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Off Beat Empire: Color Guard

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Everyone needs a little color in their life - except OSU, Iowa, and Wisconsin

Emancipation Day Parade Winds Through Washington DC Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Thanks to suggestion from pkloa, I figured that this week I would cover what is usually one of the largest, and yet significantly overlooked and under-utilized groups within the Marching Band - Color Guard (or Flag Corp, if you prefer). Numbers vary, but on average a Marching Band is going to field a Color Guard that is about 10-15% of the size of the overall group. Usually (although not by any means necessarily), the Color Guard is mostly going to be comprised of women. Depending upon how the band is organized, most of the group were probably in their Color Guard in high school and just wanted to continue the experience. However, even in the case of high school, you’ll find that a lot of Color Guard members are talented musicians in their own right, but either want to do something different for marching season or perhaps specialize in an instrument that isn’t represented on the field (strings, oboe, bassoon, general woodwinds for groups that only march brass, etc.). I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but almost every member of the color guard who I have known at least played in one other music ensemble during the off season. It’s not like cheerleaders or a dance squad... usually these are committed band or symphony members who are just finding their niche on the football field.

Like most things Marching Band, Color Guard has badass origins in combat. Specifically, when you have a bunch of guys who generally look the same wielding the same weapons and getting bloody and muddy on the ancient (and not so ancient) battlefield, it’s usually good that you have a few people waving a unit’s flag or standard so the commanders know who-is-who and whether their line is holding, it is time to send in the reserves, or it is time to follow Brave Sir Robin’s example and run away. It’s also a great rallying point if you’re charging across an open field to meet the rebels in combat. You know what else carrying a flag is really good for? Telling the opponent which one of you to shoot with an arrow or a musket ball if they really want to muck things up for your side. You had to be brave to be willing to fulfill that role, which is why a significant portion of legacy Medals of Honor (before the criteria was changed in 1917) was for actions like picking up and waiving the flag to rally your comrades.

Take that same concept of unit and purpose, combine with military marching bands on parade (which have probably been in existence since man first learned how to play instruments and go to war) and you have this timeless symbol of valor and honor.

Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

At some point, somebody got the bright idea to do a bit more than stand or fight with their banners, one thing lead to another, and then, voila, Color Guard. Then, one day while marching with their firearms, some daring young lad got the bright idea to twist and twirl it. The next thing you know you have rifle drill and a scene from the movie “Stripes”. Fortunately for us, Marching Bands have decided to only use wooden, rifle-shaped props as opposed to anything that carries live ammunition. A few Marching Bands will also use wooden prop sabres from time-to-time.

So how is the Color Guard used in Marching Band? Well, like any good drill, you’re supposed to be i) visually accentuating what is going on with the music, ii) creating dazzle and motion, and / or iii) telling a story. Now, when done right, this can be a pretty awesome experience. Specifically, in competition, most bands will use multiple changes in flags, rifles, and costumes to tell a pretty intricate story. The best performances are almost more of a ballet than a Color Guard, as you can see in a few of these clips from Drum Corp International groups:

Note how perfectly the big hits correspond to big motion with the color guard, or even better, a nice rapid and well-times toss of the rifles. Notice also how people like to use the group as a separate block that will interact with the rest of the band, but can also literally match the drill of what you are seeing from the instruments. It’s an important group within these performances and is treated seriously.

Now what do most colleges do with color guard? Well, aside from hold them straight up-and-down for pregame (we’ll talk about that when we do pregame shows), we usually get the “outer bubble” look with a whole bunch of flags spread in a semi-circle behind the band, or we get the song “featuring our great color guard”, which means that the band is going to stand still, and the color guard is going to twirl their flags to just distract you from the fact that the band is doing nothing. Most will only do flags, although I think I caught a glimpse of Purdue and Michigan State doing rifles for at least one show last year. There also isn’t exactly a big costume budget in play for college, so it’s rare to see changes in dress or the use of different colored flags the way that a competition band would. On a few occasions, somebody will go a bit outside the box and you might get special flags for a certain performance (I’m thinking of MSU’s Africa show last year) or the group might be used as part of a larger prop. However, most color guards will stick to a rather simple routine each week.

Why don’t they do more? Time. There’s really only so much you can cram into each week’s performance, and while a good trumpet player might be able to hide a weaker member of the section, we all see if a member of the Color Guard is twirling her flag in the wrong direction. Therefore, Color Guard is usually designed for the lowest common denominator. Competition bands get a whole season to master their show. College students, not so much.

Now, all that said, colleges probably could do more if they tried. I don’t know why more Color Guards aren’t used for precision marching. There are a lot of moving triangles and squares and circles that can be accomplished that would be a huge visual step up from Bands do today, but people keep playing it safe.

Of course, you can also take the Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana, or Iowa Marching Band route, which is basically don’t have them in the first place. In the case of Iowa and Indiana, both schools do employ a specific dance squad that performs with the Band, but they usually perform as a group in front of the band and don’t really partake in the Band’s drill the same way that a color guard would. Wisconsin and Ohio State feature neither a dance squad nor color guard, although Ohio State uses a few reserves for prop moments within their show. While I don’t want to be overly critical of how either band is organized, there are some trade-offs to both groups. Specifically, the absence of a Color Guard plus the lack of traditionally higher ratio female instruments such as woodwinds means that both groups rank lowest in the conference in terms of percentage of female participation (http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2014/07/31/osu-band-relatively-low-on-women-in-its-ranks.html). I’m not judging - the Badgers have a very traditional identity and the Buckeye Band is one of the best for a reason and it’s hard to mess with success. Flags and dance squads aren’t quite right for everybody. However, knowing how awesome most of what the Ohio State Band does, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if they... say... fielded the Conference’s only all-rifle Color Guard.

Poll

Thoughts on B1G Color Guards

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    They’re awesome! I love the ladies (and occasional gentlemen)
    (40 votes)
  • 10%
    Not really into flags, but those rifles look good
    (12 votes)
  • 15%
    Nah, but I do like the dance squads
    (18 votes)
  • 39%
    We don’t really need any of that. If you ain’t playing an instrument, you’re not helping
    (45 votes)
115 votes total Vote Now

Halftime

Illinois

We have two shows to catch up on for Illinois, starting with last week’s performance for the Kent State game:

For the opening of the season, we get a 150 Year Anniversary celebration for the Marching Illini, starting with a new composition / arrangement of traditional Illinois music titled “Forever Illini”. Next, we get a very traditional counter-march show to the tune of “Revelation” and “The Southerner Marches”, complete with an a cappella verse. Both of these segments represent relatively simple marches and drill, but I have to say that the Marching Illini just look and sound fantastically clean throughout the entire performance. There isn’t a note out-of-place, there isn’t a person out-of-position, and the nice contrast of the orange capes to the navy blue uniforms really makes it pop when the members of the band turn and march in a separate direction. The sound is beautiful with nice contrast in volume when there should be contrast, and I even have to say that their singing sounds good.

I’m not necessarily going to comment on it for every review, but if you’re new to this column or the Marching Illini, they are somewhat unique in the conference in that they have a regularly recurring halftime segment called the “Three-in-One”. Specifically, it’s a set of drill very similar to most schools’ pregame segment (it features a moving “I” and “Illini”) performed to “March of the Illini”, “Pride of the Illini”, and “Hail to the Orange”. The Marching Illini have been performing this segment since the 1920’s, and for much of that history the performance also featured the now-defunct Chief Illiniwek. I’ve now seen the performance many times and don’t have much to say about it other than the Band seems to have performed quite well for its first show of the season.

It’s Band Day! As a quick refresher, the early season is a busy time of year. Students are scrambling to get back to campus. Some are arriving for the first time. The Band usually arrives a bit early, but there is always much to do between auditions, learning the pregame, and learning key things like the fight songs (and the Three-in-One for the Illini). Needless to say, it’s a lot, and usually bands try to take a bit of a break in their first or second show by inviting thousands upon thousands of members of local high schools to join in a park n’ bark extravaganza for the ages. Thousands of high school students also do a better job hiding near-empty stadiums than, say, a tarp might.

For the Illini Band day, apparently bad weather had some impact and we only had a few schools participate. We are treated to a rendition of “Johnny B. Goode”, “Gimme Some Lovin’”, and “Land of a Thousand Dances”. Of course, after the high school students exit the field, we get the Three-in-One as well. Simple, but well-performed.

Indiana

Unfortunately, Indiana publishes their video in a format that doesn’t play nice with SB Nation, so you will have to link to their performance page and select the 9-8-18 halftime (https://www.indiana.edu/~bands/marching-hundred/about/videos/).

Band Day Take 2! It looks like Indiana had similar issues to Illinois with regard to weather-depleted participation. We do get performances of “Party in the U.S.A.”, Earth Wind & Fire’s “September”, and apparently a traditional rendition of “America the Beautiful”. There’s not too much to say about Band Days other than welcome back to the Marching Hundred.

Iowa

Woo! Thanks to a fan, we get a rare Hawkeye Marching Band sighting, even if it is only for a grand total of two minutes and six seconds. Apparently, they are performing music from the movie, “The Greatest Showman”. I say apparently, because my parents and sister saw that movie at least twenty times in the theater, and their enthusiasm for the show (plus our completely divergent perspectives as to what is or is not a great movie) have made me quite reluctant to watch it, even though a viewing of the DVD is offered literally any and every time I am in their presence. All that said, there is some really good sound coming off of the field. I kind of like the section where the trombones and low horns lead with the melody... it’s just a nice feature of a different part of the band and seems to flow really well. There are maybe a few disjointed spots around the 1:30 mark, but overall it sounds good. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty small sample size with regard to drill to draw any conclusions and with the low camera angle, I’m not quite sure what shapes the band was going for. However, I’m starting to think that popcorn tub man at ~1:55 in the video is somehow related to “Hawkeye on my Belly”. Hopefully, this won’t be our last look at the Hawkeye Marching Band for the season - this was a nice little bit of show and I would like to see more.

Michigan

There are few certainties in life... death, taxes, and the lesser known, “If you are in Marching Band, you will play music from ‘West Side Story’ at least once”. For their home opener, Michigan chose to perform “Mambo”, “Gee Officer Krupke”, “Maria”, and “Tonight” in celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th something... I assume would be birthday. I’ve always thought that the music was OK, but I’ve never fully understood the fascination with this movie and soundtrack in the music world. Then again, I never particularly liked Romeo & Juliet (on which West Side Story is based), either, so perhaps it’s not a surprise.

Given this week’s topic, I do want to highlight that there is some pretty positive stuff going on in “Mambo” as it relates to the Color Guard. You can see them performing a bit more tightly with the band, being an important part of the various designs on the field, and the choreography of the flags seems to be pretty good as well (albeit a bit vanilla and lacking in things like tosses). Then, for the rest of the performance, you see the corp drifting off to the outer edges of the performance, and then it’s pretty much just a little bit of visual movement as opposed to an important part of the show, which is kind of a shame because I think you lose something in the overall performance.

With regard to the rest of the band, I thought there was great sound in “Mambo” in particular. The drill was perhaps a bit pause oriented, but for a home opener just after getting back on campus, there were still a ton of sets that the Band went through and the shapes looked clean throughout. “Tonight” is kind of a tricky tune before you get to the main refrain, and I have to say that I don’t think the Wolverines quite got it right in this performance - it got pretty disjointed at times. However, the transition to the sharks and the jets was a nice touch in the drill (and seriously, how insane is this portrayal of teenage gangs versus modern society?!). Most bands find themselves in a Company Front (long horizontal line that will include most of the band) for the big finish, but Michigan decided to go with a Company “M” instead. It’s a crowd-pleasing choice, but I kind of wish we could have seen more of a frenetic finish with pinwheels and the like than an expanding logo. Still, it was overall a very good show and a complete performance for the first game back on campus.

Minnesota

Again, Minnesota’s video doesn’t always play nice with SB Nation, so if you can’t see anything above, you can go to the following link (http://www.ummbvideo.com/newummbvideo/Videos/20180908_Halftime.mp4).

Band Day Take 3! This time with state shapes and more high schools because they apparently haven’t been drowned up until that point. Music featured included Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill”, Nsync’s “Bye Bye Bye”, Smashmouth’s “All Star”, Pink’s “Raise Your Glass”, Demi Lovato’s “Confidence”. I literally only knew one of these songs without looking it up...

Poll

Which song does GTom have on his iPod*?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Shape of You
    (2 votes)
  • 4%
    Castle on the Hill
    (2 votes)
  • 36%
    Bye Bye Bye
    (18 votes)
  • 36%
    All Star
    (18 votes)
  • 10%
    Raise Your Glass
    (5 votes)
  • 8%
    Confidence
    (4 votes)
49 votes total Vote Now

* Yes, I only have an iPod touch and not an iPhone or other smart phone. I’m old and Ted Glover-y and would appreciate it if you would get the hell off of my lawn.

Northwestern

You have a Band Day! and you have a Band Day! ... Everybody has a Band Day!!! Portugal the Man’s “Feel it Still”, Imagine Dragons’ “Believer”, and “God Bless America” featuring Chicago Blackhawks anthem singer, Jim Cornelison. A word of advice to Mr. Cornelison... when it’s you versus 1,000 band members, look at the freakin’ conductor and go with the right tempo. The guy drives me nuts... he does the same thing for the national anthem. And also, sing along you stupid Blackhawk fans... the applause is stupid. By the way, have I ever mentioned that I’m a big Red Wings fan?

Ohio State

It’s 106 miles to Chicago, the Buckeyes have a whole tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out, and they’re wearing sunglasses. OSU brings us the magic of Jake and Elwood Blues... starting, with “Can’t Turn You Loose” and quickly transitioning to “Everybody needs Somebody”. We get great drill and sound as always and some fantastic props in the Blues-mobile, dancing brothers, and shades to finish the tune. Next, Ohio State honors the late Aretha Franklin with her feature in the movie, “Think”, including some nice drill references to the Queen of Soul and Aretha. We then get a bit of pause in drill plus a nice trumpet solo and a bit of call-and-answer voice work for “Minnie the Moocher”. Now it’s time for me to turn in my Chicago card, because I can’t quite figure out which song is next, but the OSU band clearly makes up for any pause in Minnie the Moocher with great drill, including a dancing man and a transition to a car chase complete with busted radiator to “Jailhouse Rock”. Finally we get a rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” complete with Sears (I will never say Willis) Tower and Hancock Tower and one last burst to a reprise of “Can’t Turn You Loose”. Just a typical, ho-hum, energized, great-sounding, and entertaining performance by one of, if not the Best, Damned Bands in the Land.

Others

I’ve always struggled to get Nebraska and Maryland video. Penn State traveled to Pitt, but I suspect they just played the same show a second time. Rutgers was on the road at Columbus. Otherwise, I just don’t have video yet on MSU, Purdue, and Wisconsin.

Conclusion

Lots of bands had Band Day. We saw 150 years of tradition for the Illini, Michigan met a girl called Maria, and Ohio State went on a mission from God. Overall, some nice performances from bands who are just back in action.

Finally, in honor of the USC vs. Stanford football game this past weekend, I wanted to leave a little piece of Marching Band trash talk that the Condoms have been subjecting Stanford to since the early ‘80’s. The Stanford Counter-March is intended to both mock what the Stanford Band once was, as well as what it has turned into. Frankly, I can’t think of a better recipient of derision, although USC doesn’t exactly hold a fond place in my heart, either (mooned by a busload when we were at the Rose Bowl). Anyway, we’ll finish with the now traditional Stanford Counter-March.