Best In Show: The Planning and Execution of Marching Band Field Shows
The memory is etched into the minds of anyone in attendance at the Florida A&M versus Prairie View Texas football half-time show many years ago. After the show was completed by the high-energy Florida A&M Band, the outline of the state of Texas from a show formation could easily be seen ground deeply into the turf by the high stepping band.
That show, and almost all others across the country at that time, were designed and created on a table-top field layout with miniature figures very similar to lead toy soldiers. Formations were simple and straight-forward including block letters and logo shapes like maps. Movements were simply moving from one formation to another without appearing to be a chaotic scramble. This is still an option in practice in many places, but other current technology solutions, options, and approaches are also available and are in very creative use. So what has changed? The current options available to a band director include complete show designs with all the music and field movements provided, movement plans or music components only, or only utilizing tools that assist in the design of field shows. In most cases printouts of the movements are available for each rank of the band. Even more recently the need for printouts has been eliminated by use of mobile devices such as iPads and smartphones. This not only avoids supply costs but assures that everyone always has the most current update of the show design. Some of the pre-packaged shows provide a measure of territorial exclusivity while others make no such effort or claim. Consider the purpose of the show. Marching band shows are a combination of musical and visual elements coming together. A football half-time show is entertainment and a competition show highlights a number of different competencies in the marching band unit. What does a director have to work with? The number of band members, the time available to create the show design, the time to communicate and practice the show and whether band is a priority in their student band members’ lives where everybody is BUSY! Gary “Mr. G” Gribble has been the band director at Pope High School in Marietta, Georgia for twenty-nine years. In the early years, his field shows were designed on a cork board with map pins representing the various ranks of the band, or in some cases, individual performers, soloists or props. Band at this school at that time was a major, much sought after activity, with many talented students participating. Today, with the many activities that are available to students that come from an upscale population, the numbers of students willing and able to participate in a marching unit that requires extensive practice has declined. The Pope solution currently in place has two marching units. The competition band that later will participate in the band competitions and the “Friday Night” band that performs at the football halftime shows. The competition band, in addition to the class time, regularly practices drills at least three days a week after school, performs at football games most Friday nights, travels to at least three out of town competitions, and has a one week required summer band camp. They perform part of the band’s competition drill after most home football games as a form of practice and also may perform in parades and other special events. The Friday night band only meets after school on Friday for a brief rehearsal, changes into their uniforms and then plays and performs at the game. They have the option of participating in parades and special events but do not participate in any competitions. This level of activity only requires part of one day of the week with no class-time commitment. By comparison, a much smaller high school and band struggled with numbers of students and their level of commitment. Hometown interest had waned even though there had been a strong band heritage in the past. High school football is so important in this area that a very successful newsstand magazine exists that covers these athletic programs. Band was a distant second. This was seen at every game when the stadium emptied at half time and hot dogs took precedence over the band’s half time show. Solution in this community is still very much a work in process. It included making the band popular with the spectators as well as the students by developing popular show themes with familiar music that is interesting to the students and to the parents and townspeople at the game. “We try to make the band and its performance fun for everyone…students and attendees!” explained Liz Savage, the band director, herself a Pope High School band alumni. Over the last few years the band participation has grown and the stadium doesn’t empty to the concession lines at halftime. The band is becoming popular again and is now even planning to make a major trip in two years that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. What both of these two organizations and their directors have in common is the process of creating field shows. Field show, or drill, design is a blend of art, craft, and technological skill with a heavy dose of passion. Are students involved in the show creation? The answer at both of these high schools was no. “The students trust the outcome judging by their reaction and enthusiasm they have with the shows that are put in place,” offered Gribble. The steps, with some variations and latitude, include looking at the overall show concept, design and pacing considering strong and weak sections, potential soloists when considering the music. Pacing is a mixture of tempo, complexity and texture so it ebbs and flows to avoid becoming monotonous or boring. Big moments are distributed throughout the show. The process is designed to free the creative talents of the team. The band director along with their faculty and talent team brainstorm a concept and specifics such as formations and music. Then they utilize software tools and frequently some outside, talented specialists for the actual detail plans and execution. The goal is to satisfy and inspire the students and to draw community involvement in the band and its performance. The shows should be challenging, educational and fun for all the participants (bandsmen, faculty and staff ) as well as the spectators, whether general audience of friends and family, or adjudicators at a competition. The Pope High School competition marching show design process starts with a staff meeting in December or January to research potential musical selections and themes. Once the music is selected the staff will meet again to begin design of a visual concept. If the music needs custom arrangement, we would send it to an arranger. If music is already suitably arranged for marching band, this step is unnecessary. By May, the show concept and edited music steps are completed. Also discussed are possible visual interpretations, props and costumes. We then would send all these materials to our drill designer and will receive our finished drill package by early July in time for our required summer band camp. All is in place prior to school opening in August. “Our drill is written using Pyware software so that we can see a video of the show as it will look not only in motion, but from audience perspective. Special effects, props and costume construction are then undertaken,” added Gribble. One drill designer added, “Have other, outside eyes review the planned show for any possible misinterpretation of formations or movements. Last fall, a well intended moving formation depicting a college mascot in battle with a famous movie image was seen by the spectators as an inappropriate sexual activity and resulted in much embarrassment, fines levied and a brief suspension of that band’s director!” Other Director Resources gpgmusic.com - GPG Publications offers drill design services to compliment any pre-written or originally-composed marching or indoor show johnfanninmusic.com – Offers music design, storyboards, plus flag, guard costume, prop, electronic audio, and drill design services. The Pyware package from Pygraphics is particularly comprehensive and mature field show design software solution. Now in its ninth version it includes a number of creative options combined with viewing interfaces including individual handheld devices. This solution offers numbers of individual components and levels of capability each individually priced allowing an incremental growth of capability and spreading of initial costs. See pyware.com. Other software solutions are available with differing levels of capability and associated cost. Among these are Field Artist, now at its third major version stressing reasonable cost and its 3-D viewing capability. Field Artist provides an online “game” version as an introductory tool. fieldartistcentral.com. How would/does a band program and its director migrate from an older methodology technology to these new tools? Involving experienced drill designers and other professionals is one answer. Education from the software providers, books and workshops is another. One such source is Dan Ryder (danryderfielddrills.com). Based on the Pyware offering, Ryder has just completed his sixth edition of Techniques of Marching Band Show Designing, now a comprehensive/ massive 500+ page manual. An associated training workshop is also offered which builds on this book and years of show design experience. The content of this book is applicable to any solution. Canada-based box5software (box- 5software.com) has created EnVision - Visual Performance Design which includes 3-D design, animation and tools for drill and show design. They also offer an online forum for questions and discussion about show design. Creative Solutions (creativemarchingsolutions.com) offers complete bundled shows with music and arrangements for bands with limited time or budget to create shows. Shows are graded for complexity and competence level. They also offer field design services. Bandtek (bandtek.com) also offers drill design and complete show packages as a service. An interesting online resource is marching.com which is an online bulletin board of news and photos that might serve as an idea generator or source of supplies and information. Regardless of which approach is implemented, the finished show is intended to demonstrate competence and provide both entertainment and an educational experience for audiences, competition judges, student band members, faculty, and staff.