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Marching to the beat: Strasburg drum line readies for first competition

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From left, Brendon Stone, Adam Bodkin, Joseph Ziemer, Alejandro Moreno, Alex Wieber and Arron Moreno — part of the drum line’s front ensemble — practice in the school’s gym. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Mohammad Aly moves with his bass drum
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Mohamed Aly, 16, moves with his bass drum during the drum line’s practice recently at Strasburg High School. Rich Cooley/Daily

Tolliver Costello plays bass drum
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Tolliver Costello, 14, plays bass drum as he moves in the drum line. Rich Cooley/Daily

Kayla Sassaman plays cymbals
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Kayla Sassaman, 14, plays cymbals in Strasburg's drum line. Rich Cooley/Daily

John Embrey and Ian Smith play the drums
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John Embrey, 15, left, plays on the tenor drum, while Ian Smith, 17, right, plays the snare drum. Rich Cooley/Daily

Jacob Ziemer on the electric guitar and Tiffany Jarrell hush the sound
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Jacob Ziemer, left, and Tiffany Jarrell perform during practice. Rich Cooley/Daily

Ian Smith and the rest of his drum line sway to the music
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From left, John Embrey, on tenor drums; Ian Smith, on snare drum; and Kala Sassaman and Sierra Martin, both on cymbals, practice as part of Strasburg High School’s drum line in the school’s gym. The indoor drum line, which was just formed this year, will compete against other high school drum lines on March 19 in Hagerstown, Md. Rich Coolely/Daily

Tiffany Jarrell acts with surprise
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Tiffany Jarrell, 15, acts with surprise during a recent practice performance inside the Strasburg High School gymnasium. Rich Cooley/Daily

Ian Smith moves with his drum line
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Ian Smith, 17, center, moves with his drum line, during a recent practice performance inside Strasburg High School's gymnasium. Rich Coolely/Daily

By Laetitia Clayton - lclayton@nvdaily.com

STRASBURG - Call it theater, call it music with visuals, call it an indoor marching percussion line with an active front ensemble.

Strasburg High School's new drum line is all of these and more -- an indoor performing arts group of 19 dedicated, music-loving students.

Strasburg's band director, Chris Szuba, who also is the band director at Signal Knob Middle School, says he decided to form the drum line after some of the senior marching band members kept asking him to do so.

"Central [High School] had one, and it was good, and they competed a lot," Szuba says. "And these guys saw that, and they were like, 'We want one.'"

Some of the seniors say it's been a long time coming.

"We kind of told [Szuba] we wanted it, for the past two or three years," says Chris Mumaw, an 18-year-old senior who has been in marching band playing the trumpet and as drum major.

"He finally gave in, I guess over the summer," adds Ian Smith, 17, also a senior and four-year marching band member.

Szuba says he was hesitant because he knew it would be a difficult undertaking. This is his first time directing a drum line, but he was a member of one in high school and has written drills for other drum lines.

"It's exactly as hard as I thought it was going to be," he says. "It's really hard. It's just me and the parents helping. The kids have to do a lot of the logistics."

However, it's also that much fun, he adds. And the students agree.

"It's music, acting, visuals, fun -- exhaustion," says 15-year-old Tiffany Jarrell, a sophomore at Strasburg. "We get really tired doing this, but it's worth it."

Tiffany plays the synthesizer as part of the drum line's front ensemble, has played the keyboard for five years and plays mellophone in the high school's marching band.

The students say the drum line is more challenging than marching band, because it's a quicker pace and involves more movement.

The spectators and judges also are closer for an indoor drum line show, Ian says.

"You can't make as many mistakes as you can in marching band," he says. "It's a little bit more intense."

Szuba says the music is more challenging, too.

"It's definitely much harder movement-wise and music-wise," he says, adding that the performance is "cramming the same amount of work" into about half the amount of time. An average marching band show is eight minutes long, whereas a drum line show is four or five minutes long, he says.

When Szuba held an informational meeting in November about starting the drum line, he says he was surprised by the level of interest -- about 23 students showed up.

"I explained to them that it's really hard, and it's really fun, and it's really hard," Szuba says.

When some of them found out the time commitment -- practice is from 3:30 to 6 p.m. two days a week, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a few days when school is off -- they decided it wasn't for them. But 19 decided it was.

Most of them have been members of the high school's marching band, and some are also members of the string orchestra. The youngest member, Jacob Ziemer, is only 13 and goes to Signal Knob. He plays guitar in the drum line's front ensemble.

"I wanted to be in it," Jacob says of the drum line. "But Szuba didn't want middle-schoolers. Then he completely changed his song [choice] and he needed a guitar player."

Jacob, who knows Szuba from band class at Signal Knob, says he has been playing guitar for about five years.

The front ensemble that Tiffany and Jacob are part of also includes a large concert bass drum, a marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, bells (or glockenspiel), chimes and a stationary drum set.

The marching drums are called the battery, comprising two snare drums, four base drums, a quintet of tenor drums and two sets of cymbals. The battery and the front ensemble together make up the drum line.

The battery is constantly on the move, while the front ensemble's instruments, which are set up on the front corner of the gym floor, are stationary. The players, however, perform what they call "visuals," including swaying, jumping up and turning around.

"We went to some competitions where the front ensemble didn't do visuals," Tiffany says. "They were just on the side. We're just attracting a lot of attention, saying, 'Look at us.' We're actually part of the show."

And a show it is.

"Modern indoor drum lines will try to tell a story or convey a concept," Szuba says. "When drum lines first started, it was all about precision. Now, it's starting to convey a pageantry."

The music piece the group is performing is called "Spy City" and tells the story of a lab of scientists (the front ensemble) who make a discovery at the beginning of the show. Cameron James, a student who is an actor in the show and doesn't play an instrument, is out to steal the discovery, which is hidden in a small safe. Wearing a stocking over his face, he sneaks around the lab as the music plays. The story ends with a twist.

"Cameron has an accomplice on the inside, and that's Jacob," Szuba says.

Even though the music lends itself to the spy story, Szuba he came up with a lot of the plot line -- with help from the students -- and tailored it to what would work for them.

Since Strasburg's drum line is new, they only have one competition this year -- in Hagerstown, Md., on March 19. There, they will compete against other high school drum lines from the area, Szuba says. Some independent drum lines will also perform at the competition, but those are usually on a much more advanced level, he says.

Szuba says he plans to continue with the drum line next year, and perhaps compete more often.

"It's so unique. It's a wonderful way to reach these kids," he says. "They get to experience a level of performance they wouldn't normally get.
"Even though it's hard, it's definitely worth it."

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