Blending Band & Guard

By necessity or by design, marching organizations are breaking down the barriers between band and guard.

Open the show with a mellophone solo. Dance. Dance while playing a cymbal. Spin a flag. Back to mellophone for the big finale. Victoria Rose Vertucci, a member of Inertia Independent Winds from Madison County, Ohio, moved through the group’s 2015 show in that order. Emily Andrews played flute, trumpet and danced with a cymbal. Thoren Long danced and then played trumpet, bass drum and baritone sax. Each person in the 15-member group performed similar progressions in its WGI Winds World Championship-winning program.

Whether on the field or floor, the lines between band, guard, drumline and dance are being blurred—if not broken down completely. Smaller groups in particular have become increasingly creative as performers move back and forth from band to guard or play multiple instruments in one show.

“They have limited resources; they have limited participation; they could be in a really small school,” says Kriss Davis, executive director of Inertia. “The opportunities for the designer to be able to literally pick those 10 people over there to pick up a flag or those 10 people as they move through a form on the other side to pick up a new instrument, it’s a pretty gutsy move, but when you’re small, you have to be noticed.”

Bigger Bang

While not a new concept to groups like Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana, and Jackson (Mississippi) Academy, this trend has increased in the last few years with the advent of WGI Winds or as a necessity for smaller groups wanting to leave a big impression.

“With the smaller group, for me, it’s proven sort of essential because the tools that are available to larger ensembles aren’t available to us,” says Jonathan Lischak, band director at Ada (Ohio) High School. “With only 40 members on the field, I can’t really look at them as three trumpet players and four trombone players. I’ve got to look at them as 40 performers and utilize them as appropriate throughout the program to create the maximum effect available to us.”

Ada’s guard members sometimes pick up instruments and play to add to the sound—or band members put down their instruments to spin flags or do visual dance moves.

“If you want a big musical impact, we’re not going to get that by telling my 18 wind players to play louder; we’re going to add some of the color guard girls to do that,” Lischak says. “Or if we want to make a big splash visually with color guard, we may pull some of our marching band members out to help us do that.”

For the students, filling multiple roles throughout a show can lead to a greater sense of utility.

“[During a brass feature, my] three flutes aren’t contributing much at that moment, and they know it; the kids can hear it on the field,” Lischak says. “So when we say, ‘OK, we’re going to take you guys to join the guard for these 64 counts,’ they embraced the opportunity to be more involved in what’s going on.”

Davis and Inertia Independent were inspired by the new WGI Winds division and put together a small, close-knit group of members that went on to win the inaugural Independent A class championship. “There were no rules that we couldn’t do anything one way or another, so we decided that we were going to do everything we love,” Davis says.

Every member of Inertia performed multiple roles and learned a new skill throughout the season, whether it was multiple wind instruments, percussion, flag work or dance.

“Every single kid that we had had to learn something new,” Davis says. “We want everyone to be able to do anything in the show, and we need to be able to train them and teach them to do it. I can teach anybody anything if I’m given the chance and they have a good attitude about it.”

Lifetime Learners

Davis and Lischak (who also works with Inertia) soon found that band and guard members are already predisposed to learning additional visual and musical skills. Davis compared it to the common practice of band directors asking students to switch to low brass or something else to help balance instrumentation.

“So there’s a certain point in every student’s musical life or visual life where they just understand—their feet work together, the body processes are easier to understand, they understand about gestural movement, they have it in their head, and it just happens to them,” Davis says. “All of that plays a real chapter in being able to jump on something else.”

The common concepts of rhythm, moving in time, tuning and visual expression all lend themselves to multiple disciplines. “Once they are learning one thing, it become very easy to teach them something else,” Lischak says. “It’s just the mechanics of the new instrument you need to pick up. You already have the musical talent. Even from a dance or color guard standpoint, once you’ve learned to march and feel a tempo, it’s just another way to try to have you express that visually.”

Sometimes little new teaching is needed as many students already play multiple instruments, and many guard members get their start in instrumental music before color guard is available.

“All of our guard girls are band members, and that’s not always common,” says Jon Shultz, band director at Lake Hamilton High School in Pearcy, Arkansas. “So what we wanted to do is have a way to use our guard in a unique way that not all people are able to do. It also allows our girls to play their instruments all semester long.”

In 2014, seven members of Lake Hamilton’s guard opened the show with a tribal percussion feature, and then the entire 35-member guard played a woodwind feature.

“What we’ll do is we’ll sit around as a staff and talk about what we have,” Shultz says. “What great musicians we have, do we have any special talents, can a kid do a trick with a weapon that most people can’t do? We’ll make a list of things and start figuring out how can we incorporate this.”

Cross-Training Issues

While most students find it exciting and fun to try something new, not everyone can always do everything—whether it be due to physical/mental ability or just a bad attitude.

“By and large, kids love it,” Lischak says. “But every so often, especially when you try to move your guys into a dance feature or express a visual moment, you’ll have some guys that kind of roll their eyes a little bit. But with the majority of the ensemble buying into what’s going on, it’s a lot easier to pull those other kids along.”

Sometimes it took trial and error to find the right fit for each performer. “Were we always successful? No,” Davis says. “There were just some people who couldn’t do it, so we found other ways for them to be successful.”

Lischak suggests starting a student on something simple that they can quickly master to boost their confidence. “I’m not going to take a band kid who’s never spun a flag before and hand him a flag solo for 30 seconds,” he says. “We’re going to find something that they can do. It’s a matter of slowly moving them into that and making sure that you’re always giving them a role that they’re going to be able to feel comfortable with and still perform.”

Loopy Logistics

Another interesting challenge is the logistics and setup of multiple instruments and equipment on the field. For example, this year Lake Hamilton has 37 performers including pit, and they need to bring out at least one instrument per student, 66 pieces of guard equipment, 10 percussion instruments that need to be rolled out, and three wind instrument duplicates for students who end up so far from the spot they left their instrument originally that they need another on the opposite side of the field.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge to get everything out, but we’ve got parents to help move stuff and crews that are coming on and off the field with us to help make that stuff happen,” Lischak says. “So, yeah, it does take a little bit of planning, though.”

Additionally, with guard members playing instruments or students picking up new instruments mid-show, there may not always be sufficient time to warm up. Lake Hamilton tried to prevent any mishaps by having the guard’s woodwind feature near the beginning of the show.

“With wind instruments, you gotta make sure that their instruments are ready to play,” Shultz says. “You have reeds that you make sure are wet. You can’t just pick up a clarinet that’s been lying on a sideline for five minutes and expect it to play well.”

Uniforms can also disrupt the visual effects when you have people switching to multiple roles. For Inertia and Ada, all performers wore the same costume.

One Big Family

Walking in each other’s shoes has helped the band and guard members appreciate how much work everyone puts in.

“It’s been a really good experience because all the kids now know each other,” Shultz says. “They understand the commitment it takes and the work ethic it takes.”

For this first year of WGI Winds, no one at Inertia was quite sure what to expect, but they were thrilled when their investment paid off in the end. “It wasn’t like they all just said at the same time, ‘This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!’” Davis says. “We had to show them why we needed to do this. This is why I am so proud of them. I’ve never worked with a group of kids that grew together so closely. They knew they were something different and special.”

As the barrier between instrumentalists and guard breaks down on the field, it also disappears off the field. “Some of the other programs that I’ve worked with are really separated,” Lischak says. “You’ve got the band, the color guard, the drumline. You watch them at lunch, and they’re sitting at different tables. Our kids in this program have stopped using ‘band,’ ‘color guard,’ to describe the different groups in the marching ensemble, and now it’s just ‘us.’”

About author

Elizabeth Geli

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor of Halftime Magazine and a journalist/communications professional in Southern California. Her 11 years at the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band included time as a flute player, graduate teaching assistant, and student advocate. She holds a bachelor's degree in Print Journalism and master's degree in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

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