Digital Drills

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Two Longhorn brothers make modernizing marching bands their business.

Longhorn marching band rehearsing on a football field

The UT Longhorn Band rehearses in the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Photo by Jen Reel

By Jen Reel

Entrepreneurs often share a common trait: Their business was created from something they love.

For Josh and Luke Gall, their love is the marching band.

“It’s not just the music but the sound,” says Josh, who is the assistant director of the Longhorn Band. “And with the 100,000 people in the stands watching you, there’s not many things like that.”

If you’ve ever seen a show, you get it. The shiny horns and fluid formations, the wave of sound that hits you deep in the chest. But behind the scenes, that seven-minute halftime show can take weeks to prepare, with hundreds of musicians learning the notes, steps, pivots and snaps that comprise these shapeshifting performances.

The Gall brothers know that workload intimately. They’ve each clocked thousands of rehearsal and performance hours as players, educators and coordinators. The experience sparked ideas in them at a young age that eventually grew into a small-scale business. Now with the help of partnerships made through the College of Fine Arts, their company, Ultimate Drill Book (UDB), is expanding.

the UT Longhorn band performing a halftime show in the Darrell K Royal-Texas stadium
The Longhorn Band performed the halftime show in the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium during a UT vs. San Jose State game in 2017. Photo by Jerry Hayes.

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“I always joke that the band was my babysitter because instead of going to a sitter, I just went to band practice with my dad,” says Josh, who is the oldest of four brothers. Luke is the youngest. Their father was a school band director and their mother a teacher and singer, so it’s not surprising all four boys played music growing up in their small town in central Virginia.

When Josh turned 18, he joined The Cadets, one of 50+ modern-day marching ensembles that perform in the highly competitive Drum Corps International circuit, a place where he also mentored and taught. Luke, who runs Ultimate Drill Book full time but also works as media coordinator for UT University Bands, followed in his footsteps. It was here with The Cadets where they first imagined ways to save time learning shows.

Josh and Luke Gall
Left: Assistant Director of the Longhorn Band and UDB co-founder Josh Gall gets a bird's-eye view of drill practice in the Frank Denius Fields indoor facility, "The Bubble."  Right: Media Coordinator for UT Bands and UDB co-founder Luke Gall gathers video during a Longhorn Band drill practice in the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Photos by Jen Reel

The entire process is tedious work. To create a show, a drill designer must produce a series of formations. Each formation is mapped on the coordinates of a football field and made with hundreds of dots, each dot representing one player. The performers are given printouts of these images and must find their dot and learn their own pathways from one formation to the next. They document their individual notes in a dot book, a spiral-bound set of index cards that they typically wear around their neck or waist and use constantly during practice.

“We rehearsed outside for 12 to 14 hours a day, and it’s raining and it’s hot and you’re rolling around on the ground and all of these things, and there was nothing durable about these dot books, so we would re-make them three or four times throughout the season. We were determined to find a way to make the least bad dot book because no matter what, something was going to happen to it,” says Josh.

They found a waterproof ink and began printing and selling personalized dot books to their corpsmates, and in 2010 when Luke played in the U.S. Army All-American Marching Band, the Gall brothers saw a new opportunity. Pygraphics Inc., the software company that the Army band used for designing drills, had introduced a personalized page for players. It included a portrait and coordinates for each musician along with the image of the full formation, and although Josh and Luke liked it, they imagined a plug-in that could manipulate the software’s information to export a more user-friendly version. They had built a relationship with the company while using their products as drill designers, so they went to explain their ideas to the owner, George “Py” Kolb, a UT Longhorn Marching Band alum who had introduced his groundbreaking software decades earlier.

UT Longhorn band members holding their instruments above their heads and marching out to the football field
The Longhorn Band entering the field during halftime of the UT vs. University of Maryland football game in 2017. Photo by Jerry Hayes

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When Kolb first wrote his drill-design software in the early 1980s, he was in his last year at UT and playing trombone with the Longhorns. He had switched majors from environmental engineering to computer science, a relatively new department created in the mid-’70s, and had friends who wanted to be drill designers after graduation. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Kolb recognized a business opportunity.

“I knew this was an obvious application,” says Kolb. Not only was his software revolutionary in that it expedited a process typically done with drafting tables, thumbtacks and hand-drawn sheets of paper, but within a few short years (Kolb was still running the business out of his parents’ house) it became extremely popular because of its relationship with one of the fastest-growing companies at the time: Apple Computer Inc. Apple found Pyware to be its top value-added reseller and would first ship the Apple IIe computer to Pygraphics so Pyware could be uploaded before being sold to consumers. It was a package deal beneficial for both parties: Pyware greatly expanded its reach, and Apple was given the key into music departments. Pygraphics has been the leading drill-design company ever since.

Kolb is now semi-retired and says UDB and Pygraphics complement each other by focusing on opposite areas in the same industry.

“I think we help each other. We have a really great, compatible relationship,” says Kolb. “They’re very hardworking, they create a great product, and can you believe we’re all Longhorns!”

Luke Gall underwater with a drill book to show it's waterproof
A screenshot from UDB's underwater video of a "stress test," demonstrating the durability of a UDB dot book. Photo courtesy UDB

Eventually, Luke and Josh brought on UT Longhorn band alum Eddie Lopez as a partner. Over the years they’ve innovated their products, providing tearproof and waterproof dot books as well as custom-printed, individualized booklets for an entire band’s season of drills. It has put them at the helm of this niche industry, reaching high schools, colleges and drum corps across the nation. But with phones and mobile devices becoming nearly ubiquitous in our lives, the Galls knew they had to expand beyond paper to include these platforms, too. Software applications are used for everything — news, travel, banking, fitness, calendars, games, etc. Why not marching bands? So they developed an app to give performers new tools, like viewing animated pathways and coordinates, calculating steps, syncing music and accessing live updates from the instructors and drill designers. After releasing it in July 2017, their business more than doubled. But with the growth came new challenges. The company had been bootstrapping the costs since Day One and would need a major investor to help them survive and expand.

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Dean Doug Dempster and Jan Ryan at an event
Dean Doug Dempster and Executive Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Jan Ryan at an entrepreneurship event in November 2018. Photo by Lawrence Peart

When entrepreneur Jan Ryan first met College of Fine Arts Dean Doug Dempster, she was surprised that it was at a conference on artificial intelligence.

“It was very clear that he understands that our economy needs innovation and creativity. And where better to tap that than inside this college?” says Ryan, who is now executive director of entrepreneurship and innovation for the College of Fine Arts. Ryan has been spearheading programs and events on entrepreneurship and is teaching her first class at UT this fall.

Dempster created Ryan’s position in September 2017 to give students a place to develop entrepreneurial skills. When he heard about UDB, he introduced Ryan to the Gall brothers, and she helped mentor and connect them to Capital Factory, an Austin-based hub for entrepreneurs, and also to Longhorn StartUP, a class taught at UT by Capital Factory founder Joshua Baer. Here, the brothers were paired with mentors to share ideas, financial information and mockups, and learn the ins and outs of startups and fundraising.

“This was entering into a new world — I’ve never taken a business class or anything, and we were getting a lot of feedback and learning a lot,” says Josh. “And we just confirmed our first major investor.”

UT Longhorn Band members rehearsing on a football field

Members of the Longhorn Band use the Ultimate Drill Book app during rehearsal in the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Photo by Jen Reel

Ultimate Drill Book has launched a new version of its app that allows for better rehearsal management, with features such as calendar and attendance integration, so everyone knows when and where rehearsal is, and attendance is taken as soon as students walk into the room with their phones — no more checking 375 names off a sheet of paper. The company is also working on patenting some of the app’s features, a move Josh says he never dreamed would happen. Ryan says the company has grown by understanding not only who its audience is and what their needs are, but also by being current and creative with technology.

“All we do as entrepreneurs is find gaps that are significant enough to bring value, and then we build resources around that,” says Ryan. “Luke and Josh lived in that world. They understood it. Those were the problems that they also experienced, and they could see the gaps. And they also saw this intersection between today’s technology and this art, and they used that technology in order to solve a problem.”

A UT Longhorn band member checks her phone for drill instructions
A closeup of the UDB app. Photo by Jen Reel

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It’s late August and the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium lights have just switched on, illuminating the field for the Longhorn Band’s last hour of rehearsal. A voice booms through a loudspeaker, “Let’s run No. 5 again, this time moving into 6.” Many students take out their phones for a quick glance at the app before the instructor blows the whistle and begins the drill.

Just that morning, instructors had sent a drill update through the app that took about 30 seconds to export, allowing the students to review changes before rehearsal. Pre-app, they would have had to print 375 copies and distribute them during rehearsal. Josh says before the app, the band would typically cover seven pages of drills in one practice. Now, they average 11 pages.

UT Longhorn band celebrating during rehearsal
The Longhorn Band runs off the field at the end of drill rehearsal. Photo by Jen Reel

“I think that we as musicians have to be entrepreneurs. Not everybody has to start a business, but people have to have certain skills and have certain understandings about how to exist in this space now but also moving forward,” says Josh. “I just happen to teach music most of the time, but I love challenging people’s ideas and forcing them to think through things. That part of teaching, I think, is the essence of being an entrepreneur because you’re a problem-solver. You have to think creatively and actively.”