At the most recent World Championships event in 2023, three groups achieved something particularly remarkable. LSM Winds, Clover HS Percussion, and the Somerset Academy Winter Guard won their respective classes for the second year in a row following a promotion at the end of their 2022 seasons.
In this piece, Zack Novicki from LSM Winds, Ryan Hall from Clover HS Percussion, and Adriana Crespo Jiménez from Somerset Academy Colorguard sat down with us to share how, two years in a row, they were able to climb the ranks to the top of their classes.
Two consistent themes emerged from these discussions. Success was possible due to the devotion and motivation of their performers and a communicative and tight-knit staff. Additionally, these directors reveal what remained the same from the 2022 to 2023 seasons. Finally, they share some of the challenges they faced, their advice to others, and some of their future hopes and aspirations.
Two Avenues to Success
Performers are the backbone of WGI and each group within it. Adriana says, “Our students are the most central part of our success at Somerset Academy. Their drive to excel, genuine love for each other, and passion for performance have made them better every year!”
Ryan of Clover HS says, “Our students are ‘all in’ with everything we do. Every rehearsal, every rep. We strive for consistent student analysis and reflection. Our students know that success means being a better person and performer than you were the day before.”
Zack from LSM Winds also discusses performer motivation. He says, “In 2022 our students were so determined after the 2020 shutdown. They had done well in 2020, and their work ethic was phenomenal as they pushed to get back to where they had been before. Winning has never been our goal, but the students wanted to be the best they could be.” Zack and his staff could tell the students had put in work during the off-season coming into 2023 and that they were just as determined as they had been the year before. Zack also explains how amazing their student leadership has been at LM Winds, helping to motivate and encourage the team.
All three directors also discussed how critical it was to have a tight-knit and communicative staff. Their staff weren’t afraid to speak their mind and each person was open to critique and hearing new ideas.
Ryan explains, “Our staff works extremely well together. We all have different backgrounds but are able to bounce ideas off each other without hurting anyone’s ego. We take criticism from each other very well and know that every decision must be made in the best interest of the students. Even for a great idea, it’s important to spend time poking holes in it, discussing it, and determining the best outcome for the production.”
At Clover HS everyone has a well-defined role to play. Ryan continues, “I do most of the design for our programs and Anne Turner does a great job helping me with this. Andrew Markworth and Noah Bellamy have been great assets as well. Noah is not afraid to say “No we can’t do that, it’s too straight forward and not artistic” which sends us down deeper paths of design and creativity. Ross Lenard did all of our prop design and is our battery tech. He also designed the dual Raven/Poe uniforms completely by hand. My wife Kaitlyn is a dancer so she was a huge help in all of our choreography as well.”
Besides working well with one another, it’s important for the staff to bring their best at each and every rehearsal. Adriana says, “Our design team and in-house staff are incredible. They really dug deep and brought their best every day.” She explains how critical it is to take a step back and think about what your strengths are as a director. “I am not a choreographer. My strengths are in finding clarity and enforcing fundamentals and excellence. Our design team and choreographers are creative, artistic, and understand how to push students and their skill set while still being nuanced and relevant to the big picture. Constant communication and finding staff that can fill the gaps in areas that you lack is so critical.”
Zack echoes similar sentiments regarding his staff. He says, “We had extraordinary teamwork within our design staff in 2023. Every voice in the room mattered and we listened to each other with open ears. This communication was critical to our success. We had phone calls at least four times a week and worked together on every measure.”
What Changed and What Remained
In 2023, LM Winds grew as students from neighboring schools came to audition. Zack explains how at first this was a bit of a challenge, as the original team was already very close (all but 2 from 2022 returned for 2023), but after the first regional, they became one cohesive group working together. Zack reveals how a strong retention rate has been pivotal to their success. In terms of size, in 2022, they had 24 members, and this past year they had 32 on the floor.
Clover HS also grew from 2022 (34 performers) to 2023 (47 performers). Amazingly, 21 of the performers in 2023 were wind players! Ryan says, “Our ensemble was very young both years with mainly freshmen and sophomores. We graduated 6 percussionists this past spring.”
Adriana explains they also had a young team and experienced great retention. She says, “We had a majority of our team from last year along with a few members from our JV team that joined the Open team. They were able to assimilate very quickly. We are a middle-high program with an elementary feeder, so our students usually have an early start in their training.” Ryan also emphasizes the value of starting young. “I think one of the keys to our success is that we start in our middle schools. Being able to see the kids on a consistent schedule has played a huge role in preparing them for high school.”
For all three of these groups, there were few staff changes from 2022 to 2023. At Somerset Academy, there were no changes at all. At LSM Winds, one additional person was brought on in 2023. For Clover HS Percussion, the design team remained the same but one additional full time visual staff member was brought on board for 2023. Additionally, the team added an audio specialist and an additional battery staff member. In 2022 there were 8 staff members, and in 2023 there were 12 in total.
Ryan, Zack and Adriana all discussed that they kept their rehearsal schedules very similar between 2022 and 2023. LSM Winds rehearses on Sundays for 8 hours and an occasional Saturday, and in 2023, they added a few more design camps. Zack says, “Our rehearsals are extremely productive, which allows us to rehearse typically just once a week. The organization was founded on the idea that people have lives outside of band, but that when you commit to a season, you commit to every rehearsal and productivity in every minute.”
Ryan explains, “We kept our overall rehearsal strategies the same as we did in 2022 at Clover. The main focus: to make sure the kids are having fun. We continued a lot of our team building games and themed rehearsals. Each themed rehearsal had a motive from the staff to keep the kids engaged and excited about their season together. For example, the day before we left for Dayton, students wore their favorite sports teams’ jerseys and I asked them to think about how that team would physically and mentally prepare for the Super Bowl or similar event – how they would hydrate, relax, and celebrate getting to attend the largest game in the world.”
Adriana also emphasized their efforts to make rehearsals fun at Somerset Academy. 2023 was their first year fully back from COVID, and it was a bit of an adjustment. She says, “Students were isolated for so long, so our staff focused on getting students to connect with one another and open up to performing again. We reinforced fundamentals, of course, but we consciously spoke to members and encouraged them to believe in themselves and “go for it” again. It was important for us that they still loved the activity.” The team focused on easy-going and enjoyable rehearsals while accomplishing their goals. She says, “It was understood that we were all doing our best and holding each other accountable, students and staff. Being on the same page regarding work ethic made all the difference.”
While Adriana and Ryan changed some of their technical training programs as they moved classes, Zack explains that theirs largely remained the same. He explains, “Of course, we’ve expanded vocabulary and trained harder but when it comes to how we train, we’ve always taken the same approach. I strongly believe in teaching to the weakest member. We don’t move on until everyone gets it, even if that means the staff needs to find a new way of teaching. We don’t leave anyone in the dust.”
At LSM Winds, Ryan came out with new battery and front ensemble packets in the Fall to start preparing students throughout the marching band season. He explains, “The exercises remained fundamental in approach but were a little longer, and we added a few technicalities that we knew we needed to work on. We also rarely stood still and played. We always had kids wear drums for marching band and would do a lot of ‘tracking’ to make sure the kids were ready to move and play in the spring.”
Adriana explained that Somerset Academy “beefed up” some of their fundamentals and warm-ups as they moved from A to Open class. “We incorporated more body and movement responsibilities and incorporated higher tosses with lower body efforts underneath. We really utilized Fall season as a time to push members choreographically for things we wanted them to be able to do for the Winter.”
Somerset Academy and LSM Winds explain how they kept some similarities in style from 2022 to 2023, but each produced different shows.
Adriana says, “I think at our core, students still moved and spun like Somerset Academy. We maintained the same choreographic style, but clearly, the premises for both shows were very different. Our 2022 show Winter was extremely emotional and heartfelt, and our 2023 program Rifles, Ropes and Rhinestones! was playful and fun. I do think the foundation laid out in their training made it possible for them to be more dynamic on the floor from one year to another.”
Zack states that the design team at LSM Winds played a huge role in their success but that their shows each year were about as different as they could be. “Our 2023 production was about an optometrist appointment, which we initially thought was the most ridiculous idea. It was amazing to see how flexible our students could be and how much they trust us.”
The shows Clover HS produced in 2022 and 2023 were the most similar in style across the three groups. Ryan explains, “I think the 2022 and 2023 shows were similar in effect, with our Edgar Allan Poe show being slightly more intellectual than the Medusa production. Additionally, each show was grouped into ‘chapters.’ We knew that a lot of folks might not be as familiar with all of the Edgar Allan Poe stories we wanted to portray, so we had to make sure the aesthetics were there for this 2023 production. Even if the audience didn’t know Poe’s story, we needed to ensure they could still follow along and enjoy what we were doing live – musically and visually.”
Clover HS also had to work to ensure that their show was unique. They knew this theme had been done numerous times, and they had to find a way to do it differently. “For both 2022 and 2023, we wanted to take an artistic approach to everything we did. We also programmed these productions based on our program strengths at the time and to the students we had right in front of us. We were able to collaborate with the dance department in 2022 and with the English and Drama departments in 2023. I highly encourage using your community’s strengths!”
Challenges During the Class Transition
Ryan says that moving into 2023, the staff asked themselves many questions. “We looked at where we finished last year – and asked ourselves, ‘What do we need to do better next year, and how do we make sure we are challenging ourselves and every student in the ensemble to make them better performers and musicians? Do we have to change our show design layout? Can we still put on emotional and fun shows in Open Class? Can we stick to telling a story like chapters in a book? Does the show have to be abstract?’” There were a lot of questions and not many clear answers. So, Ryan says, “We decided to stick with the three aspects of design that David Starnes taught me during my undergraduate: Aesthetic, Emotional, Intellectual.”
They started the 2023 season by listing their strengths and weaknesses. “We knew we needed to move more elegantly than 2022. With tempos for our music at 200 bpm, we let our faith lay in the hands of our Marching Health workouts. Dr. Elliot Cleveland from Marching Health constructed targeted workouts specifically for our student’s needs, ensuring we were working the correct muscles and gaining physical strength in the appropriate areas to execute our 2023 production. Our kids took full ownership of these workouts and committed to them from day one. I highly recommend a workout program for your ensemble to ensure student safety and strength building.”
Ensuring physical fitness was a recurring challenge across all groups. Adriana describes, “From 2022 to 2023, a huge challenge we faced was building the team’s stamina. Staging dictated that members would be moving at a very high velocity, but to receive the most credit for what we were doing, they needed to also excel in choreography and communicate and perform to the audience at all times. In order to prepare the team, they would run for about 15-20 minutes, exercise, or condition at the beginning of every rehearsal once the show was filled. For the end of the season, we used “power chunks” to help members prepare for Championships. Power chunks consist of the show cut in parts, repeated 3 times each, with 30 seconds in between. Altogether it is a 20-25 minute track where members did “full out” equipment runs of each section, essentially doing three runs of the show with small breaks for water or to take a toss again in between. In terms of physicality, they put in work!”
LM Winds also worked to build up stamina for 2023. Zack says, “Something we did differently this year to combat some of the challenges we faced last year was to pack in shows and overnight trips. We knew our students needed to practice stamina in order to perform the way they wanted to in Dayton. It was tiring, but it certainly paid off.” That said, a concern at the beginning of the 2023 season was that they didn’t compete until the Indianapolis regional in March. Zack explains that they were kind of flying blind until then, not knowing how their show would be received or seeing what other shows were on the floor that season. After their first appearance, the team performed nonstop, building endurance and comfortability with stress along the road to Dayton.
Adriana echoes the importance of preparing students for the stress of performances. She says, “What can be more chaotic than warming up on the other side of a curtain in silence while hearing someone else’s performance on the other side? Prepare your kids and it will feel like any another run through.”
Every single program that competes in WGI faces their own challenges. Adriana explains, “No program is perfect, and we all start somewhere. Every program will have challenges from issues with retention, budget, staff, facilities, etc. When I first started the Somerset Academy, they were spinning brooms because they had no equipment! At one point, the team only had 8 members! Over time, we made the right choices to grow the program.”
She continues, “It is possible to be creative enough to make things work for you, it just takes perseverance and drive. Learn how to raise funds, work with your band director, and be a team player. Find parents that want to help their kids succeed, and ask others you trust for advice. I learned a lot from successful programs because I would go into other teams’ rehearsals and see how rehearsals were run. I studied how they invested their time. You might get great fundraising ideas by asking questions or be able to cut costs by borrowing or renting flags instead of getting brand-new equipment each year. In 2022, we even recycled the floor originally intended for our 2020 program to save money. Where there is a will, there is a way!”
Focus on The Students
All directors interviewed for this piece emphasized how critical it is to focus on your students and design for their needs. This helps to build retention over the years. Zack says, “Meet your kids where they are and design with them in mind. It’s important to ensure your students are challenged and are going to be able to grow each year. When they feel that growth, they come back. I think that’s part of why we’ve been successful in retention. Students love the experience they have here.” Adriana also explains that because they invest in their students, former members often return as staff members. “Keeping your students as your first priority will naturally breathe life into your program, and you will always make better decisions by putting them first.”
Getting to know your students and their needs is a process. Adriana explains, “You have to find out who they are, what they love, what they are capable of, and what they enjoy from this activity. Then ask yourself, ‘What will set them apart and what can they bring to WGI?’” Zack echoes, “Meet your kids where they are at, and success will find you.” However, Zack emphasizes that success isn’t necessarily wining.
Adriana similarly describes, “Marked success is an incredible feeling but the longevity and health of your program should always be the first priority. Be the biggest fan of your team and their biggest supporter and hire people that will do the same. Members truly are doing their best. It may take explaining things in a different way, or scaffolding your approach, but always believe in your team and encourage them to believe in themselves. Be an advocate for your students always! Sometimes it will feel like pulling teeth but get creative and do section runs or acknowledge those who have the best performance qualities or strongest catches in a run. The more effort you put into your program, the more it should evolve into the best version of itself.”
Ryan also explains that it’s important to include your students in the process. “Write down where you are, where you think your kids need to improve, and ask your kids what they think they need to improve. Show them videos of great productions, go to events early to watch other groups and cheer others on. Teach the kids to love this activity and each other.” An open dialogue is a critical component of this.
When evaluating their team each season, Ryan focuses on three things: time, talent, and treasure. “How should you be spending your time and money? Who are your students and who are you? And what assets and materials do you have? Write down yearly goals, three-year goals, and five-year goals based on these aspects and then discuss these goals openly with your team.”
As you make your goals each year, it’s also important to remember what is already working. Zack says, “We went into 2023 knowing that we would have some new things to figure out. But we had a process that worked musically and visually. We knew we needed to keep checking those same boxes.” You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, even in a new class.
Adriana says transition into a new class was a bit intimidating in 2023. She says, “It felt like there was an expectation from us, considering how we ended our 2022 season.” Similarly, Zack from LSM Winds explains that they never anticipated or planned for the same level of success in 2023. But, he says, “We always just try to push our kids a little bit more each year. When we got an 80 at our first show we realized we were doing something right.”
Now, each of these groups will face the challenge of moving into another class for 2024. Adriana says, “Moving into World Class will absolutely have its challenges. We will continue to work with our students in movement technique, improvisation, and exploration, as well as evolving and growing their skill set on equipment. A huge priority for us is to maintain a strong foundation of training in technique for the safety and peace of mind of our students. Our program will need to evolve on and off the floor to support their new responsibilities in this higher class.”
Ryan reveals some very new plans for 2024. He says, “As educators, we must look at what will challenge our kids the most. We are looking to register in the Concert World Classification next year. We have plans with our design team and staff to challenge the kids musically while still providing them the opportunity to travel and compete in the CWEA and WGI circuits.”
Time will tell what LSM Winds, Clover HS Percussion, and Sommerset Academy will bring to the floor in 2024, and the world can’t wait to see it.