Report: Designing A Marching Band Field Show

Mike Lawson • Performance • May 13, 2009

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Whether for the halftime show of a high school football game or for panel of judges at a national competition, a marching band field show combines several critical elements to entertain, inspire, and engage audiences. The coordinated combination of music pageantry should be designed to create a unified presentation of a musical, visual, conceptual, or abstract theme.

Every band director and his or her staff will have a slightly different process when it comes to building a show, but the basic steps of planning and design, implementation, and execution remain fairly constant. SBO recently caught up with three experienced and successful drill writers who shed some light on the process when putting together a field show, from conceptualization to the finished product.

Charles “Chip” Richter, a freelance drill designer and associate band director at Alief Taylor High School in Houston, Texas, begins by brainstorming music. “The first step of designing a show isn’t even a formal step,” he explains. “We sit down as a staff and start listening to different music that we like. For next year’s marching season, we already started listening last fall. Right after marching season ends, we get together and talk about what we liked from that year’s show, how various things we did affected the audience or the judges, and come up for goals of what we want to do the following year. At that point, we can start putting those thoughts together with the musical ideas that we’ve got rolling around in our heads. Really, it’s not until about January that we start getting serious about moving forward in a particular direction as far as what we’re going to do the following year.”


Once Richter and his colleagues have come up with a few ideas, they solidify their planning. “In January or February, the head band director and I will sit down and share ideas, whether those are themes or specific music. The last few years, we have focused more on our home crowd. Often, bands get caught up in trying to be heady or surreal in order to appease judges, but we have decided that while we’re going to do whatever we can to be musical and effective for the judges, we really want to concentrate on our home crowd. So we’ve done shows based on R&B music the last few years, and our crowd has really gotten in to it.”

Performing for an audience of Division I college football fans, Jeremy Pratchard, the associate director of bands at the University of Arkansas, has a slightly different agenda when thinking about the following season’s shows. “The concept is the first thing we have to figure out,” notes Pratchard. “We have to decide what kinds of shows are going to meet our needs. A collegiate band like what we have here at the University of Arkansas will do four or five shows each season, depending on the schedule. We try to choose show concepts that will be appealing to college football fans in the stands, but at the same time give good, practical lab experience for our music education students. Balancing those two criteria is really one of the trickiest aspects. We try to present a diverse cross-section of styles.”

Darrin Davis, the marching band coordinator for Broken Arrow (Okla.) High School and a drill writer with over 17 years of experience, uses two distinct methods to design a show: either building music around a theme or developing a theme around specific music. “We’ve taken two drastically different approaches that have both been successful for Broken Arrow High School,” says Davis. “One is that we’ve come up with a character-driven concept of what we want to see or what we want to portray and then we match musical ideas or motifs to further illustrate that concept. The other is that we just pick good music for good music’s sake and then develop a visual program that portrays the music appropriately.”

Davis continues, “What has worked for us and what fits our character and what we like to portray can be as literal as a person or a figure in time, or a concept of a time period. From a designer standpoint, how I view the design process, each year is extremely unique so we let whatever circumstances we find ourselves in dictate to us what the needs may be or what the show’s program is going to be. For example, a year ago, we thought we were going to do build a show around an old famous movie actress. When we began working with the students in our band and color guard, we noticed that they were really good at specific performance skills. So we evolved the show away from that character we had initially selected to being more about what the students naturally excelled at which in this case happened to be a model walk. So we ended up building the show around the theme of runway models. We definitely want to play to the strengths of our students and also infuse those strengths with our personal preferences while trying to create something fresh and unique.”

From Inspiration to Design
The flexibility to allow a show to develop naturally is key. Chip Richter uses a process of repetition for inspiration. “Rather than come up with a theme or a story line, I let the music write the drill,” he says. “I listen to the music over and over again, and as I’m listening to it for about the hundredth time literally then I’ll actually start to break down the count structure. That’s when I put marks where I think a 16-count move might work, where a stand still needs to happen, where we’ll need to drop in a percussion break, or when there needs to be a big guard hit where they need to be integrated into the band or featured out front. At that point, the music starts to take over the design.”

Making the initial score marks can be among the most painstaking aspects of designing drill. Richter notes, “Sometimes getting that first page done might take a week. What kind of look do I want the audience to see before we ever play a note? It’s got to look great. And I’ve also got to decide what the music looks like in the beginning: is it expanding? Is it in your face? Is it quiet? What is it?”

Once that decision has been made, it’s important to proceed carefully. Richter tries to stay two or three sets of whatever he’s writing at the time. “For example,” he continues, “if I’m writing something flowy, then I have to think, ‘where’s my next big hit?’ This means being aware of what’s happening 32 or 48 counts ahead of time, trying to figure out how I’m going to maneuver everyone so that they are where they need to be for those critical moments. I have to come up with something that is visually appealing and has a motion that works, but ultimately gets those people where they need to be. That’s really important and, in some respects, it’s more staging than anything else. I figure out where my staging moments are and what I want them to look like, and then I spend the rest of the time filling in the gaps in between those moments.”

Jeremy Pratchard also starts his planning by looking at the peaks in the music: “Once I sit down and start writing drill, I begin by figuring out where our big hit points are within the show and try to get a nice storyboard mapped out, beginning to end, and where the climax is, and how the show is going unfold. Then we try to put transitions together that are going to make the whole story evident throughout the drill. Once we’ve got all of that down, it’s a mater of getting into the music itself and finding how the music lines up within our storyboard going through phrasal analysis of the piece itself and trying to find the big moments where we’re really going to get some crowd interaction. In the collegiate atmosphere, we want as many moments as possible where the crowd is going to ooh and aah. We’re trying to elicit as frequent a response as possible.”

Pratchard then tries to keep it simple. “Everything I design drill-wise takes students in a straight line path,” he notes. “If you can’t go straight, don’t go at all. That makes transitions so much smoother for us, if students can just go from point to point. At the same time, they have to realize that it’s not all about the dots, because those are just singular counts within the piece, but we’re talking about what the transition is like between the dots, because that’s what makes up the visual content.”

The other concern Pratchard must contend with is logistical in nature. “With 320 or more people on the field at one time, space can be a serious concern so when I’m coming up with the visual design, I do everything I can to use space efficiently and also to convey velocity,” he says. “I achieve this through step size or by making smart staging decisions so that the audience’s attention is where I want it to be during the show.”

Darrin Davis and the staff at Broken Arrow take a similar approach at this step in the process. “We look at the timeline of the big moments in the music and plan what we want to see and what we want to accomplish visually at those points,” Davis explains. “That allows us to go back and fill in the blanks when we have a more complete outline of what we want to see later in the process. From there, it’s literally the nuts of and bolts of using the charting software to put the ideas together and make sure that they’re married from an artistry standpoint. It’s critical to make sure that what you see on the field corresponds to what you hear, and what you hear makes sense with what you are seeing.”

Fill in the Blanks
With the primary “hits” or “staging moments” decided upon, the next step is to come up with choreography that fill in all the points in between. Chip Richter, Jeremy Pratchard and Darrin Davis all turn to software at this point, eschewing the graphing paper approach in favor of sophisticated technology that facilitates visualizing drill maneuvers, synchronizing them with music, and much more.

“I’m not one of the pencil and paper guys,” avers Chip Richter. “I graduated college in 1996, and when I was studying drill in class, we spent half the time with pencil and paper, figuring out algorithms, and the other half using Advantage, which was the drill design software program at the time. We spent time figuring out how many people can fit around a certain sized circle and the mathematics of all that. My second year teaching in high school was the when I designed my first show, and by that time Pyware 3D had basically taken over. It is such an effective tool that I’m able to play around and look at pictures on the screen as if I’m drawing them out by hand. Using that software, I can configure a move and it’ll tell me what the step size would be, so I can see if my kids will be able to perform the maneuver while playing their instruments or if I need to adjust the picture. It allows me to monitor what every student is doing and make sure that what I have planned is going to work for each person in the band. My mantra is that I want my kids to look great playing and sound great marching. We want to be able to do both.”

The alternative to using software, according to Richter, is cumbersome, at best. “The other option is to put your band on the field and just move the band members around, one at a time, saying, ‘Then you go here and you go here,’ until it all works out. Some directors can make that work, but I just can’t. I see that as not an effective way, for me at least.”

Darrin Davis keeps his options open, using the software only as a rough guide to preliminary ideas. Maintaining flexibility when the students start to work out the design on the field is also important to make sure that the show has enough energy and flare. “As much planning as we do, once you put it all to work on the field, you always want to keep monitoring and adjusting,” Davis says. “Sometimes we end up going in a different direction once we see it on the field. You can visualize what it will look like the charting software is very powerful and it will let you produce an animation of what you’re going to get before you actually teach it to the students so we already know that what we chart for the students is going to work, but for that extra bit of coordination, that pizzazz, whatever, you always make adjustments so that those moments that stand out are as powerful as they can be.”

Show and Tell
One of the major benefits of modern technology is to be able to simulate a completed performance. “I’m able to upload my completed drill, including music synced up to a completed animation of drill transitions,” says the University of Arkansas’ Jeremy Pratchard. “The students can download a viewer and watch the simulation online, just like I see it on my computer. When I design the drill, the last step is to assign each of the dots in the simulation by position (Horn 3, for example) so the students can click on their instrument and their parts will be highlighted, allowing students to see exactly where and how they are supposed to move around during the show.”

The latest versions of drill design software offer new possibilities for sharing show designs with students. “From first rehearsal,” says Pratchard, detailing the evolution of the technology, “we’ll pass out coordinate sheets to everyone in the band. We used to copy the actual drill sets and pass those out to everyone, but that was extremely cost prohibitive, especially for bigger shows that had many sets. When we changed the software we use, it made things much easier because now we can print out sets in quarter-page size and the kids can know exactly where they are supposed to be at any given time. We laminate those smaller printouts, punch a hole through them, and put them on a lanyard, so the students can wear them around their neck during rehearsal. We have done away with the notebooks and three-ring binders that we used to use. This new system eliminates a lot of the debate on the field about where everyone is supposed to be, and that allows rehearsals to progress much more efficiently.”

Before Chip Richter and presents the show to the Alief Taylor marching band, they first prepare the field. “We go out before we ever start introducing anything to the students and make a four-step grid across the entire football field, marked by dots (every four steps),” explains Richter. “We use fluorescent marking paint to mark coordinates over the existing football lines, and that really helps the students visualize where they are supposed to be when they can see the field as a graph.”

Once the field has been properly marked, the students are given either drill charts, coordinates on the field, or both. “A lot of times, students have a hard time visualizing what the entire picture is supposed to look like, so what we really like to do is give each student a set of coordinates and then give the section leaders actual charts, so they can make sure that everything looks the way it’s supposed to on the field.”

The Pride of Broken Arrow rehearses in a stadium with Astroturf, so Darrin Davis has had to devise a non-permanent method of marking the field. “We put down poker chips,” confides Davis. “Every student will have four different colored poker chips, and we lay them out in order of where their first four set points will be, from lightest color to darkest. So we can put four different pages of drill on the field at any one time. If we put more than that on the field, it gets pretty confusing, so we stick to four sets at a time.”

Closing Moments
Moving from the design process to some of the more basic elements of teaching and rehearsing drill, Darrin Davis recommends teaching the fundamentals at the beginning of each year. “We educate kids on how to read a drill chart every year,” says Davis. “I always assume that my students are complete beginners, even though I have some veterans every year. We go through the same initial steps in what I call my ‘Drill Class.’ We do this because I believe that you can teach things halfway several times and still not get the results you want, or you can slow down, take a little bit of extra time and really get the fundamentals down, so that the students learn it right. We start pretty slowly, but I find that as the season moves along, the students get much more experienced about how drill works, so we end up moving faster and faster as the season progresses.”

The other piece of advice that Darrin gives is to keep an eye on the big picture. “It’s important not to get so caught up in the minute details that you lose the big picture of what’s happening on the field,” he notes. “Don’t get so caught up in specific moves or musical parts that you lose a sense of coordination between all of the elements. It all has to work together; the director has to be responsible for the entire package.”

Chip Richter agrees, acknowledging that getting caught up in the details can have an adverse effect on the overall show. “I probably spend a little bit too much time trying to make every picture look nice,” admits Richter. “One thing that took me a long time to learn as a drill writer is that if you’re going ’16, 16, 16,’ and you’re not going ’16, hold, 16, hold, 16, hold,’ then every set happens so quickly that the audience and the judges aren’t going to dwell on those images. It’s important to concentrate on the motion, and really pick the spots to speed up and slow down the movement.”

Jeremy Pratchard, meanwhile, stresses the importance of building a solid base of drill knowledge. “Nothing beats being able to develop the vocabulary for whatever transitions you are going to design by watching good drill and finding designers that you feel have a good style that you might want to emulate,” declares Pratchard. “Study drill the way you might study the English language. Young children learn language by imitating what their parents say; it’s the same thing with drill design. Look and see what works, what people are using, and then use that to develop your own vocabulary and your own expression. Once you have that, the only thing limiting you is your own creativity and your own vocabulary.”


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