By Morena Guerrero
During the WGI off-season, many groups take time to prepare and strategize for the upcoming season. For veteran groups, it means planning the next step while holding on to their already built foundation. For newcomers, it is a time to reflect on their methods. Depending on the class and group, the challenges met could mean very different things.
Cleveland High School, a very young school at just seven years old, is based out of Clayton, North Carolina. They began their WGI experience with the guard competing in 2010. The guard included freshmen and sophomore students. After the second year of the winter guard competing at WGI World Championships, Jason Heard, the band director, added an indoor percussion ensemble. Heard added the Cleveland High School Winds Ensemble in 2016 competing in the WGI Scholastic Open class. The Cleveland High School Winds Ensemble was a huge success, winning the gold medal in its first year of competition. The staff decided to self-promote the winds group to Scholastic World Class in 2017, where they placed second, only eight tenths of a point behind the gold medalists.
“We started to compete in WGI Winds to get more students involved in the Performing Arts program and to perform in venues they normally wouldn’t get a chance to experience,” Heard stated. “We enjoy exposing our students to more intimate audiences and to a different performance environment,” he added.
Heard realized after their inaugural season that it was in the ensemble’s best interest to start preparing earlier in the fall. The design staff envisioned the 2017 program concept and discussed the different techniques and skills they wanted to teach for the winter production. “We laid the foundation for the wind ensemble the first week of November and held rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. The staff also held two camps in December to learn the staging and movement choreography and to expand on the movement foundation of the visual production that we used in the fall.”
Heard said, “The 2017 winter production goal was to expand the visual vocabulary we used in 2016 and create a more creative approach to the design. Winter guard designs feel organic. Percussion always feels more functional. The staff wants to become more organic with the winds program. The first year we were kind of an indoor marching band. We realized we needed to create more movement like the winter guard in the 2017 production. We were aiming for more organic movement instead of just movement for movement’s sake. We wanted the movement program to enhance the conceptional design. The members really enjoyed the movement and choreographic efforts because they found a different way to communicate both visually and musically. They had an opportunity to communicate with their entire body. The members also enjoyed the smaller indoor venues than they had experienced in the fall because they could communicate more intensely with the audience.”
The staff has already started discussions and planning for the 2018 season and will fall under the umbrella of the newly formed Cleveland Arts Performance Ensembles. The Cleveland Arts Performance Ensembles will be comprised of the World Class Winds Ensemble, Open Class Winter Guard, JV Winter Guard, Middle School Winter Guard, and a return of the Winter Percussion. The expansion of these ensembles will allow more students to experience their unique performance art and continue to encourage more creativity in the Cleveland Arts programs.
Percussion groups, on the other hand, face a different unique set of challenges.
Monarch Independent, a World Class group based out of Houston, Texas, is also a fairly young group. They began in 2014 in Independent A class and have gradually moved up since; making it into the top 12 at WGI World Class Championships Finals this year. As opposed to scholastic groups, independent groups start the season at camps. According to Frank Connelly, a battery instructor for Monarch, several camps are hosted. The first few camps are usually experience camps where hopefuls try out for the line and are given larger “macro” feedback. If the staff views them as potential members of Monarch, they are invited back for each subsequent camp where they are continually observed on their technique, playing ability, and marching prowess. When members are chosen, they then are given “homework assignments” to complete. “It’s important for members to have assignments; not only does it help them grow as musicians, but it also shows their level of dedication. If a member did not do any of [their] homework assignments, then actions speak louder than words. That member may not be a hard worker,” Connelly said. With Monarch, the unique challenge it has faced has been that because the group is so young there aren’t many alumni of the program.
Connelly continued, “Any organization with strong alumni is positive. The problem with Monarch is that we don’t really have any alumni. But Taha Ahmed, battery coordinator of Monarch, was able to get a really talented staff together to almost assume that role as well as teach them. Another challenge is that if it’s a new group and the alumni haven’t been established or if it’s a high school that hasn’t been successful in the past, then you have to explain to the students that in order to be better than you’ve ever been, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done.”
For seasoned groups, the challenges are different because the foundation is already laid. Infinity Percussion, a World class group based out of Orlando, Florida, is celebrating 13 years. During the off season, Infinity makes adjustments in how ensembles are conducted and the logistics of running each ensemble. Infinity has three groups, Infinity, Infinity 2, and Infinity 3; Infinity 2 is in Independent Open class, and Infinity 3 is in Independent A class. Being well established, Infinity has good rapport with music programs throughout Florida, open communication throughout the years has been a key contributor. The members and staff are consistent and are given audition packets to get ready for the season. John Campese, one of the founders and director of Infinity, explains how during the early years, he, along with Tom Hurst, another founding member, began with only 17 members in 2005 under the name “First Degree.” As it grew in the competitive circuit, Infinity faced challenges such as the gaining capital, equipment trucks, designers, facilities… everything needed to be part of the top organizations. “Not giving up, dedication, a little bit of luck, community support, and keeping your relationships open,” Campese replied when asked what he would advise younger groups. “Make sure the basics are covered before you make the step. Baby steps. Take your time. Let it grow organically.”
Campese explains how the city and strength of the group also affects the success of the group. “Florida was ripe with talent. It needed to be planted. The untapped talent. California can have five world class groups within an hour because of the talent pool. It’s so organic. It has to do with what happens in that town. It’s the talent. If the unit doesn’t have a strong a strong foundation, will it sustain itself? Can it survive without the staff? The feet without the people. Can it move?”
All groups face challenges throughout their existence. Their success depends on their reaction to these challenges and the support they receive to make things happen.
Thank you to Frank, Jason, and John for taking the time to talk with me about their groups and sharing their experiences.