Sara Corrigan of Overland Park is a designer. But instead of making logos out of ink, she makes them with high school and college band students on football fields.
“Marching band for me, the visual is what it is about,” says Corrigan.
Corrigan has been involved with marching bands for more than 20 years, both performing and offering choreography expertise on her website March and Spin. She balances her time designing halftime shows, judging performances, and working in the cafeteria at an elementary school.
Band directors from all over the country seek her expertise.
“This halftime show, they played Van Halen's ‘Jump,’” Corrigan says, citing a commission from Campbell University in North Carolina. “A form that I created was the Van Halen logo.”
The drumline, horns, woodwinds and color guard are all elements that she uses to create a picture that makes the music come to life.
Band directors select music to fit their group, but they often hire field show choreographers, such as Corrigan to realize their ideas for a performance.
"We like to pick something that is going to push (students) slightly musically, that fits us for the instruments where we know we are strong," says Kearney High School band director Chris Heil.
"We don't want it to be so hard musically that we have a hard time memorizing it and then can't spend time on the field-show portion of it: the marching and the pictures."
The music should be interesting, and the drills should match that energy, he says.
"We're hoping that nobody runs into each other, that is job number one," Heil says with a laugh.
Traditionally, marching band shapes are geometric lines and boxes that move and shift throughout the performance. But every so often Corrigan gets to let her imagination run wild.
One of her most memorable pieces, Corrigan says, was for Raytown South High School.
“I did a show last year about arachnophobia, so I did a shape that looked like a spider.”
Before she can make any shapes, Corrigan studies the musical score in detail, taking note of the difficulty of the rhythms in comparison to the band’s skill level, and observing the natural divisions and phrases of the piece. She is constantly thinking and re-thinking what can happen during specific moments to get the best crowd reaction.
Corrigan aims for what she calls The Triad: “When you are marching your drill, dancing with your body, and spinning your equipment.”
That is a lot of physical activity for musicians who are doing all of these intricate movements while also keeping time.
"It is a sport, I’m going to call it a sport," says Jamie Baker, the band director for Macon high school, about three hours east of Kansas City.
"These kids are out in grueling heat, they are marching at 170 beats a minute for 7 minutes straight."
Their instruments can be heavy, made out of wood, brass, and sometimes both.
“A flute is a lighter weight instrument, so they might be able to move further easier," says Corrigan. "But the sousaphones are the big ones that wrap around your body, and you can’t always take bigger steps with that.”
Corrigan has to keep all these factors in mind when planning out a field show.
“Sometimes when I’m writing my drill, I will spend hours on one set,” says Corrigan. Drills for high school marching bands can contain anywhere from 15 to 60 sets.
But she is not logging all this complex movement on pen and paper. Corrigan plots out scenes using Pyware, a software specifically designed for creating marching band shows.
She can watch as Pyware digitally animates the drill sets, but in order to get the full effect of her work, she has to go to the field.
After all, as she says, “Standing still is not OK in the marching world.”