News - Standing Room Only for ILMEA Session Led By Fairbanks

Standing Room Only for ILMEA Session Led By Fairbanks

By Carla Morris

Marching Band Drum SaxWhen it comes to halftime shows, numbers impress. Iconic marching bands like Ohio State’s 200-member Buckeyes, or USC’s 300-member Trojans spread their generous talent from end zone to end zone.

But the challenges that confound most high school band directors fall on the other end of the numbers scale: how to field an entertaining halftime show with fewer than 50 musicians—and that’s in addition to fixing uniforms, repairing instruments, driving equipment trucks and orchestrating lunches.

It’s no wonder that a standing room only crowd of band directors turned out for Will Fairbanks’ presentation at the Illinois Music Education Association (ILMEA) conference in January.

His topic? Making the Most of a Small Marching Band: From Design to Implementation to Performance (Works on big bands too!)

Liking to See Kids SucceedWill Fairbanks-Stadium

Fairbanks, director of band programs at Greenville University, likes to see young musicians succeed. With more than two decades of experience designing halftime shows and adjudicating marching band competitions, he has a good idea of what that takes. Show design is key.

“When you write a good show, the kids feel good about what they do. They look and sound better. Having that ability empowers them to take full ownership of what they’re doing.”

Ownership is gold. It translates into enthusiasm, energy and attention to detail during practice and performance.

Fairbanks’ current role directing the University’s band program puts him in touch with high school band directors throughout south central Illinois. Many struggle with severely limited funds and talent; their prospects for engaging show designers are slim at best.

Fairbanks came to Greenville from Texas, where big bands are big business. “In Texas, a show designer commands from two to five thousand dollars per show,” he says. “If you do it for a big school, it could run close to $10,000.”

But he knows that small bands can deliver highly entertaining shows. His personal mission now is to elevate the performances of nearby high school bands by customizing shows that leverage their strengths and play down their weaknesses.

He doesn’t set fees for his design services either; schools pay as their budgets allow.

Good Design, Perfect FitMarching Band Sax

Halftime shows today involve far more than marching and music. Fairbanks likens them to theater, complete with props, drama and choreography. Band terminology now includes ballet terms.

“When you design a show, you hide weaknesses and build on strengths,” says Fairbanks. He begins the process by asking the band director questions, like:

  • Who can march well?
  • What sections are predominantly freshmen, so we don’t have them running across the field to sixteenth notes?
  • What are your performance parameters?
  • Do you want to use all 100 yards?
  • Do you want to use less?
  • How much motion do you want?

Fairbanks uses the drill design software Pyware to customize each show. He then sends the director a video of the planned show using computerized screen captures of avatars dressed in uniform, each holding his or her specific instrument and executing specific moves.

Marching Band TrumpetsSeeing the fully developed program before the first day of summer band camp jumpstarts the process for everyone.

“I create a QR code for all the shows so the kids can download the show to their iPhones and watch it,” says Fairbanks. “They can actually touch their ‘person’ and see all the coordinates for every step they take.”

Technology continues to evolve in the marching band world, and the trickle down effect from early adopters is inevitable. The marching Buckeyes at Ohio State University, for example, now check out iPads as part of their band equipment. The devices contain everything they need to know to execute their unique parts with precision.  

Empowering Others

Ultimately, nobody knows a band better than its director. Fairbanks’ ultimate goal is to teach directors how to design shows for their own bands. Today’s technology makes that entirely possible.

For more information about bands at Greenville University or halftime show design, contact Will Fairbanks,, 618-664-6565.

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This story was published on February 28, 2018

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