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Visual is Inferior to Music on Football Fields


"What did they do to my drum corps?  I feel like Charleton Heston on the beach [in Planet of the Apes], looking up at the Statue of Liberty.  Damn them!"    Jan Nicholas (Crossmen)


Thenoit Arbeau stated 400 years ago that dance needs music.  Without it, “movements are nothing”.  Why do movies need sound tracks?  Why do color guards all perform to taped music?  Talking movies were invented because visual impact alone was not effective enough.  Sound is more malleable, effective in a totally dark room. Would you rather see a corps silently run around or hear their music doing the winners music performance in standstill formation?  Rock bands don’t march.  Color guard is not high on any artistic evolutional scale, akin to cheer squads.  Amateur guard is no match for Cirque Du Soleil and its Olympic medal gymnasts who won their medals using driving, up-tempo percussion music with floor exercise. When people speak in any language, they change syllable pitch and duration to emphasize ideas, Chinese the perfect example.Communication is more effective with sound. Whatever happened to the Kilgore Rangerettes?


The Pontiac Silverdome performance of the U. S. Marine Drum Corps at the1988 Bands of America retreat received so many standing ovations they were asked repeat their entire show.  Their precise 1950's squad drill required no added “color”, or detailed music correlation.  People didn't care.   Well executed high mark time marching in understandable patterns, supporting superbly executed, well written music, was exciting enough. Ken Norman states, “Things were very visual in the ‘60’s.  You had white shoes and wide white stripes on the pants.  Cymbals and bass drums had high mark time.” Readable forms held for longer periods of time allowing the audience to appreciate marching skills.  Running permutations and “visual understanding” were not needed. The high mark time with a massive well trained unit can dazzle the eye. There is a focus to the symmetry. There is a visual skill to admire.


Deeper Hidden Meanings


Selling bad art depends on double-speak and gullibility. A wall full of Campbell soup cans by Andy Warhol or copulating dead animals creates John Dewey’s subjective circus. Emotional reaction, not intellect, determines the arts quality.  They discover “hidden meanings” no one understands, justifying the irrational and absurd to make a name for themselves.  There is safety in numbers.  If fifty critics scream that the sky is green when it is in fact blue, it is your choice to use your eyes.  Good impressionist painters most always have fine line realist execution skills, the basics of perspective, shade and shadow, composition, color, and randomness. Unskilled painters who need to eat have no choice but to claim “impressionism” or “surrealism” as their “specialty”, especially with a bare refrigerator.  They produce not art, but an excuse for flimsy technique and abusing the limits of an idiom.  Hence, football fields and gym floors became modern art museums using children as mannequins.


Cymbal players carry ten pounds of metal doing pirouettes and jete’ while others wear wigs assimilate George Washington. This does not reinvent ballet or have historical significance. Maybe some judge smiled as witches and goblins hid behind props and then raced around the floor casting spells, then ticking like marbles thrown on top of Formica. One unit ran around cool blue-white props on a warm yellow-white floor mat.  Unless you really know what you’re doing, you never mix the two. The three snare drummers wearing ballet shoes must have gained the favor of an obvious WGI artistic master. Their ballet shoes were pretty.


Any art community, Key West’s Duval Street or downtown Santa Fe New Mexico, will have one or two galleries full of strange, grossly overpriced content complete with some salesperson eulogizing the “soul” and “hidden meaning” of things made in a pre-school play dough class. They sell the incredulous at the expense of artistic skill for attention brief enough for the sale.  Impressionistic paintings with purple houses, yellow lakes and white grass was described as “my emotions at that time” by one artist asking $25,000 for her pieces. Paying for kindergarden scibble as a gullible patron is your choice.  It is not “art”.  It is a sale.

These visual people pretend they can critique "great art" to give the impression they have the talent of a great artist, talent better than the original artist, since they could see the flaws the artist couldn't.


Bill Semeyn: "Modern drum corps remind me of a group of art connoisseurs standing around a weird abstract painting, all trying to convince each other how much you appreciate the "art value" and "hidden meaning."          


Modern art on football fields allowed band directors to spend tens of thousands of tax dollars on “visual design” without artistic or educational value.


Marching members and parents are not aware they are being used as little game pieces in a silly adult art contest.  One thoughtful drummer honestly stated, “Art is a staff thing.  We don’t get into that.  That’s for the adults.”  Just as politicians are always photographed holding babies and patting little dogs on the head, so too do corps and band directors coddle their visual designers. Venues drummers compete in now have the social critique intrigue of a fashion show, scores the honesty of a Quiji board. 


Walk the booths of any respected art fair.  Crowds gather around talent: richly layered oil paintings, blended water colors, detailed pen and inks, sketchy well proportioned pencils, vibrant pure pigmented pastels and sharply defined temperas.  A few booths are empty. People walk in and make their escape quickly from cut –up juxtaposed excuses: eyeballs hanging from a tree, glasswork with shapes having no reason, paintings that resemble intellectual bird poop, colors splotched like they were mindlessly placed by a pet.  Elephants dipping brushes into buckets of paint with their trunks could splash better attempts.   Yes, they do sell animal art – the paw prints of artistic dogs, birds or pigs that walk or peck their way across canvas – and elephant musings. People are free to buy it, just not with public money.


Ryan H. Turner (Velvet Knights):  "Our director of the guard is also a band director at a junior high school, and is highly respected in the music education circles here in the area.  He gave me some real numbers of what the "big name" designers are charging schools to work for them.  Note:  I'm referring to color guard "designers", not drill designers like myself.  I was dumbfounded by what I was hearing, because not only was I blown away by how much they were making, but I knew of the "character" of the "big names" that this director was talking about."

            "But what was MORE telling was the director's disbelief on just how much these guys were making.  He told me he went to school for about 6 years to get his degree and credential, and has been teaching now for about 12 years.  Obviously, he's making pretty good money, but he's paid his dues.  But he said, "These guys are demanding amounts that don't equal their schooling.  Most haven't even stepped foot on a college campus to take a class!!"  We're not even talking art and design classes, but ANY classes.  And my director friend summed it up real well...he said, "IT'S JUST WINTER GUARD!"

            "People are beginning to notice something is amiss.  And believe me, I'm simply astonished that what is happening IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING!  There are those of us with integrity.  I am drill designer, and I get paid to assist band directors and winter guard directors in writing their shows, because either they are too lazy to do it themselves or not taught in how to write drill.  I realize the limitations of what I do, i.e., moving bodies around a field… I commit to being fair in charging what I think is reasonable, OR, accepting what I believe is fair if they can't afford my normal rates."        


As color guard gained a foothold in indoor percussion, emotional shock art – the lowest artistic denominator - replaced skill at the WGI venue. To get points, one Georgia based unit used a concentration camp Nazi theme, surrounded by fake barbed wire, with someone screaming the amplified names of Jewish war dead the entire time, drowning out the music.  Drummers were dragged around the floor as dead kriegies.  They used “war vintage” drums to play “period examples”.  Everything they played was dirty.  The main props were camp barracks.  The creator of the show stated he diligently researched the details, concerned about historical accuracy. What about drumming accuracy?  At the end of the show, a little girl cries then grabs the fence to escape.  At finals, the little female was shot by a cap gun.  Drummers gained extra points by “crying” at the front sideline.  


James Christian (A Letter to the Editor, Dallas Morning News): “Many schools spend thousands of dollars hiring people to design their show.  Oftentimes these shows have abstract themes and utilize massive props in order to look flashier and hopefully score points at these contests.  I've seen numerous shows where giant backdrops are utilized to coincide with the theme.  Many shows are deliberately esoteric in design, and the students are reduced to pawns...  Sadly, I have seen shows that are much more bizarre than the Nazi flag incident.  The underlying question: What does this have to do with music education?”

“I would encourage all parents and anyone else concerned where their tax dollars are being spent to approach their band directors and tell them that they don't want their student participating in experimental performance art.  Ask how much money is spent designing 

the marching band's show.  Don't let them tell you that it's overly complicated and you wouldn't understand… How much more could the students be learning if their time was spent practicing and not being forced to work on these bizarre show concepts?” 


WGI color guard shows have been adapted for marching band. Westfield High School in Texas did “Hemispheres”, contrasting the left and right side of the brain, relying on much prerecorded narration. Part of their show was a tape!  Consider one recent Normal, Illinois band theme - "What I learned in Kindergarten" at the Greater St. Louis area marching festival. The music starts out happy and joyful using little children as "props" who "learn" from a "teacher" on the field.  The music turns dark and ominous and suddenly a crazed student starts gunning down the kids. (It was acting, not real.)  Another prop was two sheets that resembled the twin towers.  As you can guess, the towers fall and the show ends.  The band won its division."


Eric Senzig: “Higginbotham is really into lots of percussion solis with everybody else marching or doing body movement.  Even worse, his shows are including playback of PRERECORDED techno music to which the kids march and “dance” to.  You should have seen it at the state [Texas] marching contest.  As soon as the kids in Spring’s [high school] show started doing their thing, all of the kids and parents went absolutely bananas, while all of the band directors stared in shock and disgust.  This guy is another case of designers run amok. In one of the shows he did, the full band must have played no more than four minutes.”         


Judge:       "Your band was, player for player, hands down the best band here."

Director:  "Then explain to me how 12 other bands made finals over us".

Judge:      "Well, your show was totally uninteresting.  You must make a better effort at show

                   design. Your kids march and play better than the other bands".

Director:   "I can not believe this!"   (With permission from a gulf-states band director who

                    requests anonymity.)


Band parents sell their children into artistic slavery buying their children false victories.  Visual designers smile, branding themselves artistic pop stars with grand proclamations of “creative genius”. Parents quickly find out if they complain, they can leave.  Subjectivity breeds mistrust.  Parents have not yet realized these “design teams” use Warner Erhard selling techniques to market the collapsible intellectualism of John Dewey.


Dave Below: “I competed against the marching band whose guard dressed as corpses and pushed baby-carts with bloody baby dolls off the field to end the show "starkly".  They had a giant mausoleum prop and the guard wore washed-out grey unitards so they looked like decomposed bodies.”

Ayn Rand (Objectivist Philosopher, The Romantic Manifesto): “The art of any given period of culture is a faithful mirror of that culture’s philosophy.  If you see obscene, dismembered monstrosities leering at you from today’s esthetic mirrors – the aborted creations of mediocrity and panic – you are seeing the embodied concretized reality of the philosophical premises that dominate today’s culture.” 


 The Reason For and Cost of Running


Field coverage became a demand that eventually eliminated the musically important “concert number”, when corps stood still and played, spawning the multiple-set running of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Extended marching intervals caused a loss of momentum and weak transitions.  The large drumlines 1978 to 1980 corps like Regiment, Bridgemen and Blue Devils, formed lines some 20 yards wide, consuming the weak two-dimensional stage.  The visual people broke their segments up, piecemealed around the field, thereby breaking their music up as well into very thin snippets or completely stacked playing the same part, a throwback to early 1950’s writing.  Weighed down by heavy equipment, the players needed stability to perform competitive music.  By example, only twice in Crossmens’ 1992 show did the snare line move forward as a line, mostly sidestepping uncomfortably in arcs.  DCI is proud of it: 


“Today’s lines are not only playing difficult music, but are racing around football fields like track stars.” (DCI Today  Check Your Pulse  p.5  Summer 1999, Vol.25, No.1)


Visual over-complexity ruined show continuity 


Ron DaSilva: “You get so dizzy watching the corps today.  It's too active.  There is no time for the eye to rest. The western vision of beauty is Greek.  Where design is concerned, simple is best."     

Steve Burstall:  “It's no wonder that those with real design talent don't design shows. Members today consider how difficult a show is by the number of drill sets - when 200 is considered a difficult drill.  In looking at these shows, I never saw 200 sets.  I saw major sets with many subsets - where one should be after 4, 8, 12, or 16 counts.” 

Mike Mann (Phantom Regiment): "The problem is the visual caption. They have control of the sheets. Demand isn't on the sheets anymore. The battery does very little dynamics.  The pit handles that up front. The problem is the kids can't hear [in the formations] anymore."        


Recently, a drum instructor trying to start a WGI drumline queried many Michigan band directors, giving a presentation on the benefits of giving him $100,000 for the opportunity.  It involved new instruments, props, a trailer and staff art fees.  Somehow, $100,000 for a 5-minute program based mostly on “visual design” seemed comical.  The band people snickered.    (Martin Harrison,


It is all about money now, money to pay visual people who are self-appointed and self-taught, having no credentials or knowlwdge. If they did, the Flodira Marching Band Coalition, Central States Judges Association, Winter Guard International, Bands of America and Drum Corps International would post their art and design credentials and samples of their portfolios. Let us see what these peole people really know. What juried art shows can we see their work?


The music caption has music degrees and/or thousands of hours in the practice room and notable public performances.

©  All Rights Reserved  "The Perfectionists -A History of Competitive Rudimental Snare Drumming"

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