College “Class” in WGI

In recent years, the number of college-affiliated indoor marching groups has seemingly exploded. Why? And how do these programs experience unique benefits and overcome their own sets of challenges?

Photo of Riverside (Calif.) Community College by Ken Martinson/

An English-literature student by day and drum line section leader by night, Morgan Chan is thrilled to have been in one of Arizona’s first WGI Independent World percussion groups since 2007. Even more so, he is proud to represent his school—Arizona State University (ASU)—on this national platform.

“Being a Sun Devil is something the members and I are insanely proud of,” Chan says. “We finally have the opportunity to blend our percussion passion with our school spirit! Arizona State is here to stay.”

Chan is part of the growing number of performers in winter drum line and winter guard ensembles affiliated with colleges or universities.

Growing Trend

In WGI Sport of the Arts, colleges compete with other ensembles in Independent classes that can be comprised of college students and/or non-students. The majority of the Independent groups originate from standalone not-for-profits, not affiliated with any school. However, more and more universities and colleges are participating in these Independent classes.

Directors attribute the growth to a variety of reasons, including the ability of these groups to strengthen the overall marching band program at their schools as well as for students to pursue the dual goal of higher education and performance.

“Having an ongoing type of ensemble year-round creates more musicians of higher caliber and educates far more students,” says Roberto Paz, ASU’s winter drum line director and program coordinator.

Tyler (Texas) Junior College (TJC), started a winter drum line in 2005 to expand the school’s total percussion program and to keep students’ skills improving in the “off season,” according to Thomas McGowan, associate director of bands and applied percussion instructor. McGowan also believes it is important for music education majors to experience indoor marching percussion.

Missouri State University color guard director John Sullivan also sees the benefits of students performing in both semesters. Winter guard has been a part of Missouri State University since 1987, with the school making its first WGI World Championships appearance in 1989. Now the university has two guard groups—The Pride of Missouri State and National Avenue—which are both competing in WGI Independent Open class this year.

“Riverside Community College (RCC) was the groundbreaker in the activity for university groups, and it has been exciting to watch the number … participating in WGI grow over the last several years,” Sullivan says.

Gary Locke, director of the RCC Marching Band and RCC Drum Line, was hired to start the band in 1984. In the beginning, Locke taught separate woodwind, brass, percussion and color guard classes to help strengthen the entire marching program through its core parts. Eventually, the color guard and percussion classes turned into competitive WGI groups.

“We first put together a combination of our dance team and color guard to form an indoor pageantry group,” Locke says. “Since there were differing attitudes involved in these groups, from rookies to divas, I heard myself saying out loud after one meeting, ‘It would be a miracle if this could work out.’ However, it would be a fantasy come true, hence the name, ‘Fantasia’—a blending of dancers and flags. This was still something new at the college level back in 1987-88.”

Fantasia began performing in California and eventually started competing in WGI Independent A class in 1990. The group gradually moved up to Independent World Class where it competes today. Similarly, RCC winter drum line started as the school’s percussion class and began competing in WGI Independent World Class in 2000.

Academic Commitment

Due to the increase in college-affiliated indoor marching ensembles, less people need to make the grueling decision whether to pursue higher education or pageantry competition. Luke Christisen, captain of the Pride of Missouri State winter guard, has seen performers put education on hold in order to travel to participate in competitive guards.

“By college programs starting competitive WGI units, it allows those passionate performers to not have to sacrifice higher education in order to pursue their dreams of performing,” says Christisen.

Tim Heasley, director of the Bakersfield College Band and Drum Line, believes that more performers have become aware of college ensembles as a viable option. In 2009, the indoor percussion group was established as an extension of the fall drum line to perform at athletic and community events.

Interestingly, though, the required level of academic commitment varies drastically across the spectrum. The ASU winter drum line, which is entering its first year of WGI Independent World class competition, does not require participants to be ASU students; several of its current members are not affiliated with the university at all.

Members of RCC and Bakersfield are only required to enroll in one class at the college. Many of these participants attend other schools at the same time or work full-time. Even though full-time schooling is not required, Mike Audie is a full-time student at Bakersfield, participating in the winter drum line as well as working full-time. He scheduled his classes in a way that allows him to be successful in all of these areas.

On the other side of the spectrum, Missouri State University requires winter guard members to be full- or part-time students as well as members of the Pride Marching Band. TJC and Michigan State University require students to be fulltime. Michigan State has had competitive winter guard since 1994, beginning as a student-run activity called MSU Expression. In 2006, the group changed its name to State of Art and participated in its first competitive winter season (2007) as an organized program. Michigan State introduced a second winter guard this year, which competes in the state circuit.

Challenges for Schools

While some programs benefit from the financial support of their band programs, college-affiliated groups still struggle with funding. San Diego State University competed in WGI winter drum line from 2008 to 2012, but after significant struggles with funding and equipment, the group chose to fold for this season, with hopes of returning in the future.

“We want to represent our university and ourselves as professionally and gracefully as possible,” says Lauryn Bremner, program coordinator of the SDSU winter drum line. “I think it showed maturity on our part to take a step back and really evaluate the way we did things and recognize the room for growth.”

Member development can also be difficult for groups, especially those with stricter academic requirements. Full-time students at Michigan State frequently choose to pursue other interests (work, internships, study abroad, etc.) during the summer, while members of other guards may continue to finetune their skills through drum corps.

Peter Eichler, co-director of State of Art, believes this sets the group back in skill each year, so it needs to develop a technical program that is different from other groups in order to be competitive.

“The growth of this team every year is phenomenal,” Eichler says. “As much as it is a challenge, it becomes one of the greatest joys of this program.”

Similarly, TJC winter drum line struggles with a high membership turnover rate from year to year. “Because we are a two-year junior college, members come and go quickly and our ‘age-out’ averages at age 20,” McGowan says. “This can be a disadvantage when competing in an activity where the age limit is 23.”

ASU winter drum line deals with challenges of high traffic and rehearsal space. “We take what we can get, and we smile in the meantime,” Paz says. “We always find a way to make it work even in the most frantic or impossible moments.”

With only one gym at the college, Bakersfield winter drum line also struggles with rehearsal facilities. “We have been fortunate to establish some great relationships with other school districts in the community because of our commitment to caring for our rehearsal spaces, and it’s a win-win on the occasions we are able to perform for school rallies at those sites,” Heasley says.

Benefits for Performers

Participating in a college or university-affiliated group can also have advantages. Many times, it proves to be less expensive for members. Almost all TJC winter drum line members are awarded a scholarship for their participation in the group, and Missouri State winter guard members enjoy discounted participation.

“[Performers in] some Independent units pay thousands of dollars to take the floor at WGI, but I only have to pay [a fraction of this cost, and it] is billed to my student account and is covered by my student loans,” Christisen says.

And while participants in other Independent WGI groups drive several hours to rehearsals, college students tend to live in close proximity to their schools.

“The ability to pursue higher education while performing, without the stress of having to travel, is a major advantage for being in a university-sponsored program,” Christisen says.

Several of these winter guards also benefit from great rehearsal facilities. Missouri State winter guards rehearse in a 37,000-square-foot facility as well as a field house on campus. Sullivan says the support through the band program and its directors has kept the color guard program alive.

Being involved in WGI also brings the schools some national recognition, which can play a role in recruiting students. According to Dale Powers, WGI Director of Color Guard, WGI is 80 percent scholastic-based.

“It is a good source of recruiting for those colleges and universities which may attract high school seniors looking at schools,” Powers says. “Many students will consider a school where there is an activity like color guard that they are already familiar with.”

Christisen grew up in the local Missouri circuit and was impressed by Missouri State. “Looking up to performers who didn’t put their education on hold to continue performing and who still had the opportunity to be successful and competitive at WGI was amazing to me,” he says. “When the time came for applying to colleges, I knew exactly where I wanted to go.”

About the Author

Lydia Ness graduated from Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., with a B.A. in journalism and integrated media and a minor in biblical studies. She performed in the Glassmen, the Bluecoats and The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps as well as the Riverside Community College indoor percussion ensemble. Lydia works for Venture Expeditions, a not-for-profit that uses intense physical challenges such as biking across the country, to raise awareness and funds for good causes. She plans to attend law school this fall at Chicago-Kent School of Law to focus on international human rights.

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A photo of members of Archbishop Alter High School’s Marching Knights.

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