It’s Opera, It’s Theater, It’s Ballet … On A Football Field

When watching a good marching band morph from one figure into another during halftime, it’s easy to forget all of the work that goes into making an intricate art and science look effortless.

“That’s what makes it fun,” said W. Dale Warren, professor of music and senior wind band conductor. “When it’s done well, the marching drill becomes an extension of the music. We enhance and interpret the music for our audience.”

Photo by Russell Cothren

Warren has been helping people “see the music” since he was a sophomore in high school.

“I stumbled into it, really,” he said. “My high school band director was looking at these huge pieces of paper that were laid out across his desk. He was shaking his head and saying ‘I just can’t make it work.'”

The problem was getting the students from figure A to figure B in 12 counts, and when Warren told the director that he had a solution, the director was ready to give him a chance.

“It worked. And I was hooked.”

Since then, Warren has designed marching drills for bands and drum-and-bugle corps across the county, including high schools and colleges in almost every state.

The process changed dramatically in the mid 1980s when it began to move from a manual craft to a computerized one. Warren was on the frontier of the transformation, serving as a beta tester for the first software programs.

“It’s a different world now,” said Warren. “We used to write the drills out with pencil and paper. You’d carry the pages onto the field and often wouldn’t know if there was a problem until the students started moving through the drill.”

Technology made it possible to see the entire show on screen before teaching it to students. The 3-D images and various perspectives allow the writer to see the drill from every possible angle. Some programs are so advanced that you can dress the virtual band or corps in the appropriate uniforms and see individual steps.

“Now we teach drills from an iPad, which is a lot less cumbersome than the 35-50 pieces of oversized paper that we used to carry around. Plus, we can print out personalized directions for each band member. They can see the whole drill performed in animation mode before even setting foot on the field.”

While the computer has streamlined some parts of the process, others remain unchanged.

“Every drill begins with the band and the music,” said Warren. “You want the show to enhance the best parts of the group. If you have a killer trombone section, then they become a feature. If you have some exceptional soloists, then you write a drill where they can stand out.”

As far as deciding what looks good on the field, Warren says it’s a matter of trial and error. He’s had ample opportunity to perfect his eye for what does and doesn’t work after working with so many bands with such varied skill levels—including bands that have competed in the annual Bands of America Grand National Championships.

“The travel can be good. I get to see and hear a lot of really talented young musicians, and it helps us recruit some outstanding students from other states as well as within Arkansas.”

When considering which bands he will work with on any given year, Warren says it comes down to scheduling.

“This is something I only do on my off-time, so schedule matching is important,” Warren said. “My first priority is the students here at the University of Arkansas. I have to bring my A-game to them everyday.”

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