Ten Exercises for Improvisational Marching

“Box drill” gets boring. Sure, it teaches kids to stay in line. But field shows are more than just box drill. I’ve found students can better understand and respond to the demands of today’s complicated drill by studying the moves behind our 2-D choreography. It’s a lot more fun and effective. With an introduction to these moves, and a few ground rules (“no talking,” and “take smaller steps when the formation starts to break up”), ensembles can improvise their own warm-ups. Here are ten improvisational drill exercises, one for each move, in order of difficulty:

1. Circuitous (“follow-the-leader” closed formation). This is a follow-the-leader move with no leader, and it is the easiest. Any closed formation (circle, square, triangle, nondescript blob) will do. This move is good for settling down and focusing on technical issues such as posture and control.

FOR FUN: While executing this move, the formation’s shape or location can be changed at the suggestion of an instructor or designated student.

2. Canonic (“follow-the-leader” open formation). This is your basic follow-the-leader situation, so a leader (teacher or student) has to be identified. Straight paths, or very gradual and/or consistent direction changes, can help develop technique, particularly at high frequencies.

FOR FUN: The leader can be changed by reversing movement on precise command (usually not a good idea when marching with instruments in hand, or in smaller intervals). When improvising other moves, switching impromptu to Canonic movement even briefly can provide a nice break, or bring order when difficult situations are breaking down.

3. Rectilinear (forward or in any single direction). This move might be a no brainer, were it not for the fact that space is limited and intervals and step sizes are not always consistent. Improvised Rectilinear movement develops consensus while testing an ensemble’s ability to get from point A to point B by themselves with their mouths shut.

FOR FUN: Designate (or improvise) a series of leaders and have each leader (or an instructor) verbally cue the next one to establish a new direction on command by name – a test of trust when an ensemble is running out of space.

4. Polar (scatter drill). A student chooses their own direction of movement and marches until they reach an obstacle or defined parameter and then stops (unless students are given permission to avoid collision by adjusting stride). The intervals between students constantly change during this move, so don’t look for lined formations – just look for movement that maintains the general shape of established boundaries. The trick is not running into someone (again, this is not a good move to improvise with instruments in hand). Rules can serve as safety devices that manage traffic in a number of ways, such as suggesting that one or both students on a collision course stop for the remainder of the exercise (abandon improvisation of this move when students develop ambitions for being the last one in motion). Another method is to assign a uniform predetermined direction of 12:00 for the ensemble, and ask students to move in the direction of their birth month (February = 2:00, etc.).

FOR FUN: Allow students to change direction to continue the exercise indefinitely. Then employ a “sorting mechanism” by suggesting students seek out a predetermined leader and group, creating Canonic (move #2) movement while singing or humming one of a predetermined set of two or three songs, or chanting the same birth month.

5. Anti-linear (direction change). The ensemble changes location by executing a sequence of inconsistent direction changes (best with slides). Inconsistency is the trick – keeping a designated leader in clear sight is essential in determining the direction of ensemble movement. Start by asking students to form a single line with two designated leaders, one on both sides, within clear sight of the entire ensemble. Have students duplicate the direction changes of one leader until brought to move in the direction of their line. Then change leaders — a new leader can be installed on one side of the line while the ensemble follows the other).

FOR FUN: Alternate the improvisation of this move with another one, like Rotational (move #6 – always complete the circuit of rotation a full 360 degrees before continuing), or Revolving (move #7 – use the last leader followed as pivot point).

6. Rotational (turn around an internal pivot point). The internal pivot point (“internal” = inside the formation) must be a visible mark, object, or stationary person within a closed formation (circle, square, etc.), or along the line of an open formation (line, curve, etc.). Designating this pivot becomes essential to the exercise. The exercise is complete when students return to the spot from which they started moving. The number of counts for complete rotation can be pre-established.

FOR FUN: Give a designated leader a special hat identifying them as pivot point, and during the exercise, have them pass the hat to another, who then becomes the new designated leader when they put it on (upon completion of the rotation, or sooner). For variety or to keep the ensemble moving when things get out of hand, alternate Rotational and Canonic (#2) moves, with hat wearer as the leader.

7. Revolving (turn around an external pivot point). This movement type refines the cognitive/spatial skills developed in Rotational movement. Revolving movement can teach many of the same principles of Rotational movement without the unglamorous experience of being a human pivot point. Have a hat, frisbee, or other object thrown by a designated leader or instructor which becomes the pivot point when it lands.

FOR FUN: Several objects, not necessarily thrown in a pre-determined sequence, can keep the exercise going. The person throwing an object must first draw attention to it by raising it in the air, not necessarily on command, but always with some verbal cue, such as “HAT.”

8. Formal (expand/contract). This move maintains the character of the form by changing its size, making it useful in measuring and exercising the collective self-control of an ensemble. It makes students more conscious of shape and interval, and prepares them to handle Structural movement (#9) more responsibly. Because it is best to face the center point, this is a useful move for practicing alternate forward/backward marching. Like Rectilinear (#3), this move has spatial limitations which end the exercise one way or another. A “cheat” makes expansion and contraction possible in the same move: after expanding, have students point to the center point toward which they will contract as “12:00,” and then ask them to move in the relative direction of “1:00” – they can then first contract and then expand the formation in one move (circles are often best).

FOR FUN: Alternate Formal movement with another move (except #4) by telling students at any point during the other move to “EXPAND,” then “CONTRACT” until they reach their original position, from which they continue the other move as before.

9. Structural (reshape). This move changes a formation’s shape, without changing interval or location. The challenge of this movement is the collective imagination, and the ensemble’s need to practice improvising the other 8 moves before they get to here. Ensembles can familiarize themselves with this move with a predetermined sequence of shapes, or by calling out shapes at random: “circle,” “crescent moon,” “statue of liberty,” etc. The problem with this approach is they become shape dependent, and several shapes must be used in sequence to keep them in the flow of movement, which it must be remembered, is the point of these exercises.

FOR FUN: Alternate this move with Circuitous (#1), Rectilinear (#3), or Polar (#4) movement.

10. Compound (two or more moves combined). There really is no tenth move, ($50 to anyone who finds one). But we can explore the compound movement of Rotational (#6) and Rectilinear movement (#3). Or make a formation change both shape (#9) and interval (#4) at the same time. For more information about how these moves appear in conventional drill, visit: www.geocities.com/flatlandpress/PA.html About the author Stuart E. Rice is an advocate for Planar Analysis which is a system of measuring the drill moves in a show. It measures nine types of movement which are graded for difficulty and, according to the effect they have on a formation, classified in one of three categories called Grammar categories, for their expressive effect.

About the Author
Stuart E. Rice studies Planar analysis, a system of measuring the drill “moves” in a marching band or drum corps show. For more information about how these moves appear in conventional drill, visit:  www.geocities.com/flatlandpress/PA.html

About author

Three Simple Rules for Peace

Publisher and editor-in-chief Christine Ngeo Katzman gives advice on how to create more peace within ourselves and others. From Halftime Magazine, a print publication and ...