Monday, November 30, 2015

The Pageantry Arts...The Great Middle Class Divide

Here is the elephant in the room. Why is it when we look out on to the field or floor what we see is primarily a middle class view of America? While watching the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving, someone posted on Facebook that the parade seemed very “white.” O.k. Why is that? In this post, I won’t pretend to have the answers. I won’t engage in political rhetoric. I won’t make a supposition that it’s a white vs. black issue. What I’m going to do is present facts. The facts will be from research bodies such as the Aspen Institute, Women’s Sports Foundation and the United Way. They are based in actual data collected over years of study and research. They are based in meetings I’ve been a part of in the past year with community leaders asking the question, “How can more children participate in sports and the arts?” It is time in our activity to begin to address why some children participate and some do not and it is time to have the conversation about what it is we really believe in as an activity, because if we don't someone else will and we might not like the results of those conversations.

In this post, I’m going to make a case for data collection. Real data collection and not just numbers based on how many guards attend Dayton year after year. I won’t discuss private entities like drum corps or independent guards, as that’s a different concept; although important for this discussion as well. This post is mostly about the public school based programs and how they are represented around the nation.  In the research on extra-curricular activities conducted around the country for the past decade, the purpose has been multi-faceted, but tends to draw on similar themes. What are the potential health problems America will be facing in the next decade? Why don’t children feel a connection to their community or school anymore? How can we increase participation of girls in sports? How does poverty plays a role in youth extra-curricular participation? How does early exposure to physical activity better serve the physical health of the nation generations down the road?

This is what we know:
  • Since the beginning of the recession in 2008, 2.6 million fewer kids between 6-12 are signing up for, participating in, and staying in the basic little league level sports such as baseball, basketball, football and soccer.
  • Boys start participation in activities a full year ahead of females.
  • By the time children reach the age of 9, they are exercising less than 2x per week.
  • Income is the number one driving force behind early participation in activities and a child’s ability to stay in that activity for several years. If a family makes $100,000 year, their children usually start activities around the age of 6. If it’s less than $50,000 per year, they start around the age of 8.
  • We know that when children and parents are surveyed about sports participation; fun, making friends, feeling a part of the team, and getting playtime always ranks first above winning, getting trophies, and participating in tournaments. Survey after survey comes back stating that children actually DO NOT like the trophy’s like we as adults think they do.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics has publicly stated that the “professionalization of parenthood” has created a mentality of parents who are pushing their children to have perfect resumes to gain college admission and college scholarships forcing the cost of activities to rise.
  • 20% of all high school females do not participate in any physical activity at school or home.
  • We know that all sports and activities have risen in cost in total contradiction to the income levels of families

I could go on and on. There is stat after stat after stat on how, when, and why kids participate in sports. There is even research that looks at adults who have cancer and correlates it back to their childhood participation in physical activities. So why does all of this matter? It matters because this information allows us to look at children across the socioeconomic and gender based spectrums and begin asking the questions of why and then how we can change it or make it better.

So, is it true? Does the pageantry arts have an issue with socioeconomics? Are poor children left out? Are girls participating in color guard as their first ever physical activity, because they finally found a gender based activity that combines their love for things pretty, with their desire to be active? Here is what we know.


When asked to make a case in a public forum on why funders should begin to give money so we can perpetuate not just the arts, but also the marching arts for children of all income levels, I was unable to find enough data to make a strong case. Months and months. Call after call and my team couldn’t find the necessary data. There is data for the arts and music. There is data for sports, but data for the Sport of the Arts is limited. The data necessary to make a case belongs to how we look at statistics at the government level through the lens of the U.S. Census. The questions to ask have to do with ethnicity, income level, gender, and single vs. dual family households. Data also must be fairly recent. It doesn’t have to be last week, but when your information is a decade old and doesn’t involve the most recent 2008 recession, then you can’t make a case.  When it comes to funding and making a public case you can’t guess. In 2012, The United Way commissioned a report called The ALICE Project. A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). This is the group of people most often called “the working poor.” Those of us who do community work like to call those folks “The Alice Group.” The Alice Group are the kids above the poverty line, but below middle class. Their parents are only surviving based on their salaries. They are trying and surviving, but income doesn’t allow for extracurricular’s. After the recession, the ALICE Group grew. In Florida where I live, a full 45% of all families are financially surviving and that’s it; nothing left over after rent, car payment and insurance. In Florida, the average family of four survival budget is $47,484. The stability budget in Florida for a family of four is $81,972. Study after study shows that those in the ALICE Group are edged out of activities and sports.  

All the major research released in the past decade on physical activity for kids usually leaves out band and guard. Cheerleading has just entered the data sets in some research. Dance has been looked at in rare cases and when it’s done, is focused on the children already participating and what the benefits it has on those kids. In fact, in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, hunting was listed as an activity and band never was. We can make a case for the importance of music and how it impacts the brain, but until we start tying the gender based aspects and financial based aspects to the physical part of the pageantry arts, then we will never be able to make a case for public dollars.

So, what about this income issue?

“There are fundraisers! If they want to participate bad enough, then they will fund raise.”
“The parents are lazy.”
“The kids are lazy.”
“Some parents just want a free ride and when they don’t get it they complain.”

These are common arguments and some of them are true. There are lazy parents. There are people who want a free ride. However, they are generalizations, with little support based on science. This is what we know based on what’s called “community asset mapping” and surveys through the Afterschool Network, CDC, and Women’s Sports Foundation.

  • The further a child lives from the school, the less likely they will participate in an extra-curricular activity, because of transportation issues.
  • Standardized testing has impacted the importance of physical activity at the middle school and high school levels.
  • There are more single parent households making less money than 20 years ago
  • Extra-curricular activities have risen in cost, with less connection to the community than 30 years ago
  • Fundraising is difficult for parents below the poverty line and in the Alice Group, due to the fact that fundraising is often done with family and friends and many of those in poverty don’t have family and friends with the disposable income to sell to.
  • Many fundraisers occur at times when parents are working weekend and shift work hours. 
  • More families live further away from family than they did 20 years ago, leaving out the help necessary to help with transportation.
  • Oh…did I mention that transportation was a problem?
  • Transportation, transportation, transportation

What needs to happen?
  • We first need to find out what the cost of the pageantry arts are compared to other sports and how it has or has not risen within the current economy, as well as then comparing those numbers to the average middle class income today.
  • We need to find out if the bands and guards out there are gaining or losing kids and why
  • We need to find out what works. What models out there draw kids in and what pushes them away?
  • We need to survey parents and ask the tough questions about what helps them make decisions on their ability to allow their child to participate? What struggles do they have?
  • We need to comprehensively look at the budgets of public school marching bands, guards, and other competitive units and find out which budgets include travel out of state and how it impacts the participation of the kids.
  • We need to look at the professionalization of the activity such as professional costume companies, drill writers, designers, and equipment companies and find out how the costs have or have not risen and if that has impacted the budgets to the point of excluding kids.
  • We need to officially connect the dots of the marching arts to a reduction in obesity
  • We need to identify how many girls are participating across the board in color guard so we may make a case for probably the largest gender based sport in America
  • We need to find out how many kids out there identify as gay, because the marching arts are a safe haven for children of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientation’s.
  • We need to study not just large, national based teams, but local and community based organizations to garner public support for more local tax dollars.
  • We need to look at ethnicity
  • We need to make the case…with numbers…that the more kids that are on the marching band field, then the less kids there are sitting at home watching the Kardashians, getting fat, playing video games, and causing a disruption in the classroom and on the streets. With those numbers we need to do a better job at saying what we all know. “Yes…these kids graduate at higher rates, are more disciplined, healthier, and make better grades.”
  • We need to work together to figure out a way to help local bands and guards brings costs down so more kids can play.
  • We need to stop frivolous proposals that are self-serving and introduce proposals that focus on the big picture that all children deserve the opportunity to participate.
  • We need a seat at the table when major bodies of research is conducted and demand to be included in those numbers.
  • We need a place where all data is kept and easily accessible to those who write grants and advocate.
  • We need to teach directors and coaches how to advocate with their administration and local school board for their program.
  • We need to re-imagine the activity that includes a competitive component, but also a community component for children with limited means
Research takes years and its painstaking work. It's necessary work though, if we believe in what we do. The numbers I'm talking about can't be found by just one study through some survey monkey created in an office somewhere disconnected from the reality of community work. We need to hire and recruit real researchers and encourage arts and physical wellness PhD candidates to take on our activity as a dissertation. The pageantry arts is a multi-million dollar industry. The money could be found if we wanted it to be found. We need to start getting the data to make the case for more children to participate. Period. Keep this in mind also. Public dollars fund much of our activity. "Oh but Shelba, we get nothing from our school." Oh yes you do. You do if one dollar, just one dollar goes to pay for the band director, guard coach, a set of silks, a musical instrument, the gym you practice in or a school bus to carry the band to a football game and back. Once we realize that we have a vested interest in how tax dollars are spent to fund our activity, then we will start the process of protecting it and making sure all children have access to it.

Imagine a world, where all kids who wanted to had the opportunity to participate in music, band, and guard. Envision an activity with wider levels of diversity, bringing along different cultures of music and dance. Try to dream of children having access to the marching arts in elementary schools and after school programs across the nation. What if we could prove with numbers that what we do creates healthy children who value their community and love going to school, because in that school and community is an opportunity for fun, teamwork, mentoring, and the interaction with people who care? Think about it. Now let’s start a real dialog.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The 5 Life Lesson's I've Learned as a Colorguard Tech

I'm 45, almost 46. I feel old. I've been cleaning colorguard's for a long time. Marching band. Winterguard. Local. National. Good. Bad. Not so bad. Not so good. Great. I've been around and taught or consulted with just about every type of program there is to teach. I've learned a few things along the way and as we seem to be at a point in the activity where we appear to be passing the torch to the younger generation, I would like to spend some time sharing some wisdom and a little bit of advice, before I leave the activity from full time instructor and judge to consultant and spectator. 
I love this activity. I love it! Over the years I've had an off and on love/hate relationship with it as I learned to juggle career and family, with guard and band. The older I get though, the more I realize how it has kept me going, when all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers of my bed and stay there until the storms of life had passed. It has given me a place to be on weekends and a creative outlet that makes me a better mother and better professional. It has allowed me to stay young, as I interact with young people just starting out on life's journey. More than anything, it gave me friends; friends that at times I don't feel worthy of having, as it connected me to a world beyond my front door.

Along the way, I learned a few things about myself and life through the activity and I learned it as a technician, that I'm proud to say out loud, that through it all, I became a damn good one. Technicians in our activity often get the short end of the stick when it comes to accolades and awards. We are usually paid less than designers and get a lot of blame when the toss doesn't go up together. I've learned about living life through the realities of being a tech, and I've learned to embrace the love of cleaning a colorguard and seeing those moments come to life show after show after show.

Embrace the love/hate relationship you will ultimately have with your designer

The designer chooses the show. The designer writes the show. The designer sets the stage for the effects and ultimately has the final say in the direction of the show. USUALLY.  Not always. I’ve learned that if you CHOOSE, yes YOU make the choice to engage or not engage with the designer and if you choose to build on a lifelong relationship with a designer, then you will be surprised at how much power as a technician you will have in the direction of the choreography and planned effects. If you are a good tech and can prove that by results, then the show often will get designed around YOUR skills as a technician and the ability you have to raise a guard from average to great. Technicians have so much power if they choose to have it.

I've spent a lot of time over the years being irritated with designers. They aren’t moving fast enough. They are taking my cleaning time. They keep changing things. It’s the day before prelims…”WHAT DO YOU MEAN THE FLAG FEATURE IS CHANGING?? You know what I have to say to all of that? Boo Hoo! Stop. Just stop. Learn to express your needs and struggles that you’ve been having with the guard or the phrase and work together. You know where else this skill comes in handy? The work place. Marriage. Parenting. I saw my ability to work under pressure as a technician truly come to life, when I had a toddler with zero social skills and the innate need to throw tantrums in every Target we walked into. I had to learn quickly how to meet his needs and mine at the same time. Embrace the love/hate and build a relationship with your designer.

Learn to move slow. Learn to move fast. Make a list. Be prepared.

Technicians have to be able to think on their feet. I’ve teched several great World programs over the years and in those environments you tend to race against the clock as a technician. What starts on the schedule as a nice leisurely hour to clean and clarify the sabre feature with drill, can on a dime, turn into 15 minutes in some hallway with barely enough space to toss. So fine. You have 15 minutes in a hallway and you can’t work the big toss, catch in your teeth upside down thing that you really needed to work on. So what do you do? What else can you fix in that quick 15 minutes? I’ve seen more technicians in my day waste that time by complaining and wondering how to fill the space. This by the way happens at every level. It snowed. We missed practice. It rained all week. We had to work on a stage and still had a show on Saturday. Being a great tech means learning to manage adversity.

Teching a guard takes planning. It’s a daily task of critically evaluating your program and finding the key effect moments, the moments that can wait, and the moments you may never get to. It means that when you are lucky to get the hour to truly detail and clean the sabre feature, then you don’t waste it with mindless chit chat and looking at your phone or trying to figure out counts that should have been figured out by watching a rehearsal video. Video's, judges commentary, and recaps are all there at your disposal. Do you use them to plan?

As a tech, I find the hardest skill to have learned is the ability to move slow and understand that some skills take time. Sometimes you will spend an hour cleaning a phrase, but the results come a week later once the muscle memory and emotional energy has settled down. The question is this. Do you as a tech know when to move fast and when to move slow? Do you have the patience for both?

In life, there are times when moving slow and waiting to see the results of your labor is not just a necessity, but a natural course of action. Life dictates to you the course of action. Do I move fast and jump to action or do I slow down and let my mind rest?

Share the blame. Share the success. Stop making excuses.

When the guard doesn’t do well and they looked panicked, hurried, or rushed while on the field, whose fault is that? Is it their fault or is it yours for not preparing them well enough? Did you just teach that phrase yesterday, not giving them the time to absorb the information? Did you waste time on your phone, when you could have done just one more repetition? What about when the toss goes up together and the crowd goes crazy? Was it you that cleaned it or the designer that timed it well? Have you spent time preparing them mentally as well as physically? Do they feel good about themselves?The success of the staff’s ability to communicate their needs and work within the restraints thrown at them is a direct result of the success of the team. These are some of my favorite excuses.

“But I cleaned it already.” (Apparently not)

“The kids don’t practice at home.” (Then make them practice harder when you are with them)

“We never get a gym” (No one else does either)

“It rained all week.” (Everyone got rain this week)

“The designer didn’t finish the show in time.” (Welcome to the world of being a tech)

“The designer changed the feature.” (See previous response)

“I never get enough time to clean it.” (And you never will)

And my favorite…my all-time favorite…

“The judges just don’t like us.” (They have criteria to follow. Did you follow it?)

I’m a person that has numerous flaws. I acknowledge them and often times celebrate them, but I will not make excuses for them. If my guard sucks, then well…the buck stops with me, because I did something wrong along the way either through staff communication or organizational preparedness.

When you are on the job, no one cares about your excuses. They care that the job got done correctly and in a timely manner. Period.

Get in the mix of it all

The older I get, the more of an opportunity I am getting to consult and sit back and watch from the stands and observe instructors teach. I’ve noticed several things that can make or break the success of a team and I ask this question for all reading this. Do you as a technician engage with the students or do you sit in the stands, stand on the sideline, watch every text message that comes through your phone, or only view the program from the front? When really looking honestly at those I’ve taught with or consulted for, many times the problems occur because of the lack of on the field/floor engagement with the performers.

“Sally Mae you are doing the angle wrong.” “Sally Mae I’ve told you already. The ANGLE is wrong!” “Sally Mae…DO YOU HEAR ME? THE ANGLE ON COUNT 6 IS WRONG!!” “Do it AGAIN for Sally Mae!”

How about this? Get on the field, stand behind Sally Mae, put your hands on the flag and help her understand the angle. It will save time and her self-esteem. When observing staff members, I see that many never view their program from the back or side, only from the front. More is seen from the side or back 45 than from the front any day.

How about this one? “No phones in rehearsals. I want you present and engaged at all times.” Is the staff present and engaged? Really? Are you?

I’ve also learned over the years that watching the design or writing process go down is crucial in my understanding of the show. As a tech, it’s so much more than counts. It’s teaching character and motivation. It’s understanding efforts and intent. Do you leave during design time or do you watch and listen?

Talk about a life lesson. Is your life viewed from the front only or do you, as Robin Williams once demonstrated, stand on your desk and view the world from different angles?

Stop Feeling sorry for yourself and grow a thick skin

I have zero tolerance for this one. What you present to your performers as a person, is how they will perform on the floor. Are you confident? Do you love yourself? Do you always put your best foot forward, even when the world is beating you up? Do you speak negatively about yourself in front of the kids? Do you post negative comments on Facebook so the kids pick up on that energy? Can you stand up tall when a designer says to you that they want the feature cleaned by the end of the day and when that doesn’t happen say, “It’s getting there. I’ll make sure it gets there,” or do you pout with a sullen look? 

What about critique? We all have it happen at least once a season if not 3 or 4 times a season. The big name judge is sitting across from you. You have 3 minutes. Do you sit down with good posture and ask pointed questions to clarify the intent of the commentary or do you slouch and immediately place yourself lower in the pecking order than the judge? Do you take comments in stride when they say they don’t like it or do you complain, without looking objectively at the comment? Do you blame a judge, before looking deep inside yourself?

So I admit this next comment out loud. I realize I’m a bad person for it, but I’m going to say it anyway. I hate it when staff members cry or get upset when they are told that their work isn’t good enough. I become like this piranha out for blood. The reason I’m like that, is because I have been in rehearsals where I was expected to accomplish a task and didn’t. I was yelled at. I impacted the score. I did. My inability to accomplish a task in the training or cleaning process, impacted the overall score. I learned to grow a thick skin so I could objectively listen to the concerns of all involved. 

Here’s the reality. You were given 30 minutes to clean a phrase and it’s not clean. I’m sorry, but the flags still don’t go around together. Why? What you did with your time…without excuses? Judges are the same way. They have one job and that is to rank, rate, and comment on your program. If you aren’t in it to be told the truth, then why do you do it? We put our kids out there every rehearsal and every show to be evaluated by the staff and then evaluated by the judges. We expect them to have a thick skin and so should we and if we can't handle a moody designer or uptight judge, then how can we handle the real challenges in life such as sickness, job loss, or death?

The older I get, the more I realize that there is no black or white answer to life. It’s an abstract based roller coaster with tunnels and light, that takes you up and pulls you down. You have to be strong, but willing to admit that you’re fallible and capable of learning from the lessons of your mistakes, as well as the lesson that it might just be out of your hands. As a tech, I’ve made just about as many if not more mistakes, than I have had successes. I continue to make mistakes, but I try. I try so hard to learn from them. I use my friends to be my mirror and with that friendship, they allow me to be theirs. I’ve learned to listen with the intent of wanting help, as opposed with the intent of a defensive posture. My friends are tough. They tell me when my guard sucks and they tell me how to fix it. They also celebrate me when they see I’ve struggled with a team and now that team reaps the benefits of what is and always will be a collective effort of kids, staff, administration, parents, and the audience. My friends celebrate me as a person and help me understand the power I have as an individual. They have been with me in colorguard and they have been with me in life. They help me grow.

I think, that’s the ultimate purpose of life, at least for me and I learned it as a colorguard technician. We experience, we learn, and we listen and along the way…we find a few friends who serve as our mirror and confidant and tell us, "It's not clean enough. Try again, but I know you will get there." In return, we acknowledge the struggle, thank them for their honesty and offer them the same in return.