Hi band designer/instructor/director friends!
First, thank you for your efforts and service to the youth of this activity! I think it is awesome that so many dedicated individuals put in so many hours and time to introduce and motivate kids to get off the couch and do something very challenging as a team. I have a whole other discussion to go into on that, but that’s not what I want to get into today. I just say that in case I sound critical in my advice, I don’t mean for it to be taken that way, I just want to help!
I’ve been teaching, designing and judging for the marching arts for a little while, and have definitely learned some things along the way and here are my thoughts on it.
1. Design for “Moments”
You need to pick a concept. In my opinion, what should drive that concept are the moments you can effectively create within that concept. I think it is good practice to think about 5 or 6 (maybe more or less depending on the time you have for the show, and how “effective” those moments are). However, these moments, are the show. The days of just playing an opener, a ballad and a closer are dying (dead to be honest). The bands and corps succeeding, are the ones who are moving beyond this and designing for the moments. Why? Because judges and fans remember these moments. When judging a show with 20 bands in it, what are you doing that’s going to stick with the judge or the fans so that they remember your group? If you think that they will remember you because you played a certain piece of literature, you’re going to be disappointed.
Be brave, and stick to your guns. These moments ARE THE SHOW! They are everything. I’ve seen so many design teams talk themselves out of great ideas because it would be hard logistically…..then before you know it, there’s nothing memorable about your show because you played it safe. Safe doesn’t win. When you’re in a competition at championships with 25 or 30 other bands, doing something that makes your show stick in the judges mind is very important. It’s really easy to do what’s safe and comfortable, and most of those other bands will do the same thing. Chances are, some other band will be a little braver, and do something that creates a buzz and makes people talk about them and remember them.
2. Plan a Variety of Effects.
These “moments” need to be different from one another. You basically have three ways to create effect; Aesthetically, Intellectually and Emotionally. The most effective and successful programs find ways to use all of these tools in their design, sometimes simultaneously, in a variety of ways. Each moment should be different.
3. Avoid specific linear stories.
Listen, some shows and some groups have done this well. Some. But, many more have failed. Trying to figure out how to use one specific character portrayal throughout an entire production is a tough situation. It’s very difficult to not fall into the trap of a lack of variety using that approach. You can develop great shows based on a linear story line, but it’s much more difficult. You’re pigeon-holed into having to have the same character as a focal point for much of the program, which also means you’re trapped into having some very similar effects, lacking variety, unless you have a really great idea. If you’re growing and developing your program’s design team, and performers capabilities, I would avoid this approach until you are VERY confident they can pull it off. There are top tier DCI corps that have failed at this approach many times. There are a few that have succeeded. I’d say avoid this approach, you can take it or leave it.
4. Keep it simple.
If you have to type out a dissertation to explain your show in the show notes for the band program, or show announcement….you may have a problem. If you explain the show to one of your non-band friends, (if you have any…jk), and they are looking at you like you have three heads, your amazing idea might not be amazing. I’ve been a part of shows like this. Don’t try so hard to be a genius. Think about the audience and what they will react to. As having been a part of many programs that made this mistake, nothing is more frustrating than performing at football games and having very little reaction to your show because the audience didn’t understand it. That happens, and then the visiting football band (non-competitive) got the people really wound up while they were doing the “YMCA” dance over a sloppy drum break and marching 10 sets total… it’s frustrating. You can’t just blame the people, you missed the boat on design somewhere. Just because you’re designing for a competitive program doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be entertaining for a general audience. You might not be “generally effective” if that’s the case. Run your concept by a Joe Schmo, and see if something they can grab onto it without giving them a science or history lesson.
5. Avoid Traveling Music!
Every part of the show should be going somewhere and have a purpose. It might not be one of the big moments of the show, but even if it’s transitional, it should have a direction and purpose to take the audience somewhere. You can just pick a song, and write drill to it. You will be disappointed with the results competitively and with the audience’s reaction. No one will remember your band. Try to avoid too much repetition. I love using ostinato patterns when I arrange or write, but you have to be careful that you aren’t being lazy with it. Use layering, variety of dynamics and/or articulations to create variety. Try to avoid having too many phrases that are similar.
6. Audio to Visual Coordination
I can’t express how important this is. It’s this simple. To be successful, in your show design, we have to see what we hear, and hear what we see. If you have a section of the show where the flutes and clarinets are playing an exposed part together, but they are just moving along with the rest of the band, not exposed visually, and staged on a part of the field where they are hard to hear…you have an audio to visual coordination problem. If you are featuring a saxophone soloist on the 40 yard-line on side 2, but the rest of the band is doing a visual feature on the 30 on side 1 that isn’t really related, and is actually competing for attention and drawing the audience away from the soloist…you have an audio to visual coordination problem. Less might be more. Every part of the show should have a focal point, the more clear this is, the more effective your show will be. It’s always good to bring someone who’s not attached to the program in to watch the show, and give you feedback on whether the focal points are clear or not. What’s obvious to you might not be obvious, because you’re too close to it.
Another trap is that you can’t just “do things.” There has to either be musical motivation for the visual side, or visual motivation for the music side. There are so many bands out there just doing stuff… Play some music, march some drill…..WHY AREN’T WE WINNING!?!? I’ve seen many bands guilty of this. They play and move a phrase, then practically repeat the same phrase musically, but the second time they are holding…why? It didn’t land on an impact, it still has the same melodic motion and sense of movement it had the last phrase when you moved through it. Why did it change visually if it didn’t change musically? To begin with, I would avoid being this repetitive at all if possible, but use holds as effective design points. Don’t just do things to do them. I also see body work many times that’s just “stuff.” Make sure body accent points and body language match the music they are going with. If the music is very staccato feeling, doing very free-form body or drill doesn’t make a lot of sense, and vice versa. This goes back to making sure we see what we hear and hear what we see.
7. Pacing. Make a linear (logistical) timeline.
Once you have some moments and a concept worked up, I like to create a show timeline. I literally write a line on a piece of paper, that represents 10 minutes or whatever the show length is. Then I like to map out where these moments will literally happen in the time span of the show, in a way that will hopefully grab the audiences attention and keep it, hitting them with enough variety, and limiting or eliminating “travel music” time. This focuses the creative aspects of the show into a logistical form so that you can connect those realities. It also helps you visualize what the show will actually look like and it may reveal problems you hadn’t realized before, such as not having two similar moments of the program happen back-to-back. It also helps you work out a show formula. What I mean here is if you put these onto a timeline, thinking about the music you want to play, and you don’t reach your first impact or moment of the show that presents what the concept material is, and you’re three minutes into the show….you have a problem. I think that within 45 seconds to 1:15 into the show, your first big moment of the show should happen. I also think that this should be the 2nd or 3rd most effective moment of the show. The most effective moment should happen within the last 45 seconds of the show. It seems obvious, to many it’s not, but you should deliver the most memorable moment right before the band leaves the field, and right before the judges write down their numbers. Somewhere in the show there should be a “heartstrings” moment, traditionally near the halfway point, or within the show somewhere. What the timeline does, is it helps you form prioritizations of the 5 or 6 moments you landed on in initial design to the 3 BIG main moments, and the lesser moments, and it helped you work them into the show in a way that connects with the audiences and judges in a way that makes the most sense.
8. Make smart, logical choices.
If you are placing your front ensemble on the back of the field, and are not amplifying them…they will be under-balanced (unless your horn-line is, well….terrible). It’s not the judges holding it against you for not amplifying them, you made a creative and logistical choice to create this balance issue by putting them there, when they could be on the front sideline. It’s your job to balance the ensemble whether you have amplification or not. Don’t stage a woodwind quintet feature on the back hash. Same idea.
9. Understand the science of sound delay and field spread.
The are so many bands that make their lives so much harder. Don’t try to play the Mars rhythm from The Planets between the snare drums, tubas and pit while having the tubas on the front sideline on the 30 on side 1, the snares on the front hash on the 20 on side 2, and the timpanist in the front ensemble. If by some miracle you ever do get it to line up, how much time did you waste trying to make it work, while you should have been spending your time on producing effective moments and cleaning performer excellence. Plus, it won’t work. It’s science. This is a break down in audio to visual coordination, because why are 3 sections playing the same thing spread out like this, and secondly, it won’t line up…ever. Cut your losses and rewrite the drill, or the music.
10. Clean is the best effect. The performers can only give you 100%.
There’s not such thing as giving 150%. Or 200%. Or 1,000,000,000%. Each performer can only give you 100%. So, plan accordingly. If there’s a music part, that’s very technically difficult for the saxes, so let’s estimate it takes 70% of their concentration and effort, only design for them visually at 30% of what they can handle at that time. If you ask them to play the hardest music, and do the hardest drill/body, at the same time… you won’t succeed. Be smart. This method also helps to design variety into the show, and it helps the communication between the visual designers and the music designers. I like to think of the moments of the show as having either a visual or a musical priority. If the priority is music, the visual component should be written to stage the ensemble in a way that will make them sound great, and limit the physical demand on the performer so they can dedicate their effort to the musical cause. If it’s a visual priority, the music should be written to accompany this idea, and it should be minimal in effort to enhance the visual element. Many times, the winds wouldn’t even have to play, the percussion could hold down the music side while the horn-line and guard do some cool, integrated, visual-wow thing. These moments don’t have to be 100% visual or 100% music either, that’s why I like to use this as a sliding scale. “The saxes can only handle a 30% on the visual end at the moment, so take it easy on them drill designer! However, the trumpets aren’t playing, so they are fair game!!!”
Great composition is not writing the most genius notes or the hardest book ever. It’s writing a book that pushed your ensemble to the edge of their performance abilities. The best effect is clarity. Bad, stupid or cheesy design can be surprisingly effective if it’s performed well. The best design ideas are not effective if they are dirty or sloppy. Great composition isn’t the best notes on paper. It’s the best notes/drill/work for your ensemble, and their ability level. If I handed one of my high school ensembles SCV’s percussion book from this past summer…..which is great composition for SCV, it would be a terrible mess that wouldn’t be readable or effective. We haven’t developed the skill sets needed to perform it well. That’s where the top numbers and bottom numbers of your scores are related, and it’s probably the thing that many people designing instructing don’t understand very well. It is a little bit of a guessing game to gauge where they’re going to be at the end of the season. This is a great thing because it pressures you and the students to push yourselves, and it’s what makes the competitive marching band activity so valuable!
Please share, comment, agree or disagree!
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions!