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10 Tips to Improve Drill Writing

Brian Soules | July 2009

    Many directors are committed to making their marching bands as strong as possible but lack experience designing drill for their shows. For directors who prefer to write their own drill, the following ten ideas can make drill look better.

1. Plan your show from beginning to end.
     When meeting with your design team it is important to put every idea up for debate. After narrowing the choices to two or three ideas that everyone feels good about, the next step is to plan each idea from beginning to end.
     It is impossible to write a good show without knowing what is going to happen every second of the show. When you plan a show down to this level of detail, an idea that seemed promising can suddenly become thin and unusable, and this is best discovered before you started arranging music and buying equipment for the color guard and percussion.
     If you leave a song or part of the show unplanned,  it will look that way when you perform it. An example would be planning to leave a section of the field open for a guard feature only to find out on Monday before the first show that the guard instructor hasn’t written it yet. After a day of frantic writing and another day or two to stage it, the guard feature fails when everything is put together on Thursday’s rehearsal because it crashes into the band. The result is that everyone is upset and stressed going into the show. The problem is one of design, not one of performance. The initial plan was not thought through or put on a timeline for completion.

2. The Color Guard is just as important as any other section.
     Marching band is as much a visual activity as a musical one. The most visual section of the band is the color guard, and it should be treated as such. Directors building a marching program should make sure the color guard is given as much attention and effort as the rest of the band. Keeping them in a frame or arc around the band for the entire show may make it easier to clean the drill but will not take you far in competition.
     Think of the color guard as equal contributors to the show. One easy way to integrate them is to place guard members with the musical section that has the melody. Even if all the guard members are spinning the same piece of equipment, they all don’t have to connect to the drill or do the same work.
     Another way to integrate the color guard is to write their drill first, then chart the rest of the band. This will seem strange at first, but with practice gets easier. On Friday nights a majority of the crowd will remember what they see before they recall how well the band played. At Saturday competitions, the performance of the guard and how it is used throughout the drill usually determines who wins. A well-integrated guard adds effect, depth, and perspective to a show.

3. Stick to field twos and field fours for intervals whenever possible.
     To make things as simple as possible for students I recommend always writing intervals at field twos or field fours. For a field two, the center of the body is two steps on either side of a yard line, and for a field four the center of the body is exactly between two yard lines. A football field is a perfect mathematical grid side to side, but less perfect front to back. By keeping field twos and fours for a majority of the show, you can focus basics time in rehearsal on those two interval sizes. When teaching students to read these intervals, make sure they understand how to find it with their eyes up to the front sideline. Field twos and fours are different from a straight eight-to-five interval, unless the formation is a line parallel to the sideline.

4. Write your drill with color guard transitions.
     Part of planning ahead in drill writing includes positioning the color guard for seamless equipment changes. Otherwise, they may have to run off the field between songs while the drum major waits for them to be set before continuing the show. This causes unnecessary breaks between movements, showing the audience and judges that the show was poorly planned or the guard looks like an afterthought.
     One way to improve guard transitions is to move a small group off the field before a song ends so they are ready for the first count of the next song. To do this, begin moving guard members to the spot where they will change equipment three to five moves before they need to be there; this provides enough time to get them there and make the transition occur. During these three to five moves, eight to ten other guard members should move to a strong focal point of the field, so the eye is drawn to them. This diverts attention from the equipment change. For the last two moves of the song, restage the guard members who have already changed equipment for the beginning for the next piece. When this song begins the new group of guard members should be the focus while the other eight to ten move off to change.

5. Include body movements only if there is time for correct training and drill that accommodates them.

     From a visual perspective more and more is being asked of the musicians every year. Nothing is more distracting for judges than to see a band attempting dance moves for which they are untrained. Body movement can contribute nicely to the overall effect of the drill, but only if the drill writer and band take care of three things. First, students have to be at a spot on the field where body movement can be most effective. Second, the basics program should include work on body movement throughout the season. Third, musicians should receive the training necessary to perform dance moves at a high level. By covering these aspects, drill with dance moves will look well-conceived and professional.

6. Everyone does not have to move all the time.
     Many drill writers fall into the trap of having each band member move for every drill move, but it is perfectly acceptable to have a section stand still while the rest of the band moves around it. The best drum corps and bands across the country use this technique when a section has a difficult musical passage. Giving a section the opportunity to stand still and play makes the music sound better and the drill look crisper, because students’ attention is undivided. Using this technique also means that there are fewer students to clean during that drill move, which means the band can learn it more quickly.

7. Keep props simple, sturdy, and stationary.
     Creative props can be a major addition to any show. The best props look professional and are simple to transport, assemble, and set up on the field. If half of the show consists of watching band parents attempt to set up a prop, it is time to go back to the planning room. A prop should stay in
place once it is set up. Something that looks good in the band room will take away from the show if it is so light the wind blows it across the field.
     Moving props during a show is extremely difficult to pull off, so keep them still. Props are best used as a backdrop and to add depth to a show. An uncluttered backdrop of props can cut off portions of the field and create a smaller stage for your band, which makes it look bigger in the process and gives the show a polished look.

8. Use marching baritones instead of trombones.
     This may not be a viable option for some bands because of the cost, but if you can buy one baritone per year for a few years to build an arsenal of school horns, it will be worth it. The shape of the instrument makes players look small on the field compared to other bell-front brass instruments. In addition, having trombones limits options in the drill, because they take so much space to manipulate that a vertical block or a pass-through becomes a major project.
     Baritones are shorter and easier to use, and they look better on the field because they match the shape of the trumpets and mellophones. They are also held the same way, and the elbow presentation is the same, which is important because the cleanness of a drill can depend on upper-body marching technique.
     If you have to use trombones, plan drill accordingly. Never set them in vertical lines unless they are at a four-step interval front to back, and avoid writing pass-throughs. The trombones will always seem to have to play a note in sixth or seventh position right when they are charted to do something complicated in the drill.

9. Keep the front ensemble in the pit.
     Unless the entire visual aspect of the show is designed around the front ensemble, keep it off the field. Having the front ensemble on the field eliminates a large portion of the field available for drill. Although a smaller field seems advantageous, it only prohibits what drill designers can do.
     Another factor to consider is clarity of drill front to back. The show won’t look clean with a bunch of stationary percussion instruments on the field.

10. Practice the field entrance and exit.
     Although coming on to the field and exiting the field are not judged, the audience and judges get their first and last impression of how good a group is by the way it enters and exits the field. That perception can be a powerful ally if used properly. A clean, polished entrance puts an idea into a judge’s mind, and a strong exit may be the last thing a judge sees before he writes down a score.
     Having a signature entrance is the best way to focus a band before performing, and a signature exit will make them feel great as they leave the field. The Cadets enter the field in parade block, march across the back sideline, turn right down the 50-yard line, then stop and break casually to the opening set. An easy way to figure an entrance is to work backwards from the opening set.