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!