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Whose Show is it, Anyway?

Mike Lawson • October 2010 • October 13, 2010

During the past few months of examining the performance literature for instrumental groups, we have debated the trends and specific attributes of new material being composed for school music groups and, in particular, programming for outdoor performance ensembles. Reader reactions have been plentiful, and in some cases impassioned. One particularly interesting and noteworthy response comes from Tim Hinton. Tim is an accomplished freelance composer/designer/fitness consultant who can be found at www.timhinton.com. As a professional who both writes musical scores and designs visual programs, his is a significant and considered perspective. Enjoy his thoughts on the conversation!

“Who are we writing the show for, the judges or the audience?” Whenever I ask this question, every single client always says, “Both,” because we all want our audiences to love our shows, while also ensuring our groups do well at contests. And my goal as a designer is always to make the show effective and to move the audience in some way. That’s how all great shows should be. Or so I always thought•

I am disturbed by many of the recent trends in our marching activities that seem to move away from these basic tenets of show design. These include choosing music that seems to be a “means to an end,” rather than a moving experience, and trends in the visual show feature a “glut of complexity” that I find exhausting. All of this seems calculated for scores rather than moving audiences. Let’s explore these concerns in terms of both the musical and visual elements.

Music Concerns

There was a time in the early •90s when a debate raged about what music was appropriate for the field. A number of groups were stretching the boundaries with some very challenging classical music selections challenging to both the audience and the performers. I remember sitting in Jackson, Miss. at DCI ’93 and, just before one group began to perform, an older gentleman sitting next to me leaned over and said, “And now for 10 minutes of silence!” Fast forward to 2010, and another ensemble was entering the field, everyone was saying, “And now for 10 minutes of noise!”

The thing that concerns me is that back in the early •90s I was enthralled, excited, on the edge of my seat. Far from boring silence, I found these shows to be incredibly musical and engaging. Today, I find my level of interest has changed. I realize that personal taste and experience come into play, but my gut tells me that something else might be going on.

It has always been my belief that in a great musical production, we plant a seed and then nurture it over the course of the show, so that it grows into something exciting, moving, and wonderful for the listener. But some current groups seem to have gotten away from this concept.

If the music only serves the purposes of the visual effects, with no melodies or through-composed thoughts, it feels like eating a platter of sugary runs from woodwinds, a giant plate of potato notes from the brass, and lots of empty calories from musical effects, which might fill us up, but don’t leave us with any nutrition or true satisfaction. When groups omit real musical substance, it feels like the audience is being manipulated by these musical fireworks just to get us to clap which we do, but then the empty feeling returns and we’re left with no memory of the meal at all. Real nutrition, like real effective music design, is work.

Another element directors should carefully consider when working with arrangers is maintaining a respect for the original composition. At times, it seems like some groups find this less important than their desire to satisfy their own thirst for creativity. When a number of disparate compositions are thrown together in seemingly irrational ways, it can lead to what some have coined as “unnecessary creativity.”

Unfortunately, I’ve found that on some occasions these musical choices are being rewarded by the judges, and thus reinforced in the activity. However, I am certain that these very talented arrangers and show designers could create original and exciting arrangements which take fewer liberties, but thrill us more• if the judging community rewarded them for their efforts.

Visual Concerns

It seems that we live in a “short attention span” society. No one has time to listen to an hour-long symphony and hear it develop and grow over time. Who has time to read an 800-page novel and be moved by the development of characters and story over a span of time? We all go to the movies to watch some exciting action sequences, but the current fad of short cuts and fast flashes of shots makes it totally impossible to follow the action.

When shows are so busy, and have seemingly five, 10, or 20 things going on at the same time, I find that they are impossible to watch. I call this trend the “glut of complexity.” It seems that it’s now required to have many, many things going on at the same time in order to satisfy a judge’s opinion that a show is effective and worthy of high scores. I couldn’t disagree more.

Rather than having numerous things going on at the same time, why not try controlling our focus and shifting the top responsibility from one group to another? I find that these “super-complex” shows are like watching a video screen with constantly flashing images that change constantly. What am I to see? How can I focus? Even a three-ring circus rotates from ring to ring.

I always work from the tenet that the visual designer’s job is to control the focus of the show. A great show always tells the audience where to look at any moment, and a good drill designer can use this to great advantage by highlighting performers and music, while also hiding weaknesses or creating surprises for the audience. If the audience is going to be engaged and moved by a performance then it must be taken on a journey, guided by the performers and the design to know what to watch, what to feel, and then grow to a place where they’re emotionally involved. I want the audience to feel something.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, it could be that some designers are creating “needlessly creative” music books and “overly complex” visual programs because they want to win. And as long as judges are rewarding these kinds of productions, all those whose goal is “to win” will follow the path. There is no doubt that the music arrangers and drill designers writing today are incredibly talented and passionate about their work, so perhaps the bigger issue is with the judging community, which seems to be encouraging a direction that I feel is less effective, not more.

Our goal as directors and designers must always be to engage and move audiences with both music and visual design. I hope that both judges and designers will take a step back, remember our roots, remember why those shows were effective, and reconsider what is being given credit. Today’s shows are less effective, not more, and I worry about the direction we are headed, if we don’t stop and have a conversation. We’re losing audiences and participants as we’ve lost our way.

Back in the early •90s we faced a challenge and the activity found a way to take this “new” music and discover ways to keep the audience engaged. I hope that these new trends find similar methods to moderate and not leave generations behind. Are we only writing for a video-game generation who needs constant stimulation and can’t hold a thought? We all love our activity because it has the power to move audiences and performers in a very special way. Let’s not lose that. Let’s talk!

Dr. Joseph H. Allison is currently professor of Music at Eastern Kentucky University, serving as the director of bands and Graduate Conducting Activities. He taught in the public high schools for 18 years, where ensembles under his direction regularly appeared in regional and national settings. His Sumter (S.C.) High School Bands were the first internationally to be awarded both the Sudler Flag and Sudler Shield for concert and marching excellence. Dr. Allison is in demand as an adjudicator, clinician and consultant for concert, marching and jazz events throughout North America, Europe, and Japan.

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