colorguard, the creative process

Surviving Color Guard Auditions: What I Wish All My Rookies Knew

I enjoy audition season. The season is full of promise, the weather is (usually) beautiful, and I get to introduce people to one of my abiding passions: Throwing things in the air and catching them while also dancing.

I believe everyone should try color guard at least once. I also understand that color guard is not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s what auditions are for.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking about trying out for color guard or winterguard. Maybe you already signed up for auditions and are wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into.

First, breathe. Auditions can be a lot of fun, especially if you show up prepared. Here’s what I wish all my new and returning members kept in mind before Day 1 of tryouts.


#1: The Couch is Not Your Friend.

Every year, I have people come to auditions having done nothing all summer except sit on the couch. A summer of lazing around, as nice as it feels, is the worst possible preparation for color guard or winterguard tryouts.

Whether you have three months or three days left until your audition, make it a point to get up and move every single day. Go for a walk, a run, or a swim. Do a strenuous chore like gardening. Put on some music and dance around your bedroom. Look up “tabata workouts” or “HIIT workouts” on YouTube.

Anything you do is going to to help you in tryouts (and the entire season).

If you’re completely out of ideas, here’s the conditioning program I use with my guards. We do it in pairs, but you can modify it to your needs.

A Sample Conditioning Program

In this program, you’ll alternate cardio exercise with strength-training exercises.

  • Cardio: Choose a space where you can run laps, jump rope, do jumping jacks, or run in place – whatever gets your heart rate up. Do this for about 2 minutes.
  • Strength: You’ll alternate between push-ups, planks, and squats/lunges (your choice).

Start with 2 minutes of cardio. Switch to 2 minutes of push-ups. Do two more minutes of cardio, followed by two minutes of planking. Finish with two minutes of cardio, followed by two minutes of squats/lunges.

Over time, you’ll find that your cardio endurance is better and that you can do more reps of each strength exercise with shorter rest periods.

#2: Read the Handbook. I’m Begging You.

Not all guards have a guard handbook. Mine do. If your guard has a handbook or a contract or any other kind of handout (digital or paper), please, please read it. 

The handbook covers the things I don’t want to have to repeat twice for every member of the guard – but that I absolutely will have to repeat if y’all don’t read the handbook. Reading the handbook is so important to me that I actually give bonus points in auditions if I can tell the members read it.

If you want to read our guard handbook, it’s here: Comstock Colorguard Handbook 2020-2021 [pdf].

#3: Dress for (Audition) Success.

I generally give people a pass on their outfit for the first tryout, especially since they haven’t even seen the handbook yet, as a rule. By the second tryout, dressing in a way that hinders your performance is a problem; if you’re still doing it by the time you’re actually on the team, I absolutely will put you behind a prop.

For auditions, dress in clothing that allows you to move easily and that is comfortable. Colorguard auditions will demand all your mental focus. You do not want your clothes or shoes to distract you in any way.

I recommend:

  • Athletic shoes – sneakers or split-sole dance sneakers, if you have them. No sandals, flip-flops, or dress shoes. You want your foot entirely covered, and you want to be able to move easily.
  • Leggings or athletic shorts. Denim limits your range of motion, plus it’s gross when you sweat into it. Leggings are often ideal, but athletic shorts can be a good choice for hotter weather.
  • T-shirt or tank top, plus a long-sleeved top. Outdoor rehearsals can be subject to weird weather, so bring a layer.
  • Sunglasses and/or a hat. Both of these can improve visibility.
  • Sunblock. An absolute must. Don’t be the person who flunks out of auditions because you’re in too much pain from a sunburn to continue.
  • Water jug or bottle. Get the biggest one you can find. Mine is a half-gallon, and I usually refill it twice during an 8-hour day of band camp.

If your program gives you the chance to acquire colorguard gloves before auditions, get them. They make everything easier, especially rifle.

In addition to packing along your sunblock, a snack, and your water container, I recommend bringing a writing utensil. They always end up being useful at tryouts and nobody ever seems to have one. Extra hairties often make you popular as well.

#4: Pack Your Mental Bag.

Your choice of clothing and items to bring to band camp help you stay comfortable and focus – but what you focus on is what will lead to success at tryouts (or not).

While every guard program prioritizes slightly different traits in its members, as a rule, you’ll succeed in any guard program if you:

  • Stay curious about your own learning. Everything you learn can always be done better. The more engaged you stay with the process of learning, the happier you’ll be and the better you’ll be at the skills you’re taught.
  • Accept correction and apply it – whether or not it’s addressed to you. Accepting correction is hard, yet you’ll do it for your entire guard career. I’ve been spinning since 1996, and I still sign up for clinics every year just so I can take correction from world-class instructors. Accept it as your coach’s attempt to help you become better and apply it – even if it’s directed at the group generally or another individual in the block.
  • Listen more than you talk. Listen much more than you talk. Talking is generally a waste of time and an annoyance during rehearsal; save it for breaks.
  • Compare yourself to yourself – and no one else. Generally speaking, the judges at auditions aren’t looking for technical perfection. We’re looking for teachability and improvement. As long as you spin better today than you did yesterday, you’re succeeding.

One of the biggest secrets of guard is that “talent” isn’t really a thing in our world. Scratch the surface of any “talented” guard member and you’ll find years of hard work. Nobody rolls out of their cradle able to spin a flag; everyone who does it well has done it for hundreds of hours.

Be mentally present and try your best, and you’ll be ahead of half the people at the audition.

#5: Don’t Try to Hide.

New people always gravitate toward the back of the block at tryouts. Always. You can find the rookies by going to the last line of the block and watching those people spin.

New people hanging out in the back is so common that the guard world even has a name for them. We call them “Back-Row Bettys.”

Don’t be a Back-Row Betty. You don’t have to jump into the very front line unless you want to (some people find it helps their concentration), but do try to get near the front. Most instructors will make the front and back lines switch several times anyway, so it doesn’t do you any good to hide – you’ll be up front eventually like everyone else.

Instead, focus on learning the work as well as you can for yourself. Imagine that you’ll have to teach it to someone else. If you don’t get into the habit of following the person in front of you, you’ll never have to break that habit.

Bonus #6: Practice Between Tryouts.

If you’re allowed to take equipment home, or if you have your own equipment, please use it between tryouts.

There’s a difference between “rehearsal” and “practice” in the guard world. Rehearsal is when you get together with the rest of the guard and your instructor. You learn how your individual part fits with the rest of the team and with the band as a whole.

To fit your part in with everyone else’s at rehearsal, you need to know what your part is before you arrive. Preparing your own part is what you do in practice. 

Any evidence of improvement between tryout sessions, no matter how slight, is like gold to audition instructors and judges. We want to see it. We love to see it. That improvement tells us that you care enough about guard and about your own growth to work on your own – which means you are going to succeed in this sport.

Even if you don’t have equipment, practice what you can. Spin a broom or “air flag” the choreography. Do the dance or movement drills you covered in auditions.

Some Things That Won’t Help You In Auditions and May Actually Make Things Worse

If you do the six things listed above, you’ll be in great shape to make the team. You’ll be in even better shape if you avoid a few things, too.

Here’s what not to waste your time on – it won’t help, and it may make things harder for you:

  • Watching a lot of YouTube videos. Yes, they’re fascinating. But every instructor teaches technique a little differently, and every element in guard has multiple different names. Take a few weeks to understand how your group handles technique before you start comparing it to other instructors online. Otherwise, you might end up having to un-learn how to do things – which takes twice as long as learning it.
  • Buying or using your own equipment unless you know exactly how your instructor wants it assembled. I don’t see this very often, but it has happened: A new person will show up having already bought their own flag or rifle – or worse, borrowed one from “back when Grandma/Mom/Auntie was in guard.” Chances are excellent that you have the wrong item, or it’s weighted wrong, or something else is going on that will hold you back if you use it. If you want your own equipment, ask the instructors for exactly what they recommend, and buy that.
  • Trying to be someone you’re not. In auditions, judges are looking for people who make good additions to the team, not just people who spin well. Being anyone but yourself will distract and exhaust you. We can tell you’re too insecure to be yourself, and we can tell that it hurts your skill development. That’s two strikes in the “no thanks” column.

Show up ready to work and try your best, and you’ll be well on your way to joining the worldwide guard family.

See you on the field/floor!

Help me stay fueled for coaching: buy me a coffee or share this post on social media.

the creative process, writing

How to Write an Essay Fast

Every semester as a college English instructor, I had students who were SHOCKED, SHOCKED I SAY that the deadline for a major paper had snuck up on them without their realizing it.

College does that to you: You’re busy with this assignment and that reading and this club and that sport and this roommate and that party, and pretty soon, you have a 10-page essay due November 11th or April 23rd, and what do you mean that’s tomorrow?!

A professional could bang that essay out in an hour or two. But you’re not a professional (yet). If you were, you wouldn’t be in college. Or high school. Or wherever it is that you’re stuck with a giant paper to write and a looming deadline.

I’m not going to show you how to write that essay like a professional would. I am, however, going to share a method that will allow you to write a passable essay in about the same amount of time it would take a professional to write an outstanding one.

A Note: This method will not turn out a good essayby which I mean “an essay that uses the craft of writing itself as a means of persuasion.” It will merely turn out a competent essay, by which I mean “an essay that demonstrates that you read what you were supposed to read and learned something from reading it.”

Consequently, I do not recommend this approach for essays due in English or technical writing classes – the classes where you’re supposed to be learning the craft of writing. Nor do I recommend it for written works that must follow a specific structure, like lab reports or legal briefs.

If you just need an essay that demonstrates you read some things in the field and had a thought or two about them, however, here’s how to get it written fast.


Step One: Assemble Your Research

Your research is done, right? If not, you have a problem this blog post can’t help you solve.

If your research is done, get all your notes together in front of your face. It doesn’t matter whether you made them on notecards or in a Google Doc or on cocktail napkins or by putting Post-It flags on every page of every book you want to cite. Just get it all in your writing space.

Step Two: Thesis Statement

Open a new Google Doc, Word doc, or whatever your favorite word processor is. (You can also do this on paper, but it’s tedious.)

You may have already done your research with a particular thesis statement in mind. If so, just type it in at the top of your document.

If you didn’t do your research with a particular thesis in mind, here’s how to generate one:

  • Think about all that reading you did. What’s something you can say about it that reasonable people could disagree about? Generate 3-5 such statements – things you could say about the reading that someone else could say “nuh-uh” to.
  • Choose the one that bores you the least, not the one you think is easiest to defend.

A thesis statement should always be a statement about which reasonable people could disagree. “There are four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore” is a fact, not a thesis statement. Reasonable people can’t disagree about it, because you can all just go to Mount Rushmore (or look at a photo) and count the Presidents yourself.

“The four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore deface a sacred Lakota site,” however, is a thesis statement. A reasonable person can disagree, for instance by saying “No, they enhance the site,” or “They’re not a defacement, they’re an example of the glory of American imperialism.” (The fact that you might disagree with every counterargument doesn’t make the arguments themselves unreasonable.)

Avoid the option that’s easiest to defend, because an easy defense makes your essay sound like you phoned it in. “The viewing platform at Mount Rushmore could be placed closer to the Presidents” is easy to defend, and for that reason, it’s super boring. It screams “I didn’t really do any work, I just don’t want a zero.”

The one that interests you most/bores you least, however, will automatically be better written because you actually care about it somewhat. It’ll have an energy that says “Hey, I did enough reading to find a topic that matters.” Do that one.

Step Three: Because Reasons

Below your thesis statement, write down a list of points that support the argument the statement makes. Avoid the urge to get too specific – you want general “buckets” or categories, not details. You can write these as sentence fragments if you like.

For example:

THESIS: The four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore deface a sacred Lakota site.

  • the Lakota considered the Black Hills sacred ground generally
  • the Lakota named the mountain “the Six Grandfathers” specifically
  • the mountain in question actually terrible for carving
  • the monument lionizes the same white leaders who consistently undermined Native Americans’ ability to live peacefully on their ancestral lands

Then, work in a reference to your thesis statement for each fragment:

  • the Mount Rushmore carving appears in the Black Hills, which the Lakota consider generally sacred
  • today’s Mount Rushmore is carved into a site the Lakota called the Six Grandfathers, which had a particular spiritual significance
  • rather than choose a more stable site for the Presidents’ visages, the project was carried out on a sacred Lakota mountain that is actually ill-suited for sculptures
  • the Lakotas’ sacred Six Grandfathers were turned into a monument that lionizes four US Presidents who pursued harmful policies against not only the Lakota but other Native Americans as well

Finally, slap on a transitional word or phrase. Like “also,” “as well,” “in addition,” or ordinals like “first,” “second,” “third.”

  • First, the Mount Rushmore carving appears in the Black Hills, which the Lakota consider generally sacred.
  • Also, today’s Mount Rushmore is carved into a site the Lakota called the Six Grandfathers, which had a particular spiritual significance.
  • Another reason the Mount Rushmore presidents constitute a defacement of sacred Lakota territory is that rather than choose a more stable site for the sculptures, the project was carried out in a place that is ill-suited for carving.
  • Finally, the Lakotas’ sacred Six Grandfathers were turned into a monument that lionizes four US Presidents who pursued harmful policies against not only the Lakota but other Native Americans as well.

At the bottom of this list, write your thesis statement again, but say it differently. For example, “These four factors support the position that today’s Mount Rushmore is actually a defacement of a sacred site.”

Repeat this process for however many points you have. If you’re writing to a page count, estimate that you’ll need half a page for each point, plus half a page each for your introduction and conclusion. The example outline, then, is going to cover about three pages – maybe more, if you did a lot of research.

Step Four: Plug and Play

Get your research back in front of your face, and start dropping it into this outline under each point that is supported by that bit of research.

Drop in your summaries, quotes, and paraphrases with the author, title and page number attached. I cannot stress this enough. Nothing is more boring or eats more time than having to go back and fix all your citations after you already wrote the paper. Besides, it greatly increases the chances you’ll miss one and get dinged for plagiarism. Just put them into the outline, and you won’t have to deal with any of that.

You can use bullet points and sentence fragments here, too. Just put all the evidence bits where they go.

If you have a particularly weird or scandalous tidbit of information, or a fact or statistic that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else, set it aside. It’ll be great material for the introduction. (We’ll get to that.)

Step Five: Sew It Together

Once all your evidence details are in the outline, do the same thing to each of them that you did to your four topic sentences. Connect them to the topic sentence, and drop in transitions where you need them so someone who has never even heard of your topic before can still follow your train of thought. The body paragraphs are a great place to use “for example,” “for instance,” and “to illustrate” in order to introduce actual examples of whatever you’re talking about.

Take out the bullet points, start each paragraph with the topic sentence, line up all the details behind it, and end the paragraph by writing your topic sentence again in a different way. (You can leave out the transition when you rewrite.)

Step Six: Conclusion

Once all your body paragraphs are done, it’s time to write the conclusion. Start with your restated thesis sentence, then summarize the body paragraphs in a sentence or two.

For example, in our Mount Rushmore essay, your conclusion might read:

These four factors support the position that today’s Mount Rushmore is actually a defacement of a sacred site. The Six Grandfathers are a specific sacred site on sacred land. The sheer difficulty of carving them suggests an ulterior motive, particularly when the result is a sculpture of white imperialists with aggressively anti-Native American policies appearing on Native sacred land. 

Finish this paragraph with a “call to action,” or a punchy sentence intended to make your reader feel, remember, or do something with all the arguing you just did. An example here might be “Not only must similar projects be prohibited in the future, but reparations should be made to the Lakota Sioux for the damage caused to their land and culture.”

Step Seven: Introduction

Scroll back to the top. In front of your thesis statement, plug in that particular juicy tidbit of information that you pulled out of your research back in Step Four. For example:

In 1868, the Lakota Sioux were promised that the US Government would not interfere with their lives in the Black Hills. Just two years later, the US Government broke that promise. 

Connect this juicy tidbit to your thesis statement with a sentence or two that moves your reader from here to there. If you’re not sure how to do it, just summarize the points in your topic sentences. It’s okay to be really obvious about this. Remember, your reader has no idea what your argument is yet.

In 1868, the Lakota Sioux were promised that the US Government would not interfere with their lives in the Black Hills. Just two years later, the US Government broke that promise. In 1927, white sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved the faces of today’s Mount Rushmore into a mountain the Lakota considered one of the most sacred sites in a sacred land. Adding insult to injury, the four Presidents he carved all executed anti-Native policies. The four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore deface a sacred Lakota site.

Step Eight: Cite Your Works

Finally (finally!), grab your sources one more time and put them in order on a Works Cited page, using whatever citation format you’ve been using in the paper itself. If you’re not sure how to cite something, Google it.

(In my day, there was no Google. We had to look up citation formats in print editions of the various style manuals. We also had to walk uphill both ways five miles in the snow to attend a one-room university with only a wood stove for heat, with an onion tied to our belts, as was the style at the time. “Give me five bees for a nickel,” you’d say.)

Give the paper a title, if you feel like it.

You’re done! Read it once to make sure there aren’t any obvious mistakes, then turn it in and get some well-deserved sleep while your friends pull all-nighters.

Have other questions about how to survive the research and writing portion of your education? Drop them in the comments. Keep me alive by buying me a coffee, and help your classmates by sharing this post on social media.


the creative process

Can Quarantine Boost Your Creativity?

One of the most frequent questions I see on Quora is how to be more creative, or how to have more ideas, or how authors and artists generate their ideas.

My stock advice has always been to get bored. My famous ten-step creative process begins with it.

I recommend it because it works for me. My brain-monkey absolutely cannot sit still for more than a few minutes before it starts screeching and flinging the stinky, sticky poop of boredom to fertilize my idea garden.

Quarantine is an Aegean stable of boredom. Boredom is stacked to the ceiling. You’d need two rivers to clear out all the boredom. If there were ever a time grow some first-class ideas from a pile of boredom manure, now is that time.

But just because I think something is a good idea – and even recommend it on Quora! – is no proof it’s actually a good idea. I can’t be trusted for advice on what to do in quarantine. I cut my own bangs last week.

So I did a little Googling. Here’s what to know about boredom and creativity.

quarantine creativity

The human brain needs boredom to function optimally.

Boredom may not feel pleasant, but it’s essential for proper brain function. Engaging with external stimuli, without a break, can result in cognitive overload, which has a negative effect on memory, mood, and executive function (the ability to plan, predict, and execute your own daily tasks), say Erin Walsh and David Walsh in an article for Psychology Today.

Many people think that creativity is their personal dump stat, only to surprise themselves with their ability to generate ideas under the right conditions. A lack of creativity may actually be a lack of available brain power – because it’s all being spent on staying busy.

You can be “productive” while you’re bored.

One of the reasons boredom has fallen by the wayside in so many lives is that, culturally, we in the US prize being busy. We’re skeptical of anyone who has the time to get bored. We associate happiness with productivity, so we strive to be productive, or at least occupied. Staying busy has even become an American status symbol, according to one study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The drive to stay busy – whether for status, to make ends meet, to avoid dealing with other psychological issues, or as an end in itself – can become so overwhelming that it causes serious health problems. It can also be an extremely difficult habit to break.

Even if you’re not in a workaholic frame of mind, you may find it difficult to sit alone with your thoughts. If so, you’re not alone. In one 2014 study, researchers gave participants the choice of sitting alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes, or enduring a mild electric shock. Many of the participants chose the electric shock.

“Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative,” the researchers wrote.

Fortunately, you don’t have to flip the switch from “constantly busy” to “doing nothing.”

In a 2014 study in the Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman asked participants to generate possible uses for a pair of plastic cups. Participants were divided into three groups. One group was simply asked to think about the cups question. The second group was first asked to copy numbers from the telephone book, then asked about the cups. The third group was asked to read the phone book, then asked about the cups.

The participants in the third group – reading the phone book – outperformed those in the second group, who in turn outperformed the first group. By experiencing boredom, the participants’ minds seemed to become more eager for a way out, generating ideas more readily as a result.

Undemanding tasks like taking a shower or going for a walk can help incubate more creative solutions to problems. These tasks can convince your inner critic that you’re “doing something productive,” allowing your mind to wander more freely and creatively.

You are doing something productive when you embrace idleness. Your brain may just take a little convincing.

Too much boredom, however, is a bad thing.

Some boredom – enough to give your brain the “elbow room” it needs to daydream – can boost creativity. Chronic, unrelieved boredom, however, is linked to a number of health problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, as well as to a propensity to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods. It may even be linked to an increased risk of premature death, particularly when combined with other factors like a sedentary lifestyle.

Often, this type of boredom isn’t linked to a lack of things to do, but the feeling that what needs to be done lacks meaning or purpose. Unlike the “approach” state boredom that engenders creative thinking, chronic boredom becomes an “avoidance” state that has a negative impact on innovation.

What boredom does for you might depend on who you are.

While many studies have found that boredom has a creativity-boosting effect generally, not everyone appears to respond in the same way to boredom.

In a 2019 study in the Academy of Management Discoveries, researchers Guihyun Park, Beng-Chong Lim and Hui Si Oh studied the effects of boredom in the workplace.

The researchers found that “boredom did not universally increase creativity for a product development task.” That is, not all the participants saw creativity-boosting benefits from being placed in a state of boredom.

Rather, the participants whose creativity benefited most from boredom all shared a set of common traits. They were more likely than their peers to have a high learning goal orientation, a high need for cognition, high openness to experience, and a high internal locus of control.

In other words, people may be more likely to find that boredom helps them generate ideas if they’re already active learners, curious about the world, and inclined to seek solutions within themselves.

Boredom isn’t the only emotional state that boosts creativity.

While some boredom can be productive, boredom isn’t the only emotional state that can help you generate ideas.

In a May 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna L. Middlewood found that when people felt either bored or elated, they produced more creative mental associations than when they were distressed or relaxed.

What’s interesting about these results is that both elation and boredom are classified as “approach” states, or states in which the person is ready to engage with something. By contrast, distress and relaxation are “avoidance” states, or states in which the person retreats from engagement. It appears that we’re more likely to think of something new when we’re already in the mood to engage.

If there seems to be no room in your head for anything except the concerns of the day, it may be time to take ten minutes and let your mind wander. If even the concerns of the day can’t seem to concern you, however, the problem may be too much boredom – or your brain telling you that you’re on the wrong path.

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