Sunday, July 31, 2016

Drum Corps and My Late Night Jim Croce Album

This is for my Atlanta friend. 

I have an old Jim Croce album I found in a back alley record store years ago and sometimes late at night I pour myself a glass of wine, turn the lights down, and play that old album, while enjoying the peace it brings to hear the honesty of the guitar played through each crack of the needle to the record. If it were up to me, everyone would have an old Jim Croce record so for a brief moment, we could all feel something of total bliss. If you close your eyes you can hear the words that are untarnished by technology and media. You can see him sitting on a couch somewhere in solitude playing his guitar and singing, "There never seems to be enough time to do the things we want to do once we find them." Jim Croce's music is music that makes you feel something. He speaks to love and life. His words are simple, but they aren't ordinary. If you let him, he reaches into your heart and speaks to your soul.

I just returned from my yearly trek to Atlanta. It's the one drum corps show I get to see every year and I always come away from it with something I need to say. Maybe it's the inspiration from the shows or maybe it's the lifelong friendships or maybe it's the memories I hold dear from days gone by. I'm not sure what it is, but each year I certainly feel poetic after that show. When it comes to drum corps, I don't follow along like others do all season. I like to watch the shows with a fresh perspective, untainted by others opinions. This year though, I was fortunate enough to see the shows in Nashville the night before Atlanta. I took my nine year old son and 69 year old mother. It's refreshing to sit with people who don't know "the sheets" or know the history of the corps. My mom gets to see about one drum corps show every eight or so years and my son...well this was his first. He's been to WGI and countless winter guard and band shows, but this was his first summer show. If you ever want to see the activity in its purest form, watch it with a nine year old. What a nine year old sees is very different than what we see. A nine year old has an opinion that is natural and based on feeling, as opposed to intellect, but don't be mistaken in that. A child forms opinions and can speak to concept and costume. They just respond by emotion first and intellect second. A nine year old see's drum corps with their soul before their brain. It's how Robin Williams encouraged us to view poetry in the Dead Poets Society. Throughout the show, my son shared his opinions through his immediate reaction to the moment. He didn't analyze the guard work or technicality of the percussion. He could have cared less about transitional moments. He just simply enjoyed the shows for what they were and he found that he had some favorites and some not so favorites. He loved...LOVED...the Blue Devils. That shocked me and I'll tell you why in a second. His second favorite was the Madison Scouts. After they finished, he turned to me and said, "Wow mama! Wow! That was loud!!" I asked him if they were his favorite and he said, "Oh no. I liked the Blue Devils the best." I asked him why and he said that they looked like a Broadway play. He said they were weird. He said that they were fun. Those were his reasons and then he said that he wanted a tee shirt.

I really liked the Blue Devils, but more so on an intellectual level. I spent their entire show analyzing it and to be honest, I didn't get it 100% in its intent and I don't really know anyone else who did either. Josh however, didn't care. He didn't try to get it. He just simply experienced it. Driving to Atlanta the next day I realized that is what most of us old timers do. We analyze the shows until the very essence of art is sucked out of them. I don't completely blame us...the audience that is. For so long at the national level with WGI, BOA, and many teams force us into intellectualism over emotionalism. That's blatantly clear at Independent World Finals for WGI. The books and shows have become so "artistic" that many times the designer has forgotten that art is supposed to move us. Art should make us feel something. As human beings we want to feel something. Human beings want to laugh. We want to cry. We need to cry. Reflection and the need to reflect is another human emotion we don't always give enough credit to. Anger and love. Sadness and happiness. That's what art is ultimately supposed to do. It is to make us feel. Our need to express gets suppressed so often by a world asking us to think way too much.

When I left Nashville for Atlanta, I hadn't really formed an opinion on any of the shows. I would wait for Atlanta to do that. I thought about Josh on the way up and his reaction reminded me of my Jim Croce album. Jim sings a song called Operator. It's one of those songs that everyone with any human soul can say they have experienced. He was left by the one he loved and calls to speak to her, but decides that he's better off without her.

Operator, well could you help me place this call
'Cause I can't read the number that you just gave me
There's something in my eyes
You know it happens every time
I think about the love that I thought would save me

Oh my those lyrics. Who hasn't wanted to have Jim Croce playing that on guitar in the background while we laid in bed at night crying our eyes out over the love we lost to another? The lyrics. The guitar. It makes me reflect. It makes my eyes water. You see, when we listen to music in the silence of our homes, we let it wash over us like the ocean Josh saw with the Blue Devils. I decided that when I got to Atlanta I wouldn't analyze anything. I would watch the shows in the way I listen to Jim Croce or the way a nine year old experiences music. I was either going to like it or not. I was going to absorb the colors and engage in the sound. I would analyze nothing. Ironically, I found that little experiment was harder than I thought it would be, but as the night went on I got better at it. When I did that, I found that my favorite drum corps were not necessarily in the top 5. I let the Academy make me laugh. I let the Blue Coats take me to what I saw as the coolest playground ever. I experienced a western shoot out with Crown. I listened to the Scouts in a way that made my son say, "Wow!" At times I closed my eyes and just listened. 

When the night was over, I found that I didn't really know who did what in terms of guard work or the best drill. I didn't care. To be honest, once I let go of the idea that the corps have become so homogeneous to the point identity is no longer a driving factor for many, I was able to relax. Once I decided to not judge, but enjoy...I found the art inside the intellect. I found that my favorite corps was not first or second or even third. It was Santa Clara. Oh my how I loved that show. The word I used at the time was "lovely." It was simply lovely. They did a show that was somewhat simplistic in concept, but in no way simple in its presentation of the four seasons. That concept has been done...and done...and done...and done. They however, had a way of conceptualizing it so it made you feel something special as the seasons moved from spring to summer and summer to fall, but you had to let the seasons happen, just like the leaves change and fall from the trees in the autumn.  I barely even acknowledged Santa Clara the night before. The night before they were just a show about the seasons. In Atlanta, I saw art and I saw it in the form my nine year old son saw it. As I watched the show, I thought of the many seasons I've spent in Atlanta with WGI, BOA, and DCI. The before show drinks and after show conversations are many. I thought about how many performances were held in that dome and how many people missed the artistry being presented, but I also thought of the moments designers missed to move an audience, because their version of art is hidden within ego and competitive drive. I will certainly admit that I've missed a moment or two, because of my need to "judge" the teams surpassed the need to feel. I thought of my friends and the special moments we've had in Atlanta at the Omni and through conversations in parking lots around the dome. I thought of the thousands upon thousands of kids that have walked into that dome as an artist, but left the audience feeling let down as we couldn't get out of our own way as an activity and just let them be the art. I thought of the times when I dropped my guard and let myself just feel love through the friends I hold so dear. It's the same love I have in my old music albums that take me into a realm devoid of politics, intellectualism, and the weight of all that is wrong in the world.

I attend a lot of concerts and plays. I have a ritual in the moments leading up to every event. I drink a glass of wine, listen to the music of the band, read about the play, or listen to an interview with the artist. I try to get in a mindset of art. I love art. Being originally from Music City, I especially love music in all of its forms. I let it flow over me like Josh let drum corps flow over him Friday night. So, I can't help but wonder what happens to us that doesn't let us enjoy the art of pageantry. We all admit we appreciate it. We value it. We see it,  but I'm not sure many of us truly see it for art that makes us feel. While sitting in the dome, I wondered what the placements would be if a poet was the only judge and the only criteria read, "Make the audience feel." I wondered who would win. I wondered how the poet would rank and rate. My guess, is that the poet would throw out the rating, throw out the ranking, and just enjoy the night. She would come home and write verse upon verse of her experience. She would put on some Jim Croce and let the night speak from soul to paper, without thought. She might hear him sing, Walkin' Back to Georgia.

I'm walkin' back to Georgia
She's the only one who knows
How it feels when you lose a dream
And how it feels when you dream alone

She might come home and think about an old friend or two and look back on the trip as the sheer joy it was with all of its laughs, conversation, and love for something that has been a part of her life since she was 14. She would think of the community she is a part of. She would think of how it has made her a better person, because the art made her feel as in this classic verse that will stand the test of time.

If I had a box full of wishes and dreams that had never come true. The box would be empty, except for the memory of how they were answered by you.

I write this for all of us out there who crave to feel, crave to love, crave to touch, and crave to be human.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Young Woman's Body Image--A Basic Primer for Guard Instructors

I remember every player-every single one-who wore the Tennessee orange, a shade that our rivals hate, a bold, aggravating color that you can usually find on a roadside crew, "or in a correctional institution," as my friend Wendy Larry jokes. But to us the color is a flag of pride, because it identifies us as Lady Vols and therefore as women of an unmistakable type. Fighters. I remember how many of them fought for a better life for themselves. I just met them halfway.--Pat Summit

It's band camp time. Thousands upon thousands of kids across America are taking to the marching band field for the very first time. Those in the color guard are holding this odd thing called a flag pole. Many are stretching and finding muscles they never knew existed for the first time in their young lives. Others have never taken a dance class...much less been asked to leap, jump, and move across the floor with grace. Most of these kids who make up the color guard are girls. They are young women who just a couple to three years ago got their first period. Their breasts are still developing. Here are some other things you should know and consider, before the first ensemble drop spin is  even attempted.

  • In 2008, the CDC reported that 36% of high school girls reported strong and persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness in the past year. 19% seriously considered suicide, 13% made a suicide plan, and 9% actually tried to kill themselves.
  • Female athletes experience concussions differently and take longer to recover
  • By the age of 5, children have absorbed a cultural bias against overweight people and females take the brunt of this bias (Musher-Eizenmean, 2003)
  • The media is a multi-billion dollar industry aimed at shaming women into being unrealistically thin, unrealistically beautiful and unrealistically super human.
  • The CDC reports that approximately 17% of adolescents are overweight or obese and the lower the income, the higher rate of obesity.

Did you know that according the the Geena Davis Institute for Women in Media, only 31% of all speaking roles go to women? Only 23% of all films feature a female protagonist. Only 23% of all action films have females speaking in the films and almost all of action films have set the male up as the hero. This is why movies such as the new Ghostbusters and Wonder Woman is so freaking important. This is why the movie Frozen was so groundbreaking. She chose her sister over a man. She was not an evil queen and she empowered herself to use her internal strength. Oh and one more thing. Women highlighted in sports in the movies and on ESPN are less than 4%. Less than 4. Freaking. Percent! Intelligent women who are portrayed strictly for their talent and brain are visually hard to come by on television and in the movies.

Why is this important? Why did I start with it? Because, by the time you get these girls to spin their first drop spin, most of them are dealing with some sort of self-esteem, body image, or inferiority complex that you can never see, they might not even be aware of and it goes back to the beginning of time. We as women have a long history in this world of subjugation that we are just now coming out of. In fact, our right to vote is still less than 100 years old. 

When you coach a female you have a responsibility to them as women. Now this is no different than any youth you may coach. Males are just as important, but for this post we are talking about females, because females make up the majority of all high school color guards in this country. Without any proper data on the pageantry arts, it is probably the single largest sport for girls in the country. I have and many of those I know, have taken immense pride in our activity that we...for the most part...take the girls that many won't, because we take all shapes and sizes. We give them a shot at the 50 yard line solo. 

So here's the problem. When you coach a guard with the pure intent of designing a show and getting a score, then you lose the reason the girls need us the most. When your focus is only on the design of your amazing costume, then you may forget to design to body image. When you put your emphasis on design over proper training and conditioning, then your females lose out on possibly the one opportunity life has given them to pull themselves out of this pit of hell called the objectification of the female body. When your single goal in life is to choreograph equipment phrasing better than Crown...(well first of all good luck with that), then you have made it about you and not them. Here is something else. Teenage girls are not you. They do not have the wrist strength of a man or self esteem of a developed woman of power. How you speak to them and build their sense of self is more important to those girls than your costume design. How you condition them...if you even do...not just builds their strength to achieve your not so good Crown Guard rip off show, but helps them respect the health of the body for life. YOU are building life long habits. You yes you! It is not just that early is on time and on time is late. Their self esteem and health will be with them until the day they die.

Does this mean that we don't push them to be better every day? Absolutely not. Have you ever heard of the sandwich approach? This is a phrase coined by Dr. Robert Smith that states that when we make a correction, we will get better results by commending the effort first, addressing the technical mistake second, and encouraging future progress third. This technique is not just an idea. It is a well researched method of coaching that yields higher results in performance than just yelling. Athletes and performers are waiting for the negative comment, but what makes this method effective, is that most athletes are already beating themselves up for the mistake. They are mad at themselves for not performing up to par, letting the team down, and most importantly letting the coach down. So why beat them up again? A compliment on effort goes a long way to building the trust in themselves to try something new. Remember, if the stats are right and these young women are walking into your program doubting themselves, then basic psychology would naturally dictate that the emphasis on the positive effort is more effective than the negative.

"Oh but today are so soft. Back in my day our coaches carried pistols and shot our hands off if we dropped." Oh, but reader...keep an open mind to science and psychology and try not to scream, "Get off my lawn to the kids on Halloween."

Here's something else to think about. Women have had their bodies objectified by the media, men, and even other women all of their lives. "You aren't thin enough. You're too athletic. You're too fat. You're hair isn't blonde enough. Your skin isn't soft enough. Look at your body. It's so sexy. Your breasts are so supple. Your ass is so round. Your ass isn't round enough." Think about the messages these girls have been seeing and hearing their entire lives.

"Here little Suzy. Here's your first Barbie Doll. Oh and by the way...don't forget that you will NEVER, EVER look like her."

"Oh look at how beautiful your daughter is dad. You're going to have to lock her in the house until she's thirty." 

The messages are real and they have detrimental impacts. When girls stretch in front of their male staff for the first time in their lives in a second position, with their legs wide matters. When we have them bend over to stretch out in front of the matters. When we put them on the ground to work leg stretches, while their legs are in the matters. When we put them in uniforms that are too matters. IT MATTERS and there are easy fixes, such as how we ask them to dress in rehearsal. Some girls need more time to anesthetize or get comfortable with the idea of a second position stretch. Some need more time to acclimate to a world where showing skin in a rehearsal setting is common. Also remember, at least one of your girls if not two by statistics, state they have been date raped. Giving an option of rehearsal attire that covers the top parts of the legs around the thigh area helps in the acclimation process. Some of your young women may have never worn a sports bra and need encouragement to wear one, because all women participating in high impact sports should be wearing breast protection. It helps in their becoming comfortable with their growing chest and reduces soreness after practice. Only a woman can truly know this, hence the reason for this blog post. And one more thing...when costuming girls, please think of the large breasted girls. Fashion designers screw this up all the time. Most of us simply are NOT a B cup with a tiny waist.

Finally, I would like you the reader, the coach, the director, the designer who is reading this to consider how you approach punishment in terms of exercise. We need girls in this world to exercise for life. We need them to love exercise as to cut down on a number of diseases such as diabetes, breast cancer, and high blood pressure. Exercise for conditioning and health is a much better approach than exercise for punishment..not to mention that if you yourself are overweight, eating french fries and barking orders from a tower...all you are doing is building a guard that doesn't trust you. Put the fries down and pick up an orange and tell them to do the same damn thing. 

When I coach I have a simple philosophy. It took me years to grow this philosophy. I had to go through the yelling phase, ego phase, and arrogance phase. I'm now in the "leadership" phase. I want to lead them to lead others. I want them to love who they are, because it took me way too long to love myself. Sometimes it takes domestic violence, sexism in the workplace, and being called a bitch, cunt, whore, and tyrant to come to the realization that you are none of those things. I am and you are a strong, powerful, unstoppable, and once in a lifetime woman. My philosophy is to build young women who know who they are faster than I ever did, so finding that man who hits and berates them is not even an option in their lifetime.

Coaching women is an undertaking that if done right can build leaders of our country. Standing in front of them is an awesome responsibility and part of that responsibility is the undoing of generations of women being told they aren't good enough. It is your job to say, "You are good enough. You are a leader. You will make it. I believe in you."


The Marching Roundtable is producing a series of podcasts focused specifically on how to coach young women. They are also putting in place a mentoring program and diversity program. I encourage you to check out their site to sign up here to mentor young women or men, so we can start building coaches, directors, and designers who know the how of the young people and not just the what.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Dear Band Director...

An open letter to all of the band directors out there from you guard staff. 

Dear Band Director,

I am your guard instructor. I want to tell you a little about myself. First I want to say that with me, you have hired a professional. I was unable in college to major in color guard like your percussion instructor or woodwinds section leader. For my education, I had to start learning my craft in high school and then carry that into different realms of development through winter guard, drum corps, and even dance and acting classes. I may have a degree in education, psychology, or engineering, but I don't have a degree in color guard. This however, does not make me less intelligent, less educated, or less knowledgeable about the section you have hired me for.

I know that you have hired a drill writer. You might have even hired a designer or program coordinator to help you build your program to a level of excellence, that is competitive on the national music stage. I want you to know though, I am also a designer. I have ideas about what show should be chosen and how that show should be staged. I have ideas as to what equipment should be used and where. I can also fix the drill if we find it isn't working. You know what else I can do? I understand music. I can read it and my sensitivity to musicality allows me to create moments of beauty we call art.

I am a coach of young women and men. In the way I talk to them and coach them, can make or break their self-esteem, body image, and absolute enjoyment for their future in the activity we both love. It can even make or break your program. I can hinder and stall the success of your bands name just by my decision to NOT make your program a priority. What I have to know to make your color guard successful ranges from the mechanics of body conditioning, dance, equipment fundamentals, performance techniques, judging score sheets, an understanding of staging, components of colors and even the building of props. My very expertise can impact your General Effect, Design Analysis, Guard Caption, and sometimes even your music caption if just one judge decides to venture out of said caption. I am a professional.

I know that you have spent a lot of money hiring drill writers, music arrangers, and consultants that come to your band class and teach the nuances of music. You hired me, too. You want me to teach a daily class. You want me to stay up late at night designing costumes and then ordering those costumes to precise measurements, that will allow beauty to flow from the performers bodies just by the very essence of the way they stand on the field. You desire to hear, "...and in first place for color guard is...your guard." With that first place score will most likely come with high marks in general effect and ensemble analysis.

When the design company you hired has been paid their final check and your music consultants have flown back home...I will still be here. In fact, I will most likely be planning for the winter season on top of the planning for the fall marching band season. One thing I realize in color guard, is that we as an activity have failed in the promotion and advocacy of the training of proper conditioning, certified dance teachers, and even certified technicians specializing in the use of equipment. I know that you realize that there are guard instructors out there who have failed in keeping with their end of the bargain. They used the activity as a stepping stone to their ego. Some have even been fired for misconduct with students. Some are in jail. Some have been caught stealing funds from the guard itself. We know this happens. It also happens on your side as well. Our activity is fraught with issues of accountability. This however, does not make us all unprofessional and uneducated. I am not a neophyte to this activity, nor am I corrupt. I have honed a skill that is unmatched by the sheer way I've learned to lead young women into excellence beyond the pageantry arts. I am building the performers to be leaders of the nation they are about to inherit. Am I worth the money, when we take into account the absurd responsibility you have handed me night after night after night?

This is what I ask in return. I ask that you respect my work as much as you respect the work of the design company you hired for $10,000 that raped the till of finances for your day to day guard staff. Without proper pay, I cannot dedicate my time fully to your program, as I have bills to pay as well. So I will have to split my time, find a full time job, or just simply fit you in when I can. That is not what I want to do. I want to build a program and not just call it mine, but call it ours. To do that, you have to trust me. You need to include me in the design side of the program and not just hand me drill charts and say, "Here...write." I would like to be included in the pre-season...very pre-season discussions on show concept. I'm not an afterthought. I should be the first thought. You see, in this activity and in many, many programs, the design of the show and who should design that show comes first and those that will be around to bring that show to life comes second. I need you to reverse your thinking. One...this will cause you less stress. If you put the correct day to day staff in place...people you trust...people who are professionals and who can grow your program together, then the design will come easy. Programmatic issues will be handled in house and with less stress. It's easy to write a check. It's a lot harder to build a team and a team is what will make your program successful in the end.

There are no quick fixes and easy answers. To build a program takes dedication and decades. When your day to day guard staff is a second thought or the bastard child in your mind, then we will leave and move on. Your band will become just money to us. The reality is that you can hire the best names in the country to design your show and arrange your music, but without me...that great design becomes average and forgetful. Your first thought should have been, "Who will train my color guard to be the finest in the nation?" You would expect nothing less from yourself as a band director in front of young musicians, so why would you expect less and pay less and communicate less and trust less of your guard staff...We who are your day to day staff. We are the people who are in front of your guard, mostly young women, and the kids that are trusting you to bring in the best, as they stand with a flag in their hand waiting to hear the words, "...and 5,6,5,6,7,8."

We must not forget that with the very way I add nuance to effort changes in let's say the slight tilt of the head, in a moment when that one note, from that one soloist is heard off in the distance; I could make an audience weep. I can make them laugh by the way I train for performance. I can bring your show to life. I do bring your show to life! So I ask you to consider all of this as the nation begins band camp and the start of the fall season. Who is more valuable to building the name of your program that the community will cheer for as your band loads the buses to some far off show to earn trophies to be shown on the local news? Who is there sweating and laughing and crying with your students? Is it your day to day staff or the far away designer who posts pictures of their feet by the pool, while they write your drill and calling the kids in your band...dots?

Never forget that we know the names of every kid and they are more than just dots to us.