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.

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