Learnin’ the Flag Dancing

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Yesterday, I ended another judging season, which either confuses some of you, raises an eyebrow for others, and maybe just bores the rest. For you long time Bear Feeders, you might have came across me droning on and on about some kind of bands and drums and things thing (that’s the marching band activity for people who want to use correct words for things). I’ve been involved in the activity in one way or another nearly continuously for almost 30 years. A majority of that time, I’ve been a judge during fall marching band competitions. For a guy who changes hobbies sometimes with the seasons,. Holding on to this activity and doing my part to be in it still should mean to you that it means something to me. It does – a lot. I tend to say, judging is the best job in the world if not for the hours. I get to watch great performances in the best seat in the house while people feed me and pay me, and all I have to do is write down a number those kids deserve. Only down side is that I only work 4 to 6 days of the year doing it. I almost spend more time clarifying the tax implications of the activity than I do judging.

Well, last year, I decided to see if I wanted to do more.

When you talk about the marching band (or now called the ‘marching arts activity’), it’s good to know that there are actually three seasons to the activity with three distinct differences (and one of those seasons has three distinct differences in itself). The most traditionally recognized is Marching Band – a fall activity that is essentially a competitive form of your football halftime shows. The second is very similar called Drum Corps. This is a summer program that is essentially a higher level production of the fall marching band. These are independent organizations that tour the country and perform programs with world class production levels. The world championship of drum corps is generally considered the highest level of the activity. Finally, there is the winter program, and that’s what I have dipped my foot into.

When you break down a marching band or drum corps program, you can isolate out three interdependent groups — winds, percussion, and color guard – or the blowers, the beaters, and the twirlers. A few decades ago, someone realized that color guard had an offseason. While the winds and percussion would continue with their school concert programs during the winter, the color guard had to hang up their flags until the next summer … a long time in eager young minds. So, someone came up with winter guard. Now governed by Winter Guard International (WGI), they essentially take the guard & auxiliary performers, place them in a gym, turn on some music, and let them be beautiful. Because it’s a pretty physical activity that incorporates not only equipment but movement, schools around the country embraced it not just as a pastime, but a class worth of arts or athletics credit. Arguably, it is more popular than fall marching band in the number of programs in it. Was Winter Guard got more successful, an idea was spawned to allow marching percussion a shot at the same thing. Still under the WGI banner, indoor percussion was spawned. Both of these has had significant impact on the entire activity. Because both are spawned from a visual medium that is ever changing, WGI performances tend to be ahead of the curve in standard and trend setting. Now that a Winds program has been started, winter programs continue to push the whole of the activity.

So what does this have to do with me?

Well, for all my decades of judging … nothing … until last year.

Like I said, this started as a guard thing, then became a drum thing … I was a wind guy. I was a visual judge, which covers all aspects, but it was still intimidating to look at the winter programs.

So what changed?

Honestly … I bought a house in California.

Take that in two ways. First of all, the activity is big here. Like massive! The SoCal winter guard regional program (which includes a couple groups from Bakersfield & Las Vegas, but is mostly LA, Orange, Riverside, and San Diego Counties) had over 600 competing units in their championships. Sure, the activity existed in other places I lived (sans Alaska); but I couldn’t avoid it here.

Also, when I bought my house, I realized I needed to start making money from my ‘little hobby’. While I don’t expect to make a massive profit, a second source of income for a couple months out of the year won’t hurt.

What I didn’t expect was how tough the training process would be. While I am not new to judging, I essentially was treated like a new judge because the activity was new to me. I thought it would be easy to make that transition, but quickly learned it wasn’t. The pace is faster – fall band shows last just under 10 minutes, winter guard last for 3 minutes. So I am expected to cover as much ground in my evaluation in a third of the time. The way we approach the feedback we give, the way the evaluations are weighted, even the language used was different. The curriculum was extensive as well. In the end, I took three online courses that required about 100 hours to complete, spent days & days practicing on my own, I practiced judged five different competitions each hours long with hours of self-evaluation homework, shared judging responsibility at two competitions, and was left to the wolves one final time. The irony is that all of this training required significant out of pocket expenses, so. I probably will have to work a couple more years before I start to break even.

Don’t take this as a complaint though. I am a better judge for this process, not just for winter, but for year round activities. I met some great people, some great minds, and some friends along the way. The shows are fantastic to watch, and it gets more and more fun the more comfortable I get. At times I was touch-and-go whether or not I wanted to commit to this process, and I am still touch-and-go whether or not I will be approved as a judge; but at this point I am going to keep sticking it out.

Thing is … season is over. Yesterday was the last competition in our area (maybe in the whole country). Because the SoCal activity is so big, they have to wait until after the world championships to fly in every judge available to make the show happen. There were six sites for the preliminaries and two panels for finals, requiring nearly forty judges over the weekend – and that’s hard to find in the weeks leading up to the worlds. Yet with that last show, now it is not until February 2020 before the next round begins.

Still, the experience has been good, and I look forward to what will happen in the future.

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