Visual Appeal

Visual effect has always been an important consideration in marching shows. Today’s groups are pushing the envelope with more body movement, more dance choreography, more costuming and more oomph to tell their stories.

Photos By Ken Martinson/

The fast pace of the marching. The choreographed movement of the body. The rippling lift of the instruments. The full lifting of a person. Today’s marching ensembles are incorporating these and other types of stunning visuals to capture the attention of fans and judges alike.

When audiences think of visuals, images from drum corps such as The Cavaliers or Santa Clara Vanguard (SCV) and marching bands such as Carmel or Kennesaw Mountain spring to mind. These top groups employ scenes where marchers are putting down their instruments in unison to perform a piece of well-placed step arrangement as their visual instructors are pushing the boundaries of achievement in order to stay at the top.

New Skill Sets

No longer are the days of strict militaristic marching and playing; current trends in visuals now point to the prominent use of choreography, creating a more theater-like storytelling that immerses audiences into new worlds. In order for this imagery to occur, musicians on the field have incorporated body movements to their repertoire of skills.

Bands of America (BOA) finalist Carmel (Ind.) High School used these concepts in its 2010 show, “Stop and Smell the Roses.” In the opening, the performers execute a dance movement that flows along with the idyllic music of the pit percussion.

For the intended effect to be perfect, the performers have certain responsibilities. “Choreography is certainly the main trend that is happening in both drums corps and marching band,” says Jeff Young, CEO of consulting/design company Dynamic Marching and visual instructor at Carmel. “The addition of this element creates a triad that all instrumentalists on the field should all be aware of: They are crisp music, clean marching and effective visuals. It is this simultaneous responsibility that has to be understood and comprehended.”

Oftentimes, the success of these visuals is also tied to the performers’ physical strength and endurance. “The people on the field are being asked to play in very difficult and very demanding positions,” explains Michael McIntosh, a WGI adjudicator and percussion designer at The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps. “The skill set that is required … moves beyond drill and into physically expressive actions that are similar to something like gymnastics. Athleticism by the performers is imperative in order for all facets of the show to go correctly. If [members] are not in shape to do these, then it just won’t work. The difficulty of the multitasking in doing just one show can really take a toll both emotionally and physically.”

Some visuals can be even hazardous if they are done wrong. “Things like jazz running have become a staple in top bands and corps,” says Brooks Andersen, owner of eVision Marching. “These visuals are needed in order to stay well within the competition and remain at the top. Audiences will be wowed when they see people pass through each other in lines at fast tempos, which could become disastrous for the performer and the group’s score if someone is in the wrong place.”

One of the best ways to improve on the body movements and choreography of the performers is to invest in having a visual staff. A few groups such as Carolina Crown are making their members go through dance and ballet-like workshops, so their performers have a good grasp of translating their body movement to their instrument. But for those who do not have the funds for these investments, instructional DVDs offered by Dynamic Marching and other companies may be a good option.

Music in Motion

With the huge innovations in visuals, designers still keep in mind that music should be the most powerful driving force. Without appropriate music, the meaning of a visual could become lost in translation. “The visuals should be an extension of the music the band is playing,” Young stresses. “The really good bands understand that for the visuals to be the most effective, it has to fit musically and within the context of the show.”

As an example, a particularly forceful and loud piece of music would warrant an aggressive visual. For BOA finalist Kennesaw Mountain from Kennesaw, Ga., this concept along with audience appeal allows the band to stay within the upper echelon of competitive marching bands.

“I have always thought of the audience when I have an idea of how to do a show and have the performer relay that idea effectively, and it all starts with the music,” says Peter Weber, visual designer at Kennesaw Mountain for the past two years and SCV visual designer. “What does it sound like, or what is the mood of it? This is where the visuals will be formed from. You can then sketch broad ideas to communicate the music in the most exciting way possible.”

Abstract Props and Costumes

Costumes and props also come into play as they enhance the setting of the show.

For example, Putnam City North High School in Oklahoma City, Okla., performed a show in 2008 called “Escape from Dystopia,” which means a society characterized by human misery. The performers’ uniforms were black with a number on their chests, but in the ending sequence, the performers’ broke free from the negative utopia revealing “color” on their outfits.

“I personally am a fan of costuming,” says Andersen, PC North’s visual designer. “The idea was very well-received by the crowd, and I still have people asking me how we did the color change.”

Not all groups are known for using props as Santa Clara Vanguard has produced shows that had a plethora of visuals but few that involved elaborate costumes or unique props. “We try to stay away from props and tarps,” Weber says. “There are plenty of things we can do with the performers that bring out the point of the show. There is no need to have these abstract things that are mostly stationary.”

Setting the Standard

When asked about the most expressive visual shows, designers cite The Cavaliers “Machine” in 2006 and Santa Clara Vanguard “Age of Reverence” in 2000. Young says that he was very impressed by how The Cavaliers corps performed its show “Machine” with extreme precision. The show contained a few instances of performers pushing the block to mimic stretching of a machine. And at one point in the show, one of the performers stopped playing in order to perform the “robot” dance move to spice up the show.

“The body movements of the performers were impeccable,” Young says. “The audience and judges could see each point of every movement in the show, and this show with a machine theme is perfect in terms of pushing the limits of bodily visuals with the rather unnatural robotic movements.”

As for SCV, its 2000 show is known for spreading its performers throughout the field and then condensing them back into rigid pointed shapes that rotate in order to create a pendulum-like effect. “SCV’s show in 2000 really blew me away even though they got 4th,” Andersen says. “They started the show playing super fast while being able to clear up the fi eld for some impressive dance movements. What struck me was that they started and ended [with a mirror image of] the same set and had a ripple of hand holding that really brought out the show. It is a great example of how a group should perform their visuals.”

According to the designers, the Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps first set the standard in visual design in 1993 with its “Music of Barber and Bartok.” The controversial show would be considered the first clear instance of the use of choreography. “The boldness of this idea is unmatched,” Weber says. “It had a heavily mixed reaction with the crowd because it was either that you hated it because it went against the standard at the time, or you really liked it because it was a very fresh and innovative concept that had not been utilized before and should be appreciated. The corps really pioneered adding dance to the vocabulary of their performers.”

Prior to that time, bands had a more militaristic style, marching in symmetrical shapes and playing with very little body movement. “The precision of the marching and the cleanliness of it was what appealed to crowds in the old days,” Weber says.

Since then, the sister activities of indoor percussion and indoor guard have also influenced field performances. “The activity in WGI is in many ways … being applied into field shows,” McIntosh says. “The ballet and dance-like ideas are all finding their way to the field, and it is a bigger venue to bring out these unique elements of the indoor activity.”

Trickling Down

Today, the new standards that are being set in drum corps are trickling down into the competitive high school marching band world.

“The same standard of excellence that is in drum corps is still applied when instructors work with high schools,” McIntosh says. “Whether I’m working at The Cavaliers or working at a competitive marching band like Carmel High School, I’m still looking for the same quality from my performers. The only difference may be in how we approach them to get to that excellence as the performers in high school are younger and may have less experience compared to the predominantly college-aged performers in drum corps.”

The incorporation of choreography and props has now become widespread in the marching band circuit as directors look to drum corps for inspiration. “Most band directors will watch The Blue Devils or The Cadets do something that they think is pretty cool, and they try to incorporate it into the show,” McIntosh says.

He cautions, though, that the directors should know about the true ability of their kids and stresses that there are more important things than just doing “cool” visuals.

“They should stage the horns, woodwinds, and drum line properly to create a good pulse for the band and have good sound quality,” he explains. “A band with bad sound will never be successful even with nice visuals.”

The drill, being the most important visual to the audience, is a particular place where potential problems could arise if certain measures are not taken. “Successful bands will not be really doing too many drill-heavy shows,” Andersen says. “Their shows will merely be having easy drill punctuated with sophisticated and impressive visuals during something like a drum break. Thus, it is better to have clean simplistic drill than to have dirty and sophisticated drill. The judges want to see what you can do perfectly, and great drill designers know how to make easy drill look impressive, therefore increasing the chance for that perfection to occur.”

Young, though, explains that the shows should still be challenging, and it depends on the judges whether they prefer cleanliness or originality and sophistication. “It honestly really depends on the judges; some do reward on just what you do really well and very clean, but there are judges who like to see the performers challenge themselves,” he says. “It is this that makes me want to challenge my students to push themselves, so we can have the best quality show.”

About author

Jeremy Chen

Jeremy Chen is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). He marched cymbals for two years at Rancho Cucamonga High School before playing bass drum and snare at Upland High School. He is currently a snare drummer and office staff member for the USC Trojan Marching Band. He aspires to one day become a correspondent for the BBC.

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