Growing the Guard

How educators strengthened their high school winter guard by starting a middle school program.

Dave Rohrer and Brian Prato, the director and visual caption head of the Carlisle (Pa.) High School Marching Band, were examining the roster numbers in the fall of 2005. “We have a problem,” they agreed.

Color guard recruitment had been low in the last couple of years, as few as two per incoming class, and next year’s senior class would graduate eleven. “Eleven out!,” they realized. “We’ll be devastated!”

Fortunately, Rohrer and Prato always search for opportunities in their situations. A similar office meeting over the travesty of their color guard closet inspired Prato to start a consignors’ network known as guardcloset.com, which at the time of this article had returned a total of $150,000 to participating programs. There was bound to be a boon on the other side of this obstacle as well.

Isolating the Reason

First, the educators needed to understand why participation in the guard program had dropped. Students hadn’t become more reclusive. In fact, students had become more involved. Participation in other sports had increased. What were the other sports doing that the marching band was not? They had vibrant middle school programs!

As anyone who has spent a number of years within a middle school or junior high structure knows, many adolescents make that internal decision about who they are going to be and what they are going to do in seventh or eighth grade. Rohrer, Prato and the Carlisle middle schools’ band directors, Mark Gray of Lamberton Middle School and Allen Roth of Wilson Middle School, wanted to provide young adolescent students with another option beyond the traditional sports. Possibly, students would be interested in the color guard arts if they only knew about it.

Structure

The directors started simply. They announced an “all call” in the spring and early fall of 2006, inviting any sixth, seventh and eighth grade student from either Lamberton or Wilson to join the combined Middle School Parade Band as a Parade Guard. For $25, the students received their own weighted practice flag. They participated in four rehearsals, two parades and one football game exhibition that the band was already involved in. Their fee included instruction of the basic skills (drop spins, pull-hits and carves) on both hands.

Due to the encouraging turnout for the Parade Guard, the seventh and eighth graders were invited to create the Middle School Indoor Guard. They could start right away since everyone already owned their own flags, and they continued to improve on the basics that they had learned in Parade Guard. They rehearsed two nights a week, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

The designer of the high school color guard show agreed to design the middle school show. Two recent graduates of the high school guard became the instructors of the middle school guard. A volunteer mother completed the team. “You can’t underestimate the importance of the volunteer mother,” Prato says.

The mom acted as an assistant director, but with a kinder face. During early-morning rehearsals, she made sure that the guard participants began spinning right at 8 a.m., and she determined whether the occasional student who “felt under the weather” was actually sick or was just trying to get out of rehearsing. She also weighed in as a representative of the parents on such things as attendance policy.

The show design focused on achievability as the top priority, with elements aimed at the students’ ability level. For example, the students used only flags in the routine. Fun was also a big factor. It wasn’t about doing shows and effects the staff wanted to do; it was about creating something fun and achievable. “We’re not going to do Brahms’s ‘German Requiem’—because they feel cool spinning to Nelly Furtado,” Prato says.

Feeling confident is important at the middle school age, especially since the guard performed in front of the student body—twice. Show flags, uniforms and floors used the school color—in this case, green—giving the middle school guard a chance to show their school spirit as they performed at a pep rally and the student/faculty basketball game. “Having peers view the program was a big part of making the program grow,” Rohrer says.

Finances

Using school colors also allowed the guard to reuse props and equipment in the future. Since the girls own their own poles, the group purchased silks cheaply through guardcloset.com. In future years, those flags can be reintroduced. The cost of a middle school guard season can be as low as $250 to $500.

If you plan to compete, registration fees can be hundreds of dollars. Paying for a staff can be a major expense as well. Sometimes a young instructor just out of high school may be looking for experience and even teach the group for free. Borrowing equipment from the high school program can also help keep costs down.

Rehearsing and Performing

One of the major obstacles for a middle school indoor guard program can be the fight for gym time. This, however, did not become a problem for the Carlisle group. At first, the middle school guard participants only needed to practice their exercises in place; therefore, Prato recognized that the cafeteria was an adequate rehearsal space.

When possible, the middle school guard rehearses in a smaller gym next to the large gym used by the high school guard. “Middle school and high school interaction is a major key to the success of the program,” Rohrer says.

The groups’ body training and stretching programs were built on the same fundamentals, so the middle school and high school guards perform a warm-up routine together as often as possible. “The focus for the high school is endurance,” says Prato, “It’s the same body program. They’re just doing more reps of it.”

Ten girls signed up and participated fully in the first year of the Carlisle Middle School Indoor Guard. After the season ended, the Parade Guard, which included sixth graders, performed again for a Memorial Day parade. Watching the bond between the seventh and eighth graders as well as viewing the growth in their abilities must have made an impression on the sixth graders.

Now in their second year of existence, the guard has increased to 19 girls! Doubling participation in one year is a definite success at any level of education.

Now Rohrer and Prato are sitting in the office saying, “We’re not going to have enough low brass players in two years!” But that’s a story for another day.

If you are interested in starting a middle school guard program, look for more information at guardcloset.com or by e-mailing your questions to info@guardcloset.com.

About the Author

Chris Previc is a writer focused on education and the marching art form. He is the author of “The Student’s Guide to Marching” and an active contributor to MarchingEDU.com. The Jersey Surf, the Penn State Indoor Drumline, the Cadets, the London Cast of Blast!, the Concord Blue Devils and the Denver Blue Knights have all contributed to Chris’s marching education. Chris is currently working on a marching novel.

Photo by Brian Prato. All rights reserved.

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