Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Sport of the Arts and the Making of Strong Women

It's coming up on Christmas and for me, Christmas is a time of reflection. It's a time of remembering and thinking of  blessings. With each ornament unwrapped from the tissue paper that kept it locked away and safe all year and then placed on the tree in the most perfect place, I reflect. Each ornament has a memory. Together, they tell the story of my life. In a week I turn 44 and my Christmas tree is filled with memories.
Many of them have dates on them.

Some of the ornaments tell the obvious story.

"Baby's First Christmas."
"Our First Christmas Together."

They all mean something and many of them, speak of a life in an activity that came to me by surprise and with much hesitancy. Many of the decorations that adorn my tree were given to me through Secret Santa exchanges with this colorguard or that one. Some were on top of presents given to me by performers I was teaching. Some were given to me by my closest friends that I still teach with today.

This year, as I unwrapped each ornament, with the Christmas music playing in the background and the wine poured into my Christmas glass given to me by good friend Ron Comfort many Christmas's ago, my thoughts drifted to this activity of ours. It's an activity that started for me in 1987 and hasn't stopped 26 years later. I thought about the life long friendships and the friends lost along the way. I thought about the good times. The fun times. The sad times and even the arguments. They are the story of my life and there they sat...in a box...ready to shine for me through another Christmas memory.

Someone once said that your twenties are about finding your identity and challenging the status quo for that identity. Your thirties are the time in your life to enjoy the new found "you." They are the time to tell the world, "I don't have to pretend anymore. This is who I am and I am ready to show me to the world." In your forties, you know who you are and you have enough life experiences behind you to no longer hear your parents voices in your head. You are humble enough to stay quiet until it is absolutely necessary to speak and bold enough to say, "To hell with it. What do I have to lose?" You are at the mid point of life and there is a sense of pride that you actually made it this far, through the ups and downs, the failures, the stress, and outright stupidity of your twenties.

For me, as I decorated my tree at the mid point of my life, I reflected on me, the woman who made it this far. I thought about who I am and who I was. I have been a woman who has endured my share of struggles. I've been harder on myself than anyone could ever have been, but I've realized in my old age, that most women are. We have statements to make in the work place and for those of us that are climbing that career ladder, every step on that rung is fraught with questions about our ability. Society has taught us to be quiet and humble. Some of us are taught to not speak unless spoken to. Be pretty. Don't be too aggressive or too confrontational. We question ourselves as mothers. We live in a society where a mother usually can't do anything right. Should she work? Should she stay at home? Neither choice is easy. "Well her son wouldn't be acting out at school if the 'mother' was home more to take care of her family." As women, we aren't thin enough. We aren't smart enough or we are too smart for our own good.  We are too bold or we aren't bold enough, and when we are bold enough, that light of the bold woman gets extinguished by the phrase, "overly emotional."  As women, we live in a world run by men and to break through that glass ceiling takes a level of fortitude that wears you down to the core. "Bitch" is a word often used to describe women who stand up for themselves or gives an opinion that challenges the "network" of good old boys.  I've been called bitch so many times that I could wrap my tree a dozen times in the word. I once heard a person in the same conversation over cocktails describe a strong and powerful female technician, by saying that he heard that in rehearsals she was a total bitch when cleaning a phrase. I asked, "By total bitch do you mean high expectations?" He went on to describe a temper tantrum of a designer he had dealt with in a critique scenario by saying, "You know, that typical designer attitude. They let their creativity block their judgment." One statement is classified as "bitch" and one is classified as "creative."

So as women we struggle. As I decorated my tree I reflected on that struggle. It's a struggle that took me through relationships that were not just unhealthy, but practically abusive at times. I reflected on times when I couldn't take it anymore after being patronized and demoralized. I didn't dwell, however. I am a strong woman and dwelling on the past is not in my life's plan. Barely anything phases me anymore. I look at life almost as a game. "What are you going to do now life? Bring it on baby! I can take it."

Life is hard. Male or female. It's hard and it doesn't get any easier as time takes its toll on your body, your mind, and your spirit, but you know what? I believe strongly that I am the woman I am, because of an activity that never gave up on me. This activity was handed to me by God and without it, I wouldn't be who I am. I am a woman of strength, because I managed two summers of drum corps that were tougher than boot camp in the Navy. I am the woman who I am, because I've taken a colorguard on to a floor, failed miserably and still managed to hold my head up high as they announced my guard in last place. I am able to stand up in any meeting filled with high powered politicians and executives and state my case without hesitation, because I have sat in critiques across from some of the best designers and techs in the activity and said, "I don't think your show is as good as you do." I am a strong woman today, because when I started in this activity, my colorguard was faced with the gravest and heaviest of moments as we buried guard members who lost their lives while doing colorguard. Once, in an argument with a male companion, when I was being put down and patronized I said, "Do you think what your are saying actually gets to me? I marched drum corps for Christ's sake!"

The activity makes you stronger. It builds your spirit and toughens your soul. It gives you the confidence to step into the world with an attitude of, "I can!"

As a woman, I have performed in front of thousands, because it was expected of me and because someone was behind me saying, "You can do this." Because of that, I can sit in any professional interview with absolute confidence. As I reflected, I realized that this pageantry activity of ours flies past the societal judgment that says that a woman has to be a size 2, 5'8, and blonde to be attractive to men. The activity allows us to challenge ourselves to be better than we ever thought we could and to be more than society thought we had in us. It helps us believe in ourselves. Pageantry has given me the ability to say, "I can do this. Just me. I can be a mother, have a career, be a political activist, a colorguard instructor, judge, and any other damn thing I want to be."

The pageantry activity creates leaders.

As we reflect this Christmas, one month before the start of another winterguard season, let's do it this year for the girls; these young women who are on the floor giving all they got...who don't see many images of themselves in the media. They don't see a woman who is is 5'4 and 135 pounds in daily print ads. They don't usually see women in roles of power as much as they see men. Research backs that up time and time again. Commercials are still made for the woman to mop the floor and drive the SUV to little league. Women are depicted as emotional and weak in shows like Bad Girls and the Kardashians. Still, in 2013 women are still depicted as in need of saving. This sets them up for a life of need, when all they ever needed was to unlock the power within their own soul and mind. In this season of reflection and the 2014 season ahead of us, let's create strong women. Demand from them more than anyone has ever demanded of them in their lives. Tell them they can do anything they set their minds to. When they step on that floor for the first time and for the last time, tell them that every moment is a choice to succeed and to hell with what the role society tells them they should take. This pageantry activity of ours has grown some incredible women. I grew up with the strength of greek god, because of a flag, a sabre and some really tough instructors. This activity makes dancers out of awkward teens and world class performers out of shy wallflowers. Mostly though, it gives you courage and strength and THAT is more than many women get in their entire lives. My tree is decorated with the gift of pageantry and that has been the best gift of all and it was a gift given to me almost three decades ago.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays my friends.

Photo: Tree is done. Changed it up and went white. Santa even has gifts under the tree.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Technically Speaking...

I was sitting on the couch flipping channels when I see the lovely Julie Andrews singing with the VonTrapp children. They are sitting in a flower field by a mountain in their green paisley “curtain play clothing” and I pause. Her voice sweeps over me and I am transported back to 1999 and blue crushed velvet, being the youngest on the team, and an abundance of butterflies clipped to my heavily hair-sprayed hair. It brings me back to some of the my “favorite things” and probably one of my most notorious beauty mistakes.

I’ve said for years that if I leave the house and look bad and you don’t tell me - you are not my friend. I reserve that I must not have had many friends that year. I mean really…I was 16 years old after all on a team of college students. Because no one told me there were too many butterflies in my hair; I thought I looked cute.

No one told me + I was young and silly = butterfly failure.

It was not my fault. *audible sigh* Anyways…

It’s that time of year again, folks. The OFFICIAL BEGINNING of WINTERGUARD! It’s a time of great joy and excitement for a new show, new friends, new uniform, no more summer heat, and of great misery getting rid of weird tan lines, expectation pressures, and time frames. DCI and their Finals have been completed for some time now. Congrats again to all those serious summer warriors on their amazing tours. Summer days are long over and schools are finishing or finished with football season. Marching color guards are hanging up their field shows and are ready to embrace their indoor excitement. Independent programs all over the nation have finished auditions and are already putting their shows together. Everyone is getting ready for that mad dash to Premier.

But the question is - are the performers really REALLY ready to take the floor for competition?

“Let’s start at the very beginning… A very good place to start….”

The terms “basics” and “training” are used in daily communication from staff to student then from judges to staff then back to student. The definition of basics is “the ESSENTIAL facts of principles on a subject or skill”. The definition of training is “the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior”. Every staff member is responsible for the training aspect of a member. The staff member sets the standard to be executed by the performer. Every judges tape I have ever heard always comments on the success or failure of the training program. Are the hand placements the same on the flag feature? Do the release points match on the weapon tosses? Do all the members understand the weight shifting footwork under the equipment phrase? Do all the members achieve the upper body strength to complete these skills? Do they have stamina to finish the show? All these concepts and more are directly effected by the success or failure of the training program.

The perfect example of the importance of basics and proper training are major athletes preparing her/him self for the Olympics. Some of my favorite Olympians to watch are Michael Phelps, Kayla Mahoney, Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, and Gabrielle Douglas. Many of them have the same routine 7 days in a row to focus mind and body as one. My students and I last November had the honor to listen to Gabrielle Douglas - London 2012 Olympic All-Around Gold Medalist - speak in Orlando when she was on her book signing tour . She spoke of the self commitment to her sport and her appreciation for the opportunities to fight for her dream. She spoke on how her skill and stamina were the results of hard work and perseverance and that it takes years of physical and mental training to prepare for the pressures of being an Olympic hopeful. If it wasn't for her routine training and preparation and her mother’s support, she would never had been ready for the pressure of the Olympics.

We can look to all sports actually. To name a few : Every basketball team does laps and lay-ups before a game. A football team does quick steps and throws or blocks every practice. A dance team does the same stretch sequence every time before rehearsing their competition piece. A hockey team does sprints and stick work before a game. A volley ball team will run and volley the ball back and forth.

I immediately ask then - If training and basics are the key components to success, why do so many color/winter guard programs skipping over this aspect completely? Why do so many staffs allow their students to “warm up themselves”?

The majority of the success or failure of a program starts on the first day. While no staff can control the performers personally, a clear tone and expectation is set by the staff members and how they dictate the initial process. If the energy is focused and clear, the return response will be precise, positive and energetic. If the energy is frantic or random or undisciplined, the membership will respond with the same energy. In my experience, the membership will ALWAYS follow the level of energy and focus that the staff members are putting out.

“When you read you begin with A B C … When you sing you begin with Doe Rei Me..”

Colorguard basics can be universally compiled into 2 simple things: drop spins and a 3 count wind-up toss. Every color guard member in the world should start by learning the drop spin. The simplicity of the up and down motion can teach a new member many things: hand eye coordination, wrist control, speed, timing, arm placement, hand placement, posture, strength. The list goes on. The 3 count wind-up toss can teach actual fearlessness in releasing of the flag, release point, body control, self confidence, etc. Without these things, on a consistent basis, success to these skills and any others that follow will not happen. Another example is that if you don’t teach basic dance such as arm placements, tendus, and plies, then they can’t be expected to do a barrel turn and not expect them to get hurt badly. They don’t understand hip turn out and weight shifting - they are not prepared for it. But once they understand the “Basics”, you can teach them anything - EVERYTHING - because they will understand how to develop the knowledge they have into those advance skills.

I always felt physical pain when a staff member would suggest that the guard warm up on their own before the first equipment run. Members ALWAYS immediately start tossing before warming up their wrists properly. They will immediately start doing leaps or high kicks without stretch enough. Or worse - they will just stand around talking and start the day completely cold. It falls on the staff member(s) if they fail or get hurt for lack of proper warm-up. It is our responsibility as leaders to teach them properly. How do we expect them to spin together if they are all over the place doing their own thing when ever they feel like it? One of my favorite quotes when I teach is, “A group will never look like a whole if they remain a bunch of pieces“.

Fact: Without extreme core training, long hours of repetition, and intense focus, there would not have been the success of the famous Paradigm 2005 floor flag feature.

The membership would not have been able to achieve the physically and mentally demanding feature without having the endurance to sustain it. The staff developed a body and flag warm up that taught us to utilize all the muscles, physical and mental, that were necessary to complete the challenging drill and twirls. The body warm-up consisted of 5 songs which included stretching, strength, dance basics, guiding, performance, and more. The flag warm-up which included basic drop-spins, ab work, weight shifting, attention to detail, length of phrase, and more were called the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes warm-up was aptly named after the 3 hurricanes that hit central Florida that year. We started on our back spinning between our legs like the eye of the storm and through the warm-up made it up to standing on our feet. We said we wanted to be a force to be reckoned with, a force of nature. I personally remember thinking we were a fabulous fierce Category 5 every time we did it.

And at times, I felt we did the Hurricanes more than our show. It was, however, a routine like our show that was done consistently. We did it every rehearsal; it wasn‘t even discussed. There were not questions on if we were doing it that day or just a part of it or did we have enough time to do it. We just knew what to do. Our captain called us to the floor and the music that the warm-ups were choreographed to begun. We clicked in immediately. On a show day or a rehearsal day, the team started together - as one. We did our official body warm-up that was the same every time. We did our across the floors, which all came from moments in the show. And when we picked up our flags, we set for the Hurricanes. The weapons split off and did their warm-up.

Every rehearsal. Every time - we were together.

It didn’t matter what else was going on - bad days, rehearsal space issues, an actually hurricane - nothing stopped us from doing this first. The day always started this way.

Even in 1999, we had a consistent warm-up, which led to our consistent growth year after year. Training and focus led way for our staff to teach us the skills needed to achieve greatness. And in the end, the results of that consistency and focus spoke for itself. I am honored to be a 2 time Medalist with Paradigm and Paradigm 2005 was not only a WGI IW Finalist but also a WGI Fan Favorites. People to this day still come up to me and my fellow members of that season asking to learn that feature. It is an honor. All involved are very humbled by the nod and the passion for the show to this day. It was a lot of work, sweat, tears, repetition and technique that only comes from consistency and drive. And I couldn’t be more proud to have been a part of that exceptional experience.

“When you know the notes to sing…You can sing most anything…”

Basics training is not just limited to just the physical. A fellow staff member has said to me several times how her favorite part of marching wasn’t always the actual shows. She loved basics block and it wasn‘t because of the physical activity. It was the time to mentally sync together with a group of people with the same goal and feel the electric energy of focus and determination all around her. Looking back now, there was sort of a magic that happened in warm-ups, especially when we were really clicked in. The intensity of the groups’ energy sent little electric pulses through each of us. We knew when we were together and we could feel when someone wasn’t locked it. It’s that electricity that has pulled the attention of other members and staff alike when walking around competition sites.

How often at shows have you walked by a guard and stopped to watch? Or just power walk on by?

Did you judge them based on seeing their warm-up deciding if they were competition or not?

Worth running into the gym or not?

Excited for their show or not?

Did they become your favorite based on their intensity?

How many times as a staff member have you looked at a student and said “pay attention to me not that people walking by” or “What’s so important over there? The only person you should be looking at is me!”?

How many times as a performer have you been told either of those things?

Winterguard International has been called by many the Winterguard Olympics. I bet no Olympic hopeful is looking around into the crowd while preparing for their turn to compete. It’s a matter of training and focus. It’s about training and basics.

In the most recent years, with the complete cuts or lack of finances to the art and performance programs nationwide, programs and/or band directors are hiring younger and more inexperienced staff members than before due to money or scheduling. The new staff members are not having the much needed guidance from experienced staffs to know the right and wrong ways to teach. And the new members are not being taught the skills needed to truly achieve in a Sport that gives back so much.

So - Let’s start at the very beginning -

If you are a new or young instructor, you ARE the driving force in the success or failure of your student’s skill set. You need to make sure you are prepared to truly teach the basics and the proper training before accepting a position. Don’t expect them to ‘figure’ it out themselves. Don’t think because you have this great show in mind that you will get them to do it without training first. That is not possible and not fair. If you don’t know how to teach basics, there are several good instructors around that will be happy to teach you how to teach. Don’t be afraid to ask! One of the greatest part of this Sport is the family aspect to give and help each other. Everyone wants everyone’s students to succeed!

If you are a performer or member, you have the right to get the proper training. You have the right to seek out opportunities to learn, to improve your skills, and grow. You have the opportunity to make yourself better everyday by rehearsing yourself. Take a dance class. Study videos and try it. Make new friends who have the skills you want to learn. If you have the desire, find the information you seek.

If it were not for the training that I received in high school then all the amazing Independent level training that started in 1999 and continued on and the self discipline to go out and take dance classes on my own, spin basics with my friends, and work to be the best I could be, I never would of achieved the Guard goals I have.

To the staff members out there: I highly encourage that if you haven’t already started a basics program with your team- IT IS NEVER TO LATE TO START! It can be as simple as drop spins and speed spins or peggy spins on the right and left hand. Develop a body warmp up! Just make it consistent! You will see the change in them . They will feel great and so will you.

Technically yours…

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On Being A Great Tech

What is a good tech? What is a great tech? How do you define it? How do you know you are in the presence of a technician who can not only clean a phrase, but who can command a rehearsal simply by the tone of their voice and the manner in which they carry themselves? It's not an easy question to answer. The discussions on technicians are skimmed over in relationship to the discussions we have on designers.

This question came up twice in the past two weeks for me. The first was during a post show judging chat with a fellow judge, who is starting to feel that training and technique might be a left over concept from a bygone era. The second was this past Sunday while watching Ron Comfort conduct a rifle block at Paradigm. I've taught with Ron for almost two decades. Ron moved into design quite a while ago, so it's been a long time since I've seen him in front of a rifle line covering spins and tosses. I watched him in awe and I couldn't stop watching him as he didn't just teach spins, he commanded that rifle line like a general commanding his troops as they advanced toward battle. How did he do it? What did he say? Well let me tell you. It wasn't what he said, because teaching spins isn't rocket science. My 6 year old son could most likely learn to say start on time and keep the tempo. What Ron did however, is raise the level of expectation. He demanded excellence and wouldn't tolerate laziness. He addressed posture by simply standing up straight while he taught. His voice tone was commanding and demanding. He never raised it. No one escaped his critical eye as he constantly moved from one corner of the block to the other. Starts and stops, tempo control, release points, aggressive catches, were all up for grabs in a Ron Comfort rifle block. Drops? Don't even think about it. The performers were intimidated and should have been. He wasn't there to be their friend. He was there to make them great and his expectation was that they would be. In one hour, the tosses improved by almost 100%. One hour! 

So how does Ron do it? Has he always been this way? The answer is simple. Ron comes from a long line of great techs from the State Street Review and Madison Scouts. He carries with him old time technical concepts. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Don't move. Don't fidget. Stand up straight. Look at the audience. Wrap your thumb. Release on time. Catch on time. Subdivide. Don't complain. Stop whining. It's not what he says to the guard, it's the attitude. Let's repeat. IT'S THE ATTITUDE! 

So what separates a good tech from a great tech? 

Well, it starts with what I call the five, "Not In My Program," behaviors. 

  • Sitting Down While You Teach
Have you ever seen this? A colorguard is standing in a basics block. The tech has some loud device to keep tempo and they are sitting in front of the block, on the ground, keeping tempo. They will say something inane like, "Mary, why are you late on count 1," while they have to lift their head from the ground to say it. I always want to say, "Well, maybe if you would stand up, Grand Master Tech and teach from a vertical position, Mary would care more about her starts and stops.
  • Eating French Fries While The Guard Does Push Ups
Mixed messages. A great tech rarely sends mixed messages exercise vs. fattening food is a mixed message. It also creates an air of superiority that the kids won't respect.
  • Control of Time. 
How about this one? It's March 5th. The Power Regional is NEXT WEEKEND!  Grand Master Tech has decided that instead of cleaning the flag feature, which is the biggest GE moment in the show and is let's say...88 counts long and gets a huge crowd response upon the catch of the crazy behind the head upside down toss. The tech decides to clean the three girls in the back doing a heel stretch somewhere in the beginning of the show. Not understanding where you are in the season and the impact of each moment in relationship to the score is paramount in separating the good techs from the great ones.
  • Not Having Read the Sheets, Watched Your Competitors and Listened to Your Audio Files 
Being a tech doesn't stop in rehearsal. It involves massive amounts of preparation. Being prepared to teach to the sheets, speak to judges, and run a productive critique is a huge part of it. A pet peeve of probably every judge I have ever worked with has to be the instructor who comes into critique to debate a comment or score, never having seen their competitors (on that day), read the sheets or listened to ALL of their audio files. A good tech will let ego dictate the critique. A great tech will let preparation guide informative dialog.
  • Put the Cell Phones Down
This simply goes without discussion.

So back to Ron Comfort. What really makes him great? What are the tricks of the trade? 

The first is to understand that being a good tech is not about cleaning phrases. That's part of it, but cleaning is probably the smallest part of teching a program. In all honesty, most people can clean a phrase. Being a great tech is taking into account the following:

  • The age and skill level of your performers
  • Knowing where your performers are starting and the reality of where you can take them
  • Time in rehearsal
  • Time of the year
  • Knowing when to train and when to clean
  • Knowing that the body runs throughout every caption
  • Knowing how to embellish a phrase without bastardizing the choreography
  • Knowing the intent of the design
  • Understanding the true purpose of stamina and fatigue
  • Understanding muscle control and body control
  • Commanding rehearsal, without ego
  • Knowing the purpose of your basics program and how it relates back to the show
  • Knowing how to clean both body and equipment and performance and staging...without changing the intent of the design!
  • Keeping a good relationship with your designer. Asking them questions such as, "What was your motivation here?' 
  • Communicating frequently with the design staff of what you see and where the kids are at
  • Being able to create a positive relationship with those that judge you
  • Knowing if you are cleaning to blend, cleaning to survive, or cleaning to win. 
  • Knowing when to stop and give it a rest
  • Knowing when you don't know
I learned something a long time ago. There are moments in every season and in every show when I simply don't know how in the world to explain a skill to a performer. Sometimes I can't figure out what to take out or what to keep in. It's natural and admitting that you don't know will save time and possible points.

Being a great tech also involves consistently asking yourself if your performers have the skills to survive in someone else's program. Could they go on once they leave your program?  As an independent instructor, I would ask you to really look at that question. I have had performers audition for my guards who came from scholastic medalist programs, who couldn't throw a basic flag toss or rifle quad properly. They didn't know how to leap or turn, but yet there they stood with "medalist" on their audition application. Maybe we are seeing more of this as the activity moves further from just sport and more toward art. 

Being a great tech is hard and to be honest, there are fewer out there than we actually need. Techs are not a dime a dozen, but more like a true handful that can take a guard from average to spectacular. When I look back on my colorguard career, I don't see a person who did it right all the time. Some of my cleanest colorguards were my biggest failures. Sometimes, the guards that seemed like a competitive mess were my greatest success stories. It's a learning process and just because you can teach a 14 year old to throw a toss turnaround, catch with their eye lashes, and smile afterward, does not make you a great tech. It makes a great skills coordinator. A great tech can take that 14 year old who can now catch with her eyelashes and blend her with the ensemble. They can embellish that eyelash catch by adding a brief pause (breath) afterwards to give the audience a chance to respond to the greatness of her skill. A great tech will expect her to do it right more than not, or they will not fear taking it out. A great tech, will make sure that the 14 year old is not taxed from that skill and allow her to succeed with it, by removing her from other parts of the show if necessary. 

It's a difficult to be a great tech, but as marching band season winds down and winterguard season starts up, I encourage all of us (even the dinosaurs like me) to train our kids to not just survive, but to succeed. Give them the skills and opportunity to be great at the show that has been given to them.

Monday, October 7, 2013

10 Things I Wish My 26 Year Old Guard Instructor Self Had Known

I’m 43. I have been involved with the pageantry activity for my entire adult life. I have taught at all levels, judged, and been an administrator and board member. I’ve been around and the crow’s feet indented into my face are evidence of my age. I look at pictures of myself from my youth and see someone thinner and someone completely care free.  When I go through the box of old medals, patches, and programs I see the material bits and pieces that indicate for all practical purposes, a career of success. That box however, those memento’s, don’t tell the story accurately. They don’t tell a story of years of mistakes and years of youthful ignorance, that were lacking experience and perspective. It is only now at the age of 43 that I can look back in time, while I watch young instructors make similar mistakes and say, “I wish I had known.”

I wish I had known. It’s the age old phrase of those who have reached the mid-point of their life. It’s the phrase that the young tune out when listening to their elders.  I wish I had known that being a guard instructor carried a great deal of responsibility that had nothing to do with where count five was. I wish I had understood the nuances of voice tone and body language. I wish someone would have explained how judging worked. I wish I had sat through a circuit board meeting to understand how decisions are made. I wish that the arrogance of my twenties had not allowed me to miss out on lectures, papers, and bar time chats of those that came before me. I wish I had grasped the history and traditions that date half a century.

I did some things right, though. I knew enough even then, to find a team, a group of friends to teach with and grow with. I knew enough to know that I needed to find my niche in the activity and get great at it. I knew that without a strong basics program my guard would never be truly successful. I knew to continue to educate myself and I knew to find other interests besides colorguard, so I could have a more well-rounded view of life.

I did a lot right, but I also did a lot wrong. I look at the young instructors and I watch them teach. I look at the mistakes they make and secretly wish they wouldn't do or say “that”, knowing full well I use to do the exact same things. I look at the shows they write and wonder if they even know that the guard judge in the box can barely see that intricate and difficult hand work on sabre when they there is about 20 rows of stands, a track, a drum majors box, a pit, and about a dozen 8 to 5 steps separating the sabre line and the judge. I wonder if they know about risk management, because I didn’t. I wonder if they know that one stupid mistake or misplaced comment can spiral a program out of control, not to mention their careers and possibly their freedom.

I wonder a lot of things and I reflect. This weekend I listened to some young and very talented instructors talk about judging and realized how misinformed they actually are. So, with that I have comprised this list of the 10 most important things that I would have done anything to know when I was 26 years old.


It is not for the faint of heart. Judging is difficult and takes a great deal of training to be good. No judge gets on the plane on the Friday night before a show and thinks, “I certainly hope that this will be the weekend that I screw it all up.” Somehow though, there are instructors that take for granted this fact and demonize the act of judging and judges themselves. Seeing their program through the eyes of the judge is just as difficult as asking a parent to see their child through the eyes of a teacher. Judging takes significant concentration, the ability to manage numbers, the ability to remember minute details over the course of an 8 hour day, and the ability to manage travel fatigue weekend and weekend out. It’s hard and they aren’t perfect. Some are even not very good. All of them however, are human. They make mistakes. They miscalculate every once in a while. They put one program in third when they should have been second. TRAGEDY! When I listen to instructors talk about their show in relationship to the recap I always ask, “Did you see your competitors?”  Did you see them today?” “Do you realize that the numbers from last week don’t carry relevance simply because of incalculable factors such as venue, a change in units, a change in the judging panel, a first read, a change in the weather, or a change in the alignment of the stars? (just kidding, the alignment of the stars would only make a difference if the planets themselves were to change position)

Here’s the point. A judge has a unique perspective and their perspective isn't always wrong, even if their numbers are. Learn to listen objectively and with an open heart. You don’t have to agree, but you don’t have to be dismissive and cruel either. One of the best tapes I received when I was a young instructor (when we still had tapes) came from someone who wasn't even a judge. He was asked to judge on a whim when the guard judge didn't make it to the show. His name was Shawn McKaig and it was the most honest tape I had ever received to date. He trashed us and you know what…he was right. It was hard to listen to and at first I wanted to dismiss his efforts and his opinions. If I had done that though, I would have missed out on some incredible feedback that he tailored just for me. 

And by the way…read the sheets. READ THE SHEETS! How can you possibly have proper dialog without understanding the documents your evaluators are using? I’ll tell you this, until you've climbed behind that recorder and run the numbers, you will never truly get it. Try it sometime, because it will truly change your perspective.

Young High School Kids Are Not Drum Corps Kids

Stop writing and teaching like they are.  A 15 year old processes information differently than a 21 year old. The 15 year old body is under-developed and needs a significant amount of strength training to be able to manage skills such as one hand releases and wrist manipulation. A 15 year old has mom and dad who dictate the rules. A 15 year old is contending with the influences of friends that impact their desires and ability to dedicate at the level you are hoping they will. They are teenagers and meeting them where they are at will go a long way in the development of your program.

Health and Wellness

The pageantry activity has become a sport. I don’t care what anyone says. It’s a sport. It involves endurance, strength, and the right mental mindset to succeed. The kids have to be healthy. They have to take care of themselves. When I was younger I didn't grasp that. I ate fast food in front of them, while telling them not to. I drank soda’s all day, every day. When they ran or did push-ups, I sat back and yelled. Showing them proper ways to treat your body will not just go a long in helping build your program, but it will show the parents and community that your program is more than just marching band or colorguard. You are teaching the kids health skills that will carry for LIFE.

Take care of your body and the performers will follow suit. Show them that good health practices are a cornerstone to your life.

Risk Management

When you teach a colorguard or marching band you are taking on risk that you might be unprepared for. I didn't realize it then and it took a significant injury of a young woman who was in my charge (not in the world of colorguard) to wake me up to the realities of risk. Lawsuits are real. Laws that govern the responsibility of young people are real. The legal system isn't playing and neither should you. Every season, every rehearsal, and every trip should always start with a thought in your head asking, “What is the risk? What is my responsibility?”

Are you ever alone with a performer? Do you ever drive them home? What about heat exhaustion? What about an injury from a piece of equipment, because YOU did not train that skill properly? What about verbal abuse? What about the new hazing laws? What about facility upkeep? What about sexual harassment? I once overheard a parent complaining that the guard her daughter marched in only gave solo's and leadership opportunities to the boys of the program. She was angry and wanted answers. 

It all matters and in a gym somewhere, in some school, there is a lawsuit waiting to happen or worse. I don’t want to think about the “worse.”


Here’s a thought…drum corps, marching band, and winter guard did not start the year you marched. There were shows that came before yours and people who put those shows together. Every year and every show was a thread in the tapestry that allows your thought process of the activity to exist. There was a time when the only work that was written, was written in the vertical plane. Now we explore space in unimaginable ways. Someone threw the first 45 toss. Someone was the first to add a dance feature. Explore who those people were, because you will learn a lot. Watch old videos. Watch not just old videos, but watch REALLY OLD VIDEOS. Watch the ones that are so old that there’s a chance that Moses most likely was a member.  They seem simplistic, but their work was important to the activity and they deserve to be acknowledged. There was a time in gymnastics when a round off back hand spring double back was only done in a tucked position.  In 1984, Mary Lou Retton extended her legs and made it a double layout. It was brilliant. It was difficult. It was standard setting. Today in gymnastics, it’s just a standard part of all floor routines. The pageantry activity is no different. Someone did it first. Get to know those people and thank them.

Side note…last year I mentioned George Zingali in a conversation with a group of instructors.  One of the instructors said in a somewhat condescending way, “Who is he and what did he do?” Needless to say, his guard did very poorly that season and I fully believe it's not because of his lack of knowledge, but his unwillingness to learn. 

There is a reason for the administrators or the boosters. Their number one job is to safeguard the financial security of the program. Without them you wouldn’t exist. They are the fundraiser and the debt collector. Their job is to ask questions about the need for another set of flags. They should question your process, especially if you are new to the world of instructing. They want to make sure dollars are not spent frivolously just because you had a brain storm of originality. (BTW…read number 9 for the answer to originality) Learn to understand them and work with them. When I ran my first high school guard I thought they were nothing, but a pest. “They don’t get me!” “Why won’t they just write the $1,500 check for the closer flags with 10 pieces, made of silk, sewn in the top of the Andes Mountains where a special silk worm exists?”

If you want your program to come out next season, let the administration do their job. Build a relationship with them. Help them to understand your process and in turn respect theirs.

Why the Parents Are Really There

Learn to work with the parents. I use to see the parents as a nemesis. I found them difficult to work with. They stood in the way of me and the performer. They stood in the way of MY creativity. Here’s the thing. Sometimes they do get in the way and sometimes they are out of line. Most of the time however, they are doing one fundamental thing. They are trying to protect their investment, the love of their life…their child. Once you understand that key point, it becomes easier to work with them. Setting rehearsal guidelines and roles for the parents will help a lot. Parents are important to your program. If you befriend one parent, you can befriend them all. Showing them that you respect their time, their money, and their child will set your program up for success many years down the road. Parents talk and when they do they talk about you. What do you want them to say? “Yes he’s tough, but he gets the job done and the kids love him,” or “Yes he’s tough and continues to hold the kids late, forcing me to get dinner on the table late and I have no idea where the money is going!” What relationship do you want?

That Teaching Young Women Should Go Further Than Counts

I didn't grasp this one until fairly recently. Young women are facing an uphill battle in our society. They are fighting ongoing body image issues that the media is hell bent on exploiting. They are facing an activity where much of the leadership roles are given to men. Choreographers and designers tend to be men and the girls see it. "Can a performer see themselves in their staff," is an important question to always ask. A young female colorguard performer doesn't have to be taught by women to be successful, but having this understanding about young women will help their esteem in the activity. Male instructors often make mistakes when doing choreography. They don’t spin like a woman and they don’t perform like a woman, so they oftentimes forget design and choreography considerations for young women, especially for those that are inexperienced. A grown man of 25 who writes work should have an understanding that a young girl of 14 might not have the strength to manage his choreography. Costuming a 14 year old female also matters and sometimes matters to them so much so, that their decision of staying in the guard plays a role on what they were asked to wear in front of a crowd.  It’s important that our young girls that grow up in the pageantry activity can see that they are as strong as the man that they will have to work with one day. We can teach them these skills. We just simply have to be aware of it.

Chances are, someone has already thought of it, done it, and tried it

Yes, someone has already done Phantom of the Opera, First Circle, Good Morning Vietnam, Tori Amos, Adele, and Heaven and Hell. Someone has already thrown paint, thrown water, and thrown people. Someone has already only spun one flag or one sabre for an entire show. Someone has already spun with their feet and released a sabre with their teeth.

It’s all been done. The question is this. Do you know your history enough (see number 4)  to either A) not do it again or B) do it with full knowledge that it has been done and you just would like to try a different version of it. Will you acknowledge the work that came before you as an inspiration? 

Find Your Niche

Everyone has a place they fit. The question is this…Do you know where you fit? Not everyone can design and not everyone can tech and many times, you really shouldn't try to do both. Maybe you can’t do either. Some people should never run a rehearsal. Running a rehearsal takes strong organizational skills that many don’t have. Some people should never work with young performers. My friend Heather Rothman identified a long time ago that she was a person who really enjoys working with the young inexperienced kids. She’s great at it. She’s so great at it that I would put her in front of a middle school team any day over some others that I know who have resumes a mile long. We need that. We need someone who can foster the babies. Maybe you are the person that can only choreograph, but not design. There’s a big difference. Maybe you can clean a phrase, but your niche is doing it from a GE perspective and not from an IA perspective.  Maybe you are best at fundraising and finance.

Regardless of what you are best at, the point is to figure it out or you will be edged out to the abyss of pageantry to never be heard of again. Find your niche and get great at it. Practice your craft and then find a mentor. Find someone who can guide you along the way. Take dance classes or art classes.  Take a non-profit business class. Take a class on youth development and learn about the mind and body of a young person. Get good and get knowledgeable.

I encourage any young instructor reading this to find a mentor.  Find someone you respect and someone who will let you shadow them in rehearsals and meetings. If you are my age or older, mentor someone. There’s great value in it and it guarantees that our activity will continue to grow long after we have left it.

Good luck this season to all!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Indubitable Force of the Smallest Colorguards

They wore backless dresses, with a plunging neckline. The dresses were the color slate; a mix between blue and grey. They had just one piece of equipment and it was a simple white flag, with a lame' purple circle to accent it. The floor was grey. Their placement was 8th place in Independent World, with a score of 88.55. It was 1992 and the music was Adagio for Strings. There were 9 performers on the floor and their simple essence filled an arena of thousands. Their name was San Marino Academy and they were beautiful. They were elegant and they were unforgettable.

It’s a numbers game. Sometime in the fall, guards all over the country host auditions in the hopes of a successful winter season. Success as we all know cannot be measured in scores alone and in fact, anyone who has taught in this activity any length of time will say that scores are usually the last measure of success. Any good program measures their success in a number of ways that can include the overall satisfaction of the performers to effectively balancing the budget. Any good guard director worth their weight in proverbial gold will create a budget at the beginning of every year of what they would consider their perfect scenario.

“If we have 30, then we can add one more show to the schedule and have a little left over to pay the staff.”

“I have this great show in mind, but it would really take about 18 performers to pull it off.”

“With all the props needed for my show idea, we would need a big guard to set it all up.”

It’s rare to hear a director talk about the desire to have a smaller guard. In fact, I’m not sure I've actually heard anyone say before an audition, “OMG I certainly hope we only have nine on the floor this year. I’m taking the nine most talented and cutting everyone else.” It doesn't happen and if it does, it’s very rare. We want the numbers. The more performers on the floor is usually a strong indicator of the amount of money that flows into the program. The more performers on the floor often times gives a program staff an over inflated sense of self importance of how young people see their program from the outside. “Wow…they have 30. This must be a program that other kids love to go to.” As a spectator we often catch ourselves counting the performers on the floor. I’ve done it. We all do at some point each season. “Dear God, how many kids are out there anyway? It looks like there are 50 kids on that floor,” you often hear yourself or a friend exclaim. In World Class, a program can be represented by 40 different performers. That’s 40 kids to fill the huge arena in Dayton. That’s 40 kids to pay dues. That’s 40 kids who are able to take a show concept and each take on a role and bring a complex story to life. That’s 40 kids, 10 extra than any other class and 10 extra pulling from the A and Open Class community. (I don't really have an opinion on that rule...wink.) Numbers are important and we all know it.

Large colorguards have a strong advantage…at least that’s what we have all been made to believe. When a guard has 25 to 30 members, they can fill a small gym at a local show in massive amounts of fabric and tosses. Their fans have the potential to outnumber every other guard in the gym that day to create a higher sense of crowd response. If one performer quits or misses a show, it isn't the end of the world. As a designer, when you teach a large colorguard you can play the “hiding game,” with a lot more finesse than you can with a guard with only 8 or 9 performers.  What is the hiding game? Oh my friend, we all know how that game is played.

28 performers are on the floor in the midst of a massive ending flag feature. It’s the big ending. It’s the exclamation mark at the end of a fantastically written book. It’s beautiful, except for one thing. Five of the 28 can’t throw the final toss. OMG! What is a designer to do?  “I know…Why don’t we turn all the performers in different directions on the toss, with the five who can’t throw it turning to the back 45?” the designer says.  "I have another suggestion," as the brilliant tech speaks up. “If we go back two sets, we can move those five people to the back corners and get them off the center.” “BRILLIANT!” The judges will never know. (ummm…ok, because scanning and sampling dictates that we only stay on the center five kids)

As an audience member there tends to be a tendency to react and respond to the numbers game. When a guard with 25 members attempts a rifle feature with all 25 of its members, with intricacies of layered movement and multiple tosses, then we all cheer.  We all cheer even when 5 out of the 25 catch the tosses on the half and we cheer even when on the final quad, someone drops, 3 people move to the side, 4 people plie’ on the catch, and the free hands were addressed as an afterthought. It happens every year and it’s a trap that even I as an audience member have fallen for, even when I should know better. They are games of the design and they are meant to fool you. As a staff member, I have taught guards that have done considerable rifle features when over half of those rifles never should have picked up a rifle to begin with, much less spin it in a world class show, but it was there and the crowd ate it up...as well as some of the judges.

Having large numbers on the floor is addicting for a number of reasons and I have taught both. I've taught the guard with 30 and I've taught the guard with 9. Both have been successful and both have failed. I’m here today to make the case for the 9 or the 10 or the 11, because those guards capture the performance arena in a way that is unique and lovely.

The guards I’m talking about here have less than 10 members on the floor and sometimes the random 11. You see them more at the local level then you do at the national level. At the local level and especially in the less experienced classes such as B or Novice, those guards are often pieced together by the last eight guard members to survive the marching band season. Some are made up of nine kids who half are from the band and the others are the lasting veterans of a school that was rezoned. Some of those guards are taught by the guard captain, because they don’t have the funds to afford a staff. Some are small simply because the student body of the school is small in comparison to its competitor across town. 

Then there are your independent guards; the small independent guards attempting to survive in a sea of 20, 30, and 40.  Some are from states such as Ohio, where the Independent World Class flourishes or Florida, where in any given season 18 to 25 independent units can be seen making the trek to Dayton. It’s a numbers game and in the course of two seasons a guard’s numbers can fluctuate from 20 to 10 in just a blink and all the analyzing of “why” will never increase those numbers, no matter how successful you are. So what do you do? How do you reconcile a limited budget and performers who have the weight of a program balanced upon their shoulders? What about designing for smaller numbers when your show idea entailed at least 16? We all grapple with it at some point during our guard careers and the response is an interesting study in resilience and creativity.

So who are they? Who are the ones that set the standard for the brilliance and eloquence of the small and mighty?

They go by the name of the 27th Lancers…an icon. It’s 1988 and there are only 9 on the floor. They are aggressive. They are fierce and Mary…they have a rifle line that would rival some of the best world class guards today.  Nine performers who don’t shrink the challenge of captivating and audience of thousands with their skill and drill that doesn’t stop for five minutes, before a break is given to any one performer. The book includes body wraps, level changes, and the use of space that is often difficult for some of the larger teams. It is 1988 and they are in a class with the State Street Review, Cavaliers, and Blessed Sacrament. They competed against guards with male rifle lines who were able to get the crowd to yell just for being hot. They were up against guards that could create effect just by rotating a block, because that block was so massive. These 9 women competed in an era of mass and left the arena as rock stars.

They are a high school guard with a rich history. With reasons unknown to me, they came to Dayton with just 11 girls. Their name is Carroll High School and they were nothing short of brilliant. It is 1995 and a very competitive year for Scholastic World. It was a class to be reckoned with. It was the infamous year that landed Bishop Kearney in the history books with their interpretation of Sybil. Miamisburg was one of the cleanest colorguards to ever seen in any scholastic class. Northmont and McGavock were beautiful as they interpreted classics. It was Carroll though, that left an audience in true wonderment as 11 girls moved from prop to prop without stopping and without ever giving the audience a chance to count how few were actually performing on the floor. They left the arena that night with a medal around their neck, while making a statement that a few young women can prove to themselves and the world, that they can take on anybody.

To design for a small colorguard is a skill. It takes imagination, resourcefulness, and the ability to throw all former ideas out the window. It takes a special group of performers to know that every moment on the floor is their moment. There is no hiding in a nine person colorguard. Technically, they must be superb. Catching on the half is more of a no/no than in the world of the guards of 25 and 30. Each effect in contingent on all 8 or 9 or 10 executing their role flawlessly. Now, I know what the argument is. “Well, catching on the half is a no/no in any guard. No one should think it’s o.k.” True, but I ask you to think about this. In the process 16 count phrase that ends with a sabre five, how fast can your eye scan the entire floor of let’s say 20 performers spinning sabre vs. 8? Do you catch all 20 like you can all 8? In a flawless phrase, which guard is forgiven more for a drop at the end, the guard of 20 or the guard of 9? Before you respond, think about the crowd response when one piece of equipment hits the floor when there are 25 spinning vs.10? Think about the number of vignettes a guard of 30 can create during any phrase vs. the amount of vignettes in a guard of 9, knowing that vignettes are a wonderful distraction when the kids just don’t have the chops to pull off a phrase from start to finish. Think about a maybe "less than" experienced judge whose ability to sample is not at the level of their more experienced counterpart?

When researching this article I watched a lot of colorguards. I looked and I listened. I took notice of the intimacy. Intimacy: "a close association with or deep understanding of subject or place." A guard that lets you inside their world and really dig into their emotion, their character, and their skill is a rare one. You don’t see them often. It is a risk. “What if I put my 9 girls out there and just one of them doesn't live up to the role they have been given? I can’t hide her. I can’t cut her.” The beauty, the true magnificence of a small colorguard is their ability to let you into their world. You get to know the performers as if you could reach out and touch them. Their faces are real and aren't hidden. You become familiar with them as they open the door to their character and over time, they risk letting you know them and judge them as not a colorguard, but as who they are on the inside. That nine person ensemble knows that they are vulnerable in ways 30 and 40 are not and that’s the true secret and the true gift to the audience. 

Teaching a guard of any size is a challenge. Each size guard has their special challenges. Some say they would rather have a small guard over a large any day, because the drama is less. The numbers game is a scary one. When you have too many performers you risk clutter and you risk running out of time to proficiently train. A small guard may risk the words most of us loathe to hear from any judge, "thin." An injury of just one performer in a guard of 8 can devastate their season. All the kids and all the guards bring something to the table to value, but often times we overlook the complexities of the smallest of them. 

In the opening of this post I described one of my favorites, San Marino Academy of Dramatic Colorguard. I remember them like it was yesterday. I remember one flag and one fishtail that started in the back 45 corner of the floor and flowed from one performer to the next. I remember the pause as the last girl subtlety grabbed the flag, finished the final fishtail and just paused long enough for the audience to see a 9 person perfect turn out of the foot. They allowed us to absorb the intricacy of breath in that one moment. It was lovely and left us all breathless. 

There have been many of those guards, too many actually to mention here, but they don't always get the credit they deserve and aren't always remembered. A personal favorite from Florida was "Beyond" and I use to love to sit in the stands and watch as 9 girls brought Tracy Chapman's, "Fast Car," to life weekend after weekend. By the end of the season we knew them. We could feel their energy, because those 9 performers allowed the audience to explore who they were and with a road painted on the floor and no props to hide behind, we fell in love with them and watched them dominate in Dayton.

As we start a new season and start a new numbers game, I encourage directors and performers, judges and audience members to embrace those guards of 8 or 9 or 10, because you never know. You never know if you might just end up designing for, judging, or watching the next 1988 27th Lancers. 

Winterguard: Beyond Friendship, Beyond Family

When the staff sat around the planning table last year and discussed the course of action we were to take to bring Paradigm back out, many questions were discussed. All programs go through the planning and problem solving to-do list which usually includes how to find a consistent rehearsal site, a set schedule, work on the budget, discuss possible show concepts, how to attract membership, how to choose the right staff, etc. but one question in particular stuck out in my mind. It was the question we knew both members and parents were going to ask when discussing their choices:

“Why would I choose Paradigm? What make them different?
Why with all the performance options would I choose this program?”

Well, for me, this was the easiest question of all to answer.

It is well known that I am one of the longest committed members to Paradigm. I dedicated 9 years to the program and would of easily given more had it been available to me. One of my “Favorite Things” that I am famous or infamous (however you prefer) for was the 1999 butterfly hair nightmare. (Oh, butterflies…) I think that innocent mistake will haunt me ‘til my final days. 2000 was my first year in IA Finals which was “Cool”.

  I partied in to the top 5 in IA with “Birdland” in 2001. I wasn’t a “Wayfaring Stranger” as I earned my 2002 IA Silver Medal and I still sing the praises of “Fleetwood Mac” who lead the way to my 2003 IO Bronze Medal. I proudly have the WGI medals shadowboxed in honor of those great accomplishments.

Entering into my IW years, I growled and managed to escape the cage in 2004 “A Look Inside“. I was a part of the most amazing flag features ever created in 2005 which was no “Typical Situation“. 2006 was an emotional roller coaster as I discovered Mitch Albrom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and the movies Philadelphia and Meet Joe Black. And as I recovered from my car accident in November 2006, I joined in March, the end of the season, to sing ‘One Love’ into a microphone in 2007.

When I walked into the gym in Lake City, Florida with my sister, Jamie, back in the September of 1998, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself in to nor what was going to be accomplished in the time I was there. I was 15, a Junior in high school, and surrounded by a lot of college students who knew more and could spin better than I could. All I knew was that I wanted to march and my high school no longer had a winter guard program. What I did know was we were going to audition for Paradigm Independent and the people there were really nice. When the weekend was over, I was tired and sore but I made some great new friends. I became the youngest person on the team that year and 1 of only 2 high schoolers that made it. It was the first steps towards a near decade of family and commitment

There is an old clique that goes something like - you make your closest friends in college. I completely disagree. I met them in the guard community. I met them at Paradigm. Paradigm is second Family. I have been around long enough to know there is nothing like the bond between marching members. There is nothing greater than that continued bond over years of teamwork and commitment. There is nothing like the instant connection when we haven’t seen each other in a while and it is immediately like we saw each other yesterday. I know I could call almost anyone of my former teammates and if possible, someway, somehow, they would support me if I really needed it. And while I am close with my coworkers and I feel like I spend just as much or more time with them as I do my guard family, its by no means the same. They don’t understand why I keep giving up my days off to teach at clinics or tech some flags or fix some feet. They have never been to Dayton and been on the floor feeling the connective energy of the people giving their all while thousands of eyes watch and applaud. They haven’t felt the bond off walking on the floor in pure joy or pure exhaustion. They have never felt the sense of accomplishment when a group you have taught achieves that one perfect moment in that one perfect run. When I request off work, I put ‘family event’ because that is what it is to me.

9 years. Don’t they go by in a blink? I went through SO much in that time. High school graduation, college graduation, relationships, friendships, disappointments, successes, my car accident, and so much more. I grew up in Paradigm. I can honestly say marching at Paradigm made me the person I am today. I can watch the videos and see my growth as a performer and a person. I look back at the obstacles I had to hurdle over to make it to the next season and see the people next to me encouraging me to go forth. I know the people I helped and what I gave back, which is why I love to teach.

So when asked this question directly to me - how would I talk to others about why Paradigm? My response was this:

Winterguard teaches not just drop spins and tosses; it teaches Life. It teaches dedication to your team and commitment to those around you. It teaches about friendship with no conditions. It teaches how to really trust in people that you depend on and find those who are depending on you. It teaches financial obligation to your dues and personal life sacrifices. It teaches how to make the right choices and learn from the wrong ones. It teaches hygiene, hair, and makeup 101. It teaching nutrition and body awareness. It teaches you the grace of winning and the dignity of losing. It teaches you that hard work pays off and when you think about giving up, you still have a little bit more to give.

All these “life” things were never taught in any of my college classes. There were taught at right shoulder in a gym with Paradigm. After I stopped marching, I looked for something else that was as great. I found a few groups and activities that came close or atleast had moments of it but “IT” wasn’t there. Maybe because I didn’t stay that long or the staff didn’t focus on teaching these things or I knew where Home was. But I missed Paradigm.

I would choose Paradigm because this is my Family, my second home. These people are who I have to depend on and trust to be there and to do their jobs. I have cried with these people. I’ve laughed, have been exhausted, overjoyed, overwhelmed, bruised, brokenhearted, and a million other emotions. 

I am thrilled and honored to be a part of the staff at Paradigm this year and I look forward to what this season and the many after it will bring.

If you have a ‘Home’, I can’t wait to see you on the floor and good luck to you this season! But if you don’t have a ‘Home’ yet and still are looking for that special place to go, please by all means come join us for a weekend. I have no doubt that once you meet my Family, you will want to be a part of it too.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Paradigm, Pageantry, and 30 Seconds in Dayton

"It is obvious that we can no more explain a passion to a person who has never experienced it that we can explain light to the blind." T.S. Eliot 

In life, if we are one of the lucky few, we have the ability to experience a moment while we are in it and be able to say, "This is it. This is my moment and I'm living it fully and mindfully. I know what is happening and I'm going to allow every emotion to roll over me. I see every person and hear every sound. This is it. This is the moment that will change me forever."

In 2005, the Paradigm Performance Ensemble set out to do something no one to date had never done. We wanted to create a moment that took the world of pageantry to a level that not yet been explored. Before I go forward with this post, I must state that this will not be about a flag feature. I'm going to attempt to define an activity to those who don't understand it and for those who have spent a lifetime trying to.

In the simplest terms and the only way I can explain it...The Pageantry Arts is a lifestyle choice that encompasses every emotion that can be felt through the human soul and is felt within seconds of each other, day in and day out and season by season. The pageantry activity encompasses a range of the arts from dance to marching band, to drum corps, to winterguard. This however, is the two dimensional definition. The three dimensional definition in winterguard is where my love lies, and it is winterguard that has brought me a life of joy, a life of tears, a life of elation, and a life of sorrow....sometimes all in the same weekend or even in the same five minute moment in front of 10,000 people. It is winterguard that has brought me to my knees and it is winterguard that has been the one that has helped me explore the depths of friendship and spirituality. It is winterguard that brought me to one 30 second moment where I could answer "YES!" In bold letters with an exclamation mark to the questions Pink asked.  "Have you ever wished for an endless night? Lassoed the moon and the stars and pulled that rope tight? Have you ever held your breath and asked yourself will it ever get better than tonight?" This to me is pageantry. It is Paradigm. It is art and it is passion. It is me and it is a part of my soul that is here to stay.

When Paradigm set out to spin with our feet, a flag feature that I'm not afraid to say is still one of the best ever written, we didn't decide it flippantly and in isolation. It was a decision that was worked on and discussed for over a year. It was a decision that was decided on by a group of people in many different ways and in many different places. The original idea was born in a gay bar (surprise, surprise) over a conversation that started with, "What has never been done before?" Every idea crazy and insane was thrown out on the table. Someone asked the question, "Has anyone ever done a show where the entire book was written in the horizontal plane?" With that question, a group of friends decided to spend a year exploring an idea. A year later, after many bruises, after many discussions (and even a few fights) we found ourselves at an audition teaching a bunch of 20 somethings to use their feet for more than just to look cute in shoes.

Over the course of time, the idea of spinning with our feet took on a life of its own. Discussions out of practice involved the "what if." We realized the importance of a team. We realized that creativity doesn't exist in a bubble and if it does, then it doesn't exist in its purest form. Spinning with our feet consumed our thoughts. What more can we do? If we can do this then what else? Conversations entered into the bizarre. Does spinning a flag only have to happen with the body? Wouldn't it be cool if? What would happen if we tried...?" "I want to do a show about anti-gravity."

We asked these questions of each other not because we thought we would find an answer or that they were even realistic, but because the conversations were so incredibly rich in dialog and because we hungered for each other's ideas, time and friendship  We were adults who went  to work in the day, in the average American workforce, devoid of passion and inspiration, but came home on the weekends to a world of creativity that exists only for the lucky few. When we realized that we could spin with our feet, we realized that the possibilities were endless and I'm not just talking about colorguard. I'm talking about life.

It seems absurd. How can a flag feature garner such emotion? It's just flags in a gym. Pageantry is about passion. I can't find anything out there like it. When a person thinks of passion they think of it in a two dimensional form that the media says we are supposed to believe it is. When I think of passion I think of a life filled with all the emotions the universe gave us and not suppressing them because of what it will look like or because we fear the idea of living fully in the moment. There is nothing like it on earth when you find yourself on a gym floor late at night with just you and your friends dancing to a piece of music just out of the blue and just because someone said, "What do you think about this?"

The people in this activity have gravitated to it because when we were born the universe said to us, "Now this is your time to feel life in its purest form. Don't hold back." It's not about flags in a gym. It's not about the staff or the performers. It's not about the judges or the scores. It's not about the audience or the applause. It's about the synergy of it all when it all comes together in one moment and in one gym. I've tried to explain it to others and get a lot of support from the people in the "real world," but as hard as I try, the only people who truly understand it are the people who have experienced it.

In 2005, when Paradigm spun with their feet we knew that we wanted one thing. We wanted to stand together at the top of an arena and watch a group of young people bring our creativity to life. Our creativity speaks for itself in the form of friendship and those friendships I have no doubt are the friendships that soul mates are made of.

In the song, "Glitter In the Air," Pink asks a series of questions. I would like to answer these questions by using a 30 second moment that took over a year and a half to create. In that 30 seconds I knew anything was possible and I knew my life had changed forever, because once you are open up to the possibilities, then all fear becomes nothing but white noise.

Question:  Have you ever closed your eyes and trusted, just trusted?

Answer: Yes I have. In the 16 counts before they spun with their feet I closed my eyes and trusted that everything was right.

Question: Have you ever been touched so gently you had to cry?

Answer: Yes I have. During the flag feature Mikey was standing behind me and put his arms around me. I knew at that moment that I was with a group of friends that were with me for life. I cried.

Question: Have you ever invited a stranger to come inside?

Answer: Yes I have. I have invited over 10,000 people into my soul to judge me, to love me, to hate me, but mostly to share in my moment of joy.

Question: Have you ever wished for an endless night? Lassoed the moon and the stars and pulled that rope tight?
Have you ever held your breath and asked yourself will it ever get better than tonight?

Answer: Yes I have wished for an endless night, knowing full well that night could not last. I lived fully in the moment letting all the emotion consume me. Yes I have held my breath and wondered if life could get any better than the perfection of friends who have the ability to accomplish a goal with passionate  abandonment. That Saturday night in Dayton I walked down the stands as Ron Comfort said in my ear, "This is a moment we will remember for the rest of our lives."

Later that night when we talked to the performers, with tears streaming down their faces and ours, Joe Flynn said something I'll never forget. He said, "Don't you wish the rest of the world could experience life like this?"

So for anyone who ever questions why you do colorguard or drum corps or marching band you tell them it is because you want to live life fully and you want to explore every level of passion the universe will allow you to have.

This post is dedicated to my wonderful Paradigm family both past and present, but mostly to anyone who ever had the guts to create something with their own passion and invited others in to explore it with you. This is dedicated to the thousands of kids who have stepped on a gym floor with a flag in their hands wondering what in the hell they signed themselves up for. This is dedicated to every person that ever stood in front of a group of kids with the hopes of a great 30 second moment. It's dedicated to the judges, to the contest staff and all volunteers who work for a flawless show day. Mostly, it is dedicated to the people who watched as we as instructors and performers succeeded and failed. You were there to share our passion. You were there to share our pain and our joy. You were there. You helped create the synergy and for that I thank you.