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Lockport Twp. is grand champion at Naperville

LISLE, Ill. (Sept. 24) — The marching band from Lockport Township High School was named grand champion at the Naperville Central Marching Classic at Illinois Benedictine University here today, according to the full recap sheet.

Lockport Township High School marching band at Naperville Central Marching Classic on September 24, 2016
Lockport Township performs a show entitled “Winged Triumph”

Class champions were Wheaton Warrenville South in Class 1A and Lemont High School in Class 2A. Lockport, in addition to scoring the most points overall, also won caption trophies for best visuals and best color guard in Class 3A.

This story was updated on Tuesday, September 27, based on interviews we conducted with band directors about how marching bands are scored by judges.

Bands of America milestone for Prospect

The marching band from Prospect High School in Mt Prospect, Illinois, won second place Saturday in the finals round at a Bands of America contest for the first time since October 20, 2007, when the band won second place at the St Louis super-regional competition.

Since 2000, Prospect has won six awards in the finals round at a Bands of America contest:

  • 2nd Place at the Dayton Area Regional, Sept. 24, 2016
  • Outstanding Visuals at the St. Louis Super-Regional, Oct. 19, 2013
  • 2nd Place at the St. Louis Super-Regional, Oct. 20, 2007
  • 2nd Place at the regional in Toledo, Ohio, Sept. 28, 2002
  • Grand Champion at the regional in Toledo, Ohio, Sept. 22, 2001
  • 3rd Place at the regional in Toledo, Ohio, Sept. 23, 2000

For a complete listing (and sorting and searching tool) of all Bands of America trophies since 2000 up until the present day, see our BOA @ 40 database. By default, the listing includes only first place winners at the Grand National Championships, but you can change the options by checking different boxes below the table.

Marching band classification varies

When marching bands compete at festivals, they are classified based on size. Some contests—mainly those hosted by individual high schools, like the NCHS Marching Classic—use the number of performing band members to group bands into classes, such as 2A and 3A. The Classic excludes color guard and drum majors from the count and uses just the number of woodwinds, percussion, and brass, but other festivals may include different types of performers.

Other contests use school enrollment to group bands into classes. This is the system used by the festival at Illinois State University and by Bands of America, although BOA counts only the number of students enrolled at the school in grades 10 through 12. This is because it is quite common for high schools in some states to be combined in the same building with middle schools. Even if eighth graders are performing with the band, as they often do, the BOA classification system only counts students in grades 10 through 12.

Bands win awards first based on competition with other bands only in their class. For example, at the NCHS Marching Classic, the band from Wheaton Warrenville South High School won first place in Class 1A, the band from Lemont High School won first place in Class 2A, and so on. Then, since the festival didn’t conduct a separate finals run, the band that got the top score was named grand champion at the festival, which means the band received the top score of all bands, regardless of class. That was Lockport Township, as stated above.

Some contests, such as ISU, BOA, and even the Lancer Joust at Lake Park High School, conduct a separate finals run, and the grand champion is selected based on scores received only in the finals run. Bands still win awards based on their class at these festivals, though, and the finals awards are in addition to those class-based awards.

Judges use the Box System to score marching bands

Just as students get a “score” on tests they take in school, marching bands are given scores on their performances. Except artistic performances are different from, say, a math problem, because there’s really no “right” answer for an artistic performance. Furthermore, there are thousands of notes, thousands of decisions, thousands of maneuvers that marching band performers have to make correctly during the course of an eight-minute marching band show. This feature makes marching band performances inaccessible to “grades,” which might be computed as a percentage of math problems a student got right on a test.

Instead of a strict percentage or similar “grade,” marching bands use “scores,” which are a little like grades, but not at all like them under close scrutiny. In Illinois, for instance, students take standardized tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. When parents receive their individual student reports over the next few weeks, they’ll see what I mean about scores. Here’s the information from the Maryland State Department of Education, where I work, about the scores on the PARCC test:

PARCC Information from the Maryland State Department of Education

A “Level 5” score on the PARCC test indicates that the student has exceeded expectations in his or her grade level on the test. Likewise, marching bands are scored on a scale from “Box 1” to “Box 5” and this scoring principle is known as the Box System.

For the thousands of musical notes marching band members perform, the score for music performance is based on a set of criteria and on how consistently or how well band members execute the performance.

The Box System, frequency descriptor, and percentage of points awarded.

In short, a performance in which “everyone, all the time” met the criteria for a given category would earn a score in Box 5, or 90 percent or more of the points associated with it. If fewer band members are consistent, a judge would award a score in a different box.

Consider music performance (ensemble) for instance. Under the BOA scoring rubrics, a Box 5 score would be given in the “musicality” criterion, which is worth a total of 50 points out of a music performance (ensemble) score of 200, to a band in which:

The performers constantly display the highest level of control and concept of musicality. The performers maximize the technical and artistic aspect through clear, meaningful, and expressive shaping of musical passages, as evident with proper and uniform expression/dynamics. There is a natural, well-defined, and sensitive display of playing throughout, with valid, tasteful phrasing and idiomatically correct interpretation achieved in a consistent manner.

This is the kind of thing bands are trying to accomplish in their shows, and so this is one criterion by which they are scored. I talked with Naperville Central’s band director, Brandon Estes, about the phrase “idiomatically correct interpretation.”

The band’s show this year, entitled “Red,” includes the Largo and the Finale from Antonín Dvoƙák’s New World Symphony in E Minor as well as Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, one of Copland’s lesser known works.

NCHS’s “Red” explores the different emotions evoked by the color red. (Voxitatis)

“I think performing classical music in a marching band setting allows students to enjoy it in a different way,” he said. “The shows are judged based on what’s in them, on how well the students understand the vocabulary they’re being asked to perform: Do they have the fundamentals and the training that goes into playing the music that they’re using in the show?”

Students often download performances of the works by professional orchestras, he said, adding that they use these recordings as resources to learn about the music and what musicianship might be necessary to perform it correctly.

If the band’s show included a jazz chart or a rock ’n’ roll song from the ’50s, different techniques and playing styles would be correct for the idiom or genre—and judges would score the music performance (ensemble) caption based on a slightly different set of criteria.

The same is true for scores of the visual elements. If a band uses different props or maneuvers, judges base their scores on slightly different criteria, simply because different styles or techniques are appropriate for different idioms or story lines.

For example, the marching band at Reeths-Puffer High School in Muskegon, Michigan, uses music and imagery to tell a story of historical significance in their show “Dreamcatchers.”

“This production receives its inspiration from the famous speech delivered by Chief Seattle in the 1850s,” explained Charles Hodson, the band’s director. Because Chief Seattle delivered the speech in his native language and no one wrote a translation of his words until two years after the speech was delivered, many different versions exist and none of the versions are expected to be Chief Seattle’s exact words. But many translations probably convey the intent.

The show ties to both history and current events involving human rights, and students’ research not only brought an increased understanding of what happened in the 1850s but about what is happening today on Sioux land in North Dakota. How well the band demonstrates and conveys that understanding in its performance, by every performer, all the time, is what drives the score the band receives for “general effect,” which basically evaluates how “effective” the show is and ties music and visual elements of the show very closely.

Reeths-Puffer’s last movement, entitled “Pride,” uses music from David Gillingham’s composition “Council Oak,” a piece that tells a legend of the Seminole Indian Tribe. “During this piece, we use voice-overs and use Chief Seattle’s words to tell the story of a proud people that will be strong and will thrive forever,” Mr Hodson said. The band enlisted Kyan Kiogima, a member of the Odawa Tribe, to be their ‘cultural adviser’ and her great aunt and uncle to be the voices of the grandmother and grandfather for the production.

Reeths-Puffer performs part of “Dreamcatchers” at a football game. (Voxitatis)

“The stage for our production will be set with nine TiPi’s,” Mr Hodson said, “each 12 feet tall with a 10-foot base; a Totem Pole tarp that stretches from the front sideline to the back sideline; a Dreamcatcher prop that covers a 40 yard span on the field; and a fire pit [photo] that we bring out for the second half of the production. The fire pit makes its surprise entrance underneath the Eagle pullover in the third movement.”

Different judges rate different ‘captions’

Marching band contests usually have about eight judges. The final score a band receives for the performance is the sum total of all the subscores given by the individual judges. Those subscores come in for several different categories or traits, which are called “captions” in the marching band world:

  • 20 points for Music Performance (Individual & Ensemble)
  • 20 points for Visual Performance (Individual & Ensemble)
  • 20 points for Visual General Effect
  • 40 points for Music General Effect

Each of these captions has subcategories: As music performance (ensemble) has subscores for tone quality and intonation, accuracy and definition, and musicality that make up the 20 points that caption contributes to the final score, the other captions have subscores as well. Then, each of those subscores has a rubric that defines what characteristics a Box 5 score has, what characteristics a Box 4 score has, and so on.

The best way to understand the scoring system used by judges at BOA events, which closely resembles the scoring system in use at almost all contests in the US, is to read pages 25 and following in the BOA Adjudication Handbook. These pages feature the best explanation we can find of the criteria used in each of the different captions marching band judges use when scoring a marching band performance.

“At the beginning of the season, we expect all aspects of our performance to be in Box 4 or the top of Box 3b, in the range of upper 60s to upper 70s,” says a presentation by the band at William Mason High School in Mason, Ohio. “By the end of the season, all aspects of our performance are expected to be in Box 5.”

Scoring is holistic but subjective

Judges use a technique called focused holistic scoring, which is similar to how human readers score your essays on standardized tests like the SAT. Rather than taking points off for mistakes, judges get a sense of the “whole” performance. Do you “consistently” display good intonation and tone quality, “frequently” display these characteristics, or “never” display them? If your band never displays good intonation or tone quality, the judge will award a score in Box 1 (between 0.0 and 9.9 percent of the subscore total) for the appropriate subscore.

To use an analogy, your writing score on the SAT doesn’t go down for every word you misspell, and marching band music performance caption scores don’t go down a certain amount for every wrong note. What drives the score is how consistently you do whatever is being scored, whether that’s correct spelling on a writing sample or catching a thrown rifle in a marching band show.

And this is fine in theory, as long as judges agree on how consistently a quality has to be displayed to earn a Box 5 score. It’s most likely that an individual judge may draw a line between “seldom” and “occasionally” in a different place from where another judge would draw the line. And then, each band’s performance is a little different, featuring a different set of tens of thousands of notes, decisions, and maneuvers. What’s “seldom” for one band could easily be “occasionally” for another. That’s the nature of art.

Points are subject to bias, boxes not so much

Now, the exact point value will vary widely even among the same set of judges watching the same show by the same marching band later in the same day. There are many reasons for this, and one of those reasons may be bias, as we documented in 2010.

Some judges see the band from the field, others from the press box. (Wheaton Warrenville South via Voxitatis)

But more commonly, judges who are on the field might be in a different place and therefore see different aspects of the show. If they see and hear different aspects of the show, of course they’re going to give it a different score.

However, a band isn’t likely to go from the middle of Box 4 to the middle of Box 5 without putting in a lot of rehearsal. They might jump from an 88 to a 92, just because of bias or the vantage point of specific judges, but the Box System has proven relatively consistent in BOA’s 40-plus years.

Judges help students achieve performance excellence


When judges give a score or feedback, it’s always done in the interest of helping students succeed.

“We don’t necessarily talk scores a ton with the kids,” Mr Estes said. “Of course we let them know what they are, but as educators we utilize the Boxes. I’ll show a video to the kids or I’ll play one of the judges’ tapes. I’ll have them self-evaluate and give themselves a number.”

Often, he said, a judge’s comments—especially if they come in the same place in the show the band has been working on—reinforce the musical and educational mission the directors have been trying to get across. “But even for the staff, we sometimes get used to seeing things happen a certain way and we might miss something, and a judge coming in with fresh eyes and ears can help us see things in the show as well.”

The Box System provides an easy-to-understand system for this self-evaluation, self-review, and self-improvement. The key to formative education is clearly assessing where you are, knowing what the goal is, and charting a path to get from where you are to where you want to be.

“Where can we improve? How do we improve? What are our next steps?” Mr Estes said. “The key is that students recognize where we’re excelling and they also recognize where we have room for improvement.”

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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