Surviving Color Guard Auditions: What I Wish All My Rookies Knew

I enjoy audition season. The season is full of promise, the weather is (usually) beautiful, and I get to introduce people to one of my abiding passions: Throwing things in the air and catching them while also dancing.

I believe everyone should try color guard at least once. I also understand that color guard is not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s what auditions are for.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking about trying out for color guard or winterguard. Maybe you already signed up for auditions and are wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into.

First, breathe. Auditions can be a lot of fun, especially if you show up prepared. Here’s what I wish all my new and returning members kept in mind before Day 1 of tryouts.

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#1: The Couch is Not Your Friend.

Every year, I have people come to auditions having done nothing all summer except sit on the couch. A summer of lazing around, as nice as it feels, is the worst possible preparation for color guard or winterguard tryouts.

Whether you have three months or three days left until your audition, make it a point to get up and move every single day. Go for a walk, a run, or a swim. Do a strenuous chore like gardening. Put on some music and dance around your bedroom. Look up “tabata workouts” or “HIIT workouts” on YouTube.

Anything you do is going to to help you in tryouts (and the entire season).

If you’re completely out of ideas, here’s the conditioning program I use with my guards. We do it in pairs, but you can modify it to your needs.

A Sample Conditioning Program

In this program, you’ll alternate cardio exercise with strength-training exercises.

  • Cardio: Choose a space where you can run laps, jump rope, do jumping jacks, or run in place – whatever gets your heart rate up. Do this for about 2 minutes.
  • Strength: You’ll alternate between push-ups, planks, and squats/lunges (your choice).

Start with 2 minutes of cardio. Switch to 2 minutes of push-ups. Do two more minutes of cardio, followed by two minutes of planking. Finish with two minutes of cardio, followed by two minutes of squats/lunges.

Over time, you’ll find that your cardio endurance is better and that you can do more reps of each strength exercise with shorter rest periods.

#2: Read the Handbook. I’m Begging You.

Not all guards have a guard handbook. Mine do. If your guard has a handbook or a contract or any other kind of handout (digital or paper), please, please read it. 

The handbook covers the things I don’t want to have to repeat twice for every member of the guard – but that I absolutely will have to repeat if y’all don’t read the handbook. Reading the handbook is so important to me that I actually give bonus points in auditions if I can tell the members read it.

If you want to read our guard handbook, it’s here: Comstock Colorguard Handbook 2020-2021 [pdf].

#3: Dress for (Audition) Success.

I generally give people a pass on their outfit for the first tryout, especially since they haven’t even seen the handbook yet, as a rule. By the second tryout, dressing in a way that hinders your performance is a problem; if you’re still doing it by the time you’re actually on the team, I absolutely will put you behind a prop.

For auditions, dress in clothing that allows you to move easily and that is comfortable. Colorguard auditions will demand all your mental focus. You do not want your clothes or shoes to distract you in any way.

I recommend:

  • Athletic shoes – sneakers or split-sole dance sneakers, if you have them. No sandals, flip-flops, or dress shoes. You want your foot entirely covered, and you want to be able to move easily.
  • Leggings or athletic shorts. Denim limits your range of motion, plus it’s gross when you sweat into it. Leggings are often ideal, but athletic shorts can be a good choice for hotter weather.
  • T-shirt or tank top, plus a long-sleeved top. Outdoor rehearsals can be subject to weird weather, so bring a layer.
  • Sunglasses and/or a hat. Both of these can improve visibility.
  • Sunblock. An absolute must. Don’t be the person who flunks out of auditions because you’re in too much pain from a sunburn to continue.
  • Water jug or bottle. Get the biggest one you can find. Mine is a half-gallon, and I usually refill it twice during an 8-hour day of band camp.

If your program gives you the chance to acquire colorguard gloves before auditions, get them. They make everything easier, especially rifle.

In addition to packing along your sunblock, a snack, and your water container, I recommend bringing a writing utensil. They always end up being useful at tryouts and nobody ever seems to have one. Extra hairties often make you popular as well.

#4: Pack Your Mental Bag.

Your choice of clothing and items to bring to band camp help you stay comfortable and focus – but what you focus on is what will lead to success at tryouts (or not).

While every guard program prioritizes slightly different traits in its members, as a rule, you’ll succeed in any guard program if you:

  • Stay curious about your own learning. Everything you learn can always be done better. The more engaged you stay with the process of learning, the happier you’ll be and the better you’ll be at the skills you’re taught.
  • Accept correction and apply it – whether or not it’s addressed to you. Accepting correction is hard, yet you’ll do it for your entire guard career. I’ve been spinning since 1996, and I still sign up for clinics every year just so I can take correction from world-class instructors. Accept it as your coach’s attempt to help you become better and apply it – even if it’s directed at the group generally or another individual in the block.
  • Listen more than you talk. Listen much more than you talk. Talking is generally a waste of time and an annoyance during rehearsal; save it for breaks.
  • Compare yourself to yourself – and no one else. Generally speaking, the judges at auditions aren’t looking for technical perfection. We’re looking for teachability and improvement. As long as you spin better today than you did yesterday, you’re succeeding.

One of the biggest secrets of guard is that “talent” isn’t really a thing in our world. Scratch the surface of any “talented” guard member and you’ll find years of hard work. Nobody rolls out of their cradle able to spin a flag; everyone who does it well has done it for hundreds of hours.

Be mentally present and try your best, and you’ll be ahead of half the people at the audition.

#5: Don’t Try to Hide.

New people always gravitate toward the back of the block at tryouts. Always. You can find the rookies by going to the last line of the block and watching those people spin.

New people hanging out in the back is so common that the guard world even has a name for them. We call them “Back-Row Bettys.”

Don’t be a Back-Row Betty. You don’t have to jump into the very front line unless you want to (some people find it helps their concentration), but do try to get near the front. Most instructors will make the front and back lines switch several times anyway, so it doesn’t do you any good to hide – you’ll be up front eventually like everyone else.

Instead, focus on learning the work as well as you can for yourself. Imagine that you’ll have to teach it to someone else. If you don’t get into the habit of following the person in front of you, you’ll never have to break that habit.

Bonus #6: Practice Between Tryouts.

If you’re allowed to take equipment home, or if you have your own equipment, please use it between tryouts.

There’s a difference between “rehearsal” and “practice” in the guard world. Rehearsal is when you get together with the rest of the guard and your instructor. You learn how your individual part fits with the rest of the team and with the band as a whole.

To fit your part in with everyone else’s at rehearsal, you need to know what your part is before you arrive. Preparing your own part is what you do in practice. 

Any evidence of improvement between tryout sessions, no matter how slight, is like gold to audition instructors and judges. We want to see it. We love to see it. That improvement tells us that you care enough about guard and about your own growth to work on your own – which means you are going to succeed in this sport.

Even if you don’t have equipment, practice what you can. Spin a broom or “air flag” the choreography. Do the dance or movement drills you covered in auditions.

Some Things That Won’t Help You In Auditions and May Actually Make Things Worse

If you do the six things listed above, you’ll be in great shape to make the team. You’ll be in even better shape if you avoid a few things, too.

Here’s what not to waste your time on – it won’t help, and it may make things harder for you:

  • Watching a lot of YouTube videos. Yes, they’re fascinating. But every instructor teaches technique a little differently, and every element in guard has multiple different names. Take a few weeks to understand how your group handles technique before you start comparing it to other instructors online. Otherwise, you might end up having to un-learn how to do things – which takes twice as long as learning it.
  • Buying or using your own equipment unless you know exactly how your instructor wants it assembled. I don’t see this very often, but it has happened: A new person will show up having already bought their own flag or rifle – or worse, borrowed one from “back when Grandma/Mom/Auntie was in guard.” Chances are excellent that you have the wrong item, or it’s weighted wrong, or something else is going on that will hold you back if you use it. If you want your own equipment, ask the instructors for exactly what they recommend, and buy that.
  • Trying to be someone you’re not. In auditions, judges are looking for people who make good additions to the team, not just people who spin well. Being anyone but yourself will distract and exhaust you. We can tell you’re too insecure to be yourself, and we can tell that it hurts your skill development. That’s two strikes in the “no thanks” column.

Show up ready to work and try your best, and you’ll be well on your way to joining the worldwide guard family.

See you on the field/floor!


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Today’s Sanity Level: Bananaphone

Our winterguard state championships were scheduled for yesterday. They were, of course, cancelled.

In the spirit of getting together apart, we (the members and staff) decided to create our own winterguard shows. Since the staff do this professionally, we decided to do the most ridiculous ideas we could find.

(I hope. That’s what I did, anyway.)

Performing their 2021 show “Bananaphone,” Winter Guard International is proud to present….

bananaphone

Music

The name kind of gives it away:

“Bananaphone” will be a Regional A show, since it’s both (a) ridiculous and (b) not long enough to be used in any other caption.

Floor

Since no one gave me a budget, I’m getting custom everything for my brand-new guard performing silly work on multiple pieces of equipment. As we all know, high production values totally make WGI judges ignore bad technique!

(Note for non-winterguard readers: The above is sarcasm. Nothing makes WGI judges ignore cringey technique. Especially not in Regional A, the literal training class.)

Anyway, did you know that “banana phone” stock photography exists? It does! Here’s what I’m getting printed on our amazing custom bananaphone floor:

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Minus the watermark, of course. And we’ll need to expand the sides, since we’re getting a 60 by 90 floor to accommodate all 30 of the performers I will definitely have once word about this once in a lifetime show theme gets around.

Also, you can expect a sort of “confetti” effect over the whole thing, once all my brand-new guard members are done marking every single spot in their drill with their very own color of electrical tape.

Does this banana phone look kind of like a tampon to you?

I’m sure it’s fine.

Props/Sets

Props and set pieces are my nemesis. I never know what I want or what I want to do with it once I have it.

But every good budget-breaking show needs ridiculous quantities of unnecessary props, so I Googled “banana props.”

We are SO getting these banana couches:

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Also, WHY. WHY DOES THIS EXIST.

I don’t care, we’re getting ten:

inflatable-mobile-phone

What are we going to do with the giant inflatable bananas and phones? No idea! In my world, that’s what we call “the choreographer’s problem.”

Equipment

Props are great and all, but it’s not winterguard unless we’re spinning regulation equipment.

I really wanted banana-colored Arcs, but since I can’t remember whether Arcs count as equipment (I know Airblades don’t), I’ve decided to throw some rifle wraps on and call it good.

Rifles that actually look like bananas seem a little on the nose, so we’re going with these stock wraps from McCormick’s:

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That leaves flags. Since nobody keeps a banana-print flag in stock (I know, I looked), I’m ordering custom flags with another stock photo image on them. Here are our ending feature flags:

Banana wallpaper (2)

And because I don’t want to hear any crap from the upstairs judges about why our floor is pink when nothing else is, the opening flags are going to alternate between the yellow and pink Genesis flags from Band Shoppe:

Uniforms

I expected costuming to take the longest of any of these. But then I was procrastinating on Facebook and I found this image from Beavercreek HS’s 2020 show:

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And I said, “THAT’S IT. THOSE ARE OUR UNIFORMS.”

Count Sheet

For the uninitiated: Every winterguard show starts with a count sheet. We listen through the music and conceive it in blocks of counts, which become the basis both of individual choreographic phrases and of the changes in staging, equipment, mood etc. from beginning to end.

Here’s my count sheet for Bananaphone:

Intro (16 cts): Entrance/dance thingy

Verse 1 and 2 (64 cts): Yellow flags (Group A), dance (Group B)

Verse 3 and Bridge (64 cts): Yellow flags (Group A), pink flags (Group B)

Instrumental (64 cts): Rifle & dance

Verse 4 (32 cts): Ending flag feature

Repeat & End: Mostly dance, some flags

Budget

I haven’t even tried to budget this. For a guard of thirty people, we’re probably looking at:

Large Custom Floor:   $2,000
Inflatable Nonsense:   $500
Rifle Wraps:                   $450
Stock Flags:                    $1,050
Custom Flags:                $1,050
Uniforms:                       $3,000

TOTAL:                              $8,050

Once we get done paying staff (because OF COURSE I’m going to pay well for the proper execution of this artistic vision), we’re well into the five figures, which is where I wanted to be. That trophy for “Most Overproduced Winterguard Show About Bananas” shall be mine!

….I’m being informed there is no such trophy.

Boo.


Both WGI and DCI 2020 aren’t happening, so if you wanted to help by buying me a coffee or sharing this post with your nerdy marching arts friends, I’d love that.

 

A Ten-Step Creative Process That Absolutely Works

Today in my Quora inbox:

What sort of approach or strategy do you most often use in your creative work as a writer, from the very early beginning stages and onwards?

I found this question baffling at first. Asking about “process” seems antithetical to creation itself. I don’t have a process! I channel the inspiration of the gods themselves!

Except I do, of course, have a process. All creatives do.

I can’t guarantee my process will work for anybody else. (Notice that the headline doesn’t say who “a ten-step creative process that absolutely works” works for.) I frequently disappoint aspiring creatives by regaling them with a discussion of my methods, only for them to list 5,000 ways those methods won’t work for them.

So your mileage may vary. Please consult the manual before driving. Do not feed this advice to babies or small children.

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Phase the Early: Ideas

Perhaps the most queried-after item in the whole “creativity” topic. Where do you get your ideas? How can I have more ideas? 

Step One: GET BORED.

Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from.

I took up running on the elliptical in order to get bored. I put a stationary bike in my basement so I can get bored. I’ll put my phone out in my car in 0F weather to force myself to get bored. I show up to dentist appointments an hour early to get bored.

It only takes a few minutes of boredom for my brain to start making up the most bizarre nonsense in order to alleviate its own boredom.

Step Two: MACBETH HATH MURDERED JUDGMENT.

All ideas at this stage are worth entertaining. No matter how truly terrible they are. In fact, the worst ideas are the most worth entertaining.

Last summer, I took several dance classes at the Music for All Summer Symposium with Vincent Thomas, who teaches at Towson University. We started every session with four agreements, the first of which was “To be full of my own value and free of judgment.”

Step Two is my “full of my own value and free of judgment” stage. If an idea comes up, I’ll play with it. The kookier the better.

Phase the Middle: Not-Terrible Ideas

The transition from the early to middle stage occurs when a single idea recurs enough times that I realize I’ve been thinking about it more than once. It doesn’t want to let go.

And since it won’t let go, it gets to move on to Step 3.

Step 3: JOT IT DOWN.

If an idea won’t go away, I write it down.

Writing it down tricks the idea into thinking I’m actually going to do something with it. The vast majority of ideas fall for this scam. They then get shoved into a closet, where I look at them once every 20 years.

The most persistent ideas, however, are too smart to fall for it. They keep coming back even after I’ve written them down. These ideas get to move on to Step 4.

Step 4: A LITTLE JUDGMENT IS OKAY.

I say “judgment,” but I mean “discernment.” This is where I start thinking about how the idea would work in practice.

What would the end result look like? What are the practical steps required for me to make it work? Is it worth the time and effort required?

Some ideas aren’t worth what I’d invest to do them. For instance, I have a long-pestering idea for some bathroom wall art made from repurposed pages of Moby-Dick (to do with my kraken shower curtain). But learning the skill to execute what’s in my head will take time and effort I’d rather spend on other things, like getting these novels out of my head.

Phase the Late: Making Art

If an idea survives steps 3 and 4, it gets one free ticket into the late stage.

Step 5: RESEARCH.

Step 4 is about whether the idea is feasible for me, personally and individually, to execute. Step 5 is about whether the idea is feasible within a broader social and economic context.

Is there a realistic marketable version of this idea, and if so, what does it look like? Is there some related topic or idea out there that is way cooler and more interesting? Are there 500 other artworks on this idea (hint: Yes! Always!), and what do they look/sound/feel like?

Step 5 is Wikipedia rabbit hole o’clock. I cram related creative works until I just can’t hold any more.

Step 6: OUTLINING/SKETCHING/NOODLING AROUND.

Now that I know WAY TOO MUCH ABOUT EVERYTHING related to this idea, what will my iteration look like for reals?

This is where I generate a bunch of really terrible proto-versions of the idea. Once again, judgment is locked out of the room. Quantity, not quality, is the goal here. 15 different marching band show ideas on the theme of “Angels”? 20 sketches of the same sleeping cat? Hell yeah, you can never have too many of those.

Step 7: REFINEMENT.

Write, draw, dance, polish, edit, repeat, repeat, repeat, whatever.

Blood is sweated, sweat is cried, tears are bled.

I become convinced that creating art in the first place was the worst idea I have ever had. Seriously, why can’t I just be a nice, boring insurance adjuster? O Muse, why dost Thou torment me so??!?!

This is the phase in which I start to question why I haven’t taken up a less self-destructive habit. Like skydiving. Or smoking opium.

Step 8. TENTATIVE PRESENTATION.

After blood, sweat, tears, and not nearly enough day drinking, a draft is born! And like someone who has just given birth, I’d be more excited if I wasn’t utterly exhausted.

I show the draft to people who love me, who love the art, and who have zero fear about telling me exactly how much the work sucks. They tell me exactly how much and in what ways the work sucks. I can’t believe I’m friends with these people.

I get spiteful: Oh yeah, well, I’ll show YOU whose book needs to explore its themes in more depth! I tear into revision with a vengeance, and I question why I ever thought I’d ever do anything else with my life except creating art.

Step 9: ABANDONMENT.

As they say: A creative work is never finished, only abandoned.

Eventually, I kick the piece out to its final destination – my publisher, a marching band director, my bathroom wall, whatever. I promptly forget it exists. Months later, when I get an email informing me that my short story was accepted or that some band director wants to give me cash moneys for making their 150-piece ensemble imitate starfish, I wonder how the heck it got addressed to me.

I’m not into short stories or starfish dancing anymore, see. I’m onto something new.

Step 10: REBOOT.

I find the most mindless activity I can (Sims, anyone?) and do it until I start to get bored. Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from….


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