By Trudy Horsting
Franklin High School in Nashville, Tennessee, hadn’t fielded a winter guard in many years. Hoping to build back the program, the school hired Michael Horvath and Levi Brandenburg in 2012. Michael says, “Levi and I were invited to join Franklin as co-directors of the color guard. Having both marched with WGI programs (Levi at Onyx and myself at Pride of Cincinnati and Paramount), we were thrilled to find a band program that fully supported our desire to build a winter guard.”
Michael explains how he and Levi worked to ease into a winter guard program. “In the spring of 2013, we did a showcase in the auditorium, but the goal of that was really to introduce the idea of winter guard and to start to build a framework to make color guard a year-round activity. The concept of doing color guard between November and April was very new for Franklin!”
Over the last ten years, Franklin High School Winter Guard has grown leaps and bounds thanks to the unceasing dedication of staff and students alike. At the 2023 WGI World Championships, the team placed 3rd in Scholastic A after making finals for the first time. In this piece, the staff provides insight into what contributed to their success over the 2023 season.
The Turning Point
Franklin HS attended their first WGI Regional in 2015, 2018 was the first year they made finals at a regional. This was also the first year they competed at WGI World Championships. 5 years later, in 2023, they made finals at Championships for the first time and earned their spot as medalists.
Michael describes that the 2022 season was a turning point for Franklin. “It was the first time that a majority of the fall guard members wanted to participate in winter guard,” Michael explains. The staff chose to field a 30-person winter guard to provide ample opportunity for every student who wanted to perform. He says, “We knew that having such a large guard in our class was not ideal, but we’d never had that kind of turn-out for winter. We wanted to make sure every student had an opportunity to participate.”
Franklin HS finished the 2022 season just one spot out of finals at WGI. “We realized after that season that we needed to restructure into a Varsity and JV setup,” Michael explains.
Fielding Two Teams
Michael says that coming into the 2023 season, they had a strong group of performers. To ensure that each student was placed on the right team, the staff sat down one on one with each member to discuss where they may be the most successful. He explains, “We gave some of our newer weapons a choice to either be a dancer/flag in the Varsity guard or a primary weapon in the JV guard.” The staff wanted to ensure that each performer was given the opportunity to grow throughout the season.
Ultimately, the Franklin staff chose to place 15 students on the Varsity guard and 13 students on the JV guard. “From our perspective, there were huge benefits for the members. The Varsity guard was able to have a more demanding program and focus on nuance, while the members in the JV guard were able to get more foundational training and further develop their skillset,” Michael explains.
However, despite the benefits, Michael is forthright in revealing that fielding two teams can be very challenging. He says, “Not only did our 4-person staff have double the choreography to write and double the number of rehearsals to run, but we also had to rely on churches in Franklin to host our evening rehearsals, so logistics throughout the week became more complicated. We don’t have a color guard class, and our staff all have full-time careers outside of teaching color guard, so making sure we had evening rehearsal spaces for two groups was critical. We also had to make sure that both guards received equal attention and nurturing. We wanted to make sure that our JV group never felt less important than the Varsity team.”
Despite the challenges, Michael and his staff knew the decision to field two separate groups was the best choice for the organization in 2023.
Other Factors That Led to Success
Michael speaks highly of Franklin High School’s design team and their contribution to the organization’s success in 2023. He says, “We give lots of credit to our designers, Chad Berkstresser and Jack Pursifull. We started working with them in 2018 for show design, but they became friends and mentors and changed how Levi and I approached teaching, the pacing of our season, training, choreography, and more. What we produced in 2023 is really a culmination of the previous years of growth and mentorship.”
Additionally, Michael explains that the performer’s attitudes made all of the difference. He says, “We had an incredible team of students that worked hard and genuinely wanted to be their best, regardless of placement or score.”
Michael reveals, “Another person that had a monumental impact on our season is Kc Perkins. From her edits and suggestions for the show, to her encouraging visits or texts through the season, she absolutely propelled us forward. She has been a friend and guiding light for Levi and I for a lot of our color guard journey, and we are lucky to have her in Nashville!”
Franklin has an extremely dedicated staff which also contributed to the team’s success. Michael says, “I want to give a huge thanks to our 2023 staff, Laura Anne Grayson and Kate Alward, both of whom taught both the Varsity and JV groups! Laura Anne is our movement choreographer, flag technician, sweet-tart-passer-outer (a pre-show ritual), and everything in between. She has performed with Phantom Regiment and Paramount and has been with us at Franklin since Day #1. Kate was our primary weapon technician during the 2023 season. She performed with Carolina Crown, Eklipse, and Paramount and was a critical part of our team. We couldn’t have done it without them!”
Support from the school’s band directors also meant the world to the winter guard team. “We are grateful to have the support of the incredible band directors, Dr. Michael Holland and Mrs. Brianna Vogt, along with the Franklin High School administration, and, in particular, our principal, Dr. Shane Pantall, who has been a strong advocate for us and the winter guard. We are lucky to have so much support from them and the entire Franklin Band Family!”
The 2023 Production
Chad, one of the designers for Franklin HS, explains that the music was the initial inspiration for the 2023 production. “‘My House’ from Matilda the Musical, performed by Heather Headley, is a piece that I just adore. I love Heather’s voice and I could visualize it as I listened to it. Sometimes, you listen to music, and it just hits you.”
Costumes & Flags
Michael says, “For the costumes and flags, we worked with Tommy Keenum to craft the designs. We’ve been working with him for years, and he is an absolute master of taking the description of your program or listening to your music and then interpreting that into costumes and flags.” The staff came to Tommy knowing that they wanted a dress that had lots of movement. They had done a similar cut in previous years and loved the way the movement added to the effect. Tommy suggested that the dress have a more vintage feel and not be too vibrant.
Michael says, “After we saw the flag designs, we used the second flag which had a blue/teal house, to serve as an inspiration for one of our props. We had already planned for a large, framed painting for one of the props, but we didn’t know what it would be until we saw Tommy’s flag designs.” That prop ended up being particularly meaningful for the group as it was painted by hand by one of their techs, Kate, and her mom. As they painted the canvas, they hid the names of all of the team’s seniors in the scene.
Props & Floor
Chad explains, “The song is all about a house so it was obvious to us that we needed a front porch. The porch and the rest of the props immediately set a stage. Even before hearing a show announcement or the music, the audience knew what the show was about by looking at the props.” Chad continues, “The props also helped cut the floor down and made the entire space feel a bit more intimate. We wanted the space to feel like when you go to see a Broadway production and there’s no curtain on the stage. The set is just there, enticing the audience, and the space feels intimate. We wanted the audience to get excited just by looking at the set.” Echoing this sentiment, Shirley Whitcomb explained, “Before the performers moved, we wanted the audience’s attention and intrigue. We purposefully wanted the props to be out of perspective and to have some interesting juxtaposition on the floor. We had a giant window, lamp, and table. However, the door and chair were normal sizes.”
Michael says, “We owe a lot to our incredible guard dads who built our props by hand. We got so many compliments at competitions and it was fun to see dads from different guards bond over carpentry and props!”
Although not having a floor in this production was an intentional decision to make the space feel more intimate, it has also become pretty standard for Franklin HS. Michael says, “Often we don’t use a floor at all, we may use strips of tarp, or tarp pieces in various shapes – whatever the show calls for, and whatever our design team thinks will make sense for the program.” He continues, “In 2023, not having a tarp certainly helped with setup and tear-down of all the props. We had floor markers along the front, and we spent a lot of time working on setup and how to step off the placement of each prop. In fact, we would practice setup and tear-down weekly. Once we knew how the timeline would work at the next contest, we would practice a timed setup so that the kids knew exactly what that would feel like in a show setting.”
Advice to Others
Michael encourages other directors who are striving for this kind of success to remember that they are not on this journey alone. “You don’t have to figure everything out by yourself. “Find mentors or friends who are experienced and who care about you and the success of your program. It’s so helpful to have someone to talk to about ways to train members during the summer and fall, someone to collaborate with on music or design choices while you’re planning a season, someone who watches videos and sends notes during the season, or all of the above!”
Additionally, Michael explains how important the culture of a program is. “Something we’ve been conscious of over the last decade at Franklin is the culture of the program. Anyone who wants to join the color guard at Franklin, regardless of their skills or limitations, is welcome. However, we do not tolerate negativity, and we expect members to be hard-working, respectful, and reliable. It took a few years to build that foundation, but now the members raise the bar every year and continually push themselves and their teammates. So much of their growth is because THEY want it. We strive to make our members better humans on and off the floor, and any success with color guard is a byproduct of that.”
Favorite Memories and Future Aspirations
Michael reflects on the joy experienced during the 2023 season. He says, “It was so incredible being named a finalist for the first time! I will never forget standing in the parking lot of the Nutter Center and seeing the Semis scores. We were surrounded by our amazing parents and there were lots of tears. We then got to tell a bus of screaming girls that they were finalists. It gets me choked up just thinking about it! It was also a triumph for the Seniors. We had an exceptional senior class who worked hard, promoted a positive culture, and genuinely loved color guard. Their journey was unique – from a pandemic their freshman year, to a year with no WGI, to missing Finals by one place in 2022, to finally making Finals – so sharing that first WGI Finals experience with them was magical.”
Franklin HS is excited for what’s to come and to continue their trajectory of growth. “We’re excited to experience Open Class! For now (we’re in the middle of fall season), we’re just doing our thing – building confidence in the members, reinforcing a strong foundation of training (both in movement and equipment), and keeping that UD Arena finals retreat on our vision board! Ultimately, we want to give our members the best experience we can offer year after year, and we’re excited to do that again in 2024.”
About the Author:
Trudy Horsting is a graduate student at Arizona State University pursuing her Ph.D. in Political Science. She holds a MA in Political Science from ASU as well as a BA in Political Science and a BA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication from James Madison University. While at JMU, she was a four year member and two year captain of the Marching Royal Dukes Color guard and JMU Nuance Winter guard. She was a member of First Flight World Winter guard in 2019 and FeniX Independent World Winter guard in 2020.