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*Buh Dum Tss* Penn State’s Indoor Drumline Is No Joke

The intensity of a marching band show is enough to bring goosebumps to arms and send shivers down spines. The beating drums, tight drill sets, and sheer talent of the performers is impressive to music aficionados and the general public alike.

Add some keyboards and guitars, take out all of the wind instruments, and throw the whole performance into a gym and you have marching band’s cool, intense, competitive counterpart — indoor drumline.

Penn State Indoor Drumline, or PSUid, is a competitive percussion ensemble made up of battery (the drums you hit with sticks) and pit percussion (like xylophones and drum kits.) The group uses drums, keyboards, and other percussion equipment, with the choreography of a play, and the emotions of a soap opera, to relay a theme or tell a story with its performance.

While the activity is comparable to marching band, the ensemble takes part in competitions against groups from around the country, all on an indoor performance floor not much larger than a basketball court.

The group is unique because it’s an official club, but members can range from 14 to 22 years of age, and can go to any high school or college. While many of the members attend Penn State, others come from IUP, Penn Tech, and Williamsport High School. Greg Wade, Front Ensemble Captain and marimba player, graduated from Penn State this past December.

“Due to the amount of time everyone spends together perfecting a single show, the camaraderie between the members of the group is strong,” Wade said, despite the performers being of varying age and coming from all over the state.

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The pit practices part of the show in preparation for the WGI Championships. Photo: Alex Bauer

A World Class Line

The group was formed in 1999. Its first year, it competed in the Winter Guard International (WGI) Independent Open Class, and earned third place out of seven finalist groups. WGI is the competitive circuit for indoor color guards and drumlines, and is split into A, Open, and World classes. World class is the highest level of competition. A group can be bumped up or down a level for a number of different reasons, but the most important factor is its performance at the championship competition.

During its second year of competition, PSUid won gold in the Open class. The group’s show, “Hell Yeah,” earned the ensemble a place in the World class for the 2001 season. The group performed as a World class drumline through the 2004 season, making it to the finals all four years. Penn State has since been competing in the WGI Open class, highlighted by a handful of medals in the four of eight years the group has made it to Open class finals.

As a whole, indoor drumline is always evolving, and to keep up with the ever-changing competition, PSUid is constantly improving and evolving itself. As a part of this effort, not every show is the same from week to week, with little things added or changed so that PSUid never performs the same exact show twice.

The Bang Of 2k15

The group’s show this year, titled “The Big Bang,” is about space and gravity. While the group is not trying to tell any stories about the extraterrestrial with its performance, the music is powerful and fun, and the show itself is exciting.

“It holds its own entertainment value,” Wade said. Within the performance, expressions, props, and music are used to give the “space vibe.”

Besides just moving around on the floor, the battery — and sometimes the pit — utilize choreography and body work to add to the visual dynamic of the show. This can come in the form of arm movement and sticks tricks, dance breaks, or a soloist dancer to complement the show’s slower ballad. The entirety of the performance encompasses a lot of dancing, drumming, and moving around on the floor, keeping spectators engaged and interested.

To round out the visual effects of the show, the group has matching costumes, but not the uptight uniforms that are synonymous with marching bands. Indoor ensembles can choose to dress however best complements the show, and PSUid’s outfits this year are a sleek combination of white, black, silver, and a shiny red that matches the drums.

The performance floor is another element used for visual appeal, but also is key logistically for the show. Each ensemble has its own floor and gets a new one each year to match the show theme. Fittingly, PSUid’s floor has been designed to look like the galaxy for 2015.

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The full ensemble set up on the floor before a competition performance. Photo courtesy of PSUid.

A Full Time Job

An indoor drumline show is one that takes hours of practice to perfect. Working with only the weekends for practice and competition, PSUid begins its season in October and doesn’t wrap up until early April, after WGI Championships. In that time, the members of the group have to learn and memorize all the music and movements.

Though the club does have a staff of directors and instructors, much of the responsibility for the performance and equipment is put on the students. On performance days, all of the equipment, including the entire performance floor, has to be loaded onto vans and trailers so the group can travel. Considering each musician has an instrument at least their size, this takes a lot of planning and elbow grease.

On top of getting the instruments from point A to point B, the unit must bring its floor and equipment onto the competition floor when it’s their turn to perform. Drumlines often have a time constraint to do this, and in addition the set up has to be perfect. Imagine if, before the Blue Band took the field, it had only a minute or two to roll out the turf and bring all of the instruments, props, and sound equipment onto the field.

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The battery practices with the props that will be used for the first time this weekend. Photo: Alex Bauer

Hard Work And Teamwork

Part of what makes indoor drumline so unique from other band performances, particularly marching band, is that the performance area is so small everything from minor mistakes to a member’s facial expression are visible to the audience. While this aspect leads to a more intimate performance, it also gives the musicians the opportunity to interact with the crowd.

“You’re not hiding behind a hat, and the judges and spectators can see how you perform,” IUP student and tenor player Ryan Souaney said. Each member is responsible for making sure they look badass, but the whole unit has to move and play as one.

One opinion shared by all members of the group is being a member of drum line requires dedication and commitment. Members give up most of their weekends, often practicing from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

“If you want to learn how hard you can work, then indoor drumline is for you,” bass player John Quinlisk said. Fellow battery musicians sitting nearby echoed Quinlisk’s remark.

On top of the hours spent perfecting a seven-minute show, there is a lot of discomfort involved in distorting your body to make it look pretty. “Nothing you do is comfortable at all,” bass drummer Faraj Vines said.

The drums members perform with a drum, weighing upwards of 50 to 75 pounds, harnessed to their backs. Battery players often have moves that take them sprinting across the floor and choreography described as “unnatural and uncomfortable,” but the end result is usually pretty damn cool. Want to see PSUid in action for yourself? The video below is the group’s prelim performance at WGI regionals in Unionville.

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“Everyone works so hard together on the same project for so long that everyone becomes friends with one another,” Wade said. Because of the time spent together, the bond between members is one that Wade says is often not found in other clubs. “The friends I’ve made here will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

PSUid will perform in WGI Championship Preliminary competition this Friday night, and if it places in the top 15 it will perform Saturday to try for medals and honor in the Open class finals. The season has gone well for the group so far, but there is no way to compare its scores at local competitions to the scores of groups performing in Florida or California. The WGI Championships determine the best drumlines in the United States, and PSUid hopes to rank among them.

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About the Author

Lexi Shimkonis

Lexi is an editor-turned-staff writer who can often be found at either Irving's or the Phyrst (with the chances she'll have her backpack being the same). Lexi is a senior hailing from Spring City, PA (kind of) and studying Civil Engineering. Please email questions and/or pleas for an Instagram caption to [email protected], or for a more intimate bond, follow her on Twitter @lexshimko.

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