It’s proven time and time again that the value of music education and pageantry is incomparable to anything else. Even though programs around the country suffer from budget cuts and unclear futures, several organizations celebrate marked anniversaries with optimistic views on what is still to come. WGI Sport of the Arts, Drum Corps International, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the U.S. Army All-American Marching Band give students and young adults opportunities to pursue the performing arts with excellence and look forward to doing so for many more years.
Photo courtesy of WGI Sport of the Arts
In the 35th season, WGI guard and percussion activities are growing at a promising rate. Despite budget cuts in music programs nationwide, 326 new ensembles joined this season alone; this number does not even account for the indoor groups that compete in non-WGI events as well as the growth in Europe. WGI even hosted a show in The Netherlands this season.
“It is a bit of a paradox to hear of the struggles that school districts are experiencing around the country and still have the kind of participation that WGI continues to enjoy,” says Ron Nankervis, executive director of WGI. “It … reinforces that what we are offering is something worthwhile for groups to go the extra mile to attend our events.”
In 1978, WGI began as a way to organize and bring unity to indoor color guard competitions across the country. Prior to this organization, judging and show requirements were different in each region.
The Growth of Indoor Percussion
More than a decade later, in 1993, George and Lynn Lindstrom introduced the WGI percussion division, but they did not create the idea. For quite some time before, visionaries like Ward Durrett had been working on the concept. “What WGI did was to add structure and continue to build a new way to compete as interest grew,” Nankervis says.
The indoor percussion circuit brought in the unique arena for young instructors to put together their own creative productions outside of the marching band activity. “WGI percussion has gone from basically playing an outdoor marching show, including uniforms and shakos, with the horn parts being played by the mallet instruments to full-fledged productions of epic music and visual programs,” says Don Click, WGI Hall of Fame member.
The competitions eventually moved from the stage to the arena. “It caught fire and has become an art form and major part of WGI,” Nankervis says. From the mere eight ensembles at the first WGI percussion championship, the 2012 championships are expecting more than 180 percussion ensembles.
A Steady Evolution
There have been several ways that WGI percussion and color guard have changed over the years and milestones that have marked these changes.
According to Nankervis, the introduction of the floor tarp as a stage changed the activity significantly. Today each group has a tarp unique to its show, adding creativity and offering cohesion in “total concept” shows.
Indoor color guards were the first groups to perform the total concept show as opposed to the collection of songs played in random order. This idea has been transmitted from the floor to the field, with marching band and drum corps shows taking on this challenge as well. While many do not agree on whether this change is a good or bad adaptation, Nankervis believes that from a visual excellence standpoint, no one can argue the influence of indoor.
Indoor programs have also increased skills of color guard and drum line participants who go straight into drum corps. In fact, most corps do not begin preparation for their seasons until after WGI championships. “Those members arrive at camp ready to tackle the challenges their staffs give them,” Nankervis says.
Though the influence of WGI continues to grow as do the number of groups participating, Nankervis is surprised that instructors of color guard and percussion ensembles can build full careers in the activity. He believes that it is great for instructors to make a living doing something they are passionate about, but he also believes there are potential negative results. For those who spend their time juggling several groups, he believes that they can miss out on some camaraderie and community while accommodating several performance schedules.
Shrinking Judges Pool
As WGI has grown, so has the concern over the judging pool. Many circuits have pulled their resources together to bring WGI certified judges to their contests. Instead of building a local judges pool, the norm today is to hire these national judges. As a result, circuit dues increase for groups because they must accommodate for airfares and hotels for judges.
“The ratio of new judges coming into the system is a concern within our organization,” Nankervis says. “We must find a way to keep new blood coming into the judging pool.”
In the future, the WGI board of directors hopes to expand educational reach in the United States as well as internationally. It also plans on continuing efforts to train new instructors, increasing the quality of each student’s experience and continually bringing in new judges.
In celebration of the 35th anniversary, WGI has been putting together unique videos and articles on its website. “While it is somewhat low-key, we do want to make people aware of the milestone,” Nankervis says. “We also didn’t want to incur any additional expense to groups in this economic climate.”
Even so, the WGI community can look forward to surprises prepared for championships in April.
There is every reason to believe that the shows and performers will continue to grow and embody excellence in new ways. “The production quality of the shows will continue to be refined, [and] the demands on the marching members will continue to be pushed beyond what is conceivable today,” Click says. “I personally hope that designers and members will continually think of the audience and to engage them.”
“The first championship was enough fuel to keep this rolling like it has over the years,” Acheson says. “We have modified that one event into what is now our 100-event tour. … As the tour and everything evolves each year, this crown jewel that we refer to as our championship motivates the push to the next year.”
Music’s Major League
DCI has changed most notably in the following areas: the organization of the corps, the level of achievement from the performers, the business of corps and the economic obstacles they have to face. First, DCI has morphed from community-based participating organizations into major league organizations that now are considered to be the top of the marching music world.
“They are key influencers in marching music,” Acheson says. “Back in the day, it was more ‘home-spun’ than it is today with the fantastic productions. The level of achievement the members are accomplishing today is spectacular.”
DCI Hall of Fame member Michael Gaines says the change to the leaguestyle corps has decreased the number of corps participating. According to Gaines, there used to be many corps in the same location, but now the corps have centralized into regional and national groups.
In any event, Gaines has also seen the impressive quality of performers that participate in the corps today. “Programming and musical selections have changed over time, [and] the skills and demands being asked of performers have been exponentially increased every year,” he says. “[This] combined with the result of awe-inspiring achievement produces products that no one ever dreamed possible in the early years of DCI.”
The Business Side
The business side of DCI has also changed significantly since 1972. There used to be several independent organizations running events, and now DCI is the umbrella for the tour. Selling merchandise and having endorsements are other additions to the business of drum corps that were not present in the early years.
While the previous changes are natural byproducts of growth and development in the organization, the economic state of the country presents DCI with unique issues that it must address each year.
According to Gaines, budget cuts in high school music schools affect the education of students coming into the corps. Not only have schools decreased music education around the country, but administrations have also tightened their policies on facilities. As a result, DCI is having difficulty receiving access to schools, no matter what the price.
Sometimes this is due to schools being closed off for weekends or for weeks at a time during the summer. DCI relies on these schools for housing and rehearsing.
The lack of housing as well as the amount of money it takes for the corps to travel by road present concerns about the sustainability of long tours.
Each year DCI and individual corps modify how they run in order to adapt to the current economic state as best they can. “Drum corps and the people who run them have always found a way to persevere, and I have every reason to believe that this will continue,” Gaines says.
Acheson believes it is extremely important for DCI to continue to increase ticket sales during this difficult economic time. “Like any other nonprofit or profit entity, it’s a matter of maintaining our relevance,” he says. “If people are excited about what we do, we sell tickets, and if we sell a lot of tickets, it helps each corps as well as the operation of the tour.”
DCI is responding to the need for relevancy through discussions about how to make performances even more exciting, hoping to draw in larger crowds of spectators. According to Acheson, with the new judging changes inputted this year, DCI expects the combination of judges, audience and performances to all sync up even more in terms of generating excitement at the events. DCI hopes that audience attendance will increase, giving performers the thrill they seek and work so hard to obtain.
DCI has built an impressive alumni base during the past 40 years. An estimated quarter of a million people from more than 15 countries have participated in DCI. As a 40th anniversary celebration, DCI is organizing the “Grand Reunion” event to take place after semifinals of world championships this year. Festivities include an on-field VIP ceremony as well as an after-party. “Go, celebrate, rub elbows with people who had the same experience you did and meet up with old friends that marched,” Acheson says. “It’s an opportunity to take a deep breath in celebration of 40 years of Drum Corps International.”
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become a community tradition for the red, white and blue Homewood (Ala.) High School marching band. The band has performed in the parade eight times in the last 20 years and excitedly participated in Macy’s 85th anniversary in 2011.
“The band is patriotic, and we’re kind of like mom and dad and apple pie,” says Ron Pence, band director. “We haven’t changed over the years; we’ve stayed the same. We try to entertain the crowd and give them the experience that’s all a part of Macy’s.”
When Pence was hired as the director, he wrote on the top of his goals that he wanted to take the band to the Macy’s parade. Under his leadership, the band has marched in the parade three times. “I still have the sheet of paper in my desk,” Pence says. “And to check it off three times. Wow, what a dream come true, and I’m still living the dream!”
The Homewood band’s numerous appearances are an honor for the entire community, and it is not taken lightly.
A Holiday Tradition
According to Orlando Veras, Macy’s parade spokesman, the parade is considered to be the “Super Bowl of marching bands.”
Each year the Macy’s Band Selection Committee looks through more than 150 applications of all sizes and styles of ensembles to determine who the lucky 10 to 12 groups will be. The bands selected to participate in the parade have excellence in field performance, a track record of success in competition and know how to entertain the crowd.
For 85 years, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been part of the holiday tradition—like turkey and gravy—and grown in its magnificence over the years, finding its way into home televisions around the globe. But how did the tradition begin? In 1924, Macy’s employees, largely comprised of immigrants, wanted to create an event to commemorate Thanksgiving through celebrations of their home countries. As a result, the parade was born.
“They gathered together for a parade dressed in costumes, forming bands and showcasing live animals, creating what has become a national and worldwide holiday icon,” Veras says.
The parade has also experienced several milestones. In fact, it played a starring role in the classic 1947 movie “Miracle on 34th Street.” This appearance helped the parade gain worldwide recognition.
The parade has also been a symbol of hope during national tragedies. For example, the parade continued as planned shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, per the request of the Kennedy family. “[It] served as a way for our nation to grieve and also celebrate the life of our President,” Veras says. “Additionally, the parade was credited with helping to uplift the nation following September 11. It was the first major national event that took place after the attacks, and the nation gathered around the parade to honor those lost.”
Throughout our nation’s history, the Macy’s parade brought joy on Thanksgiving morning. This year was no different.
The 85th Macy’s parade celebrated its anniversary with a couple of unique additions. First, teen composer Tyler S. Grant wrote a fanfare for the Macy’s Great American Marching Band.
The anniversary also launched Macy’s first Great American Elf Adventure. The public was invited to find and paint elf balloon models in Macy’s stores nationwide. Keith Lapinig’s elf, Gazor, won the contest and his model was transformed into a giant balloon that was debuted in the parade.
The Macy’s parade will continue to wow its audiences for years to come and bring communities together on Thanksgiving morning. “We will continue to innovate in design [and] creation of new elements, keep our finger on the pulse of what is hot in pop culture and of course create ways for spectators to engage and feel closer to this beloved event,” says Wesley Whatley, creative director of the parade.
In just five years, more than 600 students from more than 300 high schools around the nation have participated as members of the U.S. Army All-American Marching Band, which performs at the halftime show of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
According to Colonel Timothy Holtan, Commander of The U.S. Army Field Band, the two groups make a natural duo. Each year, 125 students are selected from a pool of nearly 1,300 applicants to participate in this one-time, all-expenses- paid performance in San Antonio, Texas.
“[The screening committee] selects the best young musicians, who demonstrate academic excellence, community involvement and an inner drive for success,” Holtan says. “Ultimately, these are the same qualities the Army seeks, both for our bands and the Army in general.”
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME), Drum Corps International (DCI) and All American Games formed the band, and each organization continues to play instrumental parts in the direction of the program. NAfME selects the kids, DCI helps with staffing and with the color guard program, and the Army sponsors the event.
The week of the bowl game, participants fly to San Antonio, where they learn a five-minute marching show. The students prepare music before they arrive, but they learn and perfect about 55 pages of drill in just four days (about 24 hours of rehearsal time).
The program has grown, the quality of performers has increased, and the rehearsals have been refined each year. For example, the students used to come for only two days prior to the bowl game, but they have extended preparation to four days. Brian Prato, director of operations for the U.S. Army All-American Marching Band, believes this is the ideal amount of time and that it has benefited the program immensely.
According to Prato, one of the most memorable moments in the band’s history occurred this year. Ray Odierno, four-star general and Chief of Staff of the Army, spoke to the students after they performed.
Another milestone for the band was the change in decor in front of the Grand Hyatt hotel in San Antonio this year. Outside the hotel stand 50-foot pillars on which the city does graphic wraps promoting the bowl game. During the first four years of the band’s involvement in the game, the graphics were pictures of football players and Army soldiers.
This year, for the first time, four of the pillars comprised pictures of band kids. “When we saw that, it was kind of a major arrival moment for us as an organization,” Prato says.
In the future, Prato would like to see a televised halftime show and hopes that eventually more funding will make it possible to increase the size of the band to 150 to 200 kids.
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.