Prepping for Parades

What do New Year’s Day in Pasadena, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Thanksgiving Day in New York all have in common? On these holidays, thousands of band members don’t get the day off. They’re working hard: marching, playing, spinning, dancing and competing to give these famous spectacles their characteristic sights and sounds. After all, what’s a parade without a marching band?

If asked, most band members admit that they’d rather spend their Saturdays on the cool grass of a football stadium performing a 10-minute field show than marching for a couple of hours on hot pavement.

“I like parades, but they can be really tiring,” says Sierra Smith, a junior alto saxophone player from Mayfair High School in Lakewood, Calif.

However, few band members today realize that without parades, marching bands probably wouldn’t exist.

The first “marching bands” in America were military fife and drum corps that paraded troops to and from Revolutionary War battlefields. After the war, civilian brass bands sprung up in small towns throughout the nation. Add in 19th century music innovations like valves for brass instruments and the invention of the saxophone, and the modern marching band began to take shape. By the 1900’s, a band belting out John Philip Sousa marches had become the preferred way to lend music and rhythm to what would otherwise be a dull procession of people down Main Street.

In the present day, at thousands of small parades around the country, marching bands reach audiences that don’t get out to football games or field competitions. In fact, at the big internationally-televised parades like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade, bands can literally reach millions of people around the world.

That’s exactly the philosophy of Paul Parets, whose Tiger Marching Band of Alexis I. duPont High School has been to the Rose Parade five times in his 33 years with the program. That’s no small feat for a band from Greenville, Del., that’s more than 2,500 miles away from Pasadena.

Even though the group performs field shows at football games, the Tiger Marching Band concentrates on parades. As Parets says, “Parades reach more people, and there’s less pressure on the kids.”

This thinking has taken the band to almost every major American parade and even to Ireland, Italy and England.

But before a band can ever get to Pasadena, New York or overseas, they need to step outside the band room, pound the asphalt, hit those trills, partials and diddles, and never forget to “Guide!”

The First Step

The first step a marching band has to take when developing its parade routine is, well, its first step. It doesn’t matter if a band uses the glide step, an old-school high step or something in between. Without a unified style and stride, bands can’t stay in step, let alone march uniformly in a parade block.

“It should start with fundamentals, lots of fundamentals,” says Jeff Young, who consults with marching bands through his company Dynamic Marching. “Make sure each student understands the step well enough that they can describe it to another student. Upperclassmen should model it for the underclassmen.”

Along with marching style, bands should concentrate on standardizing posture and instrument carriage. Parade judges pay closer attention to these aspects since precision and uniformity can be more closely examined on the street than on the field. Crowds along the route will respond if they see a band march with pride. “People want to see you keep your heads up, your shoulders back and pick your feet up,” Parets says.

“Guide!” Every young band member has heard this word ring out from the older members in his or her rank. If band members follow this advice and incessantly check their position in the formation, the parade block will be flawless. And parade judges will certainly appreciate the effort. “What really makes a band great is proper placement in the block band,” says Tom Haugen, who has judged bands for about 35 years as founder of Iowa’s Tri-State Judges Association. “They have to have perfect diagonals.”

Diagonals, in fact, are often ignored by bands. Members are usually taught to think in files—the columns that are parallel to the street—and ranks—the rows that are perpendicular to the curb. But no matter what kind of formation a band uses, whether it’s a traditional four-step interval, seven-across block or a more unconventional V-shaped wedge, the diagonals are the most visible to the crowds (and the judges).

To help individuals properly guide, Haugen suggests a progressive, mental checklist. “[Band members] need to first dress down the file, then look toward the longest diagonal, then the shortest diagonal, then the rank,” he says.

This method is counter-intuitive to most band members since guiding along a row is how they’re taught to maintain forms on the field. But if each member guides his or her column and both diagonals, geometry will take care of the rest, and the ranks will be naturally straight.

According to Haugen, guiding diagonals instead of ranks makes the center column the most important spot in the parade block. Even though marching these positions means more than a fair share of horse poop to slog through, the most experienced marchers will anchor the band and maintain the right intervals when placed here. The next most skilled marchers should be placed on the outside files, especially on whatever side the reviewing stand or cameras are on. The rookies should fill in the gaps to finish the formation, with the worst marchers placed on the “weak side” of the band.

Band members should always look out for each other on the route. If someone sees a pothole in the street or an obstacle, he or she should warn others about the danger.

Sorry Sousa

The days of the cut-time military march with two strains, a dogfight and a trio are fading. Though some reviews still have strict lists of approved marches, local holiday parades and the big, televised ones don’t want to hear another rendition of “The Liberty Bell.”

Many directors now follow Parets’ mindset. “Pick music to please an audience, not to please judges,” he says. “Music is intended to thrill people. No one listens to music that bores them.”

Parets lets his student leadership select the music. In the past few years, his band has played music that has varied from movie themes to Latin music to symphonic pieces.

No matter what a band plays, the music should be appropriate to the event. Performing a selection from a “Hits of Broadway” field show won’t work at a Veterans Day parade. And if a band isn’t playing holiday music at a Christmas parade, it probably won’t be invited back. Either way, bands shouldn’t worry too much about learning more than a couple of charts since, unlike field shows, the audience along a parade route constantly changes.

Directors also must make sure they pick music that’s appropriate for their band. Damien Graham, who leads the J-Town Marching Band at Jordan High School in Long Beach, Calif., tailors the music he picks to his band’s needs. “I arrange my own music to hide my band’s weaknesses and highlight what needs to be worked on,” he says. “I’ll then keep reworking it based on what they’ve improved on.” This way, the band not only learns new music but improves its chops as the season progresses.

First, Lasting Impressions

Before adjudicators ever hear a band, they see the group lined up waiting to enter the judging area and critique how the members look. “Even though the judges aren’t supposed to be judging, they’re looking and judging,” says Dennis Kerr, vice president of the Judges’ Association of Mid-America. “It’s very important that everyone has the same look, that the hat is tilted the same way. It should be very precise from member to member. The first impression that any band gives is: ‘What do I look like?’”

If band members aren’t wearing their uniforms with pride, then the entire group has an uphill climb with the judges before a note has been played. Parets has a maxim he instills in his students: “Play first class, look first class and act first class.”

To back this up, he entrusts his senior squad leaders with inspecting each member in their eight-person squads. This way, the students are accountable to each other. And if they fail an inspection, they must “step out” of line. “Stepping out is the worst thing that can happen because then they have to come see me,” Parets says with a laugh.

Each parade has different rules on how bands should present themselves. Some even have inspections before bands enter the competition area. Rules range from bans on jewelry to the uniformity of woodwind neckstraps to exactly how makeup is applied on auxiliary members. Directors should know each particular parade’s rules before competition.

Auxiliary to No One

The auxiliary units—color guards, drill teams and dance squads—are usually the first part of the band the crowd sees in a parade. Many directors choose to put the dance squad in front of the block and the color guard in back to visually “tier” the band, with the tall flags framing the band.

When it comes to competition, the auxiliaries should make sure their routines complement the band. Kerr considers the following criteria when judging auxiliary groups: “Is their dance consistent? Are they performing musically? Are they in time with the band and do they make movements that make sense with the band?”

Look Ma, I’m On TV!

The big parades on the coasts are the Holy Grail for marching bands. An invite to the Rose Parade or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the product of years of work by directors and bands. These events are booked years in advance, and the parade committees are very choosy.

“In simple terms, we look for a band that marches well, that looks good marching, has good precision, good sound and the brass placed up front,” says Tony Delgatto, who served as music chair of the 2007-2008 Tournament of Roses. “They should be 200 to 250 members.”

Of the 40 to 50 applications each year, only about 16 are chosen, with the Tournament’s president personally picking which bands to invite.

Even if a band member can’t make it to Pasadena or New York with his or her high school, there are other ways to get on TV. Honor bands march in both prestigious parades. Band members nationwide compete for 185 spots in the Macy’s Great American Marching Band, which has the honor of leading Santa Claus into Herald Square.

In Pasadena, both the Tournament of Roses Honor Band and the Los Angeles All City Marching Band are ways for Southern Californian band members to get a spot in the Tournament of Roses. These bands practice each weekend for months just for the six-mile trek down Colorado Boulevard. Some states, like Wyoming and Hawaii, also organize “all-state” bands that earn invitations to the big parades. And this year, Bands of America will be showcasing a Rose Parade honor band as well.

Besides the “big two,” there are many other parades around the country that also provide great exposure for bands (and a nice trip for band members). For example, the Fort McDowell Fiesta Bowl Parade, which is held in conjunction with the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona Fiesta Bowl National Band Championship, is now in its 31st year. Bands from around the country travel to Phoenix each New Year for a field competition and parade with some of the best bands from around the country.

Bands not only test their mettle against other great programs, but the Fiesta Bowl Committee makes sure they have fun. “We treat the bands like the president of the university with the BCS football teams,” says Dick Stemple, chairman of the Band Selection Committee. “The bands come in, and they’re just amazed.”

To be appreciated, though, many bands need only stay near home and connect with their communities. In urban areas, most under-funded bands never have a chance to march on TV, but local holiday parades are a way for these groups to play for the people that care about them the most. “Sometimes the only time you see an urban school’s marching band is when they perform in their community’s Christmas or, in our case, Cinco de Mayo parades,” says Mark Santos, director of the Abraham Lincoln High School Marching Tigers band in urban northeast Los Angeles. “It’s a huge pride booster for the kids to perform for their friends, family and community. It means so much for the community too.”

Gotta Love a Parade

As long as there are holidays, there will be parades, and as long as there are parades, there will be marching bands. The best bands, like Parets’ Tiger Marching Band, know that the real judges of any parade are the masses. “The whole point of putting a band outside is getting the audience to have their hair stand on end,” Parets says.

As rewarding as a trophy can be, nothing can beat a standing ovation or an enthusiastic roar from the crowd. Only then do marching band members know that they’ve connected with the audience. Sierra Smith sums it up: “I like the people’s reactions when they see us,” she says. “I just like that they enjoy seeing us play.”

About author

Brett Padelford

Brett Padelford is the public relations director for the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band. A graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, he runs the band’s social media, writes press releases, takes photos, and even sometimes runs gigs and plays trumpet when the ensemble needs an alum to fill in. He has been involved in music since the 3rd grade when he picked up the clarinet for his military school’s marching band.

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