than those who marched years ago. This is not a knock at the "old-timers", just an observation that it is quite difficult to obtain a spot in a highly competitive Drum Corps without having some serious training. Competition has directed the best musicians to the best corps, and left many casual musicians behind. Since the quality of musician has increased, the question is does the activity still have a musical educational value?

This influx of musical talent has actually increased the musical value of the activity. Since most of the performers are starting at higher levels, the corps can better explore musical nuances and spend time perfecting interpretation instead of fundamentals. Harder music, plus the ability to explore the music at deeper levels equals a high educational value in terms of musical excellence.

Discipline -
Here is another area that has been changed drastically from the beginnings of drum corps. The performers today are not local kids who are just looking for something to do over the summer, they are kids who choose to do this activity specifically. Everyone that marches wants to be there and generally try and help out their corps as much as possible. Discipline is not really a major issue these days. From my experience, though, I would say that all marchers learn a level of disciple they never thought possible - even the most dedicated learn something. This activity cannot be duplicated by anything else and nothing can really prepare you for the issues one has on tour. Going through the experience will, for sure, make someone more disciplined. Competition, by changing the main makeup of performers, has increased the value of learning discipline.

Physical Excellence -
This goes hand in hand with musical excellence. Competition has driven corps to perform more visually demanding shows. Performers are put through many varieties of physical training that rival many boot camps - from 2 mile running/breathing blocks, to strength training. Many performers now train in the offseason as well as maintain their physical fitness after aging out. In this respect, competition has increased the educational value of fitness.

Hard Work -
This is the one thing that I hear people marvel at the most when discussing drum corps. All drum corps do it - the long 12 hour rehearsals in the heat, the hours of dot book work, the personal practice time. Many people are unprepared for the amount of time and energy being in a competitive drum corps requires. Competition increases the drive for working harder. The thought that other drum corps are rehearsing and getting better is constantly in the back of performers' heads. As it is now, the pressure to always get better is tied to the idea of competition and being recognized as the best. Also, one gets a clear reward for hard work - if you work hard, your score goes up. If there were no competition, I feel this drive would lessen a bit and corps may become more lax in their rehearsals. The motivation would shift from extrinsic rewards (scores, placements) to more intrinsic rewards (accomplishment, self-esteem). Competition has taught many drum corps performers how to work hard and it is a valuable lesson for them as they go through life.

Competition has only increased the educational value of drum corps - whether it is indirectly, through recruitment of better musicians, or directly through ideals such as hard work and discipline.

next installment will examine the effect competition has had on the number and size of corps....
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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Competition...Blessing or Curse? - Part 1 - Drum Corps (cont.)

This is the 4th installment of my series examining the effect of competition on the marching activity.
Complexity of Material

Complexity of material can be broken down into two sub categories; show design, and technical demand. Both of these are affected by Drum Corps being a competitive activity. The question first of all is how are they affected by competition, and secondly, is this effect good for the activity.

Examining show design, we find that shows today are much more complicated and involved than shows at the dawn of DCI competition. This directly correlates with the increased emphasis on General Effect scoring over the past 20 years. Under the "tic system", shows need not have any overall "general effect", and this was not a major concern for directors and designers at the time. Gradually, GE points became more important, comprising 10%, then 30%, then finally 40% of the overall score. Designers advanced these ideas of "effect" with the development of the "total show concept." This was the idea of every section of the show relating to a larger general theme. This concept remains in place today. Competitive corps who revert to the old show designs find it more difficult to compete in todays Drum Corps context (I'm thinking specifically here of Cadets '03 and Madison '04).

Now is this effect on show design good for the activity? Many people have complained recently that show designs are too complex and ask too much of the audience. While initially, competition drove the change to the "total show concept", nowadays the competitive atmosphere is more of a hindrance to show development than anything else. Designers' ever-expanding visions are being cut, spliced, and crammed into parameters that were never meant to display them. It is akin to a governing body restricting what you could use in a Broadway musical, then forcing the writers to cram it all into 11.5 minutes. Musical ideas cannot be developed fully in the time alloted forcing designers to cash in on the quick effect and leave subtlety behind. New storytelling techniques are burdened by restrictions on personnel and instruments. Show designs are stripped down to the most basic semblance of expression under the weight of competition, demanding of the audience little more than basic form and musical recognition. Freeing the show design of the shackles of competition will bring depth and true complexity to an activity that is already yearning for it. Shows can step out of the banal, and create profound performance art that can have lasting impacts on society.

The second area of complexity deals with the question of technical demand. During the "tic system's" heyday, technically complex musical and visual material was generally toned down, or "watered", to make it easier. The thought with that process was that if you aren't playing something extremely difficult, there is less chance that you will screw it up. The advent of the "build-up" system allowed designers to program in great feats of virtuosic display, because now they received credit for attempting more difficult material. This trend towards more difficulty is still in full force today, as corps keep trying to out-perform previous years.

The question now is does competition driven technicality help or hurt the activity. I am of the opinion that many of the technical demands built into shows these days are exceedingly gratuitous. The average person has trouble distinguishing the difficulty of things that are not blindingly obvious. Only the highly trained judges can sometimes understand and appreciate some of the demands a show makes on the performers. If competition were to disappear, shows would become increasingly easier , however not appear less impressive to the audience. The gratuitous difficulty would be trimmed from the shows, leaving more time for substance and musical narrative.

On both accounts, show design and technical demand, I contend that competition hurts the activity more than it helps it. Show designs would become more fan-friendly and entertaining and some of the technical filler would be trimmed away making for a much cleaner show.

The next installment I will examine the effect competition has on the educational value of Drum Corps...

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Uniform musings, Part 6 - New Uniforms in '07, Allentown edition

So, I have been a little late in getting this out due to some other factors, but without further ado, here are some thoughts on the new uniforms I saw in Allentown.

Best "Surprisingly good" uniforms - Madison
I did not initially think this was a good change for Madison who did have beautiful white pants and a cool jacket design, however after seeing them in person, I found my opinions to be quite different. Marching was never Madison's strong point, so green pants does a lot to refocus the eye onto the white gauntlets, hat, and shoulders. The three-tone green effect was not as offensive as the Bluecoats two-tone blue mainly because the greens turn into a visual "wash" against the variable green field background. The simplified jacket removes the awkward business of the "half-fleur" and makes for a cleaner look all around.

The "To boldy go..." award - SouthwindThe "inspired by Star Trek" look works well for Southwind who has not had th best luck in uniform selection over the past couple years. The return to the traditional shako and plume is a safe choice and the simplified colors and cut to the uniforms make the corps look more cohesive as a unit. There is some visual distinctiveness as it is very apparent when parts of the corps are turned backfield. The yellow and white on the shoulders serves well to highlight front facing performers.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

a message from an author of the blog

Sorry about the sparse postings...I've been out of town for the past two weeks and I don't own a laptop.
I will return to my regularly scheduled postings (like 2 a week or so)

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Sunday, July 8, 2007

Competitive Marching Show Design, examined through three standards

For Marching Band and Drum Corps, there is no question more fundamental to the activity than that of show design. The field show is at the heart of all marching units, competitive or not, and is the most public display of a units’ skills. Many units are judged, both formally and informally, on the strength of the show they perform on the football field. Far from the early days where parades and reviews reigned, the field show has been king of the marching activity for nearly 50 years.

Now, the obvious question is asked, what constitutes a good show design? This question is heavily dependant upon a few factors, mainly the purpose of the performance. A “halftime” band serves a completely different function than a competitive one and the show design should reflect this.

For the purposes of this article, I will examine show design as it relates to competitive marching bands only. Shows in this realm have to meet some very specific standards in order to be successful. The ideas I advance in this article focus on the three major factors that determine the success of a competitive high school marching band – complexity, accessibility, and the intangibles. While bands may be successful without utilizing the full depth of each of the three standards, I will argue that the most successful programs incorporate them to a high degree. I will first define the three factors, give examples of each of their uses, and finally synthesize all three factors to examine a “total” show.

Complexity refers to the written difficulty of the musical and visual books. Bands that incorporate difficult drill moves and musical ideas have a greater potential to score higher than do bands that perform easier repertoire. The concept of complexity is broken down in the judging paradigm into two parts – 1) what the potential of the show is, and 2) how well the students are performing it. The goal, of course, is to create a demand that is achievable by the students, yet difficult enough to be recognized by the judges as a performance accomplishment. Two examples;

• A band flying around the field at large step sizes performing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue, in d minor” will be recognized for a large demand, however it is extremely improbable the performance level will be very high. The judges will mark them down for not performing at the level demanded by the show.

• A band performing a grade one arrangement of “Lighty Row” while marching at a 16 to 5 down the field will be recognized for achieving a high performance level. The judges will most likely mark them down for the show not demanding enough of the performers.

The ideal level for material to be written is in what educators call the “zone of proximal development.” This is the level that students are not able to easily perform at first, however, through practice and rehearsal, are able to achieve by the conclusion of the season.

A popular approach to writing the correct difficulty for the show is to initially “over-write” the show for the performers. Because no one can accurately gauge at the beginning of a season the “zone” things need to be written in, arrangers will most often try and keep the musical parts difficult in the beginning of the season. As the season progresses, the improvement in the performers’ abilities are assessed and, if need be, parts can be cut or rewritten to accommodate specific difficulties. This is often referred to as “watering”, or “hosing” the parts down so the performers can be more successful in performing them. This process is, for the most part, a musical process, as drill and visual elements are more difficult to change mid-season.

There are a few things both staff, designers, and students can do to increase the complexity rating of a show. The design team has the obvious task of writing material that is sufficiently difficult and challenging to perform. The technical staff has an important role to play in that they need to have the skills necessary to recognize the difficulty in the material and to teach students to overcome that difficulty in an effective manner. The student responsibility lies in becoming better musicians. This means practicing at home, extra sectionals, and getting help from staff members as needed. The student component is critical for any band program that is looking to build long-term success.

The next factor to a successful show is that of accessibility. This is the measure of how familiar and clear the design ideas are that you present to the audience. Crowd and parent response to the show concept is a major motivating factor for a band program. It can increase enrollment, retainment, school support, administrative support, and even financial support.

The easiest way to make a show accessible is to play music that people are familiar with. Popular music charts are more the domain of “halftime” bands, but the competitive band could do well by sneaking them in at some point in the show. Many classical and jazz pieces have also made the jump from “art” music to “popular.” A common problem with playing popular music is the performing band has to meet the preconceived notions the audience has for that particular piece. Stray too far from the source material and you may leave some people behind simply because you “messed” with their tune.

Another way to make shows accessible is through a clear and simple concept. People won’t mind un-familiar music if the concept of the show is sold to them clearly. Shows that tell a story, or engage in some type of narrative format are generally seen as more accessible than more esoteric designs. A show on “Romeo and Juliet” has a better chance of being understood than does a show entitled “Genesis: rebirth from darkness.”
The students will also appreciate accessible show designs. Not only might they understand the concept, but they may also recognize the music they are playing. This automatically involves them in the show in more ways than being simply a performer. The more connections a student can make with the show, the better they can perform the program. An increased audience response also gives a psychological boost to the performer and can serve as additional extrinsic motivation for them

Unlike the other two standards, accessibility rests directly on the shoulders of the show designers. Once the music and visual packages are developed, neither the staff, nor students can do much of anything to affect the show appeal beyond simple execution. I would argue that accessibility be an important design consideration from the initial stages of the design process.

The Intangibles
What I mean by the intangibles are all of the factors that affect the collective band in positive or negative ways. Some factors include the staff leadership, the student leadership, the parental involvement, the band history, and personality of the students. A good show designer needs to take these factors into account just as they would complexity or accessibility.

In order to get a pulse on these factors, it takes keen observational skills, a focused band program, and above all else, time and perspective. A director who has been involved with one program over a long period of time will better be able to suit show concepts that fit with the intangibles of the band of a particular year. Also, the established expectations at long-running programs create stability which is an important contributing factor to success through the show design. Students can rehearse more effectively if they understand the expectations for a smooth rehearsal are already established and followed.

There are certain things the design team, the technical staff, and the students are responsible for in defining “the intangibles” for a band program. The design staff needs to be tuned into the personality of the band and design shows based upon what fits best. A band of younger rookies may not have the maturity to tackle a show, for example, on the fall of communism.

The technical staff has the responsibility of defining the operational and logistical standards of the band. This includes creating effective student and staff hierarchies, defining proper rehearsal technique, implementing a discipline structure, and executing teaching strategies that promote positive achievement. Of the three standards discussed in this paper, this is the standard most affected by technical staff involvement. There are reasons why successful band programs always have an acclaimed, constant technical staff. The manner in which the above operational standards are executed is the most important determining factor in creating a positive band atmosphere.

The students also share responsibility in creating “the intangibles.” Student leaders should be experienced in the activity and hold the respect of other members and staff. The manner in which the upperclassmen and the student leaders carry themselves and the attitudes they hold about the band program are very contagious to the band as a whole. The students can also be an important source of energy, or “hype” for the band program itself.

Combining the three elements…
Shows can and have been successful in utilizing these factors at different levels. I contend that great show designs strive for maximum effectiveness in all three of the areas discussed above. Never settle. With a few changes, every program put on a marching field can “max-out” each of the standards.

this post also appears on the Standing 'o' articles page as a PDF here

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Monday, July 2, 2007

Amplified Vocals

Amplified vocals. The dreaded two word phrase of drum corps. Since the Cadets put their "This I Believe" show out on the field, I've noticed the amount discussion/arguments/whatever about amped vocals increase, and I thought I'd take my own stab at discussing this controversial aspect of drum corps. It's a pretty broad topic, so this will take a series of posts... but here we go.

First up...
Classification of Amped Vocals

While each individual use of amped vocals is different from any other, I've decided that they can be divided into three main categories, as listed and explained below. I've also taken some liberties with placing each corps' usage of amped vocals in an appropriate category (I realize that some of these placements could very easily be debated).

1. Sparse spoken words or phrases
When a corps chooses to use amplified vocals, but does so sparingly. The vocals generally aren't used for an extended length of time but instead are short phrases or words. They are often used as a novelty and, while relevant to the show's design, don't explicitly explain a concept or idea.

Corps that have used this:
Blue Devils 2006 - "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse."
Bluecoats 2007 - "Stop! Drop your weapons!," etc.
Cadets 2005 - Bjork impersonation in "Cvalda"
Cadets 2006 - "I thought you all might like to sit and have some tea," etc.
Crossmen 2006 - Radio section

2. Narration
I consider any extended use of continuous amped vocals or any vocals that explain a show concept to the audience to be narration. This category probably has the biggest variety of vocals (in terms of presentation and purpose) and is also probably the most vehemently opposed (except, of course, for amplified singing).

Corps that have used this:
Blue Devils 2005 - "Yowza yowza yowza!" ... need I say more?
Blue Stars 2006 - "The freedom to etc etc etc"
Boston Crusaders 2004 - "The mind, like the hand, etc..."
Cadets 2005 - "You unlock this door with the key of imagination, etc..."
Cadets 2007 - I don't think this one needs an explanation.
Carolina Crown 2004 - Beat poetry

3. Singing and "drumspeak"
This is pretty self explanatory. I grouped amplified singing and drumspeak together because they aren't mere spoken words, but instead almost function as an additional instrument within the ensemble.

Corps that have used this:
Bluecoats 2005 - Drumspeak
Cadets 2005 - Drumspeak
Cadets 2006 - Singing, neutral syllable
Capital Regiment - Singing,
Carolina Crown 2004 - Singing, "Seasons of Love"

Up next... pros and cons of each.

[Note: I have not included Pacific Crest 2007 or Seattle Cascades 2005 in these lists because I am not familiar with these shows. If anyone has any information they'd like to share about them (or any other show that I may have missed) in regards to their uses of amped vocals, I'd be happy to add it.]

Continue reading...

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Uniform musings, Part 5 - New Uniforms in '07, Westminster edition

I got a glimpse of two more new uniforms last night at the Westminster show...

Best "Old School" uniform change - Crossmen
A significant change for the Crossmen who did have the stark black uniforms that provided little definition in the past few years. The red accents and shiny red sash recall older corps style uniforms from years past. The contrast achieved with the red accents gives the viewer something to hold onto visually as the corps moves around the field. The shiny red sash keeps the uniform from falling flat as it compliments the shine of the silver instruments extremely well. The red stripe is something that you don't get to see every day anymore as most corps now simply have straight black pants. One gets the feeling that they are watching an alumni corps, or a senior corps, as the high pants add to the "old school" illusion. All-in-all, a great change for the Crossmen.

Most Undetectable uniform change - Phantom Regiment

Did you know Phantom changed their uniform this year? Well, unless you have been closely following them, or have a sharp eye, you may not even notice it. The corps from Rockford have made a slight adjustment to the sash, cutting the black from the drop section in the back. The gauntlets have also been changed from black to white. Overall a cleaner look, closer to Crown than anything else. Not much of a real difference visually if you are not paying attention though.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Competition...blessing or curse - Part 1 - Drum Corps (cont...)

Mainstream Visibility

The question here is how do people in mainstream culture interact with the Drum Corps activity. Do they interact? and at what level?

Aside from a few documentaries and the occasional news report, there really is no recognition of Drum Corps in the mainstream media. Last year on tour with The Cadets, there may have been half a dozen news stories done on the corps and the show. Many of these are write ups in community newspapers. As with anything, exposure depends upon the area of the country, generally the less urbanized areas seem to have a better community awareness than in the big cities.

The movie "Drumline" raised awareness about the marching activity, but that is only tangentially related to the world of Drum Corps. Other than that and a brief appearance by The Cadets at the 1996 Olympics, television and film have largely ignored the Drum Corps scene.

Drum Corps of the past was arguably a much more visible presence in society. Corps usually stayed local and participated in events and parades around the area -solidifying their ties to the community. As Corps focused more on national level competition, their role in the community diminished in kind. Today one would be hard pressed to find someone from Bergen County who had heard of the Cadets. Corps do have "home shows" and usually do parades around Memorial Day near their iconic homes, however any real connection is for the most part symbolic. These days of small local corps made up of local kids lent the activity to integration with the American Culture. As Drum Corps broke away from this, it started to become more of an isolated, niche activity.

National Competition did not destroy Drum Corps in mainstream society, it merely changed it and the people who watched. Public Broadcasts of the Championships brought in new demographics of excited high school band students who saw "Marching Music's Major League" as something to revere. Recently, Drum Corps has been promoted to the television equivalent of the National Cheerleading Competition and the National Spelling Bee due to it broadcast on ESPN2. However, it still is a long way off from matching either of these in the collective mainstream unconscious. The National Spelling Bee is discussed on numerous news shows, parodied on SNL, and I believe the winner even gets to meet the President. Cheerleading has been the subject of many movies including Bring it On!, Bring it On, Again!, and Bring it On: All or Nothing.

Nowadays, the average American is largely ignorant of the Drum Corps subculture. Nationally based competition has effectively written Corps out of mainstream Americana and banished it to a curiosity, pursued by mostly "band geeks". The quirkiness of the genre and some of its traditions and conventions still make the activity largely inaccessible for all but those who have an invested interest.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Competiton: How Important is it?" by Rob Stein

This post is kind of an aside from the series I am writing, however it is extremely pertinent to the topic at hand. The following paper is was written by Rob Stein, one of the Standing 'O' Marching Specialists, and examines competition from a more pragmatic angle. This should be required reading for any band director who is faced with the decision to have his or her band compete...

Competition: How Important Is It?

By Robert Stein

Competition is a highly debated aspect which we all must deal with in this activity. The biggest problem we face as educators in our field is to figure out how important this aspect is to our organization, which ultimately stems from the question: “What is the goal of our season?” If winning is the ultimate goal, and that is what you tel your students, and that is what they focus their energy on, you could potentially be in for a very rough season in terms of morale and defining “success” for your group. Let’s start by listing some reasons why groups want to win:

1. Bragging rights.
This is probably the most obvious reason, but all students and educators would love the opportunity to say “We’re the best.”

2. School support.
Many of us face problems justifying the marching band to the administration in terms of budget and time commitment. Having a nice, big trophy to display in the trophy case at the main entrance of the school always helps to gain administrative support.

3. Material reward.
As we all work hard in this activity, it’s always nice to get some sort of material recognition, such as a plaque, metal or trophy.

There are certainly other reasons, and these are all absolutely valid; and of course, it does feel good to win, to be the best, to hear your group’s name announced last in your classification. Additionally, competition can be a great motivator for some students to get them moving and enthusiastic for rehearsal. It is important to remember, however, that if competition is your sole purpose of the season, and your students know that, they can potentially be emotionally crushed if you do not meet your goal.

I once knew a director whose band was in the position at one time to say they were the best band in the state; and technically, for that weekend, they were. This band competed at a state competition the weekend before championships and beat everyone there, including the band I was teaching at the time, and the band director made sure to tell everyone on Monday that they were in fact the best band in the state for that weekend. The students got incredibly excited and were quite confident that, since they were the best band in the state, they would surely win state championships the coming weekend. I checked some scores on the computer to find that there were numerous bands that were ranked ahead of them that had not competed that weekend, but were competing at group championships. I called him and mentioned that maybe he should remind his students of that fact, but he decided not to. The following weekend their band was beaten by the band I was currently teaching, as well as five other bands, and placed 7th. His students were crying, cursing, and felt that they had wasted an entire season because they did not win.

Now that we’ve had a brief glimpse at a possible reality, let’s review some reasons why we should not make winning a top priority:

1. You have no control over another group.
The reality of this sport is that you do, in fact, have absolutely no control over another group you compete with. You cannot control how often they practice, how hard they work, or the caliber show they perform. If they work harder and deserve to win, no one else has a right to take that away from them.

2. Judging.
This aspect could bean entire article in itself. Many times we find ourselves disagreeing with judges for many reasons, the main of which seems to be they never catch the good things in the show. As instructors in this field, many people have a hard time disconnecting themselves from their group during a performance and viewing it objectively. During rehearsal we always try to look for the mistakes to fix them, and during the performance we always try to look for the good things to make sure we get the score we deserve. Remember that judges are usually viewing your group for the first time, and they just love to find obvious mistakes to talk about.

3. Students base success of the season on winning alone.
As shown in the story written above, students will base the success of the season solely on the competitive outcome of a competition, and not on other things like hard work, team work, progress or fun.

4. Circuits.
Unfortunately, some circuits are more political than others. If you are competing in a circuit in which you normally do not, you may not be ranked as high as you would if you were well established in that particular organization.

Competition should be talked about, but in my opinion, should never be the only reason for the season. The ultimate goal for the marching arts is to maximize the potential of your group and the show they have been given. Throughout that process, students will learn things that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, such as team work, dedication, persistence, etc. Most importantly, what should be the concentration for the season is always giving 100% every minute of every day. In this case, no mater what the outcome of the season or competition is, your students will be content that there was absolutely nothing else they could have done.

Winning is always fun, but again, in this sport there really is no defense. Your group will perform their show and have no influence what-so-ever on anyone else. The focus of the season should be the journey to the destination; working hard, making friends, making fun memories, etc. Should you be rewarded for the performance of your group, then you will have another memory to add to the season. If not, your students will still be content with the journey they have taken together and the lessons they have learned, and will not have their emotions diminished by the lack of a trophy. The question in the title of this article asks how important competition really is; to answer, it is as important as you wish to make it. This article is simply meant to provide some information to help you make your choice.

Rob Stein is the Co-founder of Standing 'o' - Marching Arts Specialists. He is an active musical arranger and consultant with marching bands across the nation, as well as an adjudicator with The Cavalcade of Bands and USSBA. He may be reached via email at

This article was reprinted with the permission of the author.

The original article in PDF format can be found

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Competition...blessing or curse - Part 1 - Drum Corps

Drum Corps - Intro to Competition
*note: I focus specifically on Junior Corps in these discussions because of the types of corps, it is the most visible, popular, and has the most heated competition between units. Most of the arguments and observations made can also apply to other types of competitive corps.

The heart and soul of Drum Corps is rooted in competition, and therefore it is only appropriate to first look at the history of this competition. Both the make-up and the nature of competitive drum corps have evolved over the years. In the early days, local drum corps would compete in parades and field shows against neighboring corps. The participants were all local kids from the surrounding town, county, or neighborhood playing to a mostly local audience. Corps were evaluated based upon strict, military-like inspections focused upon appearance and uniformity. They competed in events sponsored by the VFW and American Legion - however there was nothing really close to a formal governing body for any type of standardization in the activity. In 1971, directors from several major drum corps formed Drum Corps International (DCI) to be a national governing body for the activity. They continued to use the style of judging known as the "tick" system to evaluate performances. This system, used until 1983, deducted points from a corps' score based upon "mistakes" judges would observe in the corps performance. While this has the appearance of being objective, the standards by which something is considered a mistake varied from judge to judge. Little or no creative thought was given to programs in those days because the judging was almost entirely focused on error detection.

After 1983, DCI changed the judging to a qualitative "build-up" system where corps were rewarded with points for a combination of execution and content. This opened the doors for modern drum corps to experiment with complex show designs that would have never came about in the "tick" era. Designers freely experimented with new music and visual techniques that moved the activity more towards the theater than the military. In fact, some of the most successful shows of this era were based upon theatrical productions (West Side Story, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera to name a few. Recently, questions of the subjectivity of this style of judging have come to light as show designs have almost moved past the point of any objective comparisons and are, in fact, hurting the evolution of the activity.

This, of course, leads me to the ultimate question of these posts - does competition in Drum Corps improve or hurt the activity? I will examine this question using the standards I outlined before.


Drum Corps fans can be broken down into three categories; the hard-core fans, the casual fan, and the "bando". The hard-core fans are the fans who actively seek and support the activity in multiple aspects of their lives. These are mostly people who have marched at one time, or have thrust themselves into the activity in more ways than observing. This can include, online discussion boards, blogging, volunteering, donations, teaching, administrative work, and by many other means. These fans have a personal connection to the activity and are very defensive of their viewpoint about how it should be approached.

The casual fan is differentiated from the hard-core fan by being more passively involved with the activity. This group comprises most of those people who have not marched and who do not have a personal interest in the activity. They are generally contented to observe the activity as it is presented to them focusing mainly on personal enjoyment and entertainment. These fans encompass the spectrum from moderately interested in the activity, to those in the general public who may be seeing their first show.

The last group are the "bando" fans. These are the students enrolled in band at the high school or college level that revere the activity as the "major leagues" of marching arts. Their attitude is generally of reverence for the technical skill and creative complexity corps can achieve through their performance. Their tastes vary wildly and are often extremely pliable to others opinions. While sometimes the most naive of the fans, they are also some of the most emotional and enthusiastic supporters of the activity. These fans can directly relate to the performers and therefore have a different perspective on the modern activity than do the other types of fans.

Now that the fan categories are defined, let us examine trends in the drum corps fans support over the years in terms of competition. The hard-core fans are in it for the long haul. They have much invested in this activity and are not going to simply drift away. It also takes quite a bit to anger a hard-core fan and lose them completely. Most likely, these fans will follow the activity in some fashion under pretty much any circumstance. These people most likely got into the activity by becoming involved in the excitement of competition and therefore, competition has no bearing on their support. The"bando" fans are also not likely affected by competition because their admiration for corps are more based upon performance skill than competitive placement.

The wild-card in discussion of competition and fans lie within the last group, the casual fans. These people have a large range of motivations for observing drum corps and therefore there is no one clear causal thread for all of them. Seeing as Drum Corps evolved as a competitive enterprise, these fans are almost surely aware of this aspect of the activity. All of these fans may be aware of it, however, they may not understand it. To them it may seem a silly thing akin to attempting to judge two Broadway shows, or compare several orchestral pieces. This is one potential obstacle for the activity breaking into mainstream culture. The casual fan may be more willing to accept the activity if pretenses of competition were dropped completely and there was more a focus on entertainment.

However, there are examples of activities that combine the creative and evaluative modes successfully in mainstream culture. One needs to look no further than figure skating or ice dancing to see what I mean. While it can be argued that the competitive nature of these activities limits their appeal in the same manner as it does in drum corps, it is easy to see their fanbase is rooted more in the mainstream than that of drum corps (it is an Olympic sport, its placement on prominent broadcast TV, its international appeal).

The best than can be said of competition's effect on attendance and fan base is that it creates excitement and interest for the dedicated fans. At worst, competition has no measurable effect on this aspect of Drum Corps.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Competition in the Marching Activity..Blessing or Curse?

Recently I have been thinking about the competition aspect of the marching activity and trying to draw on some of my ideas and experience to meditate upon whether this improves the activity or hurts it.

The first thing I recognized is that the worlds of Drum Corps and high school marching bands are two very different entities and competition could play very different roles in each community. For Drum Corps, competition is at the very heart of the activity, and has been for years. Corps, from their inception, were groups that competed on a field or in parades with other corps from around the area. High School marching bands grew in support of athletic teams at the school and mostly did not compete until recently. Given these two different histories it would be improper to generalize for the entire marching activity on the merits of competition. This is why I have broken up the discussion into two separate parts; Marching Band, and Drum Corps.

The second thing I recognized is that there should be some standard or definition to what it means to "improve" or "hurt" the activity. I brainstormed several factors that could be used to judge the effect of competition on the marching activity - attendance figures/number of fans, mainstream visibility, complexity of material, education value, number and size of marching units, and general attitude towards the activity. While some of these are vague and can only really be supported by observational and anecdotal evidence, I believe that they are still important to consider in the big picture.

The next step, is sorting out and recognizing that some of these factors may not be influenced or influenced entirely by competition. Mainstream Visibility is an example of a standard that could have causal factors other than competition. I hope to try and point out when a standard could be affected by something outside of competition as I go through them.

let me do a quick explanation of each standard, just to clarify -

Attendance/Fans - This standard answers the question "Is the activity loosing or gaining fans and why?" things such as attendance trends and activity magazines and website popularity can help in determining who the fans are and why they are interested.

Mainstream Visibility - this can include references to the activity in mainstream culture. Maybe the activity figures into a TV show or movie, or a group could be covered by a news outlet.

Complexity of Material - This standard answers the question of "Have shows improved over the years, and how have they improved over the years?" Now I recognize that there are different standards to evaluate these questions as well and I will factor these into the analysis.

Education Value - These groups teach something to their participants. What is the value of what they teach and does competition affect the instruction the participants receive?

Number and Size of Marching Units - Are there more or less groups these days than there were in the past? What caused a change in this number? Are the groups today larger or smaller than their predecessors? Is there as much interest in membership for these groups?

General Attitude - This is a little harder to get a fix on. How do fans/the public feel about the activity in general? How do the directors and participants feel about the activity in general?

Using these, I will analyze the activity and make an informed recommendation as to the effects of Competition on the marching activity.

I will start with examining Drum Corps in the next p0st...

Continue reading...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Uniform musings, Part 4 - New Uniforms in '07

Originally a DCP forum post, I thought this warranted its own entry. From the Annapolis show - After seeing the corps as a whole wearing the new unis., I present my best an worst of the new looks.

Best new uniforms - Cadets -
A return to the traditional look. Cummerbund now rides over the jacket again and dominates the look more than in the past four years. The jacket now appears even shorter, making the legs appear very long and tall. Gauntlets are gone (thank god) and the accents are back. FJM unis oversimplified the detail that gave the Cadets their unique uniform flavor. These new ones capture the original 80s look very well while updating certain aspects (better material for summer).

Worst new uniforms - Spirit

These unis are all over the place. The busy front and the weird light colored/blue/white front piece cuts across the jacket in a strange way. I it looks like someone didn't use colorsafe bleach and the dark blue bled all over the nice white shoulder piece. The horizontal white lines on the other half of the jacket dont do anything for them. There is no definition to the new look making their already sloppy drill look even worse. In bright sunlight, they may look slightly better, however nighttime is not their friend.

Worst uniform change - Bluecoats
two-tone blue??? honestly?? I did kind of get used to it by the end of the show, however from the uniforms they came from, this has to be the worst move in all of DCI. Their previous uniforms were so clean cut and nice to look at, with the white and blue. The white made a nice clean contrast with the field and made their marching look clean and clear. The black pants feel like a cop-out, an easy way to hide dirty feet instead of working to improve fundamentals. The black and two tones of blue make them too dark on the field...and there is really no need for it. They look like BD or Blue knights now...not really a good thing.

Best uniform change - Glassmen
The addition of the gold chain adds a little variety and reflective flare into a very "blah" uniform. Before the uniform looked very uninteresting and bland, especially with that flimsy reflective triangle on the right shoulder. The chain falls asymmetrically over the black abyss that is the lower 4/5ths of the uniform and breaks it up nicely. in addition they now make a nice "clank" sound when they move their horns down to "parade rest"

Most unnecessary uniform change - Crown

I really like the cream and purple...might be a bit of overkill to cash in the purple for the gold. Gold and cream are too similar in tone to really contrast at all. The brown plumes are a nice touch (for the horse show). The most unnecessary part of the uniform is the tassel that hangs down from the front of the jacket just above the crotch. WHat is THat thing?!?! It is nice to see a top 12 corps staying with white or cream colored pants...shows they are not trying to hide anything about their marching technique.

I will have more uniform reviews as I see them this season.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Some great scholarship on Drum Corps...

Just wanted to bring your attention to this site, it has a database of around 50 papers written about Drum Corps - anything from theory to is a little outdated but some of the stuff is pretty interesting. Some of the included articles are meditations or manifestos on aspects that relate only tangentially to Drum Corps. For example there are several papers on the psycho-social idea of walking and at least a few on marching as a form of social protest. All-in-all, it is a very comprehensive look at the activity.
Here is the site

Research for the Marching Arts and Sciences.

Some interesting papers I would like to highlight.

  • a very comprehensive and insightful look into the story of The Star of Indiana (this has been posted elsewhere as well)

Continue reading...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Uniform musings, Part 3 - The Blue Devils

The Blue Devils (Concord, CA)
The uniforms of the Blue Devils, like most other drum corps, arose out of the military tradition - this instance the corps arose from a VFW post in Concord. The early uniforms were keeping in this military style complete with cummerbund, shakos, and cross-belts. Over time those elements have not disappeared completely, they have just evolved into the current design we know BD for today. The cummerbund and cross-belt have been melded together to form a sharp reflective, sequined angle that cuts both ways across the chest. The shako is black with silver highlights.

The Blue Devils uniform works in different ways than either The Cadets or The Cavaliers. Where those corps uniforms rely on a contrast of color to highlight the performers (white/cream against a green field), The Blue Devils rely on a contrast of illumination. Allow me to explain. The sequins and silver reflects the light back in a more true fashion than the solid bold white of the other corps. This gives a greater illuminative effect at night and in low light, or directional light situations (for example stadium lights). It is the difference between standing out in a field at night holding a white piece of paper verses a sheet of aluminum foil. The silver compliments the silver of the horns forming more of an active contrast where the reflected light is engaging you in different ways depending on your angle. This concept flows nicely with the laid-back, easy-going reputation of the corps.

The lower half of the body is shrouded in darkness, like the Cavaliers, obscuring any clear read on the technique. Personally, I am not sure exactly how they teach it, but from being around the activity and talking to people, it seems as though they do everything in the easiest way possible that still looks good. The marching technique is definitely not a "bicycle" like the Cavaliers, however it isn't a strict straight-legged technique either. The black pants allow them to
become more relaxed and take a more natural approach to marching.

Thats it for BD, I probably missed something, so drop me a line and let me know.

Continue reading...

Hello (Part Deux)...

Seeing as I'm going to be a contributor to this blog, I figured I would introduce myself a little. My name's Amber, and I will be a sophomore at the University of Maryland in the fall. I'm majoring in music education on clarinet, but I picked up baritone last summer for drum corps and play that in the marching and pep bands. I did the whole marching band thing in high school, and while college band is an entirely different experience, I love it. I haven't marched corps yet, but I will be auditioning in the fall, and with any luck I'll be marching for the next two summers. The first corps show I ever saw was Cadets 00 on a VHS at band camp my freshman year of high school, and my first live corps experience was the Cadets' memorable performance at West Chester University during the summer of 2004. It was after that that I began to follow corps heavily, and I've only become more interested (a.k.a., a nice word for fanatical/obsessive/etc.) since then.

Since I have not marched, I can't and won't comment on some things the same way Nick and Joe can. However, I hope I can add some interesting discussion from an outsider's point of view.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy the blog.

Continue reading...

Uniform musings, Part 2 - The Cavaliers

The Cavaliers (Rosemont, Ill.)
The Cavaliers white collared green top and black pants provide a stark counterpoint to the Cadet's "West Point" uniforms. As different as the uniforms are now, The Cavaliers original uniforms have a similar design legacy to the Cadets. The original uniforms were khaki affairs complete with shoulder braids reminiscent of military stylings. New uniforms were purchased from Army surplus stores in blue of all colors, then the following year, new uniforms yet again. These uniforms resembled more the style associate with the Cavaliers today, save for the shako and cummerbund. The "Cavalier" hat was first worn by the corps in 1976. The shape and height of the crown of the hat is different from an Aussie.Variations of the '76 uniform were worn through 1983. The first edition of the current uniform was worn in 1984. (thanks j_paul!) These uniforms assist the Cavaliers in executing a completely different visual style than The Cadets.

The short jacket and absence of a cummerbund obscure a good portion of the performers' figure beneath a shroud of dark material. This brings the viewer's focus to the top third of the body. The uniforms are designed just the opposite of the Cadets' - not only is the focus entirely on the upper body, but the white "wing" elements on the shoulder serve to broaden the upper body, building a strong horizontal presence. The sash is even curved a bit in a downward sweep, minimizing any height drop. The entire Cavalier visual program is based around this premise of horizontal over vertical. When horns are in playing position, the imposing nature of their posture arises, not from height, but from this broad encompassing stature.

The lower body being shrouded in a vague, dark mass makes it easy for the Cavaliers to pull off their signature "Bicycle" marching style. The style involves significant leg motion and knee bend to achieve. Since the uniform is not dependent upon a stature of height, the drastic height changes associated with this style of marching become less noticeable and less offensive to the eye. Timing and spacing errors also become less obvious due to less contrast between the black pants and the green field. The use of this style of marching makes possible many swift moves that would prove to be almost prohibitively challenging to the straight legged corps.

The upper body is clearly contrasted through the use of a white collar, white "wings", a white sash, white gauntlets and white gloves. These aspects of the uniform are seen to move smoothly across the field - to "float" if you will. It is these elements that make up the forms of the drill. The audience doesn't see a tall thin figure (as with the uniforms of The Cadets), but instead, a figure almost wider than it is in height. It is almost as if there are little white rectangles (or more accurately, triangles) moving around the field at a very quick pace, forming pictures and developing forms.

The Cavaliers visual staff makes full use of this visual aspect of the uniforms. More often than not, visuals involve the upper body creating motion. This is most clearly seen in "Machine" near the beginning when the trumpets move into two huge vertical lines . The visual is one where the upper body is tilted to the left and right, alternating every other person (sorry, I cant find my video or I would give you a time marker). This works only due to the uniforms and the visual spectacle they create.

Thats all for right now...tomorrow, The uniforms of the Blue Devils

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Musings on Band and Corps Uniforms in Visual design...

Well for my first installment of what I hope to be many postings, I am focusing in on something that I have been thinking about for some time. Uniforms are the most basic, recognizable aspect of a corps - even defining part of their heritage or tradition. Sometimes there uniforms even affect the development of a corps visual and marching styles. Often, this most basic part of a corps identity is overlooked with regards to the visual aspect of the performance. The guard is what we think of mostly as defining the visual design of the show, but what we don't always realize is how much this is affected by the type and style of the uniforms of the corps. I will start out looking at different uniforms and showing how they define the visual characteristics of the corps. Then I will turn my attention to the future of uniforms in the marching activity.

The Cadets (Allentown, PA)
The "West-point" style maroon and cream uniforms date back to the oldest incarnations of the corps. This design (with the notable exceptions of 2005 and 2006) has remained largely intact throughout the years. It has become an icon for the oldest corps in America and is a symbol of pride for those who wear it. The picture is somewhat dated as it depicts the uniforms worn from 2003-2006. The current uniforms have slight changes in the detailing.

Visually, the most striking parts of the uniform are the cream colored pants with the maroon stripe running down the side and the reflective buckle on the cross-belt. The uniform is designed to enhance the height of the performer, mainly through the long light colored pants, the short jacket, and the high yellow cummerbund. An interesting tidbit is the shrinking drop sash over the years. Back in the 60s and 70s, the sash came down to about the knees of the performer. This had the effect of shortening the performer visually. The sashes of the 80s shrunk a bit, coming to around the mid-thigh region. Gradually over the years it has been shortened to its current length, ending around the "crotchal" region. The elongated vertical line created by the uniform is accented by the classic plume that emerges straight from the top of the shako.

Anyone who knows the Cadets know they are famous for their straight-legged marching style. The uniform accentuates this style by drawing the eye to the cream colored pants with the maroon stripe. Theoretically the maroon stripe is never supposed to be broken while marching. Watching the Cadets perform, it is clear the visual impact the technique and uniform create. The drill focuses mostly on form development such as pass throughs and evolving amorphous forms that serve to bring out the movement of the lower body. Rarely will one see an effective upper-body movement with the cadets (I'm thinking of the terrible ones added into the 2003 show as an example) because there is no striking visual impact to be had from the upper body movements.

Due to the focus on the lower body, timing is extremely important for this corps. Lagging visual scores have been almost a signature for the corps in recent years as the cream pants do not forgive even the slightest timing errors. Spacing errors are also highlighted by the tall vertical cream pillars seen on the field.

That's all for tonight, more tomorrow! - Next post - the Uniforms of the Cavaliers!

; ;

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Friday, June 8, 2007


I have been surfing around the online Drum Corps/ Marching Band world and have noticed a distinct lack of serious scholarship of ideas about the activities. It is reasonable to assume that there are many, many fans out there, but I found it odd that there was no person service compiling intelligent conversation about the activity itself. What I am hoping to create is conversation dealing with pedagogy, marching theory, aesthetic theory, show designs, history, and anything else along those lines. I favor intelligent and thoughtful posts that shy away from self-serving gloating or complaining, instead focusing on an objective (or as close to it as I can get) evaluation on the topics at hand.
I will be joined by fellow posters Amber and Nick who will add their own elements to the blog. I pretty much allow anyone to post what they want here if you want to be heard - just drop me an email.

Over the next week I will be fully launching with postings dealing with musings on show design and uniforms, so stay tuned! Leave a comment if you have something you want to hear about.

In case anyone was wondering, "point two-five" means playing incredibly softly...

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