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The Best and Worst from the Marching Field

compiled by editors | September 2012


   We asked some top directors from around the country for memories of some of the best and worst shows they have seen over the course of their careers. Here are their responses.

What is the best marching show or idea you have ever witnessed?
Stephanie San Roman: The 2010 Cavaliers show, Mad World, was definitely one of the best show concepts I have seen. The concept itself was extremely creative, and the music, not just the title of each piece, supported the theme. For example, if your show is called Red, White, and Blue, and you pick tunes that just have the words red, white, or blue in the title, but the music is not tied together by a theme, the music does not come across as strongly. The audience might think the music was simply about colors and not a unifying patriotic message. The Cavaliers did an amazing job tying the movements together. The integration of the various elements of the corps worked together to create amazing general effect (GE). The guard, pit, drum line, and horns all played an equal role in the presentation of the show. Stephanie San Roman is director of bands at Oswego High School (Illinois). 

Patrick Hayes: In 1891 a group of San Antonio citizens started a parade to honor the heroes of the Alamo. This celebration has grown into San Antonio’s Fiesta, an 11-day annual event. A band festival was added in 1935 with over 3,000 band students playing for an audience of over 10,000. In the competition segment, each band passes the crowd and plays a selection of their choice, often featuring creative visual elements such as dancing. At the end of the night, a giant massed band performs a medley of songs with a guest conductor. While such a large performance is an amazing experience for students and directors, I feel that the community exposure is what makes it so special. In San Antonio, the Battle of the Bands is a household name and provides and excellent showcase for the benefits of music education. Patrick Hayes serves as assistant band director as Heritage Middle School in San Antonio and previously was director of bands at McCollum High School, also in San Antonio.

Joe Craig: If I had to pick one production that has stuck with me, it would be the 2010 Paranormal show by Tarpon Springs High School in Florida. Frank Sullivan and Kevin Ford, their design team, are among the most brilliant and creative people in this area, and I model many of their concepts in my program at Beechwood. This show was so special because of the level of storytelling. The show had incredible use of the field, inventive prop usage, and extremely demanding playing and movement. While this production was successful competitively, more importantly it was a very artistic example of our activity. Joe Craig is director of bands at Beechwood High School in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky. His bands have twice been Bands of America Grand National Class A Champion.

Daniel Kiene: The best marching show I have been involved with was a Ninja show my band performed in 2010. The show came from a group called Countermotion, local guys who have worked with my group for a number of years here in the Richmond Hill area, although they also write for people around the country. The music is all original from composer-arranger Stan Phillips (son of one of the former band directors here at Richmond Hill High School), and the drill was custom written for us by Michael Thomas. The parts that made it outstanding included, among other things, Tai Chi being performed by the entire woodwind section during the opening moments of the show, while a voice over, voiced by the actor who played Shredder for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, explained that the group would be going into battle and needed great training. The concept of martial arts body movement, drill work by Marlon Smith (including fans, flags, and assorted props) made this show one that stands out in my 21 years of teaching bands. We knew we had a winner when we swept every possible award at the prelims of one of the marching contests we attended and then swept the finals against bands much larger than us. Daniel Kiene is director of bands at Richmond Hills High School in Georgia.

Brian Willett: We recently put together a field show titled, Tribute, with a patriotic theme throughout. The show incorporated military memorials as props. We used Iwo Jima, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and Arlington National Cemetery in front of backdrops of the Vietnam War Memorial. We used the drum line as living props when they dressed and posed as the Korean War Memorial during our ballad. I think it is important to develop a culture in a program in which the director is open to working with the staff. The creativity of more minds is vastly improved over what one can do alone. I have been fortunate to work with Lee Gibson of Dance Sophisticates as my visual coordinator, Albert Lilly as my music arranger and assistant director, and Colin West as my guard director for most of the past 15 years. We do a nice job of complementing each other in what we bring to the table and present to the students.
   This particular show held such a commanding air about it because it was intensely personal. We used five sections of the Vietnam wall as our props, and they were 8’x12′ snapshots showing the names of five soldiers who died from Morgan County, where Monrovia High School is located. One of the fallen was from our hometown. My team and I had actually discussed this show for several years prior to putting it on the field, but it hit too close to home while my brother was serving 18 months in Iraq. The key to any great show is for students to buy into the concept. We took the field last year with a group that believed the message they were sending and that made it incredibly special for them as well as for the parents, staff, and audience members. We preach that each player should Do Your Job, and when we had audience members chase us down in tears as we were leaving the field into the parking lot each weekend, the students truly felt that they accomplished their goal. Brian Willett has directed the Bulldog Brigade at Monrovia High School in Indiana for 15 years. His groups have earned numerous honors including two-time Indiana State Finalist and two-time Bands of America Grand National Semi-Finalist

What is the most ill-advised marching show or idea you have ever seen?
Stephanie San Roman: Probably the worst show I’ve seen was a Riverdance program. The concept itself was not that bad; there is plenty of good celtic music for marching band. However, the show itself was based around one color guard member who did Irish dancing in front of the field the entire time. She was great, but the show was about her, not the entire group. It was a potentially good show that needed to integrate all parts of the group more.

Patrick Hayes: While The Champs 1958 hit “Tequila” may seem like an innocent and fun stand tune, I’ve seen it add hurt and insult to a homecoming football game. On homecoming day students arrived at school to learn that three of their classmates had been killed in a drunk driving accident. Students and staff suffered through an emotional day and home football game. During halftime, the band presented a fitting musical tribute to the students. In the fourth quarter, the band director had the band play “Tequila,” one of their favorite stand tunes. Part way through the song, the director realized his error, but the hurt had already been done.

Joe Craig: Possibly the most ill-advised show I have seen was a Winterguard production from 1997 that dealt with death and demons. It was simply too dark for high school students. The skill of the group was obvious, but the plot was truly unsettling. One of the performers even simulated a hanging death. It was really not appropriate.

Daniel Kiene: The most ill-advised show also belongs to me. I decided to do an iPod show where the band performed music from a variety of styles and pop artists. We made giant white iPod classics and had the guard use them as their main prop. Unfortunately, there are limited movements and uses for 2 foot by 3 foot iPods, and this wore thin very quickly. Further, we attempted to incorporate different marching styles including high step, show, and corps style marching. Teaching one style well takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to produce a recognizable style, so using various styles was not a wise plan. We also at that time used stock arrangements from a popular band music catalog, so there was little consistency in instrumentation, style of composition, and musical quality. I have spoken to a lot of directors in the last few years and when someone hints at a pieced-together pop show, I zealously try to talk them out of it.

Brian Willett: The least favorite show I have been a part of was one we had very high hopes for at the start of the season. This was my lesson in making sure that the goals of my leaders matched the goals I believed they could accomplish. It was also the end of allowing a senior class to talk over underclassmen. I have found that my groups have been immensely better when there is not one class with a sense of entitlement. 

What is the most valuable piece of marching wisdom you have learned or borrowed over the years?
Stephanie San Roman: The success of the final performance is a direct result of how much you can accomplish at the first rehearsal. This has been a huge motivating factor for me, and the idea transfers to all other areas of music and life. If you have 200 hours of rehearsal time and waste five minutes of each hour due to poor focus, that is nearly 17 hours of wasted time. We all wish that we had one more week to prepare before a big performance. If you could use those 17 hours more effectively, the extra week would be gained.

Patrick Hayes: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Different areas of the country put different emphasis on marching band. In some places, the marching band may only play at home games and may even leave after halftime. Other parts of the country expect the band to perform whenever the football team is in public. Regardless of your own feelings about the educational value of playing seven minutes of music for months on end, consider what the marching band means to the school and community. When entering a new position, learn what traditions make that band unique and do not change them. 

Joe Craig: The most valuable wisdom has been simple: know your band well. If you know the strengths and weaknesses of your musicians, you will always pick music that the band will be able to perform well. If you know how the band marches, you will be able to give more specific guidelines to the drill writer. If you know what students enjoy performing, you will pick shows that they like to perform, which in turn creates a more exciting product. Finally, if you know your students, you will know their parents and can build the support from the community.

Daniel Kiene: Far and away, the most important piece of wisdom is that you can’t do it all yourself. It is important to use your strength as a coordinator to get the best people doing what they do best to make the program successful. Let your best clarinet work sectionals, while you make sure that the best arranger is writing the music and the best drill writer is working with you on drill. Many skilled hands make the work much more manageable. Your job is to make the overall group successful, not to protect your own ego by trying to do everything yourself. Amazing parents, great kids, and great creative partnerships will materialize when you move out of the way and let them get involved.
   This does not require a huge budget, but rather that you use resources wisely. Let good college students come in and help teach drill. Invite universities to use your class as a lab for their students to get their feet wet with a real ensemble. Have parents with mechanical skills maintain equipment or build props. Invite the community to invest in your group through donations that can be used to purchase music or drill. The more you allow the stakeholders to have some ownership of the program, the more everyone will pull in the same direction.

Brian Willett: There is a vast list of marching tidbits that I have stolen from great directors and friends over the years. It is important to remember and to remind students that no one is as good as all of us. Lead by example and you will bring everyone up in the process. Any director who tells you that they do not borrow and steal techniques each and every year they do the job is a bad liar. I have the luxury of being near some spectacular programs in central Indiana that are three and four times the size of my program. I observe and ask questions. One of the biggest mistakes I made early in my career was in not using all of my resources. This will help you strike that balance between running a group and the life you lead at home. For me, that involves being a husband, dad, coach, and member of the community. If it would help to type it twenty times, I would write, A great parent organization is vital for the success of your group. If you can provide a product that is good, parents will rally to you. You need to have the trust and support of the building principal to promote your program when others want to tear it down. Understand that what you do for students is immeasurable. You get to teach the life-long skill of making music that also comes with side benefits of leadership, teamwork, dedication, inspiration, and work ethic in a goal-driven activity that will feed these students long after they pass through your classroom door.

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