When Winter Guard Left the Kitchen Table for the Board Room

debaseinstallFinancing the Marching Arts, Winter Guard

As of last weekend, the official start to the WGI regional season has begun. Before that though, guards started their season sometime back in August with the first drop spin on a football field or if you are an independent guard, the first press release announcing when auditions were. As an instructor, the regional is our way of figuring out if all the work was worth it. We do a lot of soul searching. We ask questions of ourselves. Where did we go wrong? Where did we go right? Is it really about the kids or are we happy, because we as grown adults have been validated by a panel of 5 who may or may not be the best at what they do. Still though, we have no problem justifying either way the score goes, be it good or bad.

I was in Houston this past weekend. It’s the first time I’ve been to an out of state regional representing a guard outside of Florida in a long time.  Being in Houston was interesting. As a consultant for a guard, I was able to sit back and just enjoy the day. Teach a little. Watch a little. Talk a lot.

2000px-MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg.png (2000×1414)I find regional’s an interesting test case of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s actually rather primal if you think about it and the more “actualized” you are, the more you are able to manage the stress. As least, that’s the best analogy I can come up with. Everyone faces it. Judges, Contest Staff, Hosts, Instructors, and Kids. I’ll be the first to admit that I would love to say I’m self actualized, but I’ve had my moments at a regional when I look at some volunteer sitting at check in and give her the stink eye, because she wanted me to wait for my entire unit, instead of just giving me my damn arm band so I could go to the bathroom. Those days, I’m glad to say are pretty much gone. Now I’m like, “Alright. I’ll just go and pee at the McDonalds next to the school. Some french fries sound good while I’m at it. I hope there’s a bar next to said McDonald’s” Whatever. Rules are rules.

It has been an interesting season so far. While WGI’s season just started last weekend, mine started last fall and will continue until Dayton…as did theirs. We forget sometimes that it’s not just the guards that plan all year; the show sponsors do as well. The circuits plan. The boosters plan. We’ve all been planning and it’s the first weekend in February where we all look at each other hoping the planning came together the way it should have. I’ve had a lot of conversations since the fall revolving around the concept of “where are we at as an activity?” It comes up everywhere. EVERYWHERE. In the stands. While judging. In critique. In the bar over cocktails. It comes up in rehearsals when we are trying to figure out what is it that really makes up an A class guard today. What is an intermediate or advanced skill? We’ll ask ourselves, “Are we A or Open?” Everyone is talking about where the activity is going. “Why does world class look the way it does? Do I like it? Should I?” I just wish these conversations were more public. There appears at times to be a secrecy to the conversations. Why, I don’t know. I was talking to someone this weekend and I said that my days teaching Independent World are most likely finished. Even the guards I’m involved with, if the day does come again that we reach World, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it. Making finals or not making finals doesn’t scare me. Trust me on that one. I simply don’t want to teach anyone over the age of 23. I just don’t. It’s not that I don’t like 30 year old performers, I just don’t want to do it. I think I have more to offer a 16 year wide eyed young person exploring the activity for the first time, than a late twenty something performer who has marched for over a decade in three or four different guards and drum corps. Some love being involved in the design process of World Class and others don’t. Some would rather coach kids and others would rather develop the art. Neither is right or wrong and neither makes someone more or less talented than the other. In these conversations, I realized that the problem we have as an activity is the split in philosophy. At the heart of our soul, some of us feel that we are first a youth based activity and second a competitive art based activity and others see it opposite.

I’m going to say this out loud and put my cards on the table. It’s something I wish more people would have the guts to do. I believe we are split as an activity and I believe that it will not get better until dialog, honesty, and humility become our mantra. Transparency is crucial to an activity trying to flourish like ours. People are being pulled in different directions and the secret text messages, public Facebook posts, and private bar room chats are a perfect example of it. There was a time many moons ago when you would hear stories of local circuits and even WGI counting the money from a show, while sitting at a kitchen table late at night hoping beyond hope that they at the very least broke even. I was teaching Shaktai, when it was the units that still hosted the regional’s. I remember watching Ron Comfort count money at 3 a.m., hoping the gamble to host a regional was worth it.

We have changed. We have grown. We did what we all hoped would happen. We have truly become an international activity. We no longer count the receipts at the kitchen table. We are corporate based with high end sponsors, a lot of rules, and a lot of processes. With every season comes a new rule…A new way of doing things, but I’m not sure what the thinking should be or if we are on the same page with that thinking. Personally, I struggle to keep up. I’ve gotten to the point that I could care less how nationals is seeded or if we are going to have a black floor covering or tan one. I care about where we are headed and how we plan to get there. In the past decade, we grew faster as an activity than we ever did in the 30 years prior. There was a time we were smaller, people knew each other better, there were less guards, and at a regional you could smile and say hi to a judge without the judge or instructor feeling as if they had committed some major infraction. I get it. The more sophisticated we become, the more rules that must be in place. People though, a lot of people actually, miss those days. We know we can’t go back, but many of us are trying to figure out how to have a marriage between the kitchen table and the board room.

Technology has changed the way we teach and judge. It has changed how shows are run and when there is a technology breakdown, all systems come to a halt. However, we know that there’s no going back. Two weeks ago I judged in a local circuit and we laughed about the days you would get 50 tapes on two prongs and got excited as the night would go on and as the tapes became less and less. We know those days are gone and thank God for it. However, we still miss the sense of communication and togetherness.

Our split as an activity though, is not about technology or the fact that things happen at shows beyond the control of anyone’s best intentions. We are split, because we are wondering how to hold on to the youth based, training base aspect of the activity, while embracing the growth of the art. I’ve worked my entire career in the nonprofit sector. I’ve seen nonprofits grow so fast that it fractures the organization and within that fracture is a loss of staff, volunteers, and oftentimes money. I’ve seen organizations have what’s called mission creep. When I consult with nonprofits and see mission creep, I ask them if that’s the direction they really want to go. I tell them that the money might be good, but they could lose their core base and the public attention might not be worth it. I ask them to be methodical in the communication process and strategic in how quickly or slowly they move. There have been a number of significant changes in the past 15 years or so that took us from color guard to international pageantry. We added percussion. We eliminated age outs. We added winds. None of it’s bad, but with every significant addition, there has to be the infrastructure in place both nationally and locally to truly manage it and I see that we are at times functioning with a corporate mentality, but a kitchen table approach…hence problems at regional’s that cause people to talk.

I spent last night looking around the web. I went on probably 10 different circuit websites give or take, as well as WGI’s website. I read the mission statement of each organization…if I could find it. Want to know what I found? About half of the organization’s don’t mention the word “youth” in their mission. That is significant and it’s huge. I make a living out of reading mission statements of nonprofits, because the mission is the core of what you’re about. So I realized something. We are split as an activity, because we all didn’t move in the same direction together. Is it the kids or the competitive pageantry? Is it both? It can be. WGI’s mission statement doesn’t mention the word “youth” at all, but it classifies itself as a “nonprofit  youth organization” in its “About” section. Does that matter? Some would say it’s just semantics. As someone who works for a funder of youth services, the word “youth” damn well be in the mission somewhere. Some mission statements I reviewed mention education, while some don’t. Some mention competition, while others don’t. What struck me, was how “youth” was not a recurring theme that ran through all of them. North Texas actually had a great sentence in their mission and it included all stakeholders, such as band directors and parents. That was refreshing to see.

Does all this matter? Hell yes it does! It matters, because that’s where the split in mindset is coming from. Some of us see our jobs as youth coaches, while others see their jobs as a financial venture to offer performers the opportunity to be successful in this wonderful and creative art. Neither are wrong and you can actually do both at the same time. We just have to recognize that there are two sides to this. There are kids involved in this activity and this activity costs a lot of money and manpower. There are people making a lot of money from those kids and off the backs of their parents. I’m not just talking here about WGI or consultants of programs. The money is also made by costume companies, equipment sales, and travel agents. This isn’t new to youth sports by any means. Just look at little league baseball. Millions of dollars are funneled through little league baseball. Corporate sponsorship, private coaches, and travel teams changed the sport forever. They’ve learned to adapt, but it took a long time and there are people in that world who are still unhappy about it, because with the corporate sponsorship’s came a loss of community based baseball.

In what I see in my participation in the activity as a judge and consultant, are a lot of young instructors struggling to survive in an era that’s very different than when I was their age. Risk management is a lot different now then it was when I was a twenty something. For example, I wasn’t background checked when I taught in the early 90’s, but now we are all background checked, because a little girl was kidnapped and Penn State hosted a youth camp where boys were molested in the showers. When I came up in the activity, the design wasn’t as sophisticated, so I could spend more time thinking about the program and technique. Things have changed, but we don’t always address those changes and the impact it has at the local level. Some people think it’s WGI’s responsibility as the “premiere” pageantry organization to lead the charge for this new movement of pageantry. Some believe it’s the circuit’s job and instructor education should occur at the local level. Some feel that it’s the programs themselves that should take their own responsibility, thus making this a true dog eat dog world. Whatever the answer, there are a lot of opinions on this right now and organizations are working against each other without maybe even realizing it.

This is what I would do if I were in charge. I would pull every mission statement of every circuit and color guard that had one and look at them for consistency. I would look to see how far apart or how close together we are in our thinking. I would ask through well conceived survey’s of director’s and circuit boards, where it is they see the activity headed and how they would go about it. I would get feedback. I would send a survey out to every judge, every director, every WGI staff member after every regional and start tracking what went right and what went wrong. Take the fear and ego out of it and carefully analyze what is working and what is not and just because a show on the front end ran well and the scores were just perfect, does not mean everything ran well for all involved. A well structured survey might identify that the staff of a guard did not read their packets and let’s be honest; that’s their own damn fault. However, if we know that enough young guard instructors don’t know to read a packet or how to really read through the packet, then that’s where we start the education process and this was just a simple basic example. If through the survey’s we find out that everyone was pissed off at the sound system, such as the case in Houston, then the surveys give a good outlook on how to manage public relations so the gossip is stopped in its tracks. By the way, I would do this at the local level as well.

To think that we as an activity are not on different pages is naive and if we are truly in this for the kids, then we owe it to them to figure out how we went from the kitchen table to the board room and what that really means for the next 30 years of the activity. There are ways for most everyone to get what they want. We can go international, make money, and keep a side of the activity that is truly based on the competitive aspect of pageantry for those that want to win and keep the youth side for those that just want to stay local and build a little guard program that attends one or two regional’s a year. We can do this. We just have to acknowledge it first and for the love of God…we’ve got to have open dialog with open minds and open hearts.