Design: More Than Notes and Dots
Welcome to late December. Throughout most of the United States, competitive marching band is done or is winding down. Football is entering the middle stages of play-offs, and many a sousaphone are shuttling off for a good post-season cleaning. It’s time to begin designing next fall’s marching band show – a task that elicits every manner of reaction from directors across the spectrum.
One of the things that has always intimidated me in the design process is the balance you have to find in your final product. I’ll get into my definitions for these terms below, but to me you have to strike a balance between three basic domains to have a successfully designed show: Education, Entertainment, Art.
Educationally you need to meet and slightly push the skill level of your students, the needs of your given competitive circuit, and the stage of conceptual development your ensemble has reached.
Entertainment can come in many guises – this does not mean you need to “dumb-down” or otherwise lobotomize the product that will work so well for your students to grow as musicians. But you do need the band parents and local supporters to get behind what you are doing on the field, their word-of-mouth is more valuable to you than any trophy or medal. Sometimes it’s the music you perform that resonates with the audience, sometimes it’s one or two drill sequences that they really enjoy. The best advice I can give is to ask your clientele what they’ve liked in the past.
At my current school, I noticed that our crowd went wild for military-style marching bands – being only an hour’s drive from College Station and the Texas A&M Band primes that pump. So rather than fight it, we integrated several quasi-military maneuvers into our show – things that showcased contrary motion in blocks and lines. The band never received more praise for their contest show than when those effects hit well – even from the crowds at football games.
Know your audience – give them a taste of what they want. If your clientele have a strong like for “show band”-style performances, but you are tooled more for corps-style education find a vehicle that allows you to throw in a little of that style of performance. It’s not selling out, and nor is it opening the door for further encroachment – format it well, and it won’t look out of place at all.
Artistically, my advice is to play it safe. There are a handful of groups out there (LD Bell HS, Avon HS, Marian Catholic HS, Carmel HS) who have the chops to push the activity forward through what they create. Everyone wants to design one of “those” shows (e.g. Bell 2008, MCHS 2001, Avon 2004, Carmel 2002) but not everyone’s staff and/or performers is a) ready for that or b) able to pull it off. Those groups have matured and grown through countless years into what they are today – you aren’t going to bust out of Grover’s Corners tomorrow and dethrone them. Maybe down the road, but not today.
It’s far better to create something that you find aesthetically pleasing and balanced, and let that package stand out against the field. So many shows try to be more than what they are, and 99% of them make the performers look bad in the process.
Don’t try to sculpt the Pieta on your first (or fifth) pass – make something that looks good, flows well, and completes its ideas. You will stand out with that product, I promise.
Now that you have a framework in place, it’s time to start throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks. This can take a while, as most music you listen to that you like will invariably include things that won’t work for your needs. Heart-rendingly gorgeous as it is, most groups can’t (and shouldn’t) attempt Mahler 2. Likewise, Symphony for Band by Persichetti is amazing music, but would not translate well onto the field.
Hopefully you are able to work with a team, as those collaborations often yield the most refined and targeted productions for groups. Your team can include the band staff that works with you throughout the season, your music arranger, your drill writer, a program coordinator you bring on just for this process – the list is limited only by your resources and tolerance. Be sure to include people who have a stake in the band’s success – either directly through their teaching or indirectly through their design – they have a vested interest in creating a product that will make the group look and sound good.
The flip-side of this coin, however, is that designing as a group can be very challenging. Egos, vendettas, passive-aggressive tendencies, megalomania – these land mines have all derailed the creative process in groups at every level. This can make it an easy decision for a director to assume all creative control and box everyone else out, but this is a mistake. It yields a far better result to include everyone in the process – both in the product and in the instruction.
The trick is to lay down some ground rules (e.g. ‘stay away from jazz’ or ‘nothing faster than 192’ or even ‘start with this genre or period of music’), check everyone’s egos at the door, and then brainstorm with wild abandon. Take your time doing this – either online (use a wiki or google docs) or in person (Post-It meeting pads are great) – this can and should be a weeks-long process. No one’s ideas are good or bad, brilliant or stupid – the wheat will separate from the chaff before long. People will start to build on the ideas that are good, and then go from there.
Once you’ve got the skeleton of your show – which should be roughly 30-50% more than you need – go back and look at how it syncs with the three domains we discussed earlier. If you’re fulfilling all of those with what you’ve put together, then congrats! You are well on your way to strengthening your band program through multi-faceted success in the fall!
So long as you are honest with yourself, communicate openly with everyone involved, and keep your eye on the prize (which is students achieving excellence, creating music, and becoming self-led learners through their preparation and performance) you WILL be successful – both metaphorically and competitively.