Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Living Through The Renaissance of Winter Guard

The definition of the word renaissance means "rebirth." It is a renewal of life and an awakening of creativity and discovery. Some say that without the European Renaissance and its exploration of the human spirit, the modern civilized world would not be so civilized. Who or what would we be without Michelangelo's David or Leonardo da Vinci's, Mona Lisa? Literature, art, architecture, science, astronomy, and idea's came to life and set the stage for a new and modern world that is unmatched even today. It was the Renaissance that gave us the flush toilet, microscope and printing press...ALL inventions that not just influence our daily lives, but allow us to live as educated and articulate human beings. My God! Who would we be without the brilliance and free flow of ideas of that time? Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante. We are who we are because of these men. We still write books and make movies based on concepts and ideals of the literature of the Renaissance. It was the Renaissance that gave us Descartes who said, "I think therefore I am," and Shakespeare that said, "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."

There once was a time when we as an activity experienced our own Renaissance. It was during the great Renaissance of Winter Guard that brought us tarp covered gym floors. We explored our bodies and space in ways never even considered at that time. We fed off of each other. In this time frame sometime in the decade between the late 80's and 90's, we educated ourselves on the intricacies of dance. The process of training changed to address space, time, weight, and flow. Lower body contributions started to enhance the equipment book as designers explored the concepts between drill and dance. At this time, costuming became an element of the design and not just an afterthought. Production value was a topic of great importance as many of us struggled to find our voice in the realm of this new General Effect. Painting floors grew to be an art form and then all of a sudden, Ensemble Analysis judges were discussing the "use of the floor" and the "changing of the stage" in reference to the tarp.

In the decade of the Renaissance, the activity freely explored music, It was a time before "THE LIST" came out and all music was up for grabs. With this exploration of music, soundtrack design became a topic over cocktails at the bar. Creativity in the World Class was expected and desired by the audience. The guards had unique looks and their shows spoke to identity first and the sheets second. We knew when walking through the parking lot of warm-up in Dayton, who was who. The Alliance of Miami looked vastly different than the San Jose Raiders and the San Jose Raiders looked vastly different than Blessed Sacrament. The shows were wicked exciting and finals gave us significant levels of diversity in approach and effect. I'll never, ever forget the year Bishop Kearney did Sybil. We all sat at headquarters like, "OMG! That bitch cut her hair!" And speaking of headquarters, it was even different back then. You think it was a party atmosphere now??? Well.........

I think though, my favorite part of the decade between 1989 and 1999, was that for the most part, a person who wanted to be a part of the activity at the World level could. The world staff's were fairly young, with minimal guidance. The judges and instructors were learning right along with each other and we were allowed to actually talk to each other. That dialog between judge and instructor...friends...was an invaluable element to the growth of the art. Every year brought something new, whether it was Blessed Sacrament exploring music subtlety in 1989 or San Jose exploring the movie soundtrack in 1992. I myself was a staff member at Shaktai in 1998 when the phrase, "Random Acts of Colorguard" was coined. Those random acts landed us in 6th place and you still see hints of it today. Looking back, it seems that exploration as an art was not just for those ranked the highest, but an expected norm in all the classes. At the time, staff members and performers stayed together...for years. You knew who taught who and where. Individual guards had styles and those styles stayed within that guard. It was also a time when making money on the back of the activity was rare. Some people did, but most didn't. It was a time before Pyware completely took over drill design, everyone owned a costume company, silks were produced at a premium cost and floors were designed in another state. This Renaissance forced us to learn to paint floors, sew flags, and design our own shows. With those skills, we were able to get dirty with the discovery of art. Most of us didn't hire big name designers. Some did, but it was a time in the activity that the average person could achieve finalist status in at least one of the classes with a little hard work, creativity, and technical training. We even designed technical programs that fit our style of show. We were forced to learn our craft! 

Now I know how I sound. "The old lady who walked in the snow to rehearsal, counting the show on an abacus," but that's not it. There is so much value to what is being achieved today. Kids today can out spin, out dance, and out perform any one of our guards from 1994. The designs border on professional art and we are now truly a performance entity first and colorguard second. I don't think this is a bad thing. I believe in evolution and I believe in change. The activity however, exists at its current state because of the Renaissance. You only see hints of it now, but it's there every time a floor is pulled out and a grande jete' under a sabre toss creates a moment of effect.

I'm writing this today, because for the past several years I've seen a trend of young people lacking an understanding of where their craft is truly derived from. I myself often pay homage to those that came before me. The activity is at an impasse. When you look at the A Class finalists from the past several years, it's rare to find a unit that got there without the paid help of a designer, not affiliated with the area the kids come from and its rare for those units to not be designed by an individual from the Renaissance age of the activity. It's hard to find a World guard that can sustain themselves in finals for multiple years in a row and when they do, their extraordinary budgets force them out faster than they hoped. Kids in the world class today are not kids. They are adults who border on professional dancer. We are in a dearth of training, because we have spent a decade focused on paid design over learning the process of spinning and those kids who are now adults, are struggling to understand how the equipment works. Part of this is because, as the activity becomes more sophisticated at its core, we aren't having the dialog needed to aid the instructor who marched World Class in this day of high design, transfer that refined design to the skills necessary for an awkward 14 year old to be successful.

We are in a time where there is a guard on every corner, allowing the performers to move on as soon as something doesn't go their way. We are in a time when there aren't enough staff members to sustain weekend rehearsals, because many are working first at the average high school that pays and the independent program that doesn't, second. Kids don't age out anymore, so failure and opportunity to learn doesn't come at  the ripe old age of 22 as it used to, but at 26 and 30 and 35.

If we as an activity are to see a new Renaissance, the young people of today must explore their own ideas and own failures. They must be allowed to achieve success in their own names. Now I'm not sure how to do this, since the A Class is not really a training class any longer and kids truly can leave any program and walk down the street to the next when they don't make finals. When staff members are trying to make a living off of the activity, without paying their dues working for free at the one program that allows them to play and explore, then they are forced into a system of accountability that comes with a salary, that they might not be ready for. In the end, what we get is a lot of average looking guards, that have moderate level training, moderate level design, and who all look very similar to each other. We have brilliance in this activity. It's absolute brilliance that I can't often wrap my head around, but much of that brilliance is coming from those of an earlier time. Some people might say this is a cruel statement, but the truth is hard and maybe when the activity starts exploring at deeper levels of their history and their present, then we will be able to truly move into the future.

Finally, let's always remember the lessons of the past and the words of Michelangelo, "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."

Monday, November 3, 2014

On Being A Judge: The Facts

Yesterday, I had the honor of judging the Oklahoma State Championships. This is a show I've been a part of now for the past three years and each year, I learn a little bit more about myself as a judge and as a person. I'm writing this today as a shout out to all of my judge friends and colleagues, who every weekend, every season, make a choice to step behind an audio recorder and  make judgments on the hard work and sweat of the young people of our activity.

For the record, I am not one of the judges that do the activity year round. It's a choice I've made to keep a bit of sanity in a life that sometimes is filled with chaos. I go heavy in the winter, spend my summer drinking sangria at the beach, and in the fall try to find a good mix between real life and marching band. It's my system and it works for me. Other people I know are weekend warriors only and others are year round explorers of football fields and gym floors. Some are just starting out and others have been judging the marching arts for decades. Many are national based, while others are national hopefuls. Many are local. They are professionals of music and dance and life long lovers of the activity. All of them, regardless of their path, are caring individuals hoping to give something back to an activity that gave so much to them.

Yesterday after the show, a long day spent outside in wind and frigid temperatures, the judging panel was standing in the parking lot waiting for our rides back to the hotel. It was late and we were tired. While standing there, our attention got drawn to the props of a very prominent program in the activity and we wanted to take a closer look.

"How was it made? How much did they spend? What do those props mean anyway? Can I get my picture with my head in one of them? O.K. probably not. That might me taking it a bit far."

While looking at the props, a parent of the program came up to me and asked if we were judges. He thanked us and was grateful for our hard work. As visceral of a response than I've had in a while, I shook his hand and said, "Are you kidding! It was an honor to judge these kids!"

The interesting part and something many people don't realize, is that when it comes to judges, we are just as much in awe of an activity that year after year continues to push the creative envelope, as the audience members who pay hard earned money to watch this version of entertainment.

I've heard a lot of myths about judges over the years. Some are based in possible reality, others just simply based on emotion. In this world of the marching arts, a subjective sport and one fraught with potential missteps, I've learned a few absolutes about the life of a judge.

FACT 1: They Have The Highest Respect For The Kids And Staff

All them! Not just the great programs, but all of them. Every judge I have ever known has the deepest respect for anyone who has the guts to step out in front of an audience for judgment and critique and show months of work, sweat, and tears. The reality is that judges who don' t have an honest and internal respect for the programs, don't make it very far. Sure, we have some in the pageantry arts that have forgotten what it's like to spend a week at band camp for 12 hours a day, trying to teach freshmen what a down beat is. Some of them, in fact most of them, couldn't do some of the work that the kids are attempting. Sometimes I judge a colorguard and see a phrase that catches me off guard and in my brain I'm thinking, "WTF was that! I mean seriously. Did they just levitate a girl while spinning sabres with their eyelashes?" Openly, I'm trying to critically analyze whatever it is I just saw. Internally I'm thinking, "Wow. Just wow!"

Sometimes, the smallest team can bring a tear to our eyes just because the freshman who has dropped the solo toss all season, finally caught it and the look on her face is all we needed to bring us to our proverbial knees.

FACT 2: Some Are Great, Some Are Good, And Some...Not So Much

Yep. It's true. Some judges are fantastic, while some are not. It's just like any profession out there. Some are great, some are good, and some...not so much. As an instructor in this activity, I sometimes like the lesser known judge far better than the big name. The lesser known judge seems to have a vernacular I relate better to. That's me, though. Some people only like that national folks. In this activity, we often times (a lot actually) get caught up in the "who" vs. the "what." There have been days, where I listen to the commentary of a judge and I'm like, "What language are they speaking! Is this English?"

"As I look over at the stage left flags, my eye is drawn to the propulsion backfire of the neuroplasticity in the sensory input patterns."

Some know exactly what they are talking about, but speak so technically the average person can't possibly understand them. Sometimes I hear a tape and wonder if the judge was actually watching my show. Some judges are ineffective because their tone seems condescending. Others simply don't have the experience as judges or expertise as instructors to help me take my show to the next level. Some are great, but their perspective is off, because they don't see the same level of groups often enough to offer a comprehensive view. In the reality of the activity, there are some judges who are dated; lost in a different time. Some haven't stepped foot in a competition arena for over a decade. Most can't do what the kids are being asked to do. Some are so arrogant that their information gets discounted in their smugness and false presentation of their name. However, it doesn't make them wrong. It might make them the person you just don't like to see on a panel, but really need to see on a panel.

The mistake many instructors make is discounting the feedback from the lesser known judge or giving to much value to the national name when it comes to internalizing the information. It's difficult to distinguish the good from the bad, but my belief is that every one of them offers something of value. Even if all they do is catch the one kid in the back of the field whose shoulder orientation is distorting the form; a performer you've never paid attention to, then that piece of information is enough to warrant your time.

FACT 3: It Is Stressful

For me, it starts on Thursday night when I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to wear all weekend, how I'm going to duck out of work early to catch a flight, all while helping my son with his homework. Throughout the week of the show, I review the caption I'll be judging, the teams in attendance and the pertinent information such as flight schedule and show times. It's more than that, though. A good judge will tell you that as a human being they feel some level of stress going into a show, just in the idea of putting the right numbers down, getting the teams in the correct places, and making sure the information is accurate, positive, and critical. I would be lying if I said that I didn't get stressed out when I see some unit at the show that medaled at nationals the year before. "What am I going to tell them?" "Why do they want my information?" I once knew a judge that threw up before judging WGI finals, in just the thought of screwing it up.

When it's all over, the show doesn't really end for a judge, any more than it ends for the unit being judged. There are emails as to the "Why?" "Why did you put us 5th instead of 3rd?"

"What did you mean when you said that you didn't understand how the girl levitating and spinning a sabre with her eyelashes didn't make any sense in a show about the political dominance of the blob fish?"

We fuss over recaps after it's over, hoping beyond hope that we weren't the lone judge that kept a team out of finals. We are given the unwritten instructions that Box 1 and 5 are off limits and secretly wonder why in the hell those boxes actually exist to begin with.

Then there is critique.

"Oh dear God," we think. "I gave the super duper wonder team and collector of gold medals THREE TENTHS LOWER THAN THEY GOT THREE WEEKS AGO! THEY WILL CHOP MY HEAD OFF! I WILL NEVER JUDGE AGAIN!"

In reality, things usually turn out fine. No one ends up decapitated and cocktails are had by all after show time, but the stress we put ourselves under is real and often terrifying. The catch 22 of judging is that we are all judges. Every last one of us. The instructors judge the judges, while the judges judge the instructors. We are all judges in this world of pageantry and the stress is shared equally.

FACT 4: It Is Exhausting

As I sit in the floor here in the Dallas airport, Sunday morning, recovering from a 12 hour day of judging on this three hour layover, my body is screaming at me to slow down and grow old like a good little middle age mom should do. I missed Halloween with my son, to be on a plane headed to Tulsa. I felt guilty...very guilty. Before I started judging about 12 years ago, I use to be the person that said, "I don't think the judges have any idea what it's like for performers anymore."

That statement was lost in arrogance. The physical and mental aspect of being a judge is often times over looked as many people see a group of people sitting on their rumps talking into recorders, acting as supreme beings of pageantry. The mental toll of numbers management, emotional investment of the commentary and physical toll of travel can wipe a person out until Wednesday of the following week. I have never met a judge who didn't take their job seriously and most as seriously as the unit directors take theirs.

FACT 5: We Still Have A Job To Do As Part Of The Game

There are 6 major stakeholders that make the pageantry world go round:

Performer, Instructional Staff, Support, Governing Bodies that set the rules and plan the shows, Paid Audience Member, and Judge.

One simply can't exist without the other and we can't discount any one part of the formula, yet we do it all the time. We as designers forget that sometimes the shows lack any connection to the audience, thus pushing away the financial and emotional aspects of the activity. Sometimes our governing bodies forget that their job is more than just to make money and host a good show, as some have lost the mission and original vision of the activity. Sometimes judges forget that their job is to not just engage in numbers management, but to also foster that first year band director with only 35 performers. Sometimes the audience forgets that their job is to cheer and clap, regardless of whose team is on the field. One does not work without the other and is a combined effort that must work in harmony with the other.

The judge has a job to do. They must pick a winner and pick a loser. Someone will walk away with a trophy and someone will just walk away. They must be fair. They must be knowledgeable. They must be humble. The reality and fact of this statement is that most are. All of them at some point in time have sat on the other side of the table and walked away without the trophy. They know what it's like to lose and their personal experience with that disappointment helps guide their hand when they know there is a choice to make between someone who will go on and someone who will go home.

I've been so lucky in this activity to sit on both sides of the table. I've learned to humble myself in the hard work of the performers and I sit in awe at the new designs that test the limits of our imaginations. I often question my relevance and wonder if my offerings of information will be useful to the units I judge. As a judge, you can go all season and never hear how teams have used your information, if they used it at all. If we do hear anything, it's usually for a clarification on a comment or a complaint on a score. There is no winning judge and we don't walk away with a score. So my advice. When you hear a comment that you found insightful, useful or helpful, drop a quick note to the judge and thank them. If you enjoyed how they spoke directly to a part of the show no one else had, then tell the show sponsor so you see that judge again. When you find that someone has created a tape that the kids can listen to and in turn you can respond in rehearsal with, then send them an email. You would be surprised how incredibly happy it will make them.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Silent Thoughts of a Seasoned Guard Instructor the Night Before the First Show

Last Saturday I celebrated the start of my 20th band season in Florida. On this somewhat august occasion, the eve of the Seminole Sound Spectacular, I ran through all the shows I've taken to Seminole. I thought about the bands I had been with; some good and some bad. I thought about the many hours I have stood behind the middle school across the street from the stadium, warming up this colorguard or that one. Counting, clicking, 5,6,7,8ing. I am 44 years old. Some would say that I'm a little too long in the tooth to be standing out in the hot sun, warming up 15 year old's holding flag poles. On the night before, I was thinking and planning the day, when I had a frightening thought. I looked over at my seven year old son and thought, "Dear God. There are kids in the guard who were 6 when he was born. Six!"

So I was picking out my outfit for the day, when I wondered what my peers were thinking and if their thoughts were the same. Mine went something like this.

 "I wonder what I'll wear tomorrow. Who will I see? I should look cute."

 "Who am I kidding? I'm 44 years old. It's going to be 150 degrees outside. Can I just wear the same thing I'm wearing to the morning rehearsal? No. That will look tacky."

 "Crap I have rehearsal tomorrow morning. I have to get up around 7 a.m...on a Saturday. I'm so over this lifestyle. I have to go to practice, come home, shower, get ready, drive to the show, warm up the guard. When will I get to eat?'

"I guess I'll wear something cute, I never get to dress cute anymore."

"When's the earliest I can have a cocktail?"

"The Hunger Games comes on tomorrow night. I really want to see the Hunger Games. I should record it. Nah. I'll be home. I can't deal with all the other bands. I'll come home after we perform, but not too soon. I want to seem supportive of the other teams."

"So I have two hours with the guard at practice tomorrow. What do I want to accomplish? It's going to be so hot. I hate the heat. While I'm at it, I hate Florida. Why is it so hot in October here! Just once can we get the first show where it isn't 95 degrees in the shade?'

"Will 8:00 a.m. be too early for a cocktail?"

"We haven't done the opener since band camp. I should probably work on that. I hope I can still remember the counts. I don't have time to deal with the counts. I'll just yell at them and tell them to blend."

"Come to think of it. We haven't really done basics since band camp. I'll just tell them to blend."

"Who is in our class? Who can we beat? I really don't have time to deal with the opener. We barely got the 3rd song on the field last week. I hope they practiced it. They didn't practice. I have to work that first."

"Crap. We still have to work getting on and off the field."

"Who is on the panel? Oh I don't care. If we can't get on and off the field it won't matter whose judging us."

"I wonder if anyone will be there who will hang out with me."

"If there isn't anyone to hang with, then I could easily go home after we perform and no one will care. I could be home in time to see Hunger Games; with a pint of Haagen dazs and a cocktail."

"My life is sad."

"Wouldn't it be fun to win guard? Who am I kidding. We won't win guard. We don't even know how to get on and off the field and the opener is still a mess."

"Just once I would like to go to the first contest with the entire show finished. Why does it take so long for bands in Florida to get their shows done? Why do marching band shows have to be so long? Do we really need 5 songs?"

"I can't do this anymore. I'm too old. I'm too tired. I hate standing outside in that hot, never ending, scorching, blistering sun."

"Everything I have in my closet makes me look fat. I need to go buy something new after rehearsal."

"No. I refuse. Not for marching band. I'll just wear jeans. No, jeans will be too hot. I'll wear shorts."

"I need to go to bed. 7:00 a.m. comes early. I should stop at Dunkin Donuts and get coffee."

"I need to have a drink before I go to bed. No telling when I'll get another one."

"Why don't they sell cocktails at band contests?"

"I hope the kids get some sleep tonight."

"Please. They probably went out after the football game to God knows where, to do God knows what."

"Yeah. I need a drink before bed. I'll be up all night if I don't."

"I can't believe tomorrow is another Seminole Sound. I was 28 years old doing my 4th Seminole Sound, when my guard captain was born. I am so freaking old."

"Yeah...I definitely need a drink before I go to bed."

"I need to get psyched up for this. Change my mindset."

"I hope they are ready to go. I can do this. We can do this. Get it Shelba. You've got experience. You've got wisdom. Woman power! Get it girl!"

5 minutes later...

glass...ice...Absolute...orange juice...cranberry juice...mix...shake...pour

"Cheers! And may the odds be ever in my favor!" 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Those Rare Moments When Life As You Know It Changes

On Monday, August 11th, the world stopped and held its breath as we heard of the death of Robin Williams. Many of us took to social media to collectively share our grief in what we hoped was some sick joke. In disbelief we stared at our computers, smart phones, and t.v. screens as the details emerged of his suicide. I sat with Facebook open on one device, while Twitter was open on the other, watching collective grief unfold. I myself couldn't type a status update for hours, because I simply couldn't find the words. I don't think anything I could say here on this blog could match the brilliant and touching words spoken by many others around the world, but just like everyone else, I have spent the week trying to make sense of a death that made no sense and here is what I discovered during this moment of reflection.

Somewhere between the years of childhood innocence and middle age, every person, every single person, whether they like it or not, finds that the world as it was explained  in fairy tales and Disney movies was a lie. We start to find that the magic of marriage, the romance of babies, the patriotism of the American citizen, the honesty of religion, and the heart of man, is not what "they" said it was and once we grew up and realized that Santa wasn't real, we realized that life; the world we live in, was a constant puzzle to unravel until the day we die.

It takes a moment like August 11th to shake us to our core, to wake us up to a reality we don't want to see. As children of the 80's, we saw nothing but sunshine and roses. The Gen Xers grew up in a time where money flowed freely to the middle class and war was a conversation our parents had about a time we knew nothing about. Our grandparents had Pearl Harbor and the Great Depression and our parents had hippies, Kennedy, and Vietnam. Nothing defined us. I can actually remember sitting with my friend Chris on top of the elevator of the music building, late at night on the campus of the University of Tennessee campus asking each other if we would be the forgotten generation of history. We didn't realize then, that our longing for "big life moments" would come to us in waves as the world kept getting scarier and scarier.

I have found that in life, the moments that define us are the ones that shake us to our core. As a nation; as a world, those moments are rare, but when they do happen it takes us sometimes from cradle to grave to truly understand. In the world we live in today, the moments I'm referring to are becoming more frequent. I remember the first national core shaker in my lifetime was Columbine. I was 29.  After April 20, 1999, we no longer lived in a world where children went to school safe. I was at work when it happened and watched as teenagers ran from the school and we all wondered, "What type of world are we living in?" Then came 9/11. Then came Katrina. By the time Katrina happened, Columbine seemed a distant memory of something we were just used to. Then came the first black President. Then, with all levels of horror, disbelief, and grief I can write, came December 14th, 2012. I remember watching the news flashes come across my computer at work and I couldn't breathe. We were now living in a world where elementary school children were shot to death as they colored and learned their ABC's. I stood with my co-workers in the break room watching the news and cried with them. The world would never be the same. We would separate our lives using the phrase, "Pre Sandy Hook and Post Sandy Hook." The concept of childhood innocence was gone. The world was truly frightening.

As time passes, many of us are realizing that these moments are coming to quickly. They are happening too often. The world is at war with itself and it makes Vietnam look like a party. We have a government that is bought and sold to the highest bidder and a nation that rears the head of hatred and bigotry more than we ever believed existed. As a guard director and judge, I have found that the activity shields me from the horrors of the world. Walking into the gym to teach a round of drop spins or sitting with friends to design the "next big thing" allows me to escape from the nonsense the world brings us. I have found that I can go through an entire winter season and never engage with the horrors of life. And if we are all honest with ourselves, we will admit that a side benefit to the pageantry arts is the disconnect to real life. Maybe, that's why so many hide in it for as long as they do.

When I heard of the suicide of Robin Williams I was devastated. I couldn't however, place my finger on the reason why. I mean, I never knew him. Never met him in my life. Hollywood gives us these brilliant artists often, just so we can watch as they die early. You would think after Marilyn Monroe, Janice Joplin, and Elvis, we would all be use to it by now. I remember the first actor's death I was truly disturbed by. It was Heath Ledger. Oh my God was he brilliant and I was stunned.

"How can someone of that level of talent die? We need him," I remember thinking.

Then, on February 2, 2014, we lost Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Another side of brilliance. I think I've seen everything he's ever done. I remember watching him in the movie, Copote, engrossed in the fact that I was watching art come to life. After thinking about it, I realized that when we lose such levels of talent, we feel like art dies. It's a part of us dying. We wonder if life is worth living, because in a world that practices violence and hate so blatantly wanton, it takes the death of an artist to wake us up to the beauty of life. Robin Williams, whether we realized it or not, helped us forget that we live in a world where people kill other people. He played characters that personified the human condition and those characters helped us heal. His movies helped bring us from whatever hell we were living and gave us something to smile about. After Sandy Hook, I remember watching the movie, Hook. I needed to see it. I needed to see a movie about childhood and the adventures of the human imagination. Twenty children lay dead and I needed to know that there was still good in the world. Coincidentally, Hook was the first marching band show I ever taught and designed.

When thinking about how I would write this, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to the things in my little corner of the world that has helped me heal over the years. In our activity called the marching arts, I have had many. We all have. Those shows were of pure brilliance and was a brief reminder that life was good. They had beauty that we seek with all our hearts to find, whether we realize it or not.  I remember watching Blessed Sac change life as we all knew it, when we saw a block of white flags enter from the back leaving an arena full of people breathless. There was Emerald Marquis dancing an Irish jig. There was Escapade presenting R.E.M. There was Pride bringing Alcatraz to life. There was the Blue Devils performing to Summertime. There was also however, San Jose Raiders presenting their tribute to the movie, Good Morning Vietnam. It was 1992 and it changed the activity.

If you didn't see San Jose in 1992 live, then you didn't really see it. I sat in awe, watching a movie come to life, hearing Robin Williams voice wake an arena.

"The Mississippi River broke through a protective dike today. What is a protective dike? Is it a large woman that says "Don't go near there! But Betty- Don't go near there! Don't go down by the river!"... No, we can't say "dyke" on the air, we can't even say "lesbian" anymore, it's "women in comfortable shoes. "

I went to the bar with friends repeating the phrase, "Women in comfortable shoes." It was Robin Williams voice speaking to an arena full of people in Ohio, making a bunch of silly guard people feel happy. It's something I bet he never knew existed, but I would do anything now to tell him how he made us all feel.

We are so lucky in this activity of ours. We have the ability to create art. We can analyze it, critique it. debate it, and emulate it. Art is pure and when performers bring it to life, it takes us to a place that is uniquely genuine. It is the reason we live. To feel passion through art is rare, but a rarity we must always strive for. It shows us that the human soul is truly good.

To Robin Williams, you were the embodiment of art. You touched our souls and it was pure. You could make us laugh and cry all within one movie. When we left the theater after watching one of your movies, we left a better human being. We left a human being that felt human again. When San Jose ended their show, they ended with the song, "What A Wonderful World," by Louis Armstrong. When I think of you Mr. Williams, I will think of that song, because it is a wonderful world and you helped us feel that.

Thank you for helping us see the world in color and helping us dream and if I may quote you, "Only in their dreams can man be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be."

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Intoxicating Aroma Called Drum Corps

DCI Atlanta has come and gone. For those of us in the most southern parts of the United States, it’s the only chance we get to see live drum corps without a significant amount of expense and travel. For those of us in Florida, we long for the days when DCI finals was in our back yard of Orlando. We miss shows that use to be in Clearwater, Daytona, and Miami. The times have changed, though. For most of us down here in the alligator swamp land, we only get the one show in Atlanta. We get the corps as they are starting the finishing touches headed into the push for Indy. By the time we see the shows live, we have already watched them on our computers and the big screen. Nothing is truly “shocking” by the time you get to the last weekend in July. 

Saturday night as I sat in the Georgia Dome, a place I’ve watched my share of the marching arts, between BOA and DCI (and in one exciting instance the SEC Championship), it occurred to me that it had been four years since I had seen a live DCI event. It wasn’t out of a lack of interest, but a weekend that unfortunately falls traditionally on a busy work week for me. This year, I made the decision back in May that I would go to Atlanta and figure all the work stuff out later. I’m not sure I went because of a thirst for live drum corps, as much as it was the thirst to see old friends. Regardless of the reason, I went. 

Seeing old friends all along the journey from the moment I checked into the hotel, to the first cocktail among the randomness of the activity, and even at a gas station in the middle of nowhere Georgia at 11 at night, made the reason I attended immediately apparent.  Before I even made it inside the dome I was having a true drum corps experience. To me though, it wasn't very different than a weekend at WGI or BOA. Friends, cocktails, laughs, and memories make up any one of our many activities of pageantry. It wasn’t until I stepped on to the big escalator heading down to the entrance of the Georgia Dome when I got my first scent of drum corps. It was sun screen. It was the smell of sunscreen. The escalator was packed full of people and somewhere in the midst of the eager drum corps fans I got a whiff of sunscreen. Living in Florida this isn’t a scent unfamiliar to me, but there was something about that smell of coconut that brought my senses to life. Research has shown that smell is the most significant memory trigger out of all five of the senses. In an instance, I was transported back to summer days on a practice field in the middle of some no name town in the midwest. I was 20 again and I could taste the smell of drum corps. The smell of drum corps woke me up to a journey I made a lifetime ago.

All of a sudden, all around me were people wearing drum corps jackets in 95 degree heat…a tradition I never could understand, but none the less, there it was. There were people in tee shirts representing drum corps of days long ago. Drum Corps I had never heard of were still being represented. There were the hordes of marching band kids standing with the band moms, having just finished a week of band camp. There were the girls who follow the Cavalier boys around and there were the old timers in heated debates trying to make sense of an activity that has left them behind. After four years of being gone, it was clear that nothing had changed. As I approached my seat in the dome, I felt alive again. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t in quite some time. I watched corps after corps, having strong opinions about what was occurring on the field below. I would turn to friends between corps and debate what we saw. No one ever agreed with each other.

"I loved that. Did you see that moment when...?"
"Girl please. It was trite." 

Even the debates had been stalled in time. 

It wasn’t’ until a shot on the Jumbotron above showed a guard member performing her heart out. Her face was sweating and her eyes had a look that drew me in to a world that was once mine. Her eyes were sunburned right below the line to wear she clearly wore sun glasses. It was that red burn mark that you get when you consistently forget to put sunscreen on. It was the mark of a summer spent rehearsing in places like Lisbon, Iowa and Elko, Nevada; places no person in their right mind would ever go to on their own. Her eyes brought me back. It was intoxicating. It was visceral.

For a moment in time, she was me. Twenty some odd years have gone by and I could still feel the soul of the performance. I could feel her. I could feel the adrenaline that raced through her body and the thrill of performance. My pulse raised with her and for a brief moment we were one. The performer and audience member became one as if time had stood still like a caricature of the never changing times called drum corps. I realized then that the shows might evolve (thank God) and the criteria they are judged against might change, but the activity remains just an amalgam of all of us who stood on that field with a painful sunburn.  Fans still bought their favorite corps tee shirt. People still rose to their feet when they witnessed something incredible and the crowd roared when their faces got blown off by a wall of sound. 

Nothing had changed. 

Later in the bar, there were complaints about the judges and the old curmudgeons grappled with shows that just seemed a bit too “artsy.” For me? I just drank my cocktail. Things hadn’t changed, because the cocktail conversation was still just a part of the culture as the corps were and the cocktails were still the same. Drum Corps was still the same. We were still the same. The passage of time might have changed what we see, but it hasn’t changed who we are and for that I’ll be back.

When I got home, I went into the garage and took out something that had been in a box for twenty years. I opened the box and removed my old corps jacket that had been folded neatly with my memories from so long ago and placed in the past. I held it up, with my name embroidered on one side and “colorguard” embroidered on the other and I took a deep breath. With the touch of the jacket and the fragrance of old times, it was 1990 again. I could smell the bus fumes and years spent passing through no name towns. I remembered friendships formed in the battle of victory and defeat and could taste the bad food and feel the long hot summer days. Mostly though, I could smell the sunscreen and thought about that young performer on the field Saturday night as she pushes through to the end and hoped she could feel the echos of the past through an old drum corps guard girl sitting in the stands enjoying the moment with her.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Exit Stage Right

"Time is a companion that goes with us on a journey. It reminds us to cherish each moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived."

Anyone who has ever met me, known me for longer than 8 minutes, or followed me on Facebook knows that I have two Hollywood heroes (so to speak). The first is Winnie the Pooh. I've loved Pooh ever since I was a child. I loved the movies, his sweet voice, his animal friends, and his gentle nature. When I was taking a basic psych course in college, part of the curriculum was to read, "The Tao of Pooh." It was my first introduction to Eastern philosophy and in one book, took Pooh from the childhood Disney(ized) two dimensional character, to a wise shaman guiding my journey through life. The ultimate goal, according to Pooh, is to live life on a daily basis without concerning yourself with the past or living for the future. Live for today and all your worries will take care of themselves. Pooh also believed in friendship. He valued the trust that comes with friendship. He knew that there is no life without the friends around you to build you up and help you out. It seems silly, but the symbol of Pooh means more to me than a yellow stuffed animal with a red shirt. 

My second Hollywood hero is Jean Luc Picard from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," who is probably one of the wisest, most complex, and well acted characters in television history. Right about the time Pooh became my guiding spirit, Jean Luc Picard entered our lives with the return of Star Trek. Anyone who is considered a Trekkie will tell you that Star Trek is based on Eastern philosophy. The series is an embodiment of a world where people seek nothing in life, but to better themselves through the foundation of knowledge and to live for the betterment of society.  It was inevitable that I would eventually start to see life that way. With Pooh guiding the present and Jean Luc guiding a future utopia, I transitioned from child to grown up. 

Last year I attended my 25th high school reunion. As everyone else does who participates in this middle aged rite of passage, I did a little soul searching. On the drive from Florida to Tennessee, I thought about my 25 years since high school. I thought about a hard earned career that was starting to finally take off. I thought of the people that had come into my life. The friends. The lifelong soul mates. I thought about the adversaries and unintended enemies. I thought about adventures. I thought about the people I had lost and mistakes I had made. Mostly though, I thought about the pageantry arts. A career that started when I was 14 and took me on a journey few would understand or even believe. 

When I look back on 30 years spanning hot days on a football field and long nights in a gym, I can't help but think that our activity as sprinkled with a hint of Pooh and a twist of Picard. People living for the day, striving for perfection, seeking to find answers in music and dance, and friendships born from struggle and defeat. It is a life I have wanted to live ever since the first day I stepped on a practice field with flute in hand. 

To me, life is meant to be lived. It is meant to be explored. Humans should be challenged and pushed beyond their comfort zones. It was the world that made sense to me when I would be confused about what "normal" people did on the weekends. While standing around on Monday morning at the water cooler, my co-workers would regale me in their weekend tales of dinners at Cracker Barrel, the pride in the work they did around the house, or the family staycation. They would then turn to me standing silent and ask, "So Shelba, what did you do this weekend," all while I was still wondering how in the world a person lives a "normal life. 

"Ummmm...well...I did that guard thing I do." Not disclosing that I flew to some exotic location such as Springfield, Mo on Friday night, to judge a show all day Saturday, to fly back ass early Sunday morning, just to get into my car and drive to rehearsal in Orlando. To me, as crazy as it sounds, with the exhaustion, stress, and guilt...THAT is living. 

In my time in the activity, I have met some of the most interesting, creative, and intelligent people on earth. For a while, I believed that no one would ever replace that level of three dimensional interaction. These people are brilliant artists. Sometimes confused. Frequently broke and oftentimes tortured. There are many people in the activity who, just like all other forms of art, repair their souls and find their voice in a medium not understood by many. The torture at times plays out on the football fields and in the gyms around the country. I have seen arguments, fights, interventions, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, marital affairs and other insecurities take the stage in the form of pageantry with flag in hand and music as the backdrop.

This is not an activity for the faint of heart. It is a watered down version of the Hollywood tales that play in an A&E Biography. I have seen "isms" that I'm not happy about. Jealousy and envy rears its head more than it should, but those emotions are real, and as much as we would like to pretend that we are "above" the actions of mainstream society, we are not. We have biases that stay hidden under the table, that are only talked about late at night over a glass of wine with our closest friends. 

With all of are faults and all of our craziness however, we are what we are and what we are is still a group of people living for the day, striving for a better world. A more colorful world. The pageantry arts is life. It is the embodiment of what life should be. Life should be a rainbow of emotions without fear of expression and fear of mistakes. It is the very essence of competition and the arts. 

It is time though, for me to live up to the bargain I made with my soul when I entered into this world. Life is meant to change and there are many of us in this activity who hide in it and for me, the comfort zone has become too comfortable. As Captain Picard once said, "Buried deep within you, beneath all the years of pain and anger, there is something that has never been nurtured: the potential to make yourself a better man. ant that is what it is to be human. To make yourself more than you are. Oh yes, I know you. There was a time you looked at the stars and dreamed of what might be." 

In the thirty years of doing this activity, I have been a performer, instructor, director, board member, and judge. I've done it. I've seen it. I've lived it. It's time however, to see what the next 30 years can bring. How can I take all that I learned in this activity and use it for a life I can barely imagine right now?  I realized recently that I have a voice and am not afraid to use it for the causes I hold dear. I realized that I'm stronger than I could have ever hoped to be and I know I'll need that in the fight for a peaceful world. I realized that fear is not something that haunts me, but pushes me. I realized that the good I can do in the world can extend beyond the confines of a gym and a flag. I can be anything I want to be and you know what...It was the pageantry arts that taught all of this to me. That is its greatest gift.  So I say goodbye to the guards I taught and I say goodbye to a past that taught me what passion really means. I thank every single person who sat in a gym with me and the late nights of laughing over ridiculous show ideas that would never come to fruition. I thank you all for the cocktails and conversation. I thank you for the life lessons! I say goodbye to listening to music for the sake of an idea, but say hello to music that doesn't necessarily have to be spun to. I leave on the table show ideas that I will never see come to life and counts for others to clean. I take one last look around, turn out the lights, close the door, and hopefully I leave it a little better than when I entered. 

Oh I'll still be around. I'll still find my way to a tape recorder now and then. I'll enjoy a cocktail or five while sitting in the bar waiting for my friends to finish up with retreat. I'll still board the plane to Dayton and when it's over, will leave hungover with bloodshot eyes. It's time however, for the gym door to close and the counts to cease. I wouldn't underestimate me, though. You never know where I'll pop up. If this activity taught me one thing, it was that you never quit and you keep striving to be the best you, you can be and that my friend will happen until the day I die. 

To close, I would like to draw from and out right steal the words of Captain Picard:

"So, five-card stud, nothing wild. And the sky's the limit."

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

From Performer to Performer: Stop Whining!

In my short guard career, as a performer, I have come to accept that there is always good with the bad. Thankfully, I was given the chance to march with Paradigm this past season and we had a phenomenal season. As with every colorguard however, we had our share of issues and struggles. I have been on both ends of the spectrum serving as both a performer for an independent team and an instructor for a high school guard simultaneously, and both have their share of headaches. This post is being written in the hopes that maybe it can alleviate problems for both members and staff.

First things first, whether it be independent or high school, if you commit to it, nothing about it is optional. Nothing! Synchronization can only be achieved by countless hours of cleaning and repeating so that training styles match and that can only be achieved if everyone is present. Competitions are the whole purpose for rehearsals, so if you somehow manage to miss those, you've wasted a lot of time for performers and staff. We all know emergencies arise, and when it is a true emergency, we can all relate and understand, but missing a rehearsal because you forgot you had class or work on a rehearsal the day of is not considered an emergency, it's a careless mistake. Learn to plan ahead!!!

Secondly, along with your responsibility to be present, be on time! For high school kids, that means getting there fifteen minutes early and making sure you're prepared for practice. For the independent performers, we have all known the struggle of pulling a floor and setting up with less than everyone present. As a team, everyone should be present to help. One of the things guard should be teaching all of us, is what teamwork is all about and being a team, means not just working on the show, but working together on the not so fun stuff as well.

Also, missing stretch makes you more likely to get injured at rehearsal. No one needs that headache! So, be proactive with your time. Stretch is also the time when everyone should come together to get focused and mentally ready for the day.

Third, realize that unless you have forty other members on the floor with you, your attitude will  affect the staff and your teammates as well. You can literally suck the life out of your fellow teammates and not realize you're doing it. I've had the chance of working with several different kinds of people over the years and I have had a real appreciation for those who were going through struggles and still managed to smile during through the pain. We all know injuries can be painful, but you cannot let it defeat you otherwise it will defeat everyone else around you as well. Which leads me to my next point:

Make smart decisions while away from rehearsals and shows. I know I am guilty of failing to exercise everyday and always eat right, but roller skating the night before a show isn't exactly the best idea! Take care of soreness as best as you can in between rehearsals and treat your body like an athlete would, because that's what we are...ATHLETES.

Do us all a favor and don't simply join because you want your name on the back of a shirt. If you're there and you're paying money to work your butt off, WORK YOUR BUTT OFF! Don't be that person that gets called out all of the time for giving half the effort at rehearsals and all your effort in performances. Try to be consistent in energy, performance and technical training so that it is easier to get into character for shows.

Lastly, while working your butt off, you may find that things are not so easy. Progress and perfection is never easy. Realize that nothing in life is ever easy, but remember that you've already started something, so why not make it worth it and achieve what you're pushing for? After all, there are other people around you doing the exact same thing, help them by helping yourself!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Never Ending Question...Why

When this blog was created in 2013, it was created with the intent that any person in
the activity could write for it...performers specifically. This is a touching look at the life of a current performer of Paradigm, Nicole Goldberg. In this post, she speaks of the struggle to get her parents to understand colorguard. It's a look at what many of us have faced in the fight for pageantry. Also, it is a look at what young people in our culture face, specifically young women, for the right to individualism. 

The first time I ever saw my brother spin his bow in sparring class, I knew I wanted to spin. I didn’t know exactly what I would be spinning, but I was enthralled by watching that bow and I knew I would do something similar one day. Growing up, I preferred bugs and books to Barbies and beanie babies, which was a disappointment to my beauty queen mother, but she coped, hoping I would grow out of my tomboy phase as I got older. My favorite movie growing up was Cadet Kelly on Disney Channel. It’s a movie about an expressive and very eccentric young girl who gets sent to military school and becomes a feature on her schools drill team. So, when I was younger and my mother approached me about possibly starting baton classes. I showed her a scene from Cadet Kelly in which they spin rifle and told her that is more of what I wanted to do. I must have seen smoke come out of her ears. The first question out of her mouth was “Why?” and my answer was, “Because it looks cool!” That was the end of that conversation. 

As I got older, dance became a passion; hip hop specifically. I cringed at the thought of ballet and after finally agreeing to take my first ballet class, I left after three months because of the constant abuse I was getting from the teacher for my turnout and my point. After 6th grade, I quit dancing and gained 30 pounds. I became super lazy and eating became my outlet. So, when high school rolled around, I swore to my mom I would get involved in a club or sport to keep me busy. Being captain of her cheerleading squad, it was only proper for my mom to keep bringing cheerleading up as a (biased) option. I brought up spinning a gun again and her fist clenched so tight I thought she would cry. Again...

“Why” she asked.

"Because it looks cool!" 
“Why not something more feminine?”

To avoid the argument, I told her I had cheerleader auditions and went to color guard auditions for my high school instead. She was a little surprised when I walked out with a flag instead of pom poms, but she didn’t say a word besides “How much is this going to cost?” The first year was extremely trying for me. Let’s just say, my nickname for flag tosses was "Catapult." Of course, being 13 and a girl, my reaction to my frustration was to cry to my mother. She responded by asking me encouraging me to give up.  "Maybe it’s just not your thing,” she would say.  If anyone knows me personally, they know that comments like that make me work harder. The end of my freshman year, I got the award for most improved. So, it was only fitting I wanted to go back sophomore year. “Why?” my mother consistently asked. After much arguing and begging, sophomore year came and went. Junior year was the hardest year I had in high school. I was marching captain, taking seven regular school classes, two online classes, three college courses and head of my youth leadership team at my church. I had my hands full and was always tired or cranky from all of the stress I put on myself. As per usual “Why stay with color guard if you’re so stressed?” We came to a deal. If I got at least a B in every class I was taking, I could continue guard through senior year without the questions. Don’t get me wrong, my parents came to football games and competitions because they wanted to watch, but they didn’t understand what kept bringing me back. Senior year, I was head captain. We broke 70 that year in FFCC championships and for my team that was huge. I graduated with honors and as a thank you to my high school guard, I went back to help the year after.

 “Why?" My mother asked once again. "I thought this was over for you once high school ended.” 

I told her I was getting paid to come back so she didn’t believe I was completely wasting my time. I told her I wasn’t marching, only helping, so I was making money instead of spending it. Let me just say, helping but not marching when you’re physically able to march is like putting wine in front of my instructors and telling them not to drink it. It killed me that I wasn’t marching again. I fell into a huge depression that spiraled out of control and found Paradigm in the nick of time. When I proposed marching again to my parents, it was like I told them I shot the dog.

“Here it goes!” I thought to myself. “Why spend money you don’t have for something that won’t benefit you later? Why waste time when you could be working?" I had heard these questions adnausiem. 

Why why why why why! 

At times, I even started asking why and didn’t have my answer until I went to Dayton this year. 

Why, because I am the girl who hides behind her books and her desk and avoids holding a conversation because I feel awkward. 

Why, because I am the girl who hates confrontation because I don’t want people looking at me. 

Why, because I am the girl that tears herself apart for everything that I am not. 

But when I am out on the mat or the field, I feel like someone. I feel like I am a part of something greater than me and I am bringing happiness and smiles (hopefully) to the faces of those watching me. I push myself to my limits for a reason. I don’t pay my fees for the memories! I do it because it makes me feel alive. I know it’s hard to explain why anyone would want to spend money to sleep on a gym floor for a couple of weekends, but if you saw the passion in the eyes of the performers at Dayton, you would understand why we all do it. We feel alive and the family I have found in winterguard makes it that much better. I am not scared to be myself, or whether or not my teammates always like me. they are stuck with me and they will get over it. I may not always like what my staff members say to me or make me do, but I’ll get over it and I’ll thank them in the long run because they’re teaching me life lessons I’ll need to know later on. Like being on time and forgiving myself when I make a mistake. 

Before winterguard, I didn’t feel like I had a purpose or anyone to really turn to. In this sport and in the program I call home...Paradigm, I found people who totally get it and want nothing more than to help me be successful. I know my mother is right when she says I’m losing money, but I don’t care! Money truly cannot buy happiness. Happiness comes from putting in work and seeing results while having people there to support you and THAT why I march. So now, when my mother asks why guard? I say because money cannot buy happiness.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Lie of Success

There is a strange sort of reasoning in Hollywood that musicals are less worthy of Academy consideration than dramas. It's a form of snobbism, the same sort that perpetuates the idea that drama is more deserving of Awards than comedy.--Gene Kelly

Tonight while flipping the stations on a boring, post winterguard season evening, I noticed that Singing In The Rain was on tv. The American Film Institute ranked Singing In The Rain fifth out of one hundred of the best movies of all time. It is considered a masterpiece in almost every creative circle you encounter and I had never seen it.  I remember as a little girl hearing my grandmother talk about Gene Kelly just like my generation talks about George Clooney or Brad Pitt. She adored him. So, I popped some popcorn and poured myself a glass of Bordeaux; perfect for a night of old movies, and sat back to see what all the fuss was about. While watching the movie, I was taken aback by the brilliance of the acting and elegance of the dance. I was enamored by Gene Kelly and every time he entered the screen, all I could think was, "My God! He could act circles around almost every actor in Hollywood today." It didn’t take long for me to realize why this movie is revered as an American classic.

It was 1952, when Singing in the Rain graced the silver screen, receiving reviews that were considered marginal at best. It was only nominated for two Oscars and neither were for acting or directing. Gene Kelly wasn't even considered and in fact, Gene Kelly never received an Oscar for any movie he ever acted in or directed; not Singing In The Rain, An American in Paris, or even Hello, Dolly! Yet, Gene Kelly is considered an American icon and undoubtedly one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century. Gene Kelly won numerous awards in his career, but never an Oscar, and if he did nothing else in his life, what a contribution Singing In The Rain was.

Watching this movie made think about success and what it means to our activity. Success can be defined in a lot of ways, but let’s be honest, making finals in Dayton or having a medal around your neck at headquarters helps solidify the concept of "successful." There are a million ways to define it and many define it by status. When I was in my 20’s, success was defined purely by placement. I had no body of work to fall back on, so making finals or winning a show was vitally important to my concept of success; as well as my ego. As time went on and I matured, success redefined itself over and over. 

It was Shaktai 1999, when I realized that that placement did not mean success. We were 5th that year in Independent World and going into Dayton, some people even used the dreaded word “medal.” It was the most successful show that I had been a part of to date, yet I deem that season incredibly unsuccessful. Internal struggles, financial issues, and membership problems all lead to a Saturday night show that bordered on “average.” Ranking fifth that night should have brought a lot of celebrating, but really all it brought us was a lot of drinking. It was then that I learned that placement didn’t make you happy. Over the years in Dayton I have heard people complain about their placement or score and one year, one world class instructor moaned and cried in their cocktail about just being third place, while still wearing their medal around their neck. Needless to say, I wasn’t sympathetic. It was clear that the two of us defined success differently and placed our priorities on different shelves. Neither of us were right or wrong.

Success. What is it? How do we define it? Is it a yearly placement or a body of work? If you read Facebook enough you will inadvertently start to see success through the eyes of lies. No one in their right mind is going to post this as their status: 

"Today we scored a 56.2 and well, we deserved it. The kids dropped 15 times, I couldn't finish the show in time, and well...these kids are really brats." Instead what we see is, "Today we scored a 56.2 and although it wasn't the score we had hoped for, these are the hardest working kids I've ever had and looking forward to next weekends show!" 

Sitting in critique as a judge I often ask an instructor what the goals of the guard are and in my best estimate, about 95% of all people respond in this way.

“Well, you know. We want the best for the kids and well…you know. The top 5 of the class would be great, but we are just hoping for a great championships run and being in the big show would be just the icing on the cake. Now I realize that the stars have to align and the President has to declare world peace, but we are hopeful.”

My internal response:

“Oh for the love of God! What is it you want? Do you want to be in the top 5, finals or hope for world peace?”

The answers are always slightly different based on whether the guard is nationally based or locally based, but they all have similar tones. I myself do it with my own guard when asked the same question, except I have gotten too old and have been doing this for so long, that my answer goes something like this.

“Well, I’ll be happy if I can get to the end of the season without taking the entire bottle of Xanax.”

It’s difficult to state our goals to strangers out loud, because if they seem too lofty, then we look stupid. If they seem to low, then we sell ourselves short. Either way, saying them out loud sets us up for a potentially unsuccessful ending to our season. This past February I was judging a show in North Carolina and asked a young guard instructor the question about their goals, but instead of asking about their goals, I decided to ask about their success. I asked, “So how would you define a successful season for your guard?” The dialog that followed was rich and full of honesty. They told me about feeling lost after last season and the freshmen class they hoped to hold on to. They talked about their difficulty with a particular section of the show and hoping to make it out of prelims at Championships. After that, with every show I judged, I started asking many other guards the same question. The answers were amazing and afforded a dialog that many instructors and judges never get to have.

A successful season for some people can mean finals or a medal. For others, they are happy to make it to the end without being financially ruined. Some people define success by improving upon the season before, while others see the kids they have and calculate the progress from beginning to end and are just happy with the kids being happy.

I have noticed over time that even non instructors calculate their success based off of competitive standards. Judges for example are looked at as WGI or local. The WGI manual even addresses the local judge vs. the WGI judge. WGI judges are given credence in the activity if they “are going in,” and if they get “in,” they are valued by which class they judged once they are “there” and if it was a finals show or not. You don’t have to look far for this evidence than the Facebook statuses on Saturday in Dayton. Local judges can be accepted by others based on their experience in the activity. How many times have I heard, “…and who have you taught?”

This year I noticed for the first time that status for the volunteers is also a big deal.

“What’s your assignment?”

“I’m working IO semi-finals. I didn’t get finals this year.”


“I’m at the top of the tunnel. Not the bottom.”

“Ummm…ok. Well my assignment is in the bar. Stool number six. I didn’t get stool number three this year.” (I actually said that to someone)

We all want to be successful; in the marching arts, work, marriage, money, and life. From the moment we are born we are defined by our success and it doesn’t stop until you die. I remember when my son was born and people started in on his success.

“Is he walking yet? Well my little Natalie started walking three days after she was born. She’s now training for the marathon.”

For many of us, our success is defined by looking at others, as opposed to looking in the mirror. As a woman, I never feel thin enough or pretty enough. I look in the mirror and see me. I don’t see a magazine ad trying to sell bra’s only a size 2 teenager would wear, and although I know how those models are touched up, I still see just me and question my looks.  As a professional at the age of 44, I thought I would be further ahead by now.  Forget about that little blip in 2008, called the Great Recession that forced jobs to go away and kept an entire generation from retiring, thus freeing up jobs for my generation. Regardless of the facts, I’m not as successful as I had hoped to be by now. As a mother, Oh dear Lord! As a mother, I’m never going to feel successful. It is Not. Even. Possible! Someone’s kid is always going to be smarter, prettier, more talented, and be able to beat the house in Vegas. How do you compete with that?? As a mother, I’ve resigned myself to being happy if I can simply remember to feed him daily. (To hell with the vegetables)

If in life we can’t feel successful, then how will any of us ever feel successful in an activity where our very fiber is to compete? I use to be medal obsessed. I would see people with a closet full of medals and wonder how I missed that memo from the Universe. I wanted desperately to be in “that crowd.” The older I get though, I realize that my youthful, immature version of success meant achievement. I have never medaled. Not once, but I would hardly call myself unsuccessful. At WGI in 2013, a good friend and much respected member of our pageantry community told me over drinks that he had never medaled. My jaw dropped.

“How is that possible? You’ve done this and this and this and this.”

I listed his accomplishments as if I were reading his bio on Wikipedia. All of those great shows and not one medal. I realized then, that Bob Costas isn't sitting in Dayton every year reporting for the masses our personal medal count and that medals don’t define success. Every year, every season comes to an end and for every one of us, we wake up on Monday morning, look at ourselves in the mirror and define success and for most of us, it wasn’t whether or not we made finals or judged finals. We look at ourselves in the mirror and weigh our success by the progress we made. We define it by our personal endurance to keep going in a time, when all we wanted to do was quit. We define it by passing on this activity to a new generation in the hopes they will love it as passionately as we do. 

After much soul searching I realized that this season was probably one of the most successful I have ever had and we barely made it out of prelims in Independent A. I realized that I had the ability to start again and go through those pain staking efforts that new programs go through. I started again with a program that was once World Class. I left my ego at the door and shut out the rest of the worlds judgment. I started all over while trying to manage work, home, and daily life. I can honestly say, that I did what many people couldn't and for that I walked away from the cruel mirror of judgment that once told me I was unsuccessful. 

One day my hope is that we all get to a point where success is not defined by the judgment of society and the accomplishments we place on a resume', but on the fact that we created a life with a good family, good friends, a good job, and people around us who share the same passion for the arts.