Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Trinity’s Percussion Ensemble Strikes a Different Beat for Student Musicians

It’s quite unusual to see electronic keyboards, xylophones, drum sets and chimes positioned across a high school gym floor during the winter and spring sports seasons, but for the past 16 years, the arrangement of percussion instruments has been the norm for an extra-curricular activity that’s expanding students’ musical horizons at Trinity High School in Camp Hill.

Introduced in 2007 by BJ Meagher – who directs the school’s marching, concert and jazz bands, as well as the winter color guard – Trinity’s percussion ensemble is teaching musicians that this musical foray is more than just striking notes and beats.

“The program started because I realized the students who were in marching band didn’t have a lot to do during the winter, and I wanted to find a way to help them progress musically throughout the year,” Meagher told The Catholic Witness prior to a practice last month for the ensemble’s season-ending competitions.

“The percussion ensemble is valuable for them because they learn a lot of musical fundamentals and techniques. In percussion, there are tempo changes, dynamic changes and characterization, and they need to be skillful at it to pull things off,” she said.

This year’s show – performed throughout the winter in shows and competitions at a number of high schools across the state – was themed “Extraterrestrials.” Eclectic selections included “Interstellar,” “M.I.B. Main Theme,” “E.T. Theme Song” and an original score by the students. Each song built in crescendo from one to another, accompanied by a touch of voice-overs, acting and “Men in Black” costuming.

Void of the melodious sounds of wind and brass instruments, percussion ensembles combine tempo, notes and synchronization to deliver the tunes of their songs. While the shows are typically filled with recognizable pop songs, Trinity’s performance this year was filled with selections not familiar to many. And that made things more interesting for its members, like Teresa Hoellman, who plays the marimba.

“I like that the songs we picked this year are not necessarily pop songs, which incidentally is something people have said they don’t like so much about our show this time since they’re not as familiar with the songs and wished they knew them more. But I like it. The songs are more instrumental and it makes it sound even more like the songs we’re playing,” she said.

The key to bringing it all together? Synchronization.

If one performer on a mallet instrument strikes too early or lags behind, or if one drummer aims for the crescendo too soon, the full dynamic of the production can be lost in an instant.

“It’s a very connected group. We have to be, because when you have just five people playing a certain part, you have to be in sync; you can’t be relying on another section to cover a mistake,” said Alexandra Arnold, who plays marimba. “This kind of music forces us to be working together, especially this year, because the songs aren’t necessarily familiar to the audience. That’s what I really like about this year’s show; we can’t just rely on the audience knowing what the song is supposed to sound like.”

The ensemble gives students in the music program a chance to broaden their experience with instruments, especially with ones they don’t normally play. Of the 18 members in this year’s group, only eight are playing their usual instrument.

“The students, when they join, start off just learning the technique of playing the instrument, listening to each other, learning notes and the show,” Meagher said, “and then we practice balance, characterizations and embellishments. It’s more than just learning notes.”

Sydney Manning played four different wind instruments before joining the percussion ensemble, for which she now plays the chimes, the xylophone and the vibraphone.

“It was interesting to join the ensemble and start learning new instruments. It gave me new musical skills, and it’s just an entirely different musical setting that’s interesting to me,” she said.

For Danielle Uroda, the ensemble offers a different dynamic to her experience in the marching band. “We get a lot more time with the director in learning to play the instruments, and learning the nuances like rhythm and timing,” said Danielle, who plays the mallet instruments of vibraphone, xylophone and marimba. “This group enables me to do something different musically.”

The percussion ensemble capped off a successful 2023 season with several accolades and a record-setting performance. Trinity won the Tournament Indoor Association Region 6 Final in late April, with musician Sydney Manning earning its college scholarship.

The group headed to Wildwood, N.J., the first week of May to perform in the Tournament Indoor Association’s Atlantic Coast Championships. Trinity scored an 87.6 during preliminaries, and improved its score by more than five points over two days of practices to take second place in the finals with a score of 93.3.

“The students worked very hard to put together the best show of the season,” Meagher said. “The 93.3 is the highest score Trinity High School has earned in percussion competition. The previous high was 91.6, and this is only the third time a percussion ensemble has gone over 90 in competition.”

“In the end, winning a competition isn’t everything,” Meagher said. “We set a goal of 90 and we far surpassed our goal; that is a huge win. We jumped over five points in two days, and that is a huge win. The students are better musicians now than when they started, and that is why we do it. We are very happy and are excited with the outcome.”

(Performance photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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