UpFront: Drill Design for Band Directors

Mike Lawson • May 2003 • May 1, 2003

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The most important characteristic a show designer must have is a creative mind. This cannot be taught. Although a person knows all the various drill movements, this does not necessarily mean he or she can combine them in a creative way that relates to the music. It is the same as a composer, artist or writer. You can learn all the rules and techniques, but to formulate them in an artistic production requires a creative mind. The drill designer must be able to listen to a musical phrase and visualize movement that interprets it.

The second most important characteristic is the music education of the show designer. It is very important for marching band show designers to have a strong musical background. They should have a degree in music education to have a complete perception of musical literature, form and analysis, and a knowledge of all band instruments. Ideally, it is important to attend a university that also has a qualified person teaching the marching band techniques class on show designing. This will form the foundation of show designing and indicate whether you have show designing talent and enjoy writing drill. If you lack the basics of drill designing, attend workshops, study books and analyze copies of drills and videos. The purpose of studying drill designing is to learn the concepts of another designer – not copy them – so that you can create your own style of writing. The more sources you expose yourself to, the easier it will be for you to create original designs and become a successful show designer.

If a show designer has a music education degree, he or she also needs to have experience teaching high school concert and marching bands. To design a show, you must know the capabilities of all levels of students and how they learn both music and drill.

It also is very helpful, but not required, if the show designer has had drum corps experience, either as a playing member or staff person. This background will determine the maximum limits of show designing and marching but, more important, how drill is taught and learned. These techniques can be applied to all sizes of bands. There are distinct differences between designing for a drum corps and high school band because of the talent level and rehearsal time. Designers must be exposed to each, so that they know the limitations of all types of groups.

You must also know your own limitations. Do not take on more shows than you can produce and do not design for a band for whom you are not qualified. There never needs to be a situation where a designer has to quickly design a few pages overnight to be learned by the band the next morning. This leads to careless writing and slipshod teaching. It is very different designing for a very large or small band, or for a competitive or young band. All are completely different. At first, you should design only for the type of band with which you are most familiar. A designer must also know of the standards of the band. An outstanding or average band in one state may be quite different from a band in another area.

Always remember, as a drill designer, you are an educator first. If it is a good band, your job will be easy; but, if the band is weak in areas of playing and marching, you must use your expertise to design a show that will help the band members be successful according to their abilities. Often a band only needs a well-designed show. It is as exciting designing for an inexperienced band that wants to be successful for the first time as the traditionally notable band.

Designing the Show

Once the designer has determined the abilities of the band, the designing can begin. The director should plan with the staff any props and guard work before the show is written and convey to the designer as much information as possible. Planning is extremely important to the designer. I find that the more information from the staff, the easier it is to design a show.

The show designer must spend a lot of time analyzing the music before anything is written. The more complex the composition, the more time that is spent analyzing it. Often I must spend many hours studying the score before writing can begin. Every formation and transition must relate to the musical phrase. When you create a transition, you must feel confident this movement exactly matches the music. This is why your music education background is necessary. You must understand the emotion the composer intended and reflect that in the movement. It’s the same as if you were creating a dance movement to the composition. You must understand the form of the music, the cadences, counterpoint, key changes, tempos, style and much more. You cannot listen only to the recording; you must study the score to visually know what the composer intended and what each section of the band is playing.

If I am writing to an arrangement of an orchestral work or a jazz composition, I will listen to it in the original form to understand it thoroughly. When you can understand and feel the emotions that the composer intended, it is very easy to create formations and movement. Generally the ideas come within seconds. The music is your guide. It is telling you how the instruments will be staged, how they will move and how they will end. Also, you must visualize the movement and placement of the guard. They are the “icing on the cake.” They will reinforce the emotion of the music and the movement of the instruments and produce color and motion to the audience that cannot be conveyed through sound and band movement. Each transition should be an audio and visual experience that reflects the composer’s music. The more substance the music has, the more involved your designs will be.

Often when designing to thinly scored music – which may be used by a young band – you are going to use your imagination to produce more visual excitement than the music has to offer. You must step outside the music and create clever movements that will make up for the deficiencies of the music. This can be very difficult at times. You have to have a “bag of tricks” for those occasions.

Designers must have all possible movements mentally available so that when they hear a musical phrase they can instantly relate to it visually. This is why it is so important for novice writers to know what other designers have used. “We are not trying to reinvent the wheel.”

There are always many variations of a movement you have seen, and when you can add a different “twist” to the concept it is very satisfying. One example is an experience I had last season with a simple “follow-the-leader” movement. The situation was a phrase that indicated a sudden flurry of movement. I could strongly visualize all the winds in a formation with many snake-type curves. I set this formation up as indicated, four counts before the impact. I moved everyone doing a “follow-the-leader” backwards in the snake formation, taking four 22.5-inch steps. Then, on the first note of the impact phrase, they changed direction and moved forward with the horns to the press box, and changed to a 30-inch step, which created a lot of velocity. The guard was integrated within and around the snake formation and did an intense flag routine as the band wound around them.

While designing, strive to develop your own style and original formations and movements. Always put a variety of movements in a drill and continue to change the look of the formations throughout the show. After a few pages, I find a drill begins to take on a character of its own, just as the music does. I am constantly developing changes in my drills. Each year, I get bored with the type of movements I did in the past and always start the year searching for new variations of movements. I think of previous years’ ideas as the past and always look forward to a new season knowing I’ll be developing new ones. A designer’s style should be constantly improving. This doesn’t mean that I will not use a formation or transition a second or third time if it is perfect for a musical phrase. You can never anticipate when your next profound moment will occur. You may be excited about copying a clever movement you saw in another show, but when you create your own, you’ll have a greater reward.

Here are a few basic designing techniques to keep your show interesting:

  • All formations or transitions must be staged properly and reflect the musical phrase.
  • When the style of the music has a sudden change, then there should be a sudden surprise visually in your drill.
  • The drill should also have peaks and valleys as does the music.
  • If you have a beautiful melody, then create original formations with a graphic tablet.
  • If the music becomes repetitive, use rotating or expanding geometric formations such as blocks, wedges, etc., to keep the audience’s attention.
  • Constantly change the focal point on the field. Set up and feature instruments that have the melody. Switch between featuring the brass, woodwinds, percussion and guard as the music guides you.
  • Keep the guard very active during exciting musical phrases. Do not think of them as an auxiliary or secondary unit.
  • Make your drills unpredictable most of the time and predictable at times so your audience is not confused.
  • As the show develops to the end, design more recognizable formations and transitions for the audience.
  • Show designers must learn to design drills regardless of the size of the band. The number of persons should not be a factor when designing an arousing show. A band with 32 persons can be just as stirring as a band of 132. [To view Dan Ryder’s article on “Exciting Field Shows for Small Bands,” visit http://www.sbomagazine.com/sbomag/may02/upfront.aspx.]

Dan Ryder has been a professional show designer for more than 25 years. He has custom-designed more than 900 shows for high school and university bands. He has presented clinics and workshops throughout the country and has written many articles and books on show designing. He was a band director in Pennsylvania and Texas before becoming a professional show designer. He is an elected associate member of the American Bandmasters Association and belongs to the NBA, TMEA and TBA. For more information, visit www.danryderfielddrills.com.

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