Percussion and the Design Idea
Travis Watson

In this article, Travis discusses the finer - and most important - points of a logical show design for maximum general effect. He uses the 2005 WGI Scholastic Open World Champion Clearbrook High School's production of "CityScapes" as his central example.

In today’s competitive world of percussion, ideas and concepts of what is trying to be achieved have long foregone whether or not a double-stroke roll is clean or the players are covering down their file; these triumphs are now expected and standard, be it corps or indoor. As these activities move to more theatrically presentational programs, new languages and thought processes are making their way into our world. We are finding ourselves trying to come up with stories even when the story is that there is no story. [For these purposes, a story can be defined by that which conveys or seeks to bring forth any thought or emotive response by those witnessing the action being portrayed.] There is a world outside our own that has already delved into the many conceptual questions that we are asking ourselves as we begin seeking out the right programming for our students that is going to be educational, competitive, and artistically rewarding. Rather then reinventing the wheel, hopefully this article will pose perspectives that will help us all in our own design processes.

For my money, it seems that the best road to travel down when first coming up with a program is the music; sounds basic I know, but how many times have we foregone the musical integrity of  the original piece to insert what we thought at the time was a cool visual move or trendy choreography. This is not to say that one cannot make choices based off of the aforementioned ideas; however, given the basic backgrounds of most people involved with teaching percussive programs, it is logical to surmise that our expertise lies in aural stimulus. Whatever the case, the trick is deciding which of the three is driving the bus. This brings us, in my estimation, to the first idea of Design.

What is the central truth of the subject matter trying to be conveyed?

Did you have a really cool drill design move that you think is solid enough to base everything around? Do you have this idea of setting to music one of your all time favorite stories? Martha Graham did when she commissioned Barber to write Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. When listening to your favorite piece of music, do you have a mental image of what it should be? The creators of Fantasia did.

We must build our world within confines of the physics we deem to make up this world. Earth, for example, has gravity; Tim Burton movies have their own panache for the dark and quirky, what is your world to have? Is the set going to set the tone, or is it to merely reinforce the action. Adolphe Appia writes in Music and the Art of the Theatre:

"In the spoken drama the nature and sequence of the episodes have to occur in a rational world. The invention of the playwright is therefore subject to the realistic laws of cause and effect. The action of a drama inspired by music on the other hand is dictated by a time pattern which is not essentially controlled by the laws of causality and therefore requires a totally different approach to the problems of production, because the word-tone dramatist gains complete control of time, and is hence left to his own devices unless a definite form of presentation is implied in the dramatic conception itself."

It is from this perspective that I believe music to be the first decision to be made in the Design process. In Clearbrook High School’s Production of CityScapes using the music of Steve Reich, everything was informed by the original emotive properties contained within the text of the music. In other words, you wouldn’t want to have rainbows and gumdrops falling from the sky during your closing movement of Bernard Hermann’s Death Hunt - it wouldn’t make sense. UNLESS, by implementing the idea Appia is conveying, you set your world up to where this was a totally natural thing.

As the more powerfully emotive a choice is, be it music, movement, or story - the environment must be to that solidified idea. This is what is known as the through line of your piece. In CityScapes there didn’t exist a moment that was not true or supportive to the nature of the music. Thus, the through line was consistent in its causality and totality.

The perspective that the design team chose for City Scapes was this:

What would you see sitting in a corner office of a busy street in New York City as the day would pass you by?

How long, through all the monotonous movement of cars and people, would it take for you to see the grand orchestration within the world of New York City and tune in to the greater picture, the heart beat of the city?

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This all might seem a little farfetched and impossible to achieve within a 7 minute musical program; however, the greatest of shows have already encompassed these ideas either on purpose or happy mistake. The way they do this is by having a very evident through line, and making sure every little point you are trying to make within the show connects to make a solid line.

Just as consistency plays a great role in educating young percussionists – be it sound production, practicing habits, etc – consistency in the development of the design is just as important. Do not be so excited by an idea that, in itself, is very cool, and plop down in your show when there is no consistency to the other show’s ideas that are already becoming homogenous. This will cause a parabolic effect to your line of thought. Edison, inventor extraordinaire, said that he knew of over 1,000 ways of which to not make a light bulb. Even though we have a light bulb go off in our head, it might just be a prototype for how to not make the finished light bulb. Tuck those ideas away and save them for later!

In the show design world, we have a finite amount of time to convey our thoughts. One should develop milestones for your show and the progression for which it is to arrive at these points. A typical structure of a story must have an exposition, antagonist, plot, building of the plot, resolution. What’s interesting is these don’t necessarily have to happen in this order. It is possible to start in the middle of the story, anyone who has scene Pulp Fiction has been witness to this. This is called en medias rhea, or from the middle. Storyboarding your show with particular musical arrivals, visual arrivals etc is a great way to make sure your show is engrossing to the audience member. Time and again we have witnessed a show that finished with a spectacular build and resolution only to keep going; and that is about the time people look at each other and go “I thought it was over, didn’t you? I sure did. Boy Golly this is a long show.” By plotting out the length of build to arrive at a particular moment, you create snapshots of a show that people are going to walk away with. With Clearbrook’s production, we started and ended with a snapshot and had three major snapshots buried in the show. We knew the idea was communicated effectively because those five total snapshots were the key things people talked with us and commented on when critiquing our show. In short - we succeed! So, instead of an infinite amount of things that can be concentrated on, we broke it down into five. By making those five things solid, we kept the audience engaged and in anticipation for the arrival of the next snapshot. In other words, by only having five points to the show, it was really easy to make a straight line.

By limiting your show to a few major focal points you are forced to:

1 - Move the show in the direction of arriving at these points – exposition and plot development

2 - Solidify the rest of the show in GE caption area by reinforcing your idea, snapshots, and effectively communicating what ever angle you are trying to convey

3 - Keep it simple. For example, everyone knows the good guy, the villain, and the damsel in distress. You don’t have to, nor should you, use these characters, but try implementing the idea of archetypes within your show to build consistency and easy recognizability. For an hour and a half murder mystery this probably won’t work in today’s time, in a 7-minute show it probably will. This will help with keeping focus where you want to keep the focus.

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Repeating characterized movements, musical motifs, etc… will tie the show into other moments of the show, making it more linear and connected thematically, as well as keeping the entire portrait of the show fresh in the minds of the audience.

Another important concept to remember when designing is to keep everything within the show, from narrative to the textual properties within the music, consistent with each other and the emotion trying to by conveyed. Consistency is good, from the simplest most poignant of designs, to the intricacies of character developments in an Ayn Rand novel (Come on, we know you read them!). This is especially true to the environment that surrounds the performance!

The set is probably the most important design element of your show. Without even hearing a show, a good set can tell you what you are in for. It conveys the mood of the music, the theme of action about to take place, and the tone of the delivery.

The following is a picture of Clearbrook’s Set from 2005 WGI World Championships:
Informing this idea and the color scheme for which the set and costumes were made, was original artwork used for the album cover of the composer. I suggest highly, that research about the composer and the art scene around the time of composition be investigated to secure and inform an even greater sense of what is necessary to effectively communicate to the audience.

The set was designed to give the impression of an intersection in any major city by recalling the archetypes of what every major intersection has: the crosswalk, lines down the road, and sidewalks. The music of Reich used for this show, from the designers perspective at least, seems to emanate from nowhere, build, and echo off into infinite. Therefore, the set tried to replicate this by only using lines that seemed to continue forever past what we were able to see. There is nothing very difficult about the set, white lines that seem parallel that keep going. This set, however, was true to the music and only reinforced what was heard and seen with regards to the drill. It also limited the amount of physical space the drummers had to cover and kept them conveniently in the center of the room within a few paces of each other giving them a better listening situation and not as much demand visually as far as distance was concerned. When you do a show that’s 5:45 at 192bpm that only has 8 counts of rest at the very end, you have got to think of the physical constraints of the performer. As designers, we need to be creative and "on the edge" - but we need to be smart, too!

Here are some bold rules that I suggest you live by when designing your show:

K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid)



The most important thing to do is to keep an open mind when designing your show. Be able to take criticism from people and use those responses to better hone your craft to get the responses you want to receive and that your kids can be successful in performing. Hopefully these ideas from the theatrical world will help to inform you how to go about making better choices for you program.

Best wishes and good luck with your design!

One final thought - a quick tangent if I may. Please, when considering the use of narration, consider the story that is trying to be conveyed and cast the voice accordingly. Too often do we hear a 13 year old girl reciting dialogue that would have been better suited for James Earl Jones. If a 13 year old girl is going to say lines, have her say lines that a 13 year old girl would be really saying in the context of your story!

For example, a show about the holocaust having a 13 year old girl in the right way could be so very effective or in the wrong way so very offensive, depending on how she is used. It might also help to use people who can act with emotion, just as you would require your players to perform with emotion. Often times, the drama department from your school would be a good source for finding people who are training to do this.

The human voice is such an important aural stimulus within the context of your show that it should hold as much importance in the voicing of it as you would approach the voicing arrangements of your front ensemble and battery percussion.  Anyone who has seen an opera knows that the tone of the voice within the musical line can communicate just effectively (if not more) what is trying to be said then the actual verbiage of the dialogue!

Travis Watson is a graduate of Baylor University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Design. He makes his living at StageLight Inc. as a Project Manager who's recent projects include Lakewood Baptist Church in Houston, Cardinal Stadium in Tempe Arizona, and many Colleges and High School Performing Arts Centers throughout the country.

He is the Resident Lighting Designer for Second Thought Theatre Company of Dallas as well as on the Design Staff for Clear Brook High School in Friendswood Texas.

He is an alumni of The Vanguard, and has marched with the Crossmen, and Southwind along with taking master classes in Tympani under Dr. Larry Vanlandingham.