The Thrill of Drill

Whether for their own band or for other schools, marching show designers consistently churn out creative, entertaining drill season after season. Find out what makes them tick and how they strategically move marchers on the football field like a human chess board.

“That’s when I got hooked.” It’s a popular refrain among marching band drill writers.

Ryan Turner of Ryan H. Turner Show Design Productions in Brea, Calif., got hooked in 12th grade writing drill for a drum solo. Brooks Andersen of Evision Marching in Oklahoma City, Okla., was “totally obsessed” the first moment he stepped onto the field. Jeff Fackler of Creative Solutions, Inc. in Meridian, Idaho, became interested as soon as he knew what a marching band was.

Famed arranger Key Poulan from Fresno, Calif., says, “Once I became a member of my high school marching band, I gave it my all.”

Again and again, drill writers, band directors and music arrangers give it their all and answer that same clarion call—the field, the music, the pageantry, the movement, the drill. It’s their passion, and for many, their careers as drill writers have been defined by what happens on the field.

But how do they do it—write the drills that win award after award? Why do they? Who do they work for? And what successes are achieved by the bands that outsource their drill writing and for those that do it themselves?

The Making of the Drill Makers

Meet Andy Brady from Plus One Designs in Madison, Wis. His story is similar to many other drill writers. “My high school band director and mentor, Dave Kaiser, used to show drum corps videos; I got hooked,” Brady says.

Hooked indeed. Marching band production became his life’s work. “Pretty pictures are fine, but seeing humans change the field of balance by movement really intrigued me,” Brady says.

He has written drill for a bevy of marching bands that have won multiple state championships in Wisconsin’s fall circuit, the Mid-America Competing Band Directors Association (MACBDA) national summer circuit and the MidWest Color Guard Circuit. A focus of his inspiration has come from the Oregon (Wis.) Marching Band, which is a grand champion for MACBDA. “This group continues to inspire me with the members’ positive attitudes and love for the marching arts,” Brady says. “I write drill with one starting point in mind: What am I going to do to make this awesome?”

First, Brady confers with the director, arranger, guard instructors and any band personnel involved with the show to develop concepts. Next, he memorizes the musical scores and drill numbers. Computer screens are stared at for long stretches of time. Choreographic exercises and word associations inspire him. “For example, the word ‘striking’ makes me think of angular drill forms where ‘floating’ would inspire curves and sequential stop-off moments.” He writes for about 12 hours at a time. Coffee is had.

Plus One Designs does more than drill design work. It’s a full custom outfit, including drill, music and choreography.

Another do-it-all outfit is Standing O Marching Arts Specialists in East Rutherford, N.J., whose clients include The Bushwackers Drum and Bugle Corps from Harrison, N.J., Rancocas Valley High School from Mount Holly, N.J., and Villa Rica (Ga.) High School.

Rob Stein, the owner of Standing O as well as a composer and arranger, knows how important a good drill writer is. “What I look for in a drill writer is someone who is responsible, reliable and keeps an open line of communication; someone who is experienced and has had success; someone who is experienced with music and can correlate the drill to the music; someone who knows how to write a show that gives the students something to reach for; someone who can write drills for groups with varying skill levels.”

Plenty of drill writers outside of Standing O would also fit those sorts of parameters. David Weinberg, owner and president of Omega Drill Designs in Mission Viejo, Calif., is one such writer. “I was given my first chance to write drill when I was 17,” Weinberg says. “Sid Viles was the director of the Whittier Cavaliers Youth Band. He saw that I had talent and asked me to write the Cavaliers opening drill. After being paid for the opener, I felt that this would become a business for me.” It has been a successful one.

There’s Jay Murphy, Myron Rosander, George Zingali and Michael Gaines, to name a few of the most well-known drill designers working today.

“We don’t wake up with the innate artistic mastery of the great drill designers of the world, but we can learn,” Turner says.

More Than Dots on the Field

They learn by doing. And how do they do it? Most all designers concur that open, strong communication is key between band director, drill writer, arranger, color guard coordinator and all the sundry band personnel. Also, knowing the music is key—backwards, forwards, inside out and right side up, documenting the impactful moments, understanding the crescendos and decrescendos of the music and then turning those points into movements and actions that could occur on the field.

From there? They write. It used to be done by hand (some traditionalists continue marking up paper with pencil dots and eraser marks), but many have embraced computer technology. Pyware is a program used by many of today’s top designers as is Raven Labs Field Artist.

“My career is in computer programming, but I have always been interested in music, and a lot of my software projects lead in that direction,” says Gary Miller, Raven Labs’ owner and president and a former trombone player for the Spring Valley High School Marching Band in Columbia, S.C.

His program has an intuitive visual interface that lets drill designers draw pictures, assign cast members to pictures and design a flow from one picture to the next. Show designs can be synchronized with music. There’s the ability to animate flag pins, rifle tosses and the like. In other words, designers create shows on a computer screen and print out crisp clean copies without those unsightly eraser marks and Wite-Out blots.

The Inside Job

Although there are many benefits to using a professional drill writer, many bands do it in-house. As Dr. Matthew J. Roeder, director of the Golden Buffalo Marching Band at the University of Colorado notes: “We know the band’s strengths and weaknesses, and through experience we have a direct knowledge of what has worked well for us in our specific situation in the past.”

James Hudson, director of athletic bands in the Herberger College School of Music at Arizona State University, concurs. “Who knows the students better than you?” he asks. “You know what they do well and what would be harder for them to do. You can also pace your visual program’s difficulty level, so the end of the year is a little harder than the beginning.”

The students themselves are the writers at Cornell University’s Big Red Marching Band. “We have a Show Committee who is responsible for writing drill for each of our four shows during the season,” says drum major Thomas Seery.

Writing rank drill by hand is no easy task. In 2006, one of the band members, a computer science major, created a program to write drill on computer. Writing drill in-house “gives the band a sense of ownership to each show we do,” Seery adds.

These shows included “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which had the band form a sea monster and a firing cannon while Jack Sparrow himself “killed” the dread pirate, who was portrayed by the drum major. “The crowd really enjoyed it,” Seery says.

For Love of the Show

It’s not only the audiences that enjoy the shows. The drill writers and arrangers do too. Jair Klarfeld is one such arranger and band director of the Clark High School Band in San Antonio. Formerly a member of the University of Oklahoma Marching Band, Klarfeld started arranging music by doing it for his own band. He’s since written hundreds of tunes. “I have been honored to have my arrangements performed by over 300 high school marching bands across the country as well as four university marching bands.”

Klarfeld arranges music with how it’ll look on the field when played, writing music with visuals in mind, being keenly aware of the flow and pacing of the particular show.

Key Poulan, one of the preeminent arrangers in the business, also sees the field when arranging. “Drill writing should reflect the music, and the music should reflect the drill,” Poulan states simply.

Poulan is formerly a member of the powerhouse Lindale (Texas) High School Band under the direction of Butch Almany, Dr. Jerry Payne’s band in Marshall, Texas, and the All-Senior Honor Band at East Texas State University (ETSU) under the direction of Director of Bands James Keene. Upon seeing ETSU’s corps-style marching band, “I was forever hooked on the power and musical variety that could be presented on the field!” Poulan says.

From a budding arranger who lifted “Star Wars” music off an 8-track player, Poulan has written countless arrangements and compositions. To name a few? Aaron Copland’s “3rd Symphony” (Westfield High School from Houston, Texas, played it in 1991 to win High Music at BOA Grand Nationals); Paul Hindesmith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis” (Spring High School won Grand Nationals with it); “The Rise and Fall of Rome” (Poulan’s #1 seller); “Pandora’s Box” and “Medusa.”

And all the hard work—the coordinating, the writing, the composing and arranging, the practice after practice— what does it give them? Pride in seeing success on the field, certainly. Matthew J. Roeder at the University of Colorado is most proud of “shows that not only provided a great connection to the music being played but also contributed to a positive response and reaction from performer and audience alike.”

And, of course, show arrangement makes a big difference in judges’ reactions too. “My ultimate goal is to write drill that is entertaining,” says Andersen of Evision Marching. “If you write drill that entertains, the judges appreciate it.”

Fackler of Creative Solutions, Inc. notes that Wando High School in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., has been undefeated at state since 2005, thanks, in part, to his drill writing.

Weinberg’s Santa Margarita (Calif.) Catholic High School, of which he was band director from 1997 to 2006, came from out of the shadows three years before to having an undefeated 2004 season, winning seven contests as well as the Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association Championship in the 3A division.

Yes, the winning is nice. But for professionals in the marching band business, it goes much deeper than that. “The journey is its own reward,” states Brad Pearson, arranger and composer of THG Music in Spokane, Wash.

That journey takes those writers to the ends of season after season, from the cool crisp kickoffs at Cornell’s Schoellkopf Field to the wet practice fields at the Pride of the Northwest competition in Oregon, to the blazing hot stadium packed for football at Arizona State University to the vaunted fields of Texas.

Notes Stein from Standing O: “At the end of the season, if the students have enjoyed the music I write for them and learned something from it, it is an incredibly rewarding feeling.”

About the Author

Jonathan Shipley hails from the great Pacific Northwest. His articles have been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and Lexus Magazine, among others. He has played the trombone since 5th grade and marched at Capital High School in Olympia, Wash., and the Washington State University Marching Band in Pullman.

Illustration by Erik Evensen. All rights reserved.

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