Marching Outside the Box

Minnesota parade bands and Indiana track show bands have perfected the art of marching beyond the football field. You might be surprised to learn about the excellence and innovation that take place in these unique marching venues.

It’s just after 9:30 a.m., and the parking area of the Indiana State Fairgrounds is already packed with cars. The first of nearly 50 marching bands is just beginning to perform, and the grandstand is filled with thousands of energetic spectators.

Evidently, Indiana bands are serious about track show marching.

A few months earlier, down the main street of Alexandria, Minn., chairs already appear along the route of the Vikingland Band Festival parade marching championship. It’s Friday afternoon, and the event doesn’t begin until Sunday.

It’s clear that Minnesota bands are serious about parade marching.

Interestingly, these forms of marching competition—that generate so much enthusiasm in the Midwest—are largely unknown in other parts of the country. Yet the innovation and excellence found in these unique activities rival what is found on the field.

Takin’ It to the Street

Marching bands in Minnesota have redefined the concept of parade.

Some may remember “parade” experiences as a quick 20-minute rehearsal on the way to the starting point of their hometown parade route. That’s not the case in Minnesota.

“It’s a field show on the street,” says Tedd Gullickson, director of the Lancers Marching Band from Mankato, Minn. “We explore drum corps style music and movement to its fullest extent within a street parade during a four- to five-minute timeframe.”

The key for designers is to develop their elaborate street shows in a way that maintains forward motion. “It’s easy to incorporate too much into the show which slows down the integrity of what a parade is supposed to be,” Gullickson says. “It’s a challenge to find a balance of drill, visuals and overall length of program that will keep both students and the audience interested.”

Parade shows use the same design considerations used by field bands, according to John Olson, who directed the Park Center High School Band in Brooklyn Park, Minn., from 1977 to 2008. “A real effort is made to integrate the visual aspect with the mood and flow of the music,” he says.

“We try to grab our audience with both the lows and the highs of dynamics. We use color guard complete with props as well as form changes in all sections similar to what’s done on the field. The limitation of street width and maintaining forward pace is a challenge.”

Just Bands in Vikingland

Minnesota parade bands took a giant leap forward in 1985 with the founding of the Vikingland Band Festival. Most towns in Minnesota held parades as part of their local celebrations, but the Vikingland Band Festival was unique because it included only marching bands. Bands marched at a three-block interval to prevent their music from overlapping, and soon bands took the opportunity to explore more intricate visual programs.

“Pure and simple, the Vikingland Band Festival celebrates marching bands,” says Todd Blaser, director of Alexandria’s Jefferson High School Band. “The format is ideal because there are no float breakdowns, no noisy fire trucks, and the crowd is attentive. And it’s always nice not to be behind any horses!”

Other towns followed the format, and there are now around six bands-only parades during June. The Vikingland Band Festival is held on the last Sunday of the month and is considered the championship event.

Summer or Fall? You Decide

Minnesota bands typically march either in summer parades or fall field shows, but not both. “Directors choose the best fit for their program, schedule and budget,” says Gullickson.

Cotter High School from Winona, Minn., has one of the few bands that excel in both summer parade and fall field competitions. “The summer becomes an extended band camp for fall marching, but we are careful to not burn the kids out,” says Dave Gudmastad, band director.

For efficiency, Cotter’s summer parade show incorporates portions of the fall field show music.

“The two seasons feed off each other,” Gudmastad notes, but adds that the summer parade season has benefits beyond giving band members a head start on their fall show.

“Summer band is a major tool in developing esprit de corps and group solidarity,” he says. “In the summer, the Cotter Band acts like a drum corps. We sleep on gym floors, eat meals from the band trailer and practice at all hours of the day and night. Students tell me years later about how much the summer band meant to them.”

Right on Track

As with Minnesota parade bands, Indiana track show bands continue to evolve and break new ground with music and movement. Track shows get their name from the performance venue: dirt tracks in front of grandstands where race cars normally zoom by.

“Track shows are similar to traditional field shows with the exception of the venue size,” says Tony Ballin, director of the Richmond (Ind.) Red Devil Marching Band. “The track surface is 100 yards long, but the width of 80 feet is only half the size of a football field. This requires larger bands to be extremely creative with their visual designs.”

Bands competing in track shows are allowed a performance time of four to six minutes, plus two minutes for preset/ warm-up and one minute to exit. Show designers have become masters at presenting thoughtful, complete shows in this condensed time frame.

“Our shows run about 5 minutes 45 seconds,” says Joe Poio, director of the Southside High School Band from Muncie, Ind. “We aim for an opener of 1 minute 45 seconds, a 2-minute center and a 2-minute closer. With some great arranging, we are able to pack variety into the program. We strive for constant movement and careful arranging to develop a wide range of visual and musical expression.”

A Day at the Fair

Today’s elaborate track shows have come a long way from their humble beginnings. The activity originated in 1939 when the Indiana State Fair hosted a parade of bands in front of its grandstand, according to David Holscher, who coordinates the Indiana State Fair Band Day.

“The original concept was a parade-style show where bands marched past the grandstand without stopping,” Holscher says, noting that the format and rules have evolved over the years. “Gradually, bands began to do more movement. A rule change in 1995 meant bands no longer had to begin performing at the ‘start’ line nor end at the ‘finish’ line. Performances now begin and end in the middle of the track like a field show.”

The Central Indiana Track Show Association holds five shows in July, so directors are able to get early feedback as they march toward Band Day.

For most bands marching in track shows, Band Day is the end of their marching season. As with Minnesota parade bands, only a few track show bands continue with fall field marching.

“Normally a director decides to march either track or field, based on practice space availability, student interest, student availability and financial constraints,” Ballin says. “In our case at Richmond, over 50 percent of our band members are athletes. Since few school sporting events run through the summer, the track season is a perfect fit for our school.”

The consideration for student schedules ensures that a maximum number of students have the opportunity to excel in marching band. “Watching the kids’ faces tells the story,” Holscher says. “I see the intensity at warm-up and the look of joy as they march off. It’s thrilling for me to see kids reach their goals.”

Even though their performance venues are unique, parade and track bands have much in common with field bands. They all share the universal benefits of teamwork, pride, parental involvement and community support.

As Poio says: Whether marching, playing or giving instruction, “we are all band members.”

About the Author

Ken Martinson is a lifelong advocate of marching bands and is founder of the website Marching.com. He has brought a passionate and positive voice to his roles as instructor, event coordinator, performer and judge. He continues to promote the marching activity and has built friendships with marching-related individuals and organizations across the United States and around the world.

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