Thursday, December 17, 2015

Training. Is it of a Time Gone By?

The question comes up all the time in circle of instructors, judges, and even the performers themselves. What does training mean in today's modern pageantry arts and what is considered a "well trained" color guard? If I had a dollar every time I had this conversation with someone in the past five years, I would be rich. People care about this topic. They are talking about it. They are questioning it. So if that's the case, then why aren't guards better trained? What's the problem?

I don't profess to know the answer, but I've had enough conversations to think I at least can figure out the problem. 

There are some very obvious changes that have occurred in the pageantry arts in the past decade and without direct intention, I believe they have made an indirect impact on what training means for our activity. Several shifts in design have occurred as it should in any developing art. In the past 20 years, the activity has explored planes in unique and alternate ways. The ground is being used more often. Individual responsibilities have taken on a new meaning as we continue to stage through smaller vignettes and individual moments. Dance has taken on a central focus as the driver of synergy with the equipment. Basically, the work has gotten harder, the staging has become less drill based, and the story of the show has taken center stage. 

Another shift we've had is the changing of the sheets in the downstairs captions to focus more on training. Some of us would say much of that experiment was not the success those in charge had hoped. We can say all day long that instructors must take it on themselves to learn the sheets, read their own recaps, and listen to their audio files. Some took ownership. Some did not. Many of the instructors truly didn't understand the 70/130 split, thus changing back to 50/50 and then not and then factoring the numbers. Blah, blah, blah. The reality is that, I'm not convinced the instructors truly understood it. They could tell you that training was important, but still didn't know how to translate the importance of training into a rehearsal setting. 

Finally, technology and the business of the activity has truly taken center stage. Instructors can now buy design, drill, costumes, silks, floors, and create all the production value to their hearts desire; just by the stroke of a pen to a check. Design consultants, costume companies, and flag companies are popping up everywhere. Production value and design are going for a premium right now. Does that impact training? Possibly, if you look at it from the perspective of a young instructor who barely knows how to even lead a guard, much less design one in this day and age of production values.  I've also noticed and this isn't a new concept, that in our activity, bigger aspects of the budget go to designers than techs. In many, many programs techs don't even get paid. How much of a financial value is a good tech worth? How much value is a new tech who has potential worth? If you didn't get paid, but knew the designer was getting paid thousands, how would you feel as the value of technique and the day to day cleaning process? How long would you stay around to learn to be a good tech, as opposed to going out and trying to learn design?

Now, in terms of training, what has happened? Well first, the shows have gotten harder...a lot harder. The skills in the A class that are being asked of the performers are off the charts. There are some skills such as body rolls and wrist work that you use to see in World Class. Now evolution in any art or sport naturally occurs. If you look at gymnastics, there once was a time when a double layout was considered standard setting when Mary Lou Retton displayed it for the first time in 1984. It is now a standard part of the floor routines. I'm not convinced that in color guard our training programs have kept up with the evolving design elements. When a Twenty something comes out of their World program, they are no different than we were back in the 80's or 90's, except for one big difference. Our shows had less dance, more ensemble based drill, and less synergistic qualities to the work. We had more time in rehearsal to stand in a basics block and throw quad, after quad, after quad, because that quad being thrown in basics would translate into the show with not much alteration with the body. 

When I'm talking about training here, I'm talking about the A class and bottom of Open and sometimes World. Yes. There are some incredibly well trained guards out there. I'm not talking about the top of World Class or even the top of A class, but here's something interesting. I've taught independent guards for the bulk of my guard career. When you teach an independent guard you get to see what the high schools are producing at the individual training level and some of the best A, Open, and World guards are sending their kids out of the program without an ability to truly manage a basics block. I've noticed the following issues of performers while working with various independent and scholastic teams.

  • Inability to literally stand up straight and lift the body to perfect posture through the core
  • Inability to stand in a basics block without fidgeting
  • Inability to consistently count tosses 
  • Inability to consistently catch in the same place every time. Now this one is a pure irritant. When did it become o.k. to catch anywhere between the waist and thighs and chest and consider it a good catch? When did moving under your toss become o.k.?
  • Inability to identify vertical with the pole and know when the pole is not in a perpendicular plane
  • Inability to consistently throw a basic flag toss. We get kids who can throw a flag and catch on their nose and balance it there while on one foot, but Heaven forbid you ask them to throw a basic vertical flag toss and catch on a very specific count. 
  • Inability to start together. I have a thing when I teach. We are starting together and we will do count one over and over and over and over until there is a consistent understanding of the importance of the breath before the start. I don't care how much time it takes or what time keeping Nazi is barking in my ear. If a guard can't start together; nothing else is together, which leads to....
  • The inability to subdivide beyond the "and" count. 
  • Transitions. When doing a basic exercise on let's say weapon, the transition from one hand to the other or from one direction to the other seems to be less important than the skill being worked. It's like pulling teeth to have students focus on transitions with the level of importance that the toss has. 
  • Feet. Are we standing in first, second, passe, or plie? When did second position become the primary position of the feet and why do kids struggle with it when they are asked to stand in let's say first position? 
  • Moving. Moving with a sense of purpose, timing and technique is a consistent issue facing color guards today. Point of the feel. OH DEAR GOD! Please point the feet!
  • Stepping off together within a consistent method of timing
Now let's talk about dance. Dance has evolved significantly over the past decade. The ability to move the body with the equipment is crucial, but to do that you still have to have a strong sense of center, core, contraction, and weight shift. We are getting kids out of high school programs who lack those skills. They lack the skills to move across the floor with a sense of method and timing. I once asked a guard I was consulting with while moving across the floor, if moving in lines was a requirement. The staff told me that there was no point in that anymore. I disagree. My response was pretty simple. "Don't you want them to have the same ability to cover the same amount of space during specific skills whether they are doing it individually or in an ensemble?"

WGI and local circuits have identified this problem of training. I've read the papers and had the discussions. Training sessions are being had at the local levels, so why is training still an issue? Is it that the workshop's occurring are focused on design? Do we need more classes on rehearsal pacing and how to run a technique block? If we had them, would anyone attend? Do the staff's of these programs believe they are training well, so they don't need grow those skills? I don't know the answer to this, but I wonder how right I am, because training isn't truly translating consistently into the shows beyond the top of each class.

I have a theory. I believe that there are three big issues facing us as an activity in terms of training. The first is that we have young instructors who have no idea how to pace a rehearsal while struggling with design that they've created on their own or the design someone else created for them. Looking at and evaluating their program for the strengths and weaknesses from the standpoint of the skills the kids present and the time they have in rehearsal takes serious planning and self evaluation. The design and choreography has gotten harder and instructors are struggling with how to merge training and design in a limited time frame.

The second aspect is knowing what training really means for a program at the bottom of A, top of A, Open and World. Does a Regional A team really need 25 exercises that all do different skills or do they need to really make a year long plan starting at band camp that takes one or two skills at a time and really hones in on them? Do they really understand how to detail the kids against their designed technical program? I always recommend that staff members stay critical. Stand on the side. Stand on the back 45. Stand in the front. Detail the basics program as if you were detailing your show. I always tell them to put as much thought in how the technique will evolve as they do in how the show will.

The third is the ongoing and continual struggle we have with well rehearsed vs. well trained. Can we really say as an activity that most of our guards are well trained by Circuit Championships or are they just well rehearsed? Do the staff's of the guards understand the difference? Do the judges? I wonder if it's because we've just become so homogenized in our ideas and writing, we no longer can recognize the difference. I don't care what type of toss you do, whether it's on the vertical or some odd 45 plane, but I do care when you can't show me that you know where the catch is in terms of the relationship of the body. Just to catch is not acceptable. IT'S NOT ACCEPTABLE! Just catching is well rehearsed. Catching in the same place every single time from member to member is well trained. If I was a gymnast (which I use to be), I would be forced to do a back handspring on the balance beam the exact same way every single time. The posture, core, balance, and flexibility must be perfect or you will fall off the beam. Have we just become so much of an art that training doesn't have to be that exact anymore?

Has our tolerance changed as an activity? Does well trained even matter any more?  As I go from guard to guard consulting and teaching, I have started to ask these questions. I've even wondered if it's me that's dated and then I think, "No. Training is important from the guard at the bottom to the guard at the top. All sports require detail level training. " I've noticed that instructors can't tell me the difference between training and warm up. I've noticed a lot of time spent on cell phones. I've noticed a lot of efforts being cleaned out of phrases so the show functions in basically one speed and one element of flow. I've noticed that performers hate speed changes and when the patience of the staff wears thin, they water out the speed changes. I've noticed that many staff members accepted the up down up down mentality as good, as opposed to, "Yes the flags are going up and down together, but is the body perfectly formed under it?"

Being a good tech takes patience, planning, and thoroughness. There is no getting around it and more thought needs to go into how we train young instructors and how we speak to them about their training process so all of the kids can feel successful no matter what class they compete in. 

I care so much about training that we need to go out of our ways to discuss it in open forums, critiques, and on social media.  The question should be a constant thought in the forefront of the activity. What is it and what does it mean?