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:
- All recollections of past excellence should be discounted by at least 50% since memory has its tricks of perspective;
- 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.
HOW INHERENT IS EXCELLENCE IN ACHIEVEMENT?
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!”
Nice article. I started marching in 1976. We high stepped throughout our whole show! Kids passed out after our first shows before our instructors realized that the rules had changed and high stepping was not required for the show but just for a certain amount of time. The next season the requirement was gone all together. That corps was a first year corps (Erie Mavericks) and after we folded in 1979, I marched for two years in the 27th Lancers. The judging rules were ever changing, shifting focus from ticks and precision to general effect. The staff, mainly George Zingalli, realized this and designed a show that was a show stopper. In 1980 we were neck and neck with the Blue Devils who also realized the changes to their advantage. The rest is history. After I aged out and started instructing, there were more changes . Fluid drill design, etc… George was at the front of these changes. The corps that didn’t change fell by the wayside. Many went under because of this and the financial drain to keep up with these changes. My 27 folded in 86 because they lost their sponsor. The changes were not sudden. I have respect for the new DCI and I am sad that it is struggling so hard with covid just like all performing arts. I stopped instructing in 86 but have kept in touch with many who didn’t like my old teacher Frank T. Williams. The only thing in life that is certain is death, taxes, and change!
Hi George. We marched in Cambridge together and at that time, I felt that the goal was to play as cleanly as possible while stretching the limits of the rules and capabilities of the instruments. We even tried to introduce new instruments that were common to the Spanish theme that we played, but the judges were against it. A few years later, Hawthorne was successful. I also remember that Tommy Moore (Saint and later Sir Thomas) cleaned up their drum line to the point it was boring. They got good marks on execution but got clobbered on difficulty and expression, etc. I think there was a lot more room for innovation than what you portray in your article, but the limits on strict militarism did have to go, along with keeping the tempo between 128 and 132. I agree I’m a dinosaur. Good to see you’re still with us.
I was one of the first WGI judges to test judge and evaluate the proposed subjective sheets for WGI back in the 1980’s. At the end of that regional, Lynn Linstrom asked me what I thought about the concept. My response was “Scores will be higher and much tighter.”
With a tick sheet, you saw a mistake and put down a tick. You didn’t think about if the mistake was more of less than the mistakes of the previous units. You didn’t know what score you gave until the contest was over. The other sheets did not ” bleed” into your thoughts about their overall performance. Unless the judge knowingly changed his/her tolerance, it was a pure score. Instructors had a hard time arguing a tick.
Subjective sheets changed all that. Judges kept worksheets so they could control their scores AND their placements. The bottom ten points of their twenty point sheet never got used. My judging association had a hard rule. If the unit was able to find the field/floor, the absolute lowest score you could give was 40% on you point allowance.
One of the main reason I left judging was that I had a regional director tell me, “Your score for them is too low. Don’t you know who teaches them.”
Which is better, the tick sheet of the subjective sheet. I certainly am not qualified to answer that question. Yes, the new sheets have opened up creativity. I’m amazed at what the top units are doing and how well they are achieving it. But I’m also amazed at what the lesser units are being asked to do and they just don’t have the training/talent to achieve it.
So, as a past performer, instructor and judge, I miss the tick sheet. It left more of the score control in the hands of the performer, not the judge (or politics).
Let me start by a fond hello to George Oliviero. I can still hear you screaming Again when a mistake was made, many nights in the First National Parking lot in Dorchester. Sometimes we didn’t make it more than 30 seconds into the routine. Your passion to eliminate the “ticks” was alive and well. The 60’s were along time ago but the memories and friendships haven’t faded. The experience made me a much better person than I might have been so thank you for your assistance on the journey.
As good a perspective as there is on the subject, Mr. Oliviero’s observations should be standard reading for all who attend a show today. Prioritizing achievement over execution opened the doors for a new age of design and artistry that might not have ever been attempted otherwise. As an old relic instructor who taught under the “tic” system, I found that the empirical nature of tics was still an exercise in subjectivity. Judges sampled and recorded, and were not required to record every mistake they witnessed. They exercised judgement in how they evaluated. It seemed a natural evolution of the adjudication philosophy to break away from the rigidness of our military roots and embrace the artistry of the theatre. As a result, today’s show possess a level of professionalism I find refreshing and entertaining in ways the old system would never have allowed. I am grateful people with vision such as Mr. Oliviero have advanced the artistry of the marching arts and continue to do so.
Glad you’re still vertical.
I only performed the function of judge a few times in my life. It was not something I enjoyed doing but I did enjoy teaching and competing. I was fabulously lucky to have taught many of the finest drum corps in the activity. I thought the tick system was an instructive tool for the judge to key his attention and focus on the actual performance and then relate it through his or her notes and remarks on the sheet. It was interesting that some instructors watched judges throughout the performance to see when he or she went to the sheet for a tick or even a tick fest. Different judges would focus in on different areas of concern. One judge in particular was extremely irritated by intonation errors. The tick system was necessary to tame the wild beast that we called drum and bugle corps. It supplied the activity with a way toward a restricted form of excellence. It served as part of the answer. When the objective “tick” system was replaced with subjective “buildup” system, instructional staffs started to think more of building in quality than of eradicating mistakes. But in the final analysis it is the judge who must make the sheet work. One big change that I noticed was that judges who had worked with the tick system were much more likely to converse with an instructor during critique in a positive, constructive manner. They had more concrete information to relate.
Back in the day, many of us thought it might be good to use a subjective judging system the first half of the season to develop the show qualities and then switch to a tick type system later in the year to separate the wheat from the chaff, the better from the best. But there is no doubt that what a performer learns today in a well run modern drum corps is head and shoulders above any experience you could have anywhere in the world.
As a judge at high school level, I see the DCI and WGI influence of the demands of the what. The what very much affects the how. A great creator/designer will write to the ability of their unit and even be able to hide their limitations so that it is achievable, if they can’t achieve the what you are essentially judging and scoring at its core “ticks” it may not appear on the sheet as such but your eye is catching each one… and the old still affects the new. The less “ticks”seen the higher the score and allows you to be able to read the what and award the what based on the how aka “ticks”. How can you begin to know or see the what if the how does not allow you to see the what. In my opinion the tick still exists just incognito. The biggest no no in the circuit I judge for and should be everywhere is you NEVER EVER award the WHO!!! Even big names can write poorly every now and again, but it allows them to grow just as much as the performer… in essence each “tick” you see still affects current judging trends.
Good article. I am an old timer got into Drum Corp in 1967. I will keep this short, I have fallen out of watching modern drum corps because it no longer has that element class and excellence.(at the age of twenty I was teaching a small young drum corps and I wanted to learn how to teach posture and balance. It was obvious to me that ballet was the perfect model. After a year and a half of taking lessons and falling in love with dance I decided to expand into jazz dance. It was eye opening, the instructor immediately recognized I had had ballet instructions. He said to me in a class working on pirouettes “this is not ballet, just get around on two without falling”)
That honestly sums up modern drum corps. “this is not ballet, just get around on two without falling”
Hi again I just want to follow up with a thought. I think the tick system worked well but for the sake of the moving forward to advance and challenge innovation maybe a weight system of tick and what use to be GE would serve better where taking risk is rewarded but at the same time risk for the sake of risk will not be rewarded.
Just a thought.