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.

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