Using traditional instrument cases as well as blankets and bungee cords, marching bands take many precautions to protect their equipment while traveling.
It was my second year performing with the Riverside Community College indoor percussion ensemble, and we had just switched the brand of front ensemble instruments we were using. As we unloaded the truck at our first performance of the year, we spotted one marimba that looked especially impacted from the drive. We uncovered the keyboard to find that the resonators had fallen out of place and, in the process, damaged the previously flawless frame.
Even though we had used all of our prior knowledge about protecting equipment in transit, we were not prepared for this mishap. We learned how to prevent this situation from happening in the future by securing the resonators to the frame with bungee cords to minimize jarring in travel.
As my own experience illustrates, knowing how each piece of equipment is best protected in transit is a large responsibility for every performing group.
Loading a truck is a common denominator for performing groups. While most horn players carry their instruments onto the bus, tubas, percussion instruments and guard equipment are loaded into a truck.
Each truck comes equipped with various levels of unique storage for instruments. From custom-built drum bays to cubbies for guard equipment, schools make efforts toward the best care for their equipment.
Cases are the first level of defense. Hard and soft cases provide different levels of protection for the instruments.
Gator Cases provides a range of materials from sewn nylon all the way to flight-rated road cases. “We use heavy-duty nylon materials,” says Brian Larsen, web marketing manager at Gator Cases. “Our molded plastic cases are made of a dense polyethylene plastic, which is virtually indestructible. Our flight-rated road cases are made of thick plywood covered with a PVC coating and tough aluminum valance.”
Case companies constantly modify and improve their models to provide the best protection. “Our cases have gone through many different revisions,” says Suzy O’Dwyer, sales executive at Protec. “For the most part, we try to keep our cases refreshed every one to two years [by] adding or removing features.”
Most marching bands try to use hard cases for the drums and tubas that are transported on the truck. However, fewer cases are made for large keyboard and mallet instruments, so groups need to improvise. The frames are often strapped to prevent movement, but some schools go a step further and break down the instruments to the core, packing each element separately.
“We took off all microphones from under the instruments, removed cymbals and accessories and placed those in cases and bags,” says Nick Medeiros, the 2010 percussion captain for Chino (Calif.) High School. “We then took off the auxiliary bars from the keyboards and stowed those away separately.”
Medeiros says that the staff members also cover instruments with blankets to help securely pack them into the truck.
Colorful guard equipment also gets transported on the truck. Depending on preference, some groups like The Blue Devils (BD) Drum and Bugle Corps from Concord, Calif., choose to have guard members pack items in individual bags while other ensembles like to have each type of equipment categorized into group bags.
Christopher Morris, color guard director of Central Crossing High School in Grove City, Ohio, likes to have each set of fl ags in a unique bag in order to quickly identify that the correct number of pieces are present. He prefers not to have individual bags for transport because they are more easily overlooked in transit. He has a similar strategy for transporting rifles.
“Sabers, however, I tend to have each individual carry with them during transit,” says Morris. “Cold sabers have a propensity to snap, so I like to keep them as warm as I can for as long as I can, and I don’t know many heated box trucks or semis.”
BD members store all of their guard equipment in individual bags, including sabers, while they are on tour during the hot summer months. These bags are secured in a cubby on the truck. According to BD member Lexie Fetty, the bags are stored vertically, so that sabers won’t bend, which could happen when stacked.
Uniforms are transported on the truck or on the bus with the performer, depending on preference and often the distance of the drive. In any event, uniforms are placed in individual garment bags that help protect them from wear and tear.
The marching band at University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville has a uniform crew of student leaders who are in charge of organizing, cleaning and transporting uniforms to performances, rehearsals and other events.
The students place the individual garment bags on rolling racks organized alphabetically.
When traveling by air, band members check the smaller instruments on the flight while staff sends larger gear by truck ahead of time.
Some case manufacturers offer unique products for air travel. Protec has a case designed for carry-on, and Gator has an entire line of molded plastic cases with a specialized Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lock, which allows the musician to lock the case before checking it. TSA security agents have a master key for inspection, allowing it to pass through security checkpoints, Larsen says.
Marching bands rarely check their large equipment on a plane because of cost and logistics. Semis and trailers are sent well in advance to their destinations. In preparation for the longer trips, extra measures are taken to ensure that the equipment will arrive safely. “We use straps to secure cases and bins on wheels and may use additional straps to secure larger drum cases,” says Danny Moylan, a fourth-year member of UVA’s marching band and the drum line’s equipment manager.
Marimba and vibe keys are often removed and wrapped in blankets. The rattling of the truck for longer trips has potential to damage the keys if the resonators jar too much. Also, in the event of rain and leakage in the truck, the keys are better protected off of the boards.
Through Wind and Rain
Since weather can create extensive damage on equipment and instruments, groups are forced to come up with strategies for rainy days. Morris believes the use of good electrical tape when wrapping or adhering guard equipment can best protect the equipment against weather.
“When a flag becomes wet, it is heavier and will pull with greater force against the adhesion point and risk separation,” Morris says.
Depending on the field, the color of the flag and the time of the year, Morris says he may use practice fl ags in lieu of show flags at a performance. “If I have white show silks that cost $50 per pole, and it is early season, I am less apt to use it if it is raining,” he says. “Sometimes protecting your investment is prudent versus taking the hit a bit on the GE [General Effect] side, especially when it is early season.”
Similarly, the UVA drum line has two sets of drums, one set for rehearsals and a different set for performances, Moylan says. The performance drums have soft cases as well as hard cases to keep them in the best condition possible. Soft cases help protect the shells of the drums from bad weather.
Sound equipment is the most delicate in wet weather. Groups have tarps and poncho-like solutions for covering the equipment. Chino High School has tarps with each electronic component. “We also travel with several easy-up tents to prevent electronics from overheating or as an extra precaution to rain,” Medeiros says.
On and Off the Field
Even if equipment arrives safely to the performance site, getting on and off of the field also presents hazards, especially for the front ensemble and guard equipment.
Front ensembles do their best to avoid rugged paths that create wear on the instruments. While in transit, vibraphone pedals are raised to avoid getting caught on anything that could bend the pedal. When approaching curbs or speed bumps, marimbas are lifted in order to prevent scraping of the resonators.
Brandi King, front ensemble section leader of Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, says that help from parents is crucial to protecting instruments in transit. The parents get the equipment off of the trailer and are assigned to move specific props and instruments.
“They guide the instrument along the walkway to make sure they don’t fall apart or get stuck,” King says. “They also do not let the kids take on their own instruments by themselves until they know that the kids can handle them safely.”
Color guard members protect their equipment in various ways. After warmup, each person rerolls the flags and generally bands the top with a black hair tie with no metal components, Morris says.
When setting up for performances, guard members make sure the silks are not opened before they reach their preset locations, and then they place the flags under the poles to avoid wind from opening the silks prematurely. This setup also protects the flags from being stepped on or tripped over, which can damage the silk.
All of the bands’ precautions to protect their equipment will result in a better season overall. As the crowd goes wild and the last note echoes through the stadium at the end of each show, the performers parade their way off of the fi eld and back to the truck. Uniforms are placed in garment bags, and the routine of disassembling, wrapping and loading commences again.
About the Author
Lydia Ness is a senior journalism student at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., with experience in visual, print, broadcast and public relations. She has performed in the Glassmen, the Bluecoats, and The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps as well as the Riverside Community College indoor percussion ensemble. She teaches the front ensemble at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, Calif. Lydia plans to go to law school in fall 2012 and focus on international justice.