Guest artists provide marching bands with a way to spice up their halftime shows. How can your ensemble incorporate a special appearance into an already complicated game day to take the performance to the next level?
In its 2016 season, the University of Michigan Marching Band performed hit Broadway tunes such as “I Got Rhythm,” “All That Jazz,” and “Defying Gravity” with members of the school’s musical theatre department. The show was a clear deviation from the norm, and the crowd noticed.
“We’re always challenging ourselves to reach and entertain as many of the audience members [as possible],” says Dr. Andrea Brown, associate director of the Michigan Marching Band. “We’re trying to keep as many of those people in their seats during halftime instead of going to the concessions stand.”
With the following tips from individuals involved in successful collaborations, you too can create a special performance experience that will not be forgotten any time soon.
Capitalize on Your Network
Although performing with a guest is a memorable experience, securing an artist is no easy feat. “It’s a quite involved process, and it takes a lot of work and time,” admits Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
Each year, the Liberty Bowl invites a nationally known performing artist to take the field with honored high school marching bands from across the country.
To simplify the process, reach out to your largest asset—your connections. “Usually, there needs to be a connection already existing for a guest artist,” says Brett Padelford, public relations director for the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band.
Noted guests of the Trojan Marching Band range from Slash to Fleetwood Mac to Jason Derulo.
But the form this connection takes can vary depending on your circumstances. Before entertainers took the world by storm, many had to hit the books. It’s likely that some notable people call your school their alma mater, and your program can take advantage of this affiliation. For instance, Dexter Holland, lead singer of rock group The Offspring, received several degrees and pursued his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at the University of Southern California, giving the marching band an “in” to perform with him back in 2002.
In addition to alums, you can also capitalize upon the oft-renowned faculty your school employs. In 2011, the world-famous trumpet player Allen Vizzutti, an artist in residence at the University of South Carolina at the time, performed during halftime with the school’s Mighty Sound of the Southeast.
“What was really cool about this show was that we had a different entrance than usual; our usual entrance is us lining up and marching from the sidelines and sometimes end zones,” says Chase Harding, a drum major in the show. “However, this one was a Latin-themed show, so Vizzutti and James Ackley—our trumpet professor—and six trumpet students all performed the calling of the bulls, and we ran out of the tunnel that the team runs out of. We essentially chased our mascot, Cocky, who held up a big paper mache bull head!”
Meanwhile, in 2015 the Michigan Marching Band was joined by the New York Philharmonic brass section, already in Ann Arbor for a residency with the university, to perform standards including Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy.”
Even if your school doesn’t have notable alumni or faculty to draw upon, there are still other ways to secure a guest artist, such as a great location. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl, located in Memphis, Tennessee, capitalizes upon its location in the self-proclaimed birthplace of rock ’n’ roll to attract top acts such as B.B. King, The Beach Boys, and The Temptations for its halftime spectacular. “The music legacy here in Memphis is unbelievable,” Ehrhart notes.
To ensure that your performance with many moving parts goes off without a hitch, “communication is incredibly important, early and a lot,” Brown says.
Depending on the situation, you may communicate directly with the artist, through a record company, or with a manager or press representative. In many cases, your school—particularly the athletic department—should also be in the loop; after all, Padelford notes, “ it’s their field.”
Brown also notes that the early coordination of music and staging is key to a successful collaboration. “You want the guest to be in a prominent position on the field,” she notes.
If the guest requires equipment on the field, the drill writer will need to consider this setup. “The drill writer needs to think of [the artist’s equipment zone] as a prop area that the band can’t march through,” Brown says.
The guest artist should also have ample rehearsal time with your program to work out any kinks before the performance. Padelford recounts a collaboration in which the guest artist had never worked under a conductor before. Upon the band’s realization of this fact, the guest had to be taught on the spot how to follow a director before the performance could take place. If the band had not set aside substantial time to rehearse with the guest, the end result could have been much less successful.
Many times, guest artists may not have an understanding of the nuances of marching bands. “Those of us that are in this pageantry world, we’re used to how the marching band works, but even though marching bands have lots of fans on the outside, people don’t necessarily understand all the intricacies of that,” Brown says. “You have to remember that you can’t assume an artist, even if they’re a musician, understands totally the process of what the marching band goes through when preparing the show.”
Clarify Wants and Needs
In 2005, singer George Clinton joined the University of Southern California for a memorable halftime performance, but the day’s festivities were not all smooth sailing. Previously unknown to the program, Clinton would not perform without first having a special drink, leaving band staff scrambling to an off-site grocery store during the first half of the game to fulfill his request.
As the Trojan Marching Band learned the hard way, misunderstandings may occur leading up to or on the day of the performance. A contract clarifying expectations can help minimize these issues and ensure you’re adequately prepared for whatever your guests may require. “You don’t want to have them showing up, and you not be prepared for what their needs are,” Padelford says.
As everything an artist requests represents an expense that your program must cover, you should clarify between what the artist may claim to need—such as the infamous bowl of green-only M&M’s—and what is actually required, such as audio equipment. “Obviously, a marching band isn’t going to have the same resources that an arena will have,” Padelford says. “The technical stuff is one thing, but the luxuries are another.”
Spread the Word
Having a guest artist perform with your band is a rare opportunity to expose your program to sections of the population not normally interested in the marching arts. “For us, it has to do with the quality of the show combined with crowd appeal,” Brown says.
To maximize its viewing potential, try to schedule the special performance during a high-stakes game, such as during your school’s rivalry match, Homecoming, or parent weekend. “Especially for marquee games, we want to have some kind of special guest out there, either via video or on the field,” Padelford notes.
In the week preceding the performance, your program as well as your school’s public relations department should publish a press release revealing details of the collaboration. Social media is also useful to get the news out about your performance prior to the day’s festivities. “Being able to put [the collaboration] on social media and YouTube and being able to reach people outside your community to get eyes to your program” is meaningful, Padelford notes.
Additionally, if not cost-prohibitive, a videographer should be on hand the day of the performance and possibly during the rehearsal process to document the special occasion. To capitalize upon the excitement of the event, a video chronicling the experience should then be compiled and released as soon as possible. “You don’t want the buzz to die down,” Padelford says.
Sometimes an artist’s schedule won’t mesh with that of your ensemble, making it impossible for the guest to perform in person with your group. But that doesn’t mean that you cannot still incorporate the guest into your group’s performance.
Consider the magic of technology. In 2013, Pearl River Community College’s Spirit of the River Marching Band capitalized upon its famed alum Jimmy Buffett of “Margaritaville” fame in a halftime show. Although Buffett was unable to attend the school’s football game, he provided the band with voiceovers to announce songs throughout the show.
Similarly, guest artists regularly introduce the Trojan Marching Band’s halftime shows via video screen as was the case in 2014 and 2015 when Angelina Jolie and Mark Hamill respectively introduced shows paying homage to their upcoming movies “Unbroken” and “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” These remote collaborations spice up a halftime show without the added logistics of in-person guests, resulting in a win-win situation for all involved.
In the end, adding a guest artist to an already busy game day is no simple task regardless of the form the collaboration takes. Yet the payoff is more than worth the work. “No one knows how much trouble went into getting the artist on the field,” Padelford says. “How fun it is for the kids in the band to be able to play with these artists is what totally makes it worth it.”