And the Band Played On


This morning, I am recovering from one of the longest band judging days of my career.  Thirty-two performing units spread over nearly 14 hours in Oxnard, California.  Usually shows like this will spread the bands across multiple classifications with band sizes ranging from the smallest to the largest – but this had nearly two-thirds in the same class, specifically the smallest class.  Half of the books & papers in my bag are soaking wet from the constant layer of fog that rolled in last night; including my IPad Pro that shouldn’t have survived the night.  My knees are swollen, my fingers still feel chilled, and I am sunburned with sunglasses shaped raccoon eyes.

And I can’t wait to do it again next week.

For you long-time Bear Feeders, you may know I am talking about my most ‘profitable’ of hobbies.  I adjudicate marching band competitions in the fall.  I’ve been doing this for over twenty years, starting off in the midwest before expanding my work as I moved around the country.  Also, your long-time Bear Feeders would be wondering what I am talking about it now.  Prior to this year, the lastest I have ever worked was the first weekend in November, and that was only on limited locations.  Here it is the second weekend in November, and not only am I working, but I’m also not done.

For those of you in cold weather parts of the country, you might find going this late odd – but then again, cold weather is the detail you need to embrace.  Scheduling a State Championship in Wisconsin in November is like scheduling an outdoor hockey game in July.  Indiana had their’s last week, but they had a dome, so bully for them.  Here in California, they can go this late because the weather is warm – even though last year had cancellations due to fires and smoke.  That being said, just because shows are going on this late doesn’t mean I am working them … but I am working on them now.

Let me give you the longer version of how this is all rolling out.  I got into band judging shortly after I stopped my career as a performer and instructor in the mid-90s.  I loved being a performer, but the activity had age limits; then as I dragged my heels to graduate from college I kept instructing marching arts organizations.  I couldn’t keep that up long term because … well, the pay was nothing (like $75 a week for 18 hour days seven days a week).  A friend suggested I get into judging, and invited me to tag along to a clinic.  I walked in the door, met the guy that does show scheduling (a man named Dick Turner, and still a good friend), and without even asking my background he asked if I was available on a given date.  That’s how I got my first gig (1996 FJ Reitz Invitational, Evansville, Indiana).    I did a couple training shows or trialing, including the most brutal day I ever was a part of (41 performing units, including extended instructional critique – a day that began at 9am and ended at 3am).

All of those shows back then and all my shows I judged until 2014 was working for the Central States Judges Association (CSJA).  CSJA is a venerable fraternity who established much of the expectations for a marching band judge in its early days and continues to push for excellence across the markets they support.  I was lucky to find them because the group was awash with long-standing judges who are focused on the training and development of others.  I knew if I wanted work and I wanted to continue to work in this little hobby that I loved, I had to always keep getting better – CSJA provided that to me for literally decades.

The only problem was one of location.  Central States Judges Association is located in, you might guess, the central states.  While shows will pay to fly people in, if they don’t have to they won’t.  This only gets worse the further you have to fly and the more risk of arriving late.  It wasn’t so bad when I lived in Kansas, but when I moved to Alaska, the work nearly dried up.  Moving back to Boston restarted things, but I had to supplement my CSJA work with something else.  That was the first time I started working independently – but only for a single season for the NESBA (New England Scholastic Band Association).   Besides one other purely independent gig I did more as a favor, I still remained with CSJA soley.

Then I moved to California.

California’s marching band circuit is HUGE!  Massive!  In fact, much of it is centralized around the counties near where I live.  All I really need to do was to get a foot in the door, and I could start to find work.  The last couple of years, the foot has slowly made it in the door.

In the last three years, I’ve done work for the Western Band Association (WBA).  This is mostly a circuit for Bay-Area and Southern California bands; though there are a small group of units in the Las Vegas area, and some shows (including their Super Show which I was able to judge last year).  For reasons I am not clear enough to blog about (but I have my guesses), the circuit attracts some of the higher level bands regardless of band size.  It also includes some of the higher-level judges as well, many of which are flown in from across the country blazed with their nationally recognized names and resumes.  One of the shows I did this year, I shared a press box with so people who had worked the biggest of competitions, that I felt like a mouse amongst wolves.  One conversation even went:

Me: Hi, I’m Mitch
Him:  Hi, I’m XXXX
Me:  Yeah I know … I kinda recognize you from talking on my movie theatre screen

Not that is not sarcasm, yes that happened.

Yet the WBA work was limited as well.  So at the encouragement from a couple of other locals, I contacted the Southern California School Band & Orchestra Association (SCSBOA) who are currently considering me as a possible member to judge regularly.  And by “considering” I mean, I am 90% sure I am judging their Finals Championship next week – as in the biggest show of the year.  SCSBOA is a circuit that is Asteroid – small in size but massively dense.  In the midwest, including in Wisconsin where I grew up, it wasn’t out of the question to drive 4 or 5 hours to the closest competition and that show only drew 10-12 bands.  SCSBOA yesterday alone had 6 shows within an hour-and-a-half drive of any band, and the shows all were well over twenty competing units.  My thirty-two band show was massive … I mean massive.  This during a week when some of the bands competed for two, three, or four times during the week.

For the most part, next weekend’s the competitive season.  Not just here, but across the country.  This includes the National Championship in Indiana and State Championships anywhere where it hadn’t been decided already.  Overall, through the three circuits I worked, I had a good season, one with six shows that nearly spread over three months.  I saw a lot of great bands and a lot of fantastic performances.

I just get the opportunity to do one more.



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