Alrighty. The last two. Both Texas groups. Both still going strong. Afterwards, I'll discuss the groups most likely to join these 10 in the near future.
Ronald Reagan 2005 - Reagan opened in 1999 as a "spin-off" of Texas Hall-of-Fame group Winston Churchill. As with any group that breaks off from a well-established program, people were very excited to see what the new school would bring to the table. It turns out, they had good reason to be excited. In 2000, at its very first BOA regional in San Antonio on October 7th, the Reagan band placed third in finals. At the end of the season, at Houston, the band placed 5th. I saw the Houston show live. Despite some rather rough patches musically, it was clear that the team of Mark Chambers, Aaron Guidry, Kevin Nix, and others were developing a unique style -- a sort of crowd-pleasing mix of pop sensibilities with elaborate visuals, electronics, and costumes. (Oh, and in those early years, a big 'ole dose of Cirque du Soleil, for which we can probably thank Aaron Guidry.) Those odd guard outfits, in particular, would be a staple for a few years. In 2000's show, Perpetual Motion, the guard looked like alien band members with pseudo-plumes atop their heads. The uniforms themselves looked inspired by Piet Mondrian. It was an odd mash-up. Besides that, I think the most notable thing about this first BOA show was that the drill writing was already very well-developed. I mean, I could tell right off the bat that whoever was writing it knew exactly what they were doing. I can't really say that about a whole lot of first-time programs, so kudos to them. Like other Reagan programs, the band ended its 2000 show with some symmetry: the drill at the end was the reverse of the drill at the beginning. In 2001, in its second year of BOA competition, Reagan won the Houston Regional over groups like Churchill, Westfield, Spring, and The Woodlands. 2001's Out of the Box is classic Reagan. Cirque du Soleil music made up the majority of the show. It opened with a twinkly, sentimental keyboard solo and some elaborate movement from the band. The guard once again looked like aliens, in skin-tight purple and lime spandex, with purple plumes atop their heads and masks that only covered the top halves of their faces. The drill was flashy, but also musical -- a pretty rare combination, actually. They were able to appeal to both a general audience and the carping critics at the same time. I especially loved the title of the show, because it did seem like something new that you had just pulled out of a box. 2002's The Journey Within was sort of the Nationals version of the Out of the Box show -- this time featuring Cirque du Soleil and Andreas Makris' Aegean Festival Overture. The show contained the famous plume change. A clarinetist acted as a sort of snake charmer, as the band pulled the black sheaths off of their plumes to reveal the orange plumes underneath. It was very eye-popping. Back in 2002, there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding the amount of marching and playing at the same time in this show. People on the BOA forums actually timed the band, and it wasn't flattering. (Although, these days, it might be more flattering!) Despite that, I will admit that I was surprised when they ended up in 11th place at Nationals, if only because they had placed 3rd at San Antonio and were such a fan favorite. Reagan returned to Nationals the next year with 2003's Beyond Perimeters. Super flashy, super crowd-pleasing, maybe the #1 fan favorite of all-time. Watch it, and it's easy to see why. If Reagan got flak in 2002 for not marching and playing enough, they certainly made up for it in 2003. I suppose the reason this show isn't my favorite Reagan show is because you could hear the struggle. Right off the bat, in the finals performance, the musical technique was not very clean, and there was very noticeable phasing between the pit and the rest of the band. So, as exciting and sentimental as the music was, my enjoyment was always sort of diminished by the critical part of my brain. They ended up in 2nd place at Nationals. Ultimately, Westfield won on the strength of their music. (They were first in every music-related caption.) For me, the 2005 show, You Never Know..., represents the perfect balance of a great Reagan show with a great Reagan performance. Every time I think I'm overrating this show, I go back and watch it again. Usually, I'm immediately struck by the ingenuity of the arranging, the way that Guidry played with the Jeremiah Symphony and Symphonic Metamorphosis, totally making those pieces his own. It is the greatest music arranging I've ever heard from a BOA program. When you throw so much music into a show, it's very easy to make the cardinal sin of discontinuity, but somehow, Guidry managed to both constantly surprise, and make it all sound like it belonged together in one show. It's just brilliant. The visual was not quite as flashy as the 2003 visual, but it perfectly fit the music, which is the more important thing, anyway. The real magic happened at the ballad, and continued to the end. This was what Reagan was known for, really pulling on your heartstrings with something sweetly sentimental, but not coarsely so. As the woodwinds played all those heart-swelling (and fairly difficult) intervals, the guard came out in these poofy purple outfits, sort of like sad clowns. At the end of the ballad, they twirled around with yellow ribbons that just beautifully filled the field. Then came the incredibly emotional gut-punch of the Prime Minister's Theme from Love Actually in the closer. Holy cow. Now that was how you build up to a moment. Defying expectations, they ended the show quietly in the corner of the field, because You Never Know... Such a brilliant show. They were undefeated all season until Grand National Finals. They performed first in finals and lost to Carmel by over a full point. You can't really say that performing first did them in, because in semis, Reagan won with an even bigger gap in performance times. So, I have to say, this was a tragic mistake by BOA's judges. I saw this show live with several *very* famous and *very* accomplished music educators, and all of us thought Reagan deserved to come out on top. I can see why visual would go to Carmel, but everything else? Nah. 2006 was Mark Chamber's last year, and it was a brilliant swan song of a show. 3rd in prelims at San Antonio and 4th in finals. Unfortunately, the next year, Reagan struggled to find its footing. Although they placed an excellent 5th at San Antonio and cracked 90 at that contest, they completely missed finals at Nationals, placing 16th in semis. (A good of example of when San Antonio's not a good gauge of National placements!) They have clung on in San Antonio finals over the years, and resurfaced in National finals in 2012. Since Dan Morrison has taken over, Reagan has had a renaissance.
The Woodlands 2013 - The Woodlands opened in 1996. They've made finals at every regional they've attended. They missed National finals in 1998 with that Pictures at an Exhibition Show with the giant Russian carriage. (I have to admit, I don't remember the name of that show.) They've probably been a National finalist-quality group every year since around 2000, starting with the Pyramids show. Certainly, by 2001's annoyingly titled Spectrums, they could have made finals. (They placed 2nd at Houston that year with a 92.10) I saw that one live, and my thought was that they should go to Nationals. Apparently, they had wanted to go that very year, but a football game put the kibosh on those plans. Funny how that seems to keep happening! The Woodlands made National finals the next year for the first time. 2002's Genesis: The Creation of Color show is still probably the best John Corigliano show ever. I absolutely loved the sea of white flags in the ballad, set to Corigliano's Elegy, which Corigliano wrote in memory of Samuel Barber. Such an eerie, beautiful piece of music. It should be played more. The Woodlands placed 8th that year, upsetting a lot of groups at National finals, including Plymouth-Canton, Churchill, and Reagan. 2003's Dance Suite show was (and still is) among their most difficult shows. All Bartok music, but one of their very best music performances. (That low brass in the closer, holy cow!) It laid to rest any doubt of whether they belonged in National finals. 2004 was the Numbers show. "Practical applications of numbers have always had to go beyond the abstract idealization of continuous variables!" What? Lots of narration in this show, but wonderfully performed. I think my enjoyment of these early shows from The Woodlands was always tempered by the fact that they seemed a little bit borrowed and unoriginal. Probably, it was the black screens in the 2002 and 2004 shows. It just reminded me of Plymouth-Canton a little too much. So, the 2006 show, Hide and Seek, kind of came as a little bit of a shock to the system. That was the year they started working with Jon Vanderkolff and Wayne Downey, probably through Joni Perez's connections to Blast! (She was in the original cast.) I actually don't remember this show at all from Arlington. (They placed a very distant 5th.) But, I definitely perked up my ears at San Antonio. I saw it in prelims, and it was just so strange! You can see how Vanderkolff's Broadway experience came into play. The abstract trees that were placed on the left and right sides of the field might as well have been stage left and stage right. At the beginning, the band played the opening to the finale of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, but rather unexpectedly reverted immediately back to an earlier, slower movement, which they layered with Imogen Heap's pop tune, Hide and Seek. This was unlike anything I had ever heard on the marching field. But somehow it worked! The real star of the show, however, was the visual design. It is, simply, a masterpiece. From a pure drill writing perspective, it's probably The Woodlands' best show, and maybe the best drill ever out of Texas. It was so beautiful and musical and original. It made brilliant use of the entire field. During that mello ensemble in the opener, when the pairs of lines sort of rotated and opened up into this long elegant form. So perfect! They placed a surprising 2nd at San Antonio in both rounds, with a surprise GE caption in prelims and a visual caption in finals. They won semifinals at Nationals and were named the Class AAA National Champion. They performed first in finals and fell to 4th place. I wish the music performance had been a bit stronger. 2007's show, Sequenza, continued the absolute bonkers creativity of the design staff. They turned the entire field into a Sudoku board. The music was Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach layered with the Jeremiah Symphony. The visual was so tricky, because they had to incorporate prop flips into the drill to make it work. Furthermore, the movement and drill and music demands were already high on their own. They started out the show with those big, ominous synthesizer chords, as the band plied and fell onto their backs, sticking their legs up into the air like synchronized swimmers. (This was next-level movement, but it was never clean.) The choir up front started to chant numbers, and the props were flipped over. Lots of tricky, metrical changes in the music. The ending with the extended chromatic runs in the woodwinds, as the brass was running around backfield, before collapsing onto their backs. So exciting. This was such a difficult show. So difficult that the rumor was that The Woodlands pulled out of Houston early season because it was such a mess. They ended up 3rd at San Antonio and 4th again at Nationals. From 2006-2014, The Woodlands placed in the top 5 at San Antonio every year they went (so, excluding 2008), usually in the top 3. 2013's Crossing Boundaries represented the large-scale creativity of '06 and '07 shows, but it was married to a very clean performance. The crossing gates acted as sort of manipulators of the drill. They were used to great effect in that opening statement, after the shifting drill suddenly clicked into the moving files and the brass marched forward as the gates went up. Boom! Oh my goodness. That brass. It was unreal. And when those wheels started to turn in the exciting conclusion of the opener, pulling those two curvilinears of brass forward. Unbelievably exciting and musical. I was jumping up and down when I saw the first video of this show, because I knew it was going to win Nationals. So different, so creative, so well-performed. Since then, The Woodlands has clung on. They still do wonderfully off-kilter shows, which I look forward to every year, but the performances aren't always there, and, in the case of last year, they seem to be biting off less than they can chew. They'd be well-advised to challenge themselves with an intricate and demanding show like 2007's Sequenza, since that's the sort of thing that's being rewarded these days. Many of their recent designs also seem like ideas in search of more elaboration.