Winter Guard Opportunities

Mike Lawson • Commentary • November 1, 2003

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The conclusion of marching band season can leave a void in the lives of those percussion and auxiliary performers who have connected to audiences throughout their fall season. Many, however, eagerly look toward an even more specialized focus for their particular talents, as winter competition for percussion and color guard flourishes throughout the United States, Canada and now in Europe and Asia.

Music programs are growing significantly with the inclusion of this special opportunity for students in these two areas. While concert band develops that mature and beautiful indoor sound that is the essence of music programs, the winter activities for percussionists and guard members yield the same level of excellence and development for these students. When the school year ends, all members of the band program have enjoyed their own special emphasis, moved to a new level of achievement and supported one another in a growing family of musical and visual excellence.

Leading the development of the winter guard and indoor percussion activities is WGI Sport of the Arts. Winter Guard International (WGI), a non-profit organization, provides competitive opportunities for more than 1,000 color guards from 35 states and five countries through regional and international contests each year. More than 350 percussion lines from 23 states compete in winter contests annually.

WGI was first organized in 1977 with a desire to offer a set of unified rules and a common scoring system for color guards who wanted to meet in competition. The first year, there were three regional contests and a championship of 30 guards all competing in one class. Today, WGI offers 20 regional contests in the United States and Europe. There are six classes of competition for color guard and eight classes of competition for indoor percussion.

Several years ago, it became evident that the future of the activity lay with the scholastic units who today comprise 70 percent of the participants. With such a high level of scholastic participation, WGI took a good look at the topic of competition and weighed its merits and its potential issues. At that time, an educationally-based curriculum was created to serve as the basis for the scoring of all performances. The “edge” was taken off the topic of competition, because now we could motivate our students toward greater discovery of skills while still giving them a level playing field. This curriculum encompasses physical, mental and artistic development and a clear-cut set of parameters to guide and measure growth. Scholastic groups have a separate classification from independent groups (units with no scholastic affiliation), yet all compete within the same contest, enjoying one another and learning from each other.

Both the WGI color guard and percussion divisions, led by music educators and professionals, ensure that the emphasis of this competitive experience is both educationally sound and focused on the achievement and esteem of the performers. Even more important than achievement are the life lessons experienced through being involved in winter guards or indoor percussion lines. In a day and age where team efforts and accountability are rare among youth, these students learn the best of these qualities participating in winter pageantry all the while creating memories they will carry for a lifetime.

While many will argue against the concept of competition, nonetheless we live in a competitive world and owe our children the right to be prepared for that experience. In the winter competitive arena, they learn to respect their competitors, to set standards and work relentlessly toward the achievement of those standards. They push themselves beyond levels they never dreamed they could reach. They acquire qualities all too often not found in their peers. They combine the finely honed skills of the athlete with the adventurous and creative spirit of the artist. They learn the skills to be responsible adults and active members of a community.

The percussion division of WGI was created in 1993 for indoor marching units to present a mini-stage show. They lost no time in recognizing the needs of the music education programs, and quickly established a concert division where the obligation to “march” was removed. Today, many serious musical groups explore original compositions and work to advance the performance skills of their students with unique and entertaining programs.

Over the years, California has produced the largest number of groups to participate in WGI competitions, with well over 400 guards and over 100 percussion lines. In 2004, the Sport of the Arts World Championships will be held in San Diego. The event will cover three days of exciting performances as a culmination to a season of growing and challenging the countless young performers who will participate. Eight sites will be used for the first day of competition and five sites will house the balance of the contestants following that first day of elimination rounds.

If you have never seen one of these events, then please go to a local winter pageantry show or plan to attend any WGI event. The World Championships will be held April 15-17 in San Diego. If your group is not yet a participant with WGI, be assured that you will be welcomed and supported by the educators who steer this fast-growing organization.

Today we are faced with the loss of financial support in countless music and arts programs across the country. All too often, the public is unaware of the tremendous contribution made to our students through music and performance. Funding a winter color guard or indoor percussion line is hard work. Without a doubt, it challenges parents to fundraise to support the opportunity, but the results are incredible: watching a group filled with pride and commitment perform.

These winter activities provide a public venue that calls international attention to the young people who comprise its membership. At a time when the news media focus on young people involved in the horrors of drugs, crime and the challenges of growing up, the pageantry world sets a stage where young men and women are represented in a positive light, exploring musical and artistic standards and learning how to function in a society where everyone is expected to “carry their fair share.” These are the students who will perpetuate the standards and values given to them and pass them on to their children.

Shirlee Whitcomb is the WGI Color Guard Director of Education. For more information, visit

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