Friday, August 12, 2011

Excellence in Execution

I did something last night that was undoubtedly the musically geekiest thing I've done in decades. Which you'll have to put up with here if you continue reading. But first, some background...

Marching bands aren't a big thing in Montana. For a number of reasons. Primarily because we can have a foot of snow on the ground by mid-October. No one wants to be marching in that! Secondly, the concept of "competition" doesn't really exist among music educators up here. When HS bands go to district festivals, it's to be adjudicated and given feedback to improve performances. There's never a "top band/choir/jazz band/orchestra" designation. Keeps the performing groups closer to an educational thing, rather than a competitive sports thing. This is not to say that there's not some sort of marching going on. Gotta entertain those football fans at halftime, don'tcha know? But they're very basic moves, and not a great deal of time goes into preparation. Even at the college level here, it's fairly rudimentary. Which makes sense...it's mostly Montana kids in the marching bands.

However, this is not the way it is in most of the rest of the country...

Yesterday afternoon/evening I spent five hours at the local theater watching a simulcast of the preliminary round of the Drum Corps International (DCI) World Championships. And true to Montana--there were five of us in a 192-seat theater. If you've never watched a drum corps performance, you really should. It's hard to describe it, other than to cast aside any precepts of a halftime show, and ignore anything you might have seen in "Drumline". Top drum corps are a multi-million dollar enterprise, with touring buses, equipment semi-trucks, absolute top of the line musical instruments, uniforms, staff, practice facilities...the list goes on.

My first exposure to drum corps was the day-long drinking parties at my college band director's house watching videos of prior championships. While we didn't try to emulate any of them, we did steal their music. He would transcribe (by ear) the arrangements he really liked. In any case, I was hooked, and the yearly PBS broadcast of the Championships were always a party!

I haven't really kept up with DCI over the past few years, so I was curious about how things changed. I had a mixed reaction, but mostly positive. Such as...
  • MUSIC--These groups have their own staff arrangers, who arrange literally every type of music out there. Last night's show had some Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Mozart, just for starters! Throw in some jazz, contemporary classical stuff, classic rock and you end up with quite a mix. None of this is anything you'll hear a pep band play at a basketball game though. Much of this music is difficult while seated, let alone having it memorized while running all over the field! There's actually performance CDs that corps put out of their music over the course of a season. No comment on whether or not I might own one or four of those...
  • MARCHING STYLE--This has changed some. The constant is that you're almost always moving. And no one person has the same drill as the next. Marching sideways, ahead, behind, double-time, half-time, in place--it's all there. There's sometimes a little more 'freestyle' motion than I like too, but when the time comes to conform, it happens in a snap! Also a bit more 'dancing' than I like. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. And there's much more emphasis on using the entire football field, which sometimes requires full-out sprinting! While playing difficult memorized music while running all over the field!
  • CONCEPT--A lot of concept goes right over my head. "The white fabric represents those souls who have fallen..." No--it's a white fabric that's covering up half the color guard. I don't get it... Each corps approaches this differently. Some of it is spectacular. Some of it isn't.
  • DESIGN--This is one area that has changed drastically. Back in the day, shows were designed after considerable hours of pencil-breaking, erasures, failures and fudges. Today, it's all done on computer, and the shows reflect that. Designs and movements that no person could configure one their own. Shows that used to be quite symmetrical are rarely seen. There's constant movement, with maybe a static image on the field for a single count. If you were to follow a single person through an entire show, you'd be amazed at what routes they end up taking! And I'd say that at least 95% of what is seen on the field is scripted. Arm movements, head movements, placement of the feet, direction of where you're playing...lots to think about. While playing difficult memorized music while running all over the field!
  • DRILL--This is where the execution comes in. You cannot believe the precision that is needed to make the design come to life. While playing difficult memorized music while running all over the field! There's YouTube video clips of what happens when that precision isn't there. Particularly when you've got a line of musicians marching backwards. If someone has been bumped, or gone down, the next 6 or 7 players don't stand a chance of staying on their feet! Lines passing through each other, with color guard flags or rifles flipping around you, and an occasional field judge getting in the way--everything has to be absolutely precise! Of course, these people spend at least 12 hours/day on the field in rehearsals and preparations. And when final standing scores come down to 1/10ths of points out of 100 points, you'd better be as close to perfect as possible!
  • BRASS--Back in the day, they used modified bugles with only two valves (opposed to three on standard brass instruments, or none on a true bugle). It appears now that the bugles have been replaced by three-valve instruments. No trombone slides, but a marching equivalent with valves. The brass playing is generally outstanding. Especially considering that no players are older than 22! As the players have gotten better, their arrangers are constantly writing music to test their limits. While playing difficult memorized music while running all over the field!
  • COLOR GUARD--This is one of the areas where I've been disappointed. I could watch a color guard spin their flags or toss their rifles all day. Unfortunately, at some point they were allowed to also include what can only be described as modern dance--another thing I'll never understand. Depending on the theme and the concept, there might be 2-3 "dancers" running all over the field with what appears to have nothing to do with the music. Almost like this whole production was somehow put together to support only them. I hate it. It's unnecessary. And frankly is a FAIL. What's worse is when half of the color guard abandons their props and joins in on the "action". Then they con some of the brass players to help out. Ugh... Keep the guard on the flags, rifles, sabres, poles and other props please!
  • WOODWINDS--There are none! Though, I can almost sense the day that saxes might be allowed. Which would be a shame.
  • PERCUSSION--Since the "D" in DCI stands for 'drums', I should mention them! Actually, the big change is that rather than keeping the snares in one line at all times, they actually move away from each other a lot. And there's a great deal more 'running' by the entire section than I ever remember. Also part of the percussion is the "pit". These are the mallet players who are stationary on the sidelines, in front of the drum major. Back in the day, they had to haul them around on the field, but since the rules changed, the pit's function has too. Rather than carrying small marching xylophones and bells and tympani around, they now play full-sized marimbas, chimes, cymbals, bass drums. These musicians work just as hard as the on-field members, even though they're not moving as much. There's a dozen or more players, with half of them playing marimbas, usually in unison. And generally faster than God ever intended the marimba to be played! It's really quite scary how musically talented these kids are! The biggest disappointment was that electronics are now allowed in the pit. So almost every corps has a synthesizer player that will play sound effects, samples, or actual piano. A couple of corps had a drum set player (seems redundant), and one even had an electric stand-up bass! Next thing you know, they'll start using a string section...
So there you have it. If you've read this far, you're as geeky as I am! One thing I hadn't realized is that Indianapolis has been the home for the World Championships for 8 years now, and will continue into the foreseeable future. Methinks that I might have to start making my plans for DCI '12! Mere and Maggie--are you listening?

7 comments:

KaziGrrl said...

LOL
You reminded me of my drill camp days (I was a drill instructor for our marching band in high school, big fun!) We never won any prizes, but did go to NY to march in the Macy's parade one year. :)

~Kazi

The Smoking Redhead said...

Miss you!

Anonymous said...

YouTube.com has several bands and videos from previous years. It's a far distance from pounding a bass drum marching across the football field and what these pros do now adays.

Cheeky Minx said...

Who would have thought it was such a complex science?!

Since marching bands aren't really a big facet of Oz culture, I thank you for the lesson...

NIHH said...

I love to watch a marching band, I haven't seen one for a long long time. There is something about the rhythm. All very very talented and done with such precision.

viemoira said...

I always learn interesting things abut music over here! I never thought about all the things that go into marching.
~viemoira

boneman said...

OK, now, hang on a minute...
Does that mean you're aiming at coming Indy way fot 2012?
If it's early enough (this January, say) then the Super Bowl will be meeting for a little get together...well. Unless they go back to talking a good game...
NFL...go figure.
But in any case, if you cruise by, do say and I'll get some band member to come talk about how come Brass rules and Strings drool.
Over some Mexican chow, maybe, eh?

Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out if you're "drumming" up support for Brass bands/Marching bands, or if marching bands is the theme.