We had an experience this weekend that provided some valuable lessons for our band program. For the first time in our history, we were not named a finalist in a prelims/finals format competition. It likely caught some of our families by surprise. While we had a good show, and the idea for the show is very well received and appreciated, the performance level was not deemed to be up to the standard of the top 10 bands in attendance. We make no excuses…the music and marching was not clean and polished. Compared to the other bands, we had many little flaws…nothing major and nothing totally broke down, just many, many small issues. I was proud of our kids for their effort and the show created some very emotional moments for many audience members.
Our first contest of this season at Western Carolina University took us back into an arena with some very high quality bands after a couple of years competing with more local groups. When you go into such an arena (including some of the university shows, USBands, or Bands of America), you compete with some of the best bands from around the country. If you were in attendance at WCU, you heard over and over the lists of accomplishments of these bands…
“26 year state champions” “3 time BOA Regional Champion” “10 year BOA Regional Finalist”
“Grand Champions” and the accolades went on and on.
For many of the bands, it was also their 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th contest of the year. It was our first. We talked to the kids in class today about the weekend. We asked their insights into our performance and the performances that they watched. It was a very interesting and informative conversation. They pointed out that many of the top bands played with huge sound and were very detailed and precise in their music. They also pointed out that the marching from those bands was “nearly perfect” and that “everyone looked exactly the same”. That’s the goal of this activity. You are evaluated on your precision and your uniformity.
Then why, you might ask, aren’t our kids as precise and as prepared as those from some of the other schools? The answer for the most part is “time”. We did a comparative survey of rehearsal schedules back in late August and discovered that most of the top bands at WCU practiced 40-60% more than we practice. A couple of them practiced double our schedule. If we practiced as many hours as some of those bands, we would see stronger results as well…after all, repetition done correctly yields improvement in any activity. We have reduced our summer and school year practice schedules based on feedback from our membership about how band is “time-consuming, taxing, demanding, and excessive”. We were happy to cut back in order to alleviate these concerns and attempt to gain more members into the band, but the consequence is going to be performances that are not as polished as those from bands who commit to a higher level. While we did not make the top ten, we were ranked 11th…very nearly at the same level as the finalists, even though we work far less.
With 3-5 more hours per week, a week or two more during the summer, as well as a couple more all day Saturday practices, we could get a lot more done. The students would play physically stronger and we would have time to break things down and do more detailing. As we are, we are getting very near the maximum possible result within our time frame.
Another perception from the students was that some bands spent a lot of their show with only a soloist or small group playing. That’s true. My personal philosophy is that I am a “music educator”, not a “dance instructor” or “visual effect producer”. I think that students should learn more about playing their instruments and you can’t do that if only one kid plays for several minutes while the rest dance around or do nothing. Yes, we have some really talented kids that we could spotlight and have the rest just play a character role, but in the end, how much learning has occurred? It’s one thing to have a talented soloist when the music dictates, and you definitely can creatively showcase individuals in certain situations, but it’s another to design your show around this concept in order to better your odds in competition...not pointing fingers…just observing facts. Most of our band plays most of the time...for the benefit of more students.
Another little known aspect of some very competitive bands is that they sometimes do not allow all of their students in the competition group. Across the country, there are several top bands who do not allow kids who can’t perform up to a certain level be in the competition band…they have a football game band that includes those students…like our Friday Night Band but from a different philosophical approach. We use ours to encourage more kids to participate…theirs is to provide a performance for kids who are not “up to competitive standard”. At least one band that we saw on Saturday has tryouts. We allow all students to be in competitive band if they choose. No audition required. The down side of our situation is that we designed the show for a certain number of kids, and then had several back out just prior to or after camp. With limited time, we can’t redesign the show, and we march with gaps all over our routine. The kids noted that no other band had all the gaps in their forms that we experienced. When some of the other bands have gaps, they rewrite and re-teach the routines, or simply pull in one of their kids who didn’t make the first cut and fill the gap. We have begged more kids to try even Friday Night Band, but to no avail. With no time and no reserves, when people back out of their commitment, we can’t cover for them. Sure, we could just write the show for fewer kids than sign up, but in the past, the kids who didn’t get a permanent spot dropped out.
We also dealt with a scheduling situation that was less than ideal this weekend. We were scheduled to perform early in the morning of a long day…3rd on in a show of 25 bands. While we all hope that evaluation is always totally fair and objective, reality is that bands that go on early often have scores lower than bands of comparable quality that perform later in the day. A judge has a range of scores to deal with, often with restrictions that scores be within a boundary (for example: “Keep the scores above a 50…we don’t want to discourage bands from coming to our show”). When a pretty good band performs early, judges are hesitant to grant a large jump in score just in case all the remaining bands turn out to be better. I say this from the perspective of having been a judge for over 20 years. No sour grapes…just reality. When you look at the overall scores form Saturday, only two bands in the entire first part of the day scored above a 70 (Pope and East Lincoln). Over half the bands from the latter part of the day scored in the 70s or 80s. Again, no judgment, just facts.
We explained to our students starting two weeks ahead of WCU that we were an early band and as such, we needed a performance that totally eclipsed any other band of the morning. We had to be more precise, more polished, and more convincing just to get a shot at finals. We had a good show, but not a great show on Saturday morning. We also knew that the early time would mean getting up early on Saturday. We encouraged the kids to sleep on the ride up and to get to bed immediately upon arrival. We did not anticipate an extra hour and 15 minute drive time due to traffic on 285/85. On Saturday morning, there were numerous conversations among students about how they only slept for 90 minutes, stayed up until 3:30 a.m., or laughed and talked most of the night. While many students did as we asked, enough did not to ensure that they were fuzzy brained and not at their best on the field. Unfortunately, in an activity where uniformity is the key, such deviation from the standard costs everyone. We can provide the instruction and the advice, but the students must embrace it and act accordingly.
Every experience is a learning experience. This weekend, we learned that we have precious little time to get a lot of work done. We learned that there are bands that we will compete against that are willing to work as hard as necessary for as long as necessary to get their maximum result. We learned to follow the advice of those with experience and insight. We learned that we cannot take for granted that our reputation or past levels of success will carry us through. We must perform “in the moment”. We learned that we can’t do things our own way or differently in an arena evaluated on uniformity and expect great results.
Looking ahead, we have another contest on Saturday at Haralson County. We can choose to wallow in disappointment and give up following our performance at WCU, or we can get out there on Tuesday evening and commit to having a better show. We can work hard to develop the uniformity in music and marching that we saw in the top bands, or we can pack it in and go through the motions for the rest of the season. For me, I want to see the commitment and desire to get the show cleaned, the performance levels up, and to realize the full potential that this year holds. We are down to the last few hours of preparation…so they need to be of the highest quality. Get ready, get to rehearsal, get busy, and get excited. We have a lot to do for the next two weeks!