Marching solutions, part 1: The building blocks of marching

by Stuart Rice

This is the first in a series of articles that Stuart Rice will write about marching techniques for Drum Corps World.

Marching is a natural act — simple, unrefined actions we do every day. Standing. Lifting. Walking. Starting, stopping and changing direction. Our bodies were made for this. But few of us have a very attractive or efficient walking style; we take it for granted. The flaws in posture and movement we have learned over the years are obstacles to good marching. We cannot refine any style of marching without refining the building blocks of marching we use every day.

Communicating through movement and stepping in unison are also timeless, natural human behaviors. Watch any two or more people walking steadily down the street, side by side, and you will see them walking in step. If their strides do not match exactly due to preference or height, one of them will often walk four strides to the other’s five, or maybe 3:4, 5:6, and so on.

Marching is how we seek harmony and economy of movement. Physiologists have found that our own finger taps and heartbeats have a tendency to synchronize with our strides, and vice-versa. They call this “entrainment.” Sociologists studying our behavior found that protest marchers are better at staying in step and maintaining intervals than local marching bands. They call this “collective locomotion.”

Walking and marching in formation is an instinct. But we struggle to maintain straight lines and “clean” formations — even to stay in step. What compromises these instincts?

Our challenge is not just technique and execution. An ensemble’s understanding of transitional movement from set to set is also important. The way we write drill dictates how we teach and rehearse that.

We practice making pictures on the field — pictures that dictate the movement, instead of vice-versa. When we teach through pictures, any awareness or learning about transitional movement by students in incidental. We can draw the pathways, or even provide terms and arrows that describe and point out the way, but it is the picture — not the marching — that we need make everything right. Technique (stride and direction) becomes our obsession — our only hope for clean ensemble execution.

“Designs,” or pictures of formations drawn on paper, are “picture-show” drills. “Picture show” drill has been popular among colleges since the 1920s — letters, objects and other recognizable formations presented through the most convenient transition. We’ve developed some pretty creative “picture shows” since the 1920s. We can identify, describe and even illustrate some transitions without starting and ending shapes. But in the end, these transitions are still dictated by the motionless pictures we draw (the “picture show”) and not by the language of choreographed marching — movement.

As long as the execution of our transitions depends on the pictures that begin and end them, we will be forever slaving over the process of “cleaning” drill. We will be making pictures instead of learning how to march choreography with clarity and control.

What would happen if we could understand and speak the language of movement that shapes our transitions? What if we were taught to march this language, with or without regard for the beginning and ending formation? What would a noun, verb, or adjective look like? Would a “sentence” of movement make sense? Could we tell stories through movement? We can when we learn to choreograph marching.

But our first responsibility is the experience and health of marching. Our marching must develop the body. We must work harder to eliminate swayback (excess curvature of the lower spine), which is partly a consequence of the way we lift and compensate for instrument weight. The quality of our individual movement can always have more clarity and control. Each step, first to last, can be taken with balance and alignment.

We must also strive for a better understanding of what we’re doing. To march choreography, rather than pictures, we must study execution inside (technique) and outside (choreography). We must establish a heritage of training with education. Regardless of our personal opinion of the state of the art, there is always room for improvement, and education is the key.

Walking is our most recognized, researched and healthy form of exercise. If we will study and practice principles of good walking, we may be able to say the same of marching someday. Marching can be the healthy exercise that develops body and mind over the lifespan — the exercise our sedentary society is searching for. It is not just exercise for which our body was built. Marching is also a heritage that has bonded our race through its most trying moments, an art that teaches understanding and communication through interpersonal space. The world needs choreographed marching, and drum corps is uniquely qualified to provide it.

The doorway to the solution is recognition of the problem. I’ve outlined the problems and solutions I’ve seen in today’s marching. I will not point out a problem in this series of articles without providing a solution. As you read about these topics in the months to come, I encourage you to recognize and study the problems you see in marching. You may not agree with the solution or even recognize the problem. However, we can agree that many of these problems are real, and the solutions presented here really work. If nothing else, they may help you refine our own style and seek your own solutions.

In the articles that follow, we will study marching from the bottom of the feet to the top of the press box: upright standing, controlled marching, clarity in speed and direction changes, approaches to choreography that accelerate the development of execution and related exercises as space provides. Standing and posture will be presented in the next issue of Drum Corps World.