by Kara Hansen
TOPEKA — Marching bands are a dime a dozen.
But at Hayden High School in Topeka, students march to the beat of a different drum.
That’s because for the past four years, students at Hayden have livened up their team’s halftime entertainment with a drum line — a cadre of percussionists that combine their music with choreographed group movements.
The result? A combination of energetic and crowd-pleasing routines set to a driving beat.
Hayden’s drum line might be relatively new, but it’s had plenty of time to win it some serious fans.
“The crowd loves it — they go wild when we do certain movements,” said drummer Alex Hughes, a 15-year-old sophomore. “They even request and yell out songs they like.”
And although 16-year-old junior Johannah Good is the first to admit “we’re not as well-known as the sports teams,” she’s also quick to add that “I think the students really respect us.
“Sometimes kids will come up and ask us what we’re going to be playing that night at the game.”
During the fall and winter, the line keeps busy performing at many of Hayden’s home sporting events, including all of the home football and basketball games.
In the spring, though, the group’s focus shifts to various community events, where it appears at everything from ice cream socials to the Kansas Koyotes’ minor-league football games.
“We are asked to perform a lot in the Topeka community, and we are always up for a gig,” said Kristie Ossello, director of the drum line. “All people need to do is contact me at Hayden to set up a performance time, and we’ll be there to rock your house.”
When Ossello first came on as band instructor at Hayden five years ago, however, there were not enough kids to even make up a “line,” much less rock anyone’s house.
“At the time, the music program at Hayden was in bad shape,” said Ossello. “I had an outstanding percussion student, and I didn’t like the fact that he didn’t have the same opportunities at Hayden that other kids had at the other high schools.”
So the two began planning over the course of one summer and started a drum line at Hayden that fall. Their limited resources required Ossello and her student to get creative when it came to instruments. The department only had snare and bass drums available; the toms had to be cobbled together from three broken snares.
“We had a lot of rigging to do of the equipment that we had, but we thought it would be a good start,” said Ossello.
But instruments weren’t the only area in which Ossello had to get a little “creative.”
“The only ‘real’ drummers I had,” recalls Ossello, “were the three snare drum students. The others I recruited from my jazz band.”
Victoria Hatch was one of those pressed into service.
“I play the trumpet in band and was kind of pushed into doing drum line my sophomore year because they needed more people,” said the 17-year-old senior, who plays the cymbals.
“I started going because I had to, but I loved it,” she added. “It’s so much fun seeing everyone get into a groove together.”
Like Hatch, the drum line program has come a long way in the past four years.
The program has grown so popular — and competitive — that tryouts are held as early as April of one school year for the next school year’s drum line. That allows plenty of time for students to learn their instrument and routines for performances the following fall.
“We are now marching seven snares, five bass drums, three quad toms and seven cymbals. I personally think it is a perfect number for a drum line, because we are powerful in sound and appearance,” said Ossello.
Students who don’t make the cut are often made alternates or instructed in a different instrument that might be in shorter supply.
Despite the popularity of the drum line, even the students recognize that it’s less about the rhythm and more about the groove.
“One of the best things about drum line is the people,” said Rob Wintel, a 17-year-old senior. “We’re a really tight group and we really look out for each other.
“Everyone, from freshman to senior, is equal to each other.”
That egalitarian approach makes for a synergy that has students learning almost as much from each other as from their director.
And that’s just the way Ossello likes it.
Although she writes all the music for the drum line and choreographs the large group movements, Ossello leaves the “isolation moves” up to the kids to create in their own sections.
“The snare drummers come up with all the sticking that they do, which is really hard stuff, and the cymbals do all of their own stuff, too,” said Ossello. “I like for my kids to have ownership of what they do, because then it is important to them and they’ll work hard at it.”
But it’s not all work, say her students.
“Ms. Ossello incorporates us into the decision making and asks our opinion on things,” said Wintel. “She’s really good about keeping us on track, but having fun at the same time.”
After each appearance, line members review a videotape of their performance and, with the help of Ossello, make any necessary adjustments or changes to the routine.
“Ms. Ossello really makes you want to be your best,” said Hatch. “The band teacher I had before really focused on us looking good as a group, but Ms. Ossello goes beyond that. She works to help us get better personally and encourages each of us.”
In addition to daily band class, the drum line practices as a whole once a week. Another day during the week, each member practices with his or her “section” — cymbals, snare drums, bass drums or tenors.
And, of course, the members are expected to practice constantly on their own — too constantly, according to the teachers who catch the drummers working out their routines on their desks, textbooks, and everything else in sight.
While the practicing is important, it’s the performances that the kids live for.
“I love the energy of drum line,” Wintel concluded simply. “There’s nothing like it.”