On Being A Great Tech

debaseinstallCoaching With Intent, Training and the Technician

What is a good tech? What is a great tech? How do you define it? How do you know you are in the presence of a technician who can not only clean a phrase, but who can command a rehearsal simply by the tone of their voice and the manner in which they carry themselves? It’s not an easy question to answer. The discussions on technicians are skimmed over in relationship to the discussions we have on designers.
This question came up twice in the past two weeks for me. The first was during a post show judging chat with a fellow judge, who is starting to feel that training and technique might be a left over concept from a bygone era. The second was this past Sunday while watching Ron Comfort conduct a rifle block at Paradigm. I’ve taught with Ron for almost two decades. Ron moved into design quite a while ago, so it’s been a long time since I’ve seen him in front of a rifle line covering spins and tosses. I watched him in awe and I couldn’t stop watching him as he didn’t just teach spins, he commanded that rifle line like a general commanding his troops as they advanced toward battle. How did he do it? What did he say? Well let me tell you. It wasn’t what he said, because teaching spins isn’t rocket science. My 6 year old son could most likely learn to say start on time and keep the tempo. What Ron did however, is raise the level of expectation. He demanded excellence and wouldn’t tolerate laziness. He addressed posture by simply standing up straight while he taught. His voice tone was commanding and demanding. He never raised it. No one escaped his critical eye as he constantly moved from one corner of the block to the other. Starts and stops, tempo control, release points, aggressive catches, were all up for grabs in a Ron Comfort rifle block. Drops? Don’t even think about it. The performers were intimidated and should have been. He wasn’t there to be their friend. He was there to make them great and his expectation was that they would be. In one hour, the tosses improved by almost 100%. One hour! 
So how does Ron do it? Has he always been this way? The answer is simple. Ron comes from a long line of great techs from the State Street Review and Madison Scouts. He carries with him old time technical concepts. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Don’t move. Don’t fidget. Stand up straight. Look at the audience. Wrap your thumb. Release on time. Catch on time. Subdivide. Don’t complain. Stop whining. It’s not what he says to the guard, it’s the attitude. Let’s repeat. IT’S THE ATTITUDE! 
So what separates a good tech from a great tech? 
Well, it starts with what I call the five, “Not In My Program,” behaviors. 
  • Sitting Down While You Teach
Have you ever seen this? A colorguard is standing in a basics block. The tech has some loud device to keep tempo and they are sitting in front of the block, on the ground, keeping tempo. They will say something inane like, “Mary, why are you late on count 1,” while they have to lift their head from the ground to say it. I always want to say, “Well, maybe if you would stand up, Grand Master Tech and teach from a vertical position, Mary would care more about her starts and stops.
  • Eating French Fries While The Guard Does Push Ups
Mixed messages. A great tech rarely sends mixed messages exercise vs. fattening food is a mixed message. It also creates an air of superiority that the kids won’t respect.
  • Control of Time. 
How about this one? It’s March 5th. The Power Regional is NEXT WEEKEND!  Grand Master Tech has decided that instead of cleaning the flag feature, which is the biggest GE moment in the show and is let’s say…88 counts long and gets a huge crowd response upon the catch of the crazy behind the head upside down toss. The tech decides to clean the three girls in the back doing a heel stretch somewhere in the beginning of the show. Not understanding where you are in the season and the impact of each moment in relationship to the score is paramount in separating the good techs from the great ones.
  • Not Having Read the Sheets, Watched Your Competitors and Listened to Your Audio Files 
Being a tech doesn’t stop in rehearsal. It involves massive amounts of preparation. Being prepared to teach to the sheets, speak to judges, and run a productive critique is a huge part of it. A pet peeve of probably every judge I have ever worked with has to be the instructor who comes into critique to debate a comment or score, never having seen their competitors (on that day), read the sheets or listened to ALL of their audio files. A good tech will let ego dictate the critique. A great tech will let preparation guide informative dialog.
  • Put the Cell Phones Down
This simply goes without discussion.
So back to Ron Comfort. What really makes him great? What are the tricks of the trade? 
The first is to understand that being a good tech is not about cleaning phrases. That’s part of it, but cleaning is probably the smallest part of teching a program. In all honesty, most people can clean a phrase. Being a great tech is taking into account the following:
  • The age and skill level of your performers
  • Knowing where your performers are starting and the reality of where you can take them
  • Time in rehearsal
  • Time of the year
  • Knowing when to train and when to clean
  • Knowing that the body runs throughout every caption
  • Knowing how to embellish a phrase without bastardizing the choreography
  • Knowing the intent of the design
  • Understanding the true purpose of stamina and fatigue
  • Understanding muscle control and body control
  • Commanding rehearsal, without ego
  • Knowing the purpose of your basics program and how it relates back to the show
  • Knowing how to clean both body and equipment and performance and staging…without changing the intent of the design!
  • Keeping a good relationship with your designer. Asking them questions such as, “What was your motivation here?’ 
  • Communicating frequently with the design staff of what you see and where the kids are at
  • Being able to create a positive relationship with those that judge you
  • Knowing if you are cleaning to blend, cleaning to survive, or cleaning to win. 
  • Knowing when to stop and give it a rest
  • Knowing when you don’t know
I learned something a long time ago. There are moments in every season and in every show when I simply don’t know how in the world to explain a skill to a performer. Sometimes I can’t figure out what to take out or what to keep in. It’s natural and admitting that you don’t know will save time and possible points.
Being a great tech also involves consistently asking yourself if your performers have the skills to survive in someone else’s program. Could they go on once they leave your program?  As an independent instructor, I would ask you to really look at that question. I have had performers audition for my guards who came from scholastic medalist programs, who couldn’t throw a basic flag toss or rifle quad properly. They didn’t know how to leap or turn, but yet there they stood with “medalist” on their audition application. Maybe we are seeing more of this as the activity moves further from just sport and more toward art. 
Being a great tech is hard and to be honest, there are fewer out there than we actually need. Techs are not a dime a dozen, but more like a true handful that can take a guard from average to spectacular. When I look back on my colorguard career, I don’t see a person who did it right all the time. Some of my cleanest colorguards were my biggest failures. Sometimes, the guards that seemed like a competitive mess were my greatest success stories. It’s a learning process and just because you can teach a 14 year old to throw a toss turnaround, catch with their eye lashes, and smile afterward, does not make you a great tech. It makes a great skills coordinator. A great tech can take that 14 year old who can now catch with her eyelashes and blend her with the ensemble. They can embellish that eyelash catch by adding a brief pause (breath) afterwards to give the audience a chance to respond to the greatness of her skill. A great tech will expect her to do it right more than not, or they will not fear taking it out. A great tech, will make sure that the 14 year old is not taxed from that skill and allow her to succeed with it, by removing her from other parts of the show if necessary. 
It’s a difficult to be a great tech, but as marching band season winds down and winterguard season starts up, I encourage all of us (even the dinosaurs like me) to train our kids to not just survive, but to succeed. Give them the skills and opportunity to be great at the show that has been given to them.