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The Ever-Changing Face of “Excellence”

by George Oliviero

“Have We Abandoned Excellence?” was a question asked of American society and workers, in general, more than ten years ago, in an essay by  Lance Morrow in Time magazine. The question is still relevant in society and is heard more and more in our activity. The story is that we are no longer as “clean” as we used to be. There is a longing for the good old days when we say precision and we knew, and the audience knew, that there were very few mistakes. How beautiful, how nostalgic: why did we ever get rid of the tick, which was the preeminent force to foster such precision?

“Abandoned” seems a bit strong. It is, however, the feeling that some have. “Didn’t you see that drop of the rifle?” “How can they get a perfect score in Ensemble?” “Didn’t you see those two crooked lines?” “How can they get a 98 in Excellence?” ·”This never would have happened 10-15 years ago.” Perhaps, the tag might be, “judges in those days knew how to judge excellence, and audiences knew when things were clean.”

As Morrow said so long ago, “there is a note of elegy which haunts any discussion of excellence and quality. It is human nature to imagine that our present reality is … diminished, a comedown from better days when household appliances lasted and workers worked, and manners were exquisite and marriages endured … ” He continued by saying that “the lament for vanished standards is an old art form; besieged gentility cringes, indignant and vulnerable, full of memories, before a present that behaves like Stanley Kowalski (from a Streetcar Named Desire): crude, loud, upstart and stupid as a fist.”

Surely, no one wants to consider a move back to the future, by returning to those days of yesteryear and the presence of the tick. IT IS NO COINCIDENCE THAT THE DIRECTION OF THE ACTIVITY HAS CHANGED IN THE LAST TEN YEARS. Many have already forgotten any number of noble experiments with the color guard sheets. After the tick, we tried the “pure” excellence and “pure” demand approach. Lately, we have been working with “achievement”, whatever that means. Remember any other versions?

Inherent in the use of the tick was its own death, or worse, the death of the activity through boredom.

The object of the instructor was not to create but to CLEAN, and CLEAN and CLEAN. The object of the process was to eliminate all error from the product, whatever the product. The staff joined to create a show whose risk stopped at the border of precision.

The basic tenets were:

  • if it could not be cleaned, it would not be used
  • the reliance was upon the “tried and true” with variations
  • staging equaled form, and the use of lines, curves, and symmetry were universal, simply because the staffs knew how to “CLEAN” those events
  • Tempo had to be within a structure known to every student who took Trumpet 1, or Piano 1: 4/4, 2/4, or maybe 6/8, and a bit of syncopation

Do you think John Travolta would be so dandy today if he were to take the dance floor to “The Age of Anxiety,” or a Jack Keroack poem? The contention is that our activity was about to hit a wall in its pursuit of cleanliness. Would we all be saying today that the activity is boring because everybody is still doing disco, or all we ever see is straight lines, and doubles? It is possible (probable?). Hence, the possibility that the tick was its own reason for ceasing to exist.

Let’s apply Morrow’s rules to generalizations about excellence:

  1. All recollections of past excellence should be discounted by at least 50% since memory has its tricks of perspective;
  2. energy and creativity find standards, and they create their own excellence, even though the keepers of the old standards may not like to new standards.

Of course, we admit that excellence demands the existence of standards. Excellence does not usually flourish, initially, in the midst of rapid, hectic change. We have certainly seen rapid, hectic change in color guard in the last 10 years. The recent decade’s sheer velocity of creativity and elevation of performer skills suggests that excellence needs time to catch its breath. Indeed, maybe we need to let the activity catch its collective breath for a year. It wouldn’t hurt our long range vision for WGI if changes in the system and philosophy waited until we find the standards for that which we already have in place. The issue may be as old as time:

Hold the status quo because it is a known, defined quantity and quality,
Explore terra incognita with all the stumbling that occurs.

The prime objective is:
Find the balance between the two,
both for the status quo and terra incognita have a proper place.


Currently, the discussion takes on another view: Is the Process of Achievement either worthwhile or, indeed, workable? Further, is there a grasp of the process of achievement? For the former question, the answer is “yes”, even if one wishes to qualify the idea: sometimes we prefer Big Macs to a seven course haute cuisine supplied by L’Escoffiers. Frankly, we all should be able to understand such a moment. Nevertheless, common sense and good dietary rules say that a steady consumption of Big Macs leads to boredom and a quicker entrance into eternity. In essence, Achievement is workable when the mind is open to other than Drive Thru burgers.

Possibly, we have reached the time to alter our look at achievement ever so slightly. It is not the sum of two events called “what” and how”. Achievement is rather the end result (product) of “what” and how”. The difference between the two approaches is significant at this point of our growth. We tried to take the two as separate entities and yet indicate that both occur together. A contradiction, without question. The “sum” was the beginning of our search for the excellence of achievement, however. It gave us the tools with which to explore performance in a world other than precision (in a tickless world). We have climbed the ladder to a new rung, and now need to explore the simultaneity which results in Achievement.

The most troublesome part of achievement for both the judge and the audience is that achievement is a judgment. As such, there can be and will be disagreement. The tick was not a judgment in the same sense. Is there a doubt when a rifle is dropped, when a line is crooked, or when a timing error occurs. No. The acute visibility does not allow for judgment, it allows only for the fact of error.

The key to the process is the long term vision of the activity. Hopefully, the vision is of exploration, especially within the World Class. Let them pave the road, let the World Class venture into terra incognita. To prepare for the World Class, Open Class students must be aware that their performance skills are a function of what they do, as well as their physical being. Every football player can throw a football five yards, it is the quarterback specialist who throws for 60 yards and hits the target. In the A Class, we as a judging community need to temper our look at Achievement in order to emphasize the technique of the developing skills. This should not pose a problem for us as a community; simply emphasize the “how” side a bit more in the A class. The long term vision also contains some space for “catching our breath”, allowing the judges, the audience, the performers and most instructors to find those elusive standards which were referenced earlier.

Morrow finished his article by saying that “meaning of excellence is essentially metaphysical”. Excellent things are constantly destroyed (Sarajevo). “Excellence is essentially invulnerable. It carries the prestige of the infinite with it, an ancestral resemblance to the ideal” We can work to understand the ideal in any activity, and we can work to envision the ideal. It may take some extra time, especially when the growth has been so rapid. Perhaps we can now feel more comfortable with our current process and work together to solidify our base.

An addendum from George Oliviero:

Now, 23 years later, I would say that performers have snagged the gold ring of achievement and excellence while performing amazing challenges. Even the East audience in Allentown cheers these days while 23 years ago, it might well have longed for the 1960s.

The feats of performance are nothing short of amazing and mind-boggling. The field judge in 2019 became a relic, even though a beloved relic. If our performers return to the pre-pandemic form, I would say that our precision and our achievement have a master and mistress and those are the ladies and gentlemen who take the field in 2021 with no fear, with training never imagined, and with nothing less than “no ticks, you bet!”

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