Tradition vs Evolution

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Before I leave Champaign, I wanted to leave you with this thought. I stopped by the MI rehearsal last night in Memorial Stadium. Revised #3 still kicks ass, and hearing it from the front sideline is still the best way to do it.

On the way out, I was walking with the drum majors, and we were talking about the band. One of them asked me how long it had been since I was back and what I thought. I told her it was very different but very much the same. I don‘t think that was the response she was expecting, so I explained that it was the difference between tradition and evolution. Tradition is important. It establishes your identity and gives you a foundation to return to over the years. But just because you’ve done something forever doesn’t mean it’s ideal. If that were the case, women would still not be allowed to vote in this country. The times changed and so do we. The things you keep and hold on to are special and meant to be embraced. Those are the things you celebrate and use to establish your identity.

I told her that the band from our day had lots of great traditions that are gone, but that doesn’t mean ours are better our worse than their traditions now. Those things are important to me and will forever be a part of what I identify with as a member of the Marching Illini. There are things she has experienced and grown to love in the band that I did not nor ever will. Neither one of us has a better experience, just different. There are more than enough things we both have shared that will forever define us as Illini that nobody can ever take away from us.

That doesn’t change the fact that when I was asking members about things I thought would last forever and they looked at me like I was speaking in a foreign language made me feel really old and out of place. That made me sad. I think it’s important for the new generation of MI to know our stories, where we came from, and what made us unique as an organization. We, in a sense, made them as members possible. It’s just as important for us as fossils to recognize and embrace their traditions. They are carrying our torch, and we should trust that they will hand it off with the same class and dignity we did.

All that being said, the band rehearses better than I’ve seen in a long time. The attitude is laid back but strong. Barry Houser is nailing it over there. Yes, things are different, but no more than what people from the 70s and 80s felt when they saw us. We all were, are, and will continue to be the Marching Illini.

Everyone has their story. Here’s mine.

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Everybody has their own 9/11 story. They are all important in their own way. This one is mine.

I’m back in Champaign this week for the first time of any significance since I graduated with my masters here at Illinois. Aside from a half day for a marching competition at Memorial Stadium and dropping in on a party at 1004 one night, I’ve not been back. Being here has brought back a lot of memories and reminded me how awesome so many of the people I met during my short time here truly are. It also reminded me of that one particular Tuesday morning.

It’s no secret that I’m a night owl. I do most of my work late into the evening, sometimes into the sunrise of the next day. For some reason, I was up relatively early that day. Had not turned on the TV, nor had I done anything online more than check my email. I saw a friend of mine on AIM who was normally not around, so I left some snarky sarcastic (and likely forgettable) comment and walked away. When I came back, his reply was astonishingly out of character. “Have you turned on the TV?” I replied I hadn’t. “Turn it on.”

The exchange was so out of place that it didn’t occur to me to ask what channel. So I turned on the TV. And that’s about 5 minutes before the second tower was hit.

For the next hour or so I was pretty much transfixed with the TV, watching as the 2 towers would fall as well as hearing about the Pentagon and the 4th crash in the field. Thinking back on it now, the two words that keep springing to mind are “numb” and “surreal”. At this point, the internet had come to something of a complete and screeching halt. So many people were trying to get information or get in touch with people that almost nothing online was accessible. Long distance calls were nearly impossible to make, and at this point in time, only a couple people I knew had cell phones. Realistically, in the center of the country, we were somewhat isolated, and our only real method of getting information was the national news.

In my own little world, we were just starting to set the drill with the Marching Illini for a short one week show. I had written the music and the drill. Everybody showed up to rehearsal a little dumbstruck that afternoon. We had no idea what was going to happen that weekend. The idea of having a football game seemed so insane at the time, but we had no idea. This was only a few hours old, so until we were told otherwise, we had a job to do. That afternoon, we learned the opener drill. To say that it was a strange rehearsal was an understatement. Everybody was focused on doing something that felt “normal” while being completely unable to focus on anything. How can you when your heart and your fear is somewhere else?

We broke for dinner, and as a staff, we went out to dinner together to talk about what comes next. Doing a Barenaked Ladies show seemed like a bad idea, especially when the closer I had written included the song “Falling for the First Time.” We decided that we needed to figure out a new plan. We went to the music library and started digging out some new songs. By the time the hornline was back for the evening music rehearsal, we had a general idea of what to do. We pulled out an Armed Forces salute that had all the themes to the military divisions in it. Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American”. A decent version of Amazing Grace. We would cap it off with Stars and Stripes Forever, an easy choice since it’s part of the traditional music here at Illinois. We rehearsed the music, and after rehearsal was done, we stayed up to rewrite the drill. We were tired, but it felt right.

The next day, most classes were cancelled, and the ones that met were optional. I remember walking through the student union that afternoon around lunch. A couple TVs had been set up in a lounge area. A couple hundred students were there watching. Aside from the sound of CNN, it was silent.

We soon found out that the college football schedule would be altered. Everything was going to get shoved back a week. Aside from the emotional toll from the attacks, there was the very real logistical issue of the teams traveling. Planes were still grounded. The band continued to rehearse. My Barenaked Ladies show would happen sometime later in the season. I didn’t care. Football games were even lower on my list of priorities than normal.

The band would later hold a candlelight vigil on our practice field outside Memorial Stadium. We didn’t know what to do, but we felt like we should do something, and it felt right. We gathered on the field together and held hands in a circle with our little candles. At a certain point, somebody started to hum Amazing Grace, and the rest of us joined in. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.

The next week came along. We taught our hastily thrown together patriotic show. We also found out that we were going to be the featured game on ESPN. Conveniently enough, part of our pregame is a substantial patriotic medley complete with the band standing in a massive formation of the continental United States. In a rare moment of intelligent thought, ESPN broadcast pregame that day. Still, something was off.

Memorial Stadium was sold out. The people were there, but their hearts were not. I know I felt wrong being there. It still felt like playing something as trivial as a college football game seemed so unimportant at the time. We were all there, but we really were not.

All of the flags of the Big Ten schools around the stadium had been removed and replaced with the US flag. There were a lot of red, white, and blue decorations that you would normally save for the 4th of July. They also handed out 50,000 red, white, and blue poms to the spectators. Nobody really used them much.

Halftime finally came. We went out and did our thing. It was good. It was better than good. It was a release. Hearing the anthems of the military brought people to their feet. Amazing Grace and Proud to Be an American received strong ovations. But the thing that I will never forget was the reaction to Stars and Stripes Forever. Just thinking about it now gives me the chills. After the piccolo feature, when the full band hit the last strain, the crowd absolutely lost their shit. Never in my life before or after have I heard a reaction to a march like that. The 50,000 poms got a workout. At a certain point I just stopped directing and looked at the crowd in awe. I took a picture of it, and when I get back home, I’ll post it. It doesn’t do justice to the moment, but it was amazing.

It was at that precise moment that I knew it would be okay. All the speeches, all the news coverage, all the photo ops by all the politicians… It was all garbage. It didn’t amount to anything. This was different. It took the marching band and a Sousa march to drive home the fact that we needed get on with our lives, dust ourselves off, and shake off the numb paralysis we were still suffering from. The second half of the game was decidedly more energetic. It was like we had given ourselves permission to feel joy again. The marching band made that possible.

All we needed was a Sousa march.

Post BOA thoughts

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Last weekend was Grand Nationals in Indianapolis. Great weekend, and more importantly, some truly great performances. Congratulations to all the bands at the show. In thinking back to the early 90s when I was marching in those shows, it’s pretty amazing to see how far the activity has come over the last 20 years.

Trends come and go, both visually and musically, but there is one trend that I’m hoping is on its way back. Melody. Let me explain.

It’s important to know the medium and the audience you are writing and performing for. Music and visual have to come together to make something special. It is always a little sad when you see a show that is played incredibly well but has little or no visual program to back it up. It’s equally disappointing to see a program that is visually fantastic but has poorly executed music backing it up. There are a number of factors that could play into it. Maybe the performing ensemble had a rough day, maybe the music book was too hard, or maybe the music book was just plain forgettable.

We sometimes joke about seeing a West Side Story show on the field and saying that there is a mandatory 10 point deduction. Sure it has been done to death, but there’s a reason for that: It’s damn good music. Melodies and chord progressions that will stay with you long after the performance is done.

It seemed to me that over the last few years, lots of bands were moving into the direction of shows that had music that is slightly minimalistic, highly rhythmic, and in the end, somewhat forgettable. Still, the performances were great. The performers were nailing the written book and doing it with incredible technique and sound. We would watch and listen to these shows, enjoy the performance, but as soon as the band was marching off the field, you couldn’t hum a single melody from the show that you just watched.

This year, a couple of programs brought out some older orchestral classics as part of their shows. I would suggest that the reason that those selections come back is because the music is just that good. I’m sure that in the 18th and 19th century that there was a high quantity of equally forgettable music too.

I’m not saying that all of it is bad. What I’m suggesting is that we as designers and directors can have both, not just one. We can have fantastic and thought provoking visual programs that are coupled with compelling melodies that will stay with the audience, the performers, and the judges long after we leave the field.

We can demand melody.

The shirt makes it more legitimate

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Trimpe Music Publishing: We publish things.

We actually USED these things?

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I was cleaning out an old desk that has traveled with me since my undergrad days and found a massive stash of old floppy disks. I don’t have a computer that can even take them anymore, so they were all tossed in a box to be sent off and recycled.

But check out this little gem. My original Finale install disks from 1994! How far we have come. I remember walking back to my dorm with the monstrosity that was the instruction manuals that went with the program. Three massive books in a box that barely fit in my backpack.

Somewhere out there are my 2.0 installs…

Famous potatoes!

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I’m heading to Idaho!

One of the great things about doing more judging is the chance to see new places, see new bands, and meet new people. Last year I started judging marching bands with the USSBA in addition to the shows I normally do here in the Midwest. Turned out to be a great fit, did a few shows in New Jersey, and it was a ton of fun.

I think the most notable difference is the merger of the two effect judges into one overall effect judge. Aside from saving the host bands a little money in judging fees, it does make sense. It’s pretty hard to create a strong musical effect without any visual component (and vice versa). Not impossible, but not common. Effect is lots of fun to do. You get to be a little bit of a spectator. Your job is to react, take it all in, and share your observations.

Never been to Idaho, but I’m really looking forward to it. Really looking forward to seeing what’s happening out there. Now it’s time for some quality flight reading time.

RIP George Parks (1953-2010)

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Raise your hand as high as you can. Now raise it two inches higher… THAT IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOUR LIFE!
-George N. Parks

The marching world lost a legend, no other way to put it.

George Parks was (among other things) the director of the UMass marching band, easily one of the finest and most beloved marching programs in the country. I knew George from my time working as a SWAG at the Bands of America Summer Symposium. He ran the drum major academy. It was far more than just training them the technique of directing. He was teaching them to be leaders, to be confident, to be something better. Better than they originally thought they could be.

Traveling across the country, the UMass band stopped in Ohio for a performance. That night, he spoke of having some discomfort and was taken to the hospital. It was there that he passed away from a heart attack. I can’t even imagine what the members of the band are going through.

I didn’t know him nearly as well as other people did, but I know that he loved his work, he loved his students, and he loved his music. In turn, there were friends and students who loved him just as intensely and fiercely. I half jokingly said that there were countless people who would have gladly followed him off a cliff at a perfect 8 to 5 with their eyes high with pride.

All I can think is what an absolute loss this is and (somewhat selfishly) how incredibly unfair it is. To say that he will be missed is a gross understatement.

Thanks for everything you did, George. We’ll miss you.

ASCAPlus award!

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They like me! They really like me!

I got something in the mail today from ASCAP today. Usually this is a statement showing me my royalty reimbursements. For concert and orchestral writers, along with any broadcast media, royalties are collected for university, conservatory, and professional performances. Since I write mainly music for high school marching band and there doesn’t seem to be a strong calling for marching band music on the radio, I’m used to seeing a statement with a giant zero on it. Imagine my surprise when it wasn’t that and was instead a letter telling me that I had won an ASCAPlus award!

For writers who have a body of work that falls outside of traditional royalty collections, you can apply annually for one of these awards. It’s a nice way of acknowledging somebody’s effort and work in what they consider “non-traditional venues”. Suffice it to say, I’m really pleased. I can think of a number of other composers in the field who I have high respect for who have also received this. To be added to that list is an honor.

Yet another blog!

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Just what the internet needs! Yet another blog! I used to joke that if you could find 5 or 6 people who all had a similar interest, somebody had probably already created a site on the internet about (and it was likely much better than anything you were thinking about creating).

I had been toying with the idea of creating a blog to talk about composition, arranging, judging, marching band, and the general process of trying to create and be creative. It’s a rather niche market, and there were so many things that I have learned along the way that I wish somebody would have clued me in on 10 years or so ago when I started getting really serious about this as a full time profession. After talking with students and other band directors, I’ve found that there are a few people who are interested in how the process really works.

I don’t pretend to be the be-all end-all definitive word on any of this. In fact, I’ll be the first to tell you that I still have a lot to learn. I’m also of the opinion that once you think that you have it mastered, you probably are full of crap and should seek out some other profession.

More will come soon. Hopefully I will be able to take you through the process of creating an original show from the beginning all the way to a finals performance. Until then, good luck at band camp, and STAY HYDRATED.