Thursday, January 21, 2010

Anatomy of an I&E Solo - Scott McCoy

Every year at DCI and DCA Championships individuals from various corps let their hair down and are put into the spotlight as individual soloists or members of a smaller ensemble. They still represent their corps but this is the time for them to showcase their individual skills. It’s the Individual and Ensemble competition, or most commonly known as “I&E”.

Judging the marching arts can be very subjective which includes I&E. Armchair quarterbacks like to watch YouTube videos of various solos and proclaim “so-and-so should have won!” Debates on what the I&E competition is about, or should be about according to some, can be found on internet forum’s like Should a solo be a stale display of rudimental prowess, or should it be constructed to entertain the room? What about simply playing a blaze of unrecognizable notes to show mastery of speed? Tricks… gotta have tricks, right? RIGHT?! Well, the short answer is… yes… to all of that. How’s that for riding the fence? ;-)

The fact is I&E is a competition and if you want to place well you need to put your skills in the best possible light for the judges and the crowd. This means stay away from things you can’t pull off very well and concentrate on the things you do well. If your rudimental repertoire isn’t that great you’re going to have a tough time putting a solo together that isn’t repetitive so it’s best to learn some new things to give you more places to go compositionally. Sometimes that means learning a cool trick or figuring out how to backtstick inverted chillysickles off the left hand (kidding, don’t try that... you’ll hurt someone). What you want to avoid though is learning something so obscure that when played for an audience the difficulty is not apparent. Remember this is a competition, so unless you simply want to learn something challenging and perform it because you like it, the effect must contain a bit of the “wow” factor to the viewer and remain accessible. They have to have at least some understanding of what it is you’re attempting. Case in point... the Cavaliers’ snare line played the Casey Claw all summer in 1994 but no one knew what we were doing therefore no love from the green shirts. Fast forward to 1995 and suddenly we were getting credit for the Claw because the judges finally knew what it is we were playing and were dumbfounded nine dudes could play it together cleanly. However, it’s your solo and you can play whatever you’d like. Your goal may be to simply have fun playing in front of people, push the creative envelope a bit or maybe you lost a bet. I dunno.

Now let’s talk about General Effect. GE is a little smoke and mirrors, obvious mastery of your instrument and showmanship all wrapped up into one. In other words, a Jedi Mind Trick. A Jedi has skills so I’m not inferring that someone without skills can trick the judge or audience into thinking they’re a good player. Instead, I’m talking about selling the effect by way of setup and delivery. Some licks kill when lobbed up like a softball but when it occurs at an awkward transition or sandwiched in the wrong place, the effect is lost and the Stormtroopers aren’t fooled… those are the droids they are looking for. The key here is to record yourself or practice in front of the mirror and if you think it looks uninteresting it probably is. ScoJo’s motto is right on: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong!” If the audience doesn’t see that you’re having fun, chances are they won’t be having any fun either. Sometimes a simple facial gesture or flair to how you nailed that rimshot makes all the difference in the world. A good example, check out the 1:56 mark of my DCA I&E solo from last year. Easy lick of a low triplet roll into fast three-stroke roll. Nothing special until you add a phat rimshot with flair followed by a stoic stance proclaiming I own the room at that moment in time. A bit egotistical? Absolutely, but part of the game. Projecting inner confidence is just one way of incorporating some showmanship into your solo.

The most difficult part of creating an I&E solo is the actual composition itself. Some cats write out every single note of the solo while some have a vague idea what they’re doing and ad lib most of the solo. I’m somewhere in between but it’s all personal preference. My most successful solos have been the ones where I keep a little of the organic ad lib process while knowing for sure about 80-90 % of what I’m going to play. This works for me because I sometimes find my zone and I go with the flow while also thinking ahead to a pre-determined outline I’ve created. This may not work for you though.

Regardless of how you actually compose the solo you’ll want to pace it so the judge and audience are engaged as close to 100% of the time as possible. Am I able to do this in all my solos? Heck no, but that’s the goal. When putting licks together find ways to transition in and out that not only feels good in the hands but also serves a purpose. The term “musical” in rudimental drumming is often misunderstood as being orchestral, soft or even unchallenging. Not so! A musical idea may consist of some of that but only if it serves the purpose of a phrase’s direction. Each phrase needs to be assembled to sound good but also lead to the next musical idea. You need to ask yourself if a particular section is meant to build excitement or perhaps you’re bringing it down from a high for something more subtle. Think of your solo as a rollercoaster ride where there are ups and downs. Always find places for the audience to catch their breath as well as give your hands a rest should you be fatigued. Chances are you’ll be playing your solo about 5-10 clicks faster than you would normally practice due to adrenaline so you might suddenly find you’re out of gas at the wrong time. Know your limits. Besides, I can’t tell you how many solos I’ve been bored to tears watching because it is wall-to-wall notes. Sure, the endurance it takes to pull that off is impressive but that risks being boring with a capital “B”.

These aren’t hard and fast rules but rather observations and the results of learning through participating in the I&E process. Also, what works this year may not work next year as the activity evolves. That is glaringly obvious by watching I&E videos from the 80’s then watching something from last season. Solos 20 years apart are apples and oranges and cannot be compared, but I encourage you to watch solos from a wide range of years and take the qualities you like to put something together that is your own.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The WGI Effect - Scott McCoy

Within the past decade we’ve seen the marching percussion idiom transform dramatically into something I feel is completely amazing. There are, of course, many influences contributing to the evolution such as quality of percussion instrumentation, more exposure via the internet and the percussion element no longer being an afterthought in the design process. Marching percussion has always been extremely engaging and a powerful experience, but we’ve seen something happen in which most of the credit can be traced back to something I call “the WGI effect”.

Winter Guard International (WGI) is an unlikely source for evolving marching percussion if you haven’t been following the winter percussion activity. Indoor percussion’s roots go all the way back to the mid-70’s in the midwest where the ensembles would basically perform as they did on the football field but simply indoors. Programs were written on a smaller scale to accommodate the smaller venue but movement and playing styles remained largely the same. College ensembles such as Michigan State University and the University of North Texas were instrumental in pushing the activity through the 80’s and early 90’s but the evolution was slow going. Even in the early years of WGI running indoor percussion shows the activity hadn’t really settled on solid ground. Some groups were sticking with the established formula for programming an indoor percussion show while other groups went the complete opposite direction of more movement and less drumming. Due to the latter paired with the roots of WGI being visual we saw a paradigm shift of what kind of movement was possible while carrying drums. Groups began experimenting and trying to find ways to push the envelope visually without sacrificing what we love about marching percussion… the drumming.

With increased visual demand having become a staple of indoor programming, attention was returned to good ol’ fashioned aggressive drumming. The catch now… moving like a marching ensemble never moved before with the percussion writing becoming more dense again. Listening environments changing by the count with an abundance of personal accountability placed on each individual performer pushed the competitive aspect further and further each year.

Amplification and electronics were also experimented with and refined to where you could hear lush, warm sounds from the front ensemble that were usually covered by the battery behind them. That alone changed the landscape of marching percussion as the front ensemble could be utilized in new ways never thought possible. This allowed percussion arrangers the freedom to explore about any musical or theatrical idea they could think of using existing material or even composing something completely original.

With all this happening in the WGI world it was bound to expand into the summer drum and bugle corps activity. Before the indoor boom, drum and bugle corps was the main influence for the marching arts with winter indoor activities acting as a supplement. In the early to mid 2000’s we started seeing more of the indoor programming styles seep into drum corps shows as design teams recognized new possibilities. With many members playing all year round in both WGI and DCI we also saw skill levels in the battery and front ensemble climb, which did not go unnoticed by drum corps staff. They wanted to take advantage of what the members could do musically and visually and for many corps like the Concord Blue Devils it has paid off in spades.

Outside of the competitive marching arts, you’ve probably also noticed countless drumlines appear in professional sports stadiums and arenas in recent years. Basketball and football fans across the country are being entertained by some of the very same things born from WGI arenas. Becoming a mainstay for entertaining sports crowds is perhaps the best evidence of how far-reaching “the WGI effect” continues to be. It’s an exciting time to witness what is happening while also wondering just how far it’ll go.