Questions to ask yourself
before you make that call.
This Month’s article was written by Shannon Jeffreys of SCJ Drill Designs.
For the past 10 years, I’ve been lucky to work with and meet many fine band directors and I’ve notice a common trait in some of them: they don’t exactly understand what they want from their drill designer. I’m going to say that 90% of my initial meetings with directors go like this:
“What is it that you are looking for in terms of a design”?
“Um… well… I want something that is going to work on Friday nights and, I guess… um… help us do well at contest… maybe”.
Do you see the issue? Does this sound like you?
Now I’m not knocking you as a director, I get it. You had a few weeks of a Marching Techniques class and now you are thrown into the high pressure world of marching band design. You want to teach music, not design shows. You might not know where to begin, but knowing a few things before you get on the phone with any drill designer will help you set up your program for musical success.
You need to think about your answers to the following questions prior to speaking with a drill designer:
- What is the goal of my program for this season?
- Where do I see my program in 5 years?
- What is the talent level of my members and how mature are they?
- What are the talent levels of my auxiliary programs?
- Will we be going competitive this season? If so, what is the judging community like in our area?
Let’s break these down a little more and look into why these questions are important for us drill designers.
The first two questions go hand in hand. If you see your program being non-competitive in five years, make sure that your drill designer clearly knows that the show is designed for the Friday night crowd. Now if you want a competitively designed show, dig a little deeper. You want both? You want a well done show that is designed to be competitive on a judges sheet but filled musically and visually to get the popcorn eaters out of their seat.
The five-year plan is vital to designing a competitive program. I believe it is not wise to tackle a highly competitively designed show that would do well on a BOA judges sheet if you have never had experience with one before. Chances are that you, your students, band parents and administration will not be happy with the results. Would you tackle a grade 6 concert piece if your kids have only performed grade 2/3 level music? Exactly!… The same goes for drill.
Talent level: This is obvious and your drill designer will ask about it but look into it deeper than what you think. Personally, I find that nearly every director gives their members too much credit and ends up programming a show that is just a little too hard. Give your program an honest assessment and take away your optimism for the upcoming season. Know where you strengths are visually and most importantly, musically. There are tricks I can do as a drill designer with voice staging that can help out with balance issues, cover a weak section or put the spotlight on your strengths. Maturity plays a role too as teaching something as simple as a plié can lead to many giggles. If you have many giggle boxes, you might want to wait before you add a lot of body movement to your show.
Keep this in mind in terms of talent level. I’ve found that bands experience better results when they can say at the end of the season: “We could have done a little more”. Think about that before you call your drill designer.
Guard… Oh how I can, and eventually will, write a separate article on this.
Today, the visual activity is very guard-centric and the judges look at it heavily. When you looked into that 5 year plan, I bet you didn’t think about developing your guard. Am I right?
Your guard will be the second thing I ask about after your musical strengths. Any quality drill designer will do the same. I want to know about your guard designer and their background. Will that designer know how to write around drill that requires layered work? Will they understand that if they have been writing work they will, more than likely, have to change it because of drill demands? Will they be mature enough to change their work or will they huff and puff about it? I’m really being serious, guard designer and drill designer relationships are very important! An honest assessment of your guard program, at the five-year level, is needed if you want to become a high-caliber program on a state or national level.
This is why I consider guard demand separately from drill demand. If a guard is very weak, it can actually be a danger to your winds if I integrate them very heavily. At the same time, an inexperienced guard designer will not know how to deal with writing a book that goes with such a highly integrated style of staging. I have designed shows that are easy on the guard and have simple guard integration but give the wind players more of a challenge. I’ve even done the reverse and designed highly integrated guard staging into simple drill for wind players.
Your band is non-competitive? You still need to take this into thought; an integrated show can lead to a very entertaining product. Do you have a majorette section or a dance line? Think about their talent level too, we might want to feature them into a design a little more.
Now let’s touch on a different subject that many directors don’t think about when they get that first job or move to a new area. What is the judging community like? Are they trained? Are contests caption judged or do they have 3 or 5 “band” judges? These are very important questions to ask yourself. A local band director that is judging will look at a show differently than that drum corps drill designer behind a BOA sheet.
I have seen a magnificent, highly integrated and creative 90 page drill show loose to a 15 page show that featured a 2 minute standstill. Why? Because it was a “little” cleaner. Some contests simply do not take into effect demand. Untrained judges do not recognize the difference between forced and unforced transitions or simultaneous demand. So if you are going to frequent “How well you do what you do, with what you have” contests, do yourself a favor and skip dumping thousands of dollars on a show that will be judged at the same level as a stock ordered show. At the same time, don’t take that 15 page show to BOA, you won’t be happy. Oh, by the way, that loosing band won their class at a BOA regional the next week.
When you have answered these questions, you will be able to accurately tell your drill designer what you are wanting from them. In return, you and your students will end up with a package that should insure your success and allow you to do what you do best… teach!
Shannon Jeffreys is a respected designer from Alabama and owner of SCJ Drill Designs. He has marched with the Blue Stars Drum and Bugle Corps and has taught and designed for many different groups. Mr. Jeffreys was the visual designer for Decatur High School in Decatur, AL when they became the first Alabama based band to win a “Best in Class Award” at the Contest of Champions in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in the events 49 year history.