Hello all, I thought it would be helpful to share some show design tips I have picked up over the years. Hopefully these ideas will help when conceiving your future show designs. Some of these tips are creative in nature, but many are just logistics to consider when dreaming up your concepts. Admittedly, many of these ideas are from the designers point of view; things I’ve personally noticed that have worked and not worked over the years.

I’m basically just shooting from the hip with everything I can think of in this initial post. As I remember/encounter more tricks and tips I’ll add posts. I’ll also try to keep these concepts brief for now and may expand more in later posts.

Music and Visual Should Be Conceived (almost) At The Same Time

What has seemed to work well for many of my groups is a process that starts with music / general concept, moves to visual considerations, and then moves back to the actual music arranging. Consider this order of process:

  1. Listen to music that inspires a concept. Or pick a concept and search for music that tonally matches the concept. (It is perfectly ok to start with a visual premise also!) This process often happens organically. And the music may / or may not find its way into the final production. IMPORTANT: Do not pick music based solely on titles, etc., make sure the music tonally matches the tenor of the concept. If you are deriving a concept that is “dark” in nature you are not going to want light music in a major key only because the title of the song fits into your concept.
  2. After having some form of musical / conceptual / visual premise put together start codifying your visual package. Determine any thematic visual hooks, dance, drill moves, guard moments, prop usages, colors, etc. that help you support your theme. Organize them chronologically in a manner that tells at story (or just paces well). Your visual premise can be literal or abstract depending on the concept. At this stage it is OK to be detailed. Place these ideas into some form of flow chart / spread sheet.
  3. Now, go back and solidify your musical choices. Also understand that the music may not sound exactly like the source recording due to factors including pacing, tempo, and support of the visual premises you created in part 2. That is OK, because…. music is much more malleable than the visual. The process is basically film scoring to your visual spreadsheet and we can make music do almost anything we need to support that story.

Props – Live By Them, Die By Them

  1. Do not use props for props sake. If you have gone through the process above and props never entered your mind, do not feel like you need to add props to convey your story just to appease judges. Yes, the are en vogue right now, I dig, but they are not always necessary. You can tell a great story through colors, dance, drill, etc.
  2. If you do decide on props, be sure you have the means for them to look professional and of high quality. For better or worse good stage craft is becoming an important element of design in the marching band world. (There are some larger philosophical discussions that ultimately will need to be had in this regard, but for now it is what it is.)
  3. Moving Props – Oh, lordy…. So much of what I just said in item 2 applies to moving props, stages, etc. Additional elements you need to consider with moving props are:
    1. Do the props move easily and seamlessly?
    2. Can students manipulate the props with instruments in hand?
    3. How many people does it take to move the props?
    4. How good is your attendance at rehearsals, and what happens when a prop mover misses rehearsal?

Communication / Story-boarding

I’m personally of the belief that the more minds in the mix at the beginning of the design process, the better. The more democratic you can make the process with your staff, the more invested they are going to be in the product. I have found that google spreadsheets work well for this process. Everyone has access and the ability to add as needed. Obviously a good sit down meeting with staff is also helpful.

That said, eventually the band director (or some iteration of program coordinator) will need to sit down and streamline / pare down the concept into something cohesive. Getting this process done before music arranging and visual designing begins is imperative to a smooth design process. Issues, rewrites, mis-communication, camp frustrations, etc. can be avoided by being diligent with your story-boarding early.

Less Drill, More Body

Hey folks, body visuals are not going away… so it’s time to accept them and figure out how to work them into your curriculum. A few tips and considerations:

  1. Learn a vocabulary of 6 – 8 dance / body moves that can be mixed and matched together to create a series of unique visuals. Teach students the terminology to make teaching quick and easy. These series of visuals can be added to your fundamental block for cleaning and training.
  2. Have your colorguard staff help!
  3. You can teach / clean visuals during class time also without having to be outside on the practice field.
  4. Using visuals to move your horizontal orchestration forward typically receives as much, if not more credit than just marching dots. In this way, you can conceive a perfectly effective show with less sets to learn.

The Check-Boxes: Variety Is Your Friend

In both the music and visual design phases we want to make sure we build in a series of hidden competencies. These are items we all know we need to do, but they are not spelled out in the judging sheets. These include features, vignettes, percussion moments, guard moments, etc. Variety is the key. As many different tempos, styles, instrument solos, choirs, features, visual concepts, etc. that we can use in a organic way the more interesting the show will be, and the more credit you will get. Again, this takes planning. This is why the processes listed above work well.

Join the Discussion

Feel free to comment with your own experiences, ideas, agreements, disagreements, etc. below. Also, if there are any topics you would like to discuss in future posts, feel free to contact me or chime in below.

Happy Thanksgiving, Chris