I was a band kid. I played flute in concert band, but what I loved more than anything was marching band and performing on the color guard in high school through my four years at UNC Chapel Hill. There is nothing like standing in a sequin-adorned bolero jacket and cummerbund over a white mock turtleneck body suit and black stretch pants (it was the 90s) in the August heat or cold November rain and spinning a flag on the 50 yard line in front of tens of thousands of fans. But I loved it. I loved performing. I loved the music. I loved being part of a group of people all working together toward a common goal. The summer practices, the late nights, the bus rides, the bruises, the nerve damage in my hand after an errant rifle catch that if I hit it just right makes me index finger go numb still today, were all worth it for those moments on a field to entertain.
My son is a sophomore in high school and on the drum line (did I mention I married a band kid? He’s also a drummer, swoon). This past weekend, we went as a family (the younger kid is learning trumpet, we’re practically parade ready) to DCI Nightbeat in Winston-Salem. If you aren’t familiar, DCI describes itself as “Marching Music’s Major Leagues.” These are elite marching bands of college-aged kids who spend all summer sleeping on buses and gym floors learning then performing one complex and intricate marching show all around the country leading up to the championships in mid-August in Indianapolis. These corps are the best of the best. Even the “worst” of those groups were better than any group I ever performed with–it’s just another level. The choreography, the field design, the music, the props, the costumes, the drill, the execution. It’s all top notch, super ridiculously good.
I’ve watched DCI since I was a high schooler but never seen a show in person (PBS used to broadcast the finals each year). What struck me wasn’t the ear piercing trumpet solos, the snap of the drum solos, the gravity defying rifles tosses, or the marching precision. I expected those. But what really moved me were the shows that understood the story telling assignment from top to bottom.
Every show had a theme. And all the shows used that theme to unify their music and props. But the shows that resonated were the ones that told me a story with a narrative arc. Stories like: a hectic and random dream that taught the “narrator” something about his life, the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, finding Nirvana, a day on the Jersey Shore, moving across the country…
On the long ride home, I thought of all the different ways in which we can tell a story:
- Short stories
- Stage plays
- A television show
- An album
- A conversation
- A marching band show…
We are designed to tell stories, to look for the narratives in our lives, and try to make sense of them.
So what made some stories from these shows resonate and have me searching the internet for more video and information on them and which were just really great, but not replaying in my head this week?
Again, these young adults and performances were all fantastic. It’s like comparing Tom Brady and Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan to determine who’s the GOAT (oh bad example, I’m a Tar Heel and MJ always wins that debate for me).
But the shows I’m still thinking about are the ones who had a clearly articulated point and everything on the field from the performer’s commitment to that story to the costumes to the props to the drill to the arrangement reflected that story point in each and every moment. This is what we must strive to do in our writing, too. Each scene, character, moment must reflect that story point. A general theme or even a strong voice might make a decent story on the surface, but it doesn’t make a memorable one. We need to dig deeper.
As we discussed our favorite shows on the way home, another thing that struck me. So while Paradise Lost from the Boston Crusaders has me all tingly today–and not just for that seriously fire duet rifle work–it wasn’t my son’s favorite. He had his own fave underdog show. And my husband loved another one, different from both my son and I. That’s the beauty of stories. There is one for everyone.
Each story speaks to its unique reader.
Just like each vessel–whether it’s a book or a movie or a marching band show–holds its own unique story.
But it’s that point that resonates, that speaks to us, that allows that story to land and find the person who needs it in that moment. Although it’s also important to remember that the point that we intend may not be the point the reader/viewer/listener takes away. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s beautiful. Art is an expression and a conversation.
And that conversation is happening around us all the time. We just have to be listening for it.
Take a moment this week to observe the graffiti you pass on your commute, the order of the songs on your favorite album, the layout of the local botanical garden you stroll through, the juxtaposition of old and new architecture on your main street, or even the high school halftime show, and see what new stories they may be trying to share.