To say that the landscape of performing arts has been rocked would be a little bit of an understatement. With the beginning of the March 2020 lockdown, the impact has been felt across the activity in different ways. From the titans of the Midwest and Texas being permitted to stage competitive programs as though nothing changed, through the Southeastern powerhouses having exhibition seasons, to the West Coast units stranded on zoom trying to teach music with an internet lag, everyone's experience has been different. But as the vaccines go out and the marching arts world looks to the future, where do we go from here? How do we find ourselves back at Lucas Oil?
We have the start this conversation by addressing the obvious but not readily reminded problem: How can the units most impacted by lockdown hope to compete? As a California company with ties to West Coast groups, we watched as our students were struggling daily to stay positive and stay practicing while attempting to learn basics we take for granted on a lagging zoom connection with less than ideal microphones or, for our guard friends, inside a home. Simultaneously, competitive groups in other regions were continuing on with their regularly scheduled rehearsal programs, gaining valuable year over year training and growth that was not made available to other programs. As the virus continued to spread and the future was looking insecure, this gap only widened.
But we find ourselves now in an interesting position. As we get vaccinated and students across the country begin to return to school in a more normalized capacity, West Coast units are facing down a problem. Is it possible to regroup and reorganize to remain competitive nationally?
First, let's look at the national competitive landscape as it currently stands. From a Bands of America perspective, the West Coast groups were rarely a threat to begin with. This isn't to fall into the trope that West Coast group aren't as competitive because of quality (which is a common thread), the biggest barrier to entry for these units is simply location. There are only a handful of bands in California financially capable of making the trip to Indiana on a regular basis. And of those groups, this is only once every 3 years if they are fortunate enough. Frankly, exposure breeds success. Students have a difficult time knowing where to aim when the target is a blur on the horizon. For schools more able to attend the BOA Championships on an annual basis, even if they fall short of finals or semis, they can see the quality they are up against. They know what the target is and they know what the potential is.
Second, and possibly most importantly, is the structure of organizational funding and the differences from state to state. Speaking from personal experience here in California, we simply do not receive the necessary funding to create the kinds of spectacles that the activity has morphed into. More and more, money has become a barrier of entry into the upper echelons of the pageantry world. Sure, every once in a while you will have a group come out with no props and simple costumes and blow everyone away with pure, raw talent. But those numbers are dwindling. As we've moved into the '20s, the pattern has been: Yes, you need the talent, but you also need a professional broadway style set and costuming for not only the auxiliary but the entire band in order to be taken seriously. We need to take this opportunity to have serious conversations about how to level this playing field across the country.
Lastly, the economic impact of COVID is going to punch holes into budgets across the country that I do not think we are prepared for as an activity. With the majority of programs relying almost solely on parent contributions coupled with many more families struggling to pay for essentials, how can these programs continue to provide the same level of experience? As a pageantry community we need to be able to take a step back and find ways to support each others creative needs while taking into account the fact that money is going to be tight.
So where do we go from here? I don't know. I don't know what the future of the marching arts is going to look like. But I do know that we need to remind ourselves of why we do this in the first place. We don't do it for the fame because, let's be real, we might delude ourselves into thinking we are famous but in the grand scope of life that just isn't the case. We don't do it for the money because that would be a crazy reason when the vast majority of instructors are getting paid less than minimum wage.
We do it for the students. We do it for each other. We need to get back to the core community we once had and reach out a hand wherever we can to help. If that means digging out those old uniforms you've been storing for a decade because one day you just might need them and instead donating them to a program in need. Or creating an online database of flags that units can borrow for free to get back on their feet. Or loaning out instruments to the school down the street who needs that extra clarinet but can't afford to buy another one.
Over the past year we've all had to get creative to keep going. And now we are going to need to get creative to get back.