Director: New organization will draw attention to presence, importance of music on campus

12 months ago
Esteban Bustillos
Mercury Staff

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this article, Steven Robinson’s name was misspelled. The Mercury regrets this error.

A small troop of musicians who came to UTD from all around — Berkner High School, Plano Senior High School, Irving High School and even Houston — huddled together in a packed room in the Arts and Humanities building.

They’d all gathered on Aug. 22 for the same reason: They wanted to be a part of history and become members of the university’s first drumline.

They had all heard one way or another that tryouts for the drumline would be taking place the first day of school at 4 p.m. As the sounds of the pep band’s practice from next door soaked through the dull, gray walls, prospects looked over music, tapped on practice pads or opted to just sit patiently.

In the middle of the room lined with empty cases of all shapes and sizes sat a single snare drum. That’s the instrument the drummers would use and what Lori Gerard, a senior lecturer in arts and humanities and the director of the pep band and the drumline, would judge prospects on as they tried out that day.

Gerard listened to musicians who shined and those that could still use some work.

She didn’t use words like good and bad to describe the performances. She said they’re either “less experienced” or “more experienced.”

  The idea for the drumline started out last fall when a group of four students approached Gerard and told her they wanted to continue on the tradition of having a drumline so many of them brought from high school.

At the time, their equipment was less than ideal. Stuffed in a dimly lit, cramped closet, the beat-up drums were barely suitable for what middle school lines use, Gerard said. 

“These guys came to about this time last year and said, ‘We want to do drumline,’” Gerard said. “And I said, ‘… OK, I’ll show you our equipment that we have.’ And they all looked at it and they all just went, ‘Oh.’”

Despite the struggle of having subpar equipment, Gerard promised to put a budget proposal together for the student fees committee to try and secure funds for actual drums.

The original four students showed up every week of the fall semester last year for a technique class and practiced on drum pads to keep their performances sharp, along with being a part of the percussion ensemble.

“They’ve just been kind of the core group for it,” Gerard said.

Zack Oldham, a computer science sophomore who plays the bass drum and is one of the four, said the idea for getting the drumline going started when the end of year show for UTD’s percussion ensemble didn’t end up happening.

“We went to (Arts and Humanities Dean Dennis Kratz) about the concert and why we didn’t have our big end of year concert and that kind of turned into, ‘What if we had a drumline?’” Oldham said.

Gerard, who started working with the pep band in 2010, said percussion students had always been asking to start a drumline, but the funds and equipment had been lacking.

“I would get probably somewhere between five to 10 emails every summer,” she said. “‘How do I audition for the UTD drumline?’ And I’d have to email them back and say, ‘We don’t have one.’ ‘Oh, well, let’s start one.’ And students don’t realize how much money it takes to do something like that.”

Seeing the demand for a drumline from athletics, Student Affairs and different departments in addition to the enthusiasm of the four students, Gerard put together a budget proposal and hoped for the best.

“I told these students, ‘I’ll propose it, but you guys have to stick with it through the year and then come back next year and do it.’” Gerard said. “‘Cause if I go in and they give me all these instruments and nobody shows up and I don’t have a group to start it, it’s just not going to look good, it’s just not going to work.”

Gerard requested $24,000 to start up the drumline and got the budget approved in March. This covers everything from the drums, cases, carriers, uniforms and any other equipment the line may need. This allowed Gerard to purchase five snare drums, three sets of quints, a drum set composed of four smaller drums, and five bass drums.

Compared to other university drumlines like the one at the University of Texas at Austin, which marches 10 snare drums, five tenor drums, six bass drums and one cymbal player per snare drum, UTD’s drumline is small. But it’s still larger than Gerard expected.

“Honestly, I didn’t think we were going to fill the spots,” she said. “We had enough (instruments) for 18 students total, so I didn’t think we were going to even come close to that. I thought maybe if we had nine people, if we hit ten, I was going to be like, ‘Woo hoo! Victory!’ … It filled in way more than I thought we were going to have going into it.”

Political science sophomore Jacob Munoz (right) and global business freshman Andrew Alston await their turn to try out for the quints. Photo by Yash Musalgaonkar | Mercury Staff.

Political science sophomore Jacob Munoz (right) and global business freshman Andrew Alston await their turn to try out for the quints. Photo by Yash Musalgaonkar | Mercury Staff.

One of the newcomers, biomedical engineering freshman Steven Robinson, started playing in sixth grade. He got excited about the opportunity it would give him to have access to equipment.

“So when I heard there was going to be a new drumline I knew that would mean there would be new drums and everything and it would also give me access to other percussionists who also attend here that I could drum with and we could help each other get better,” he said.

Psychology freshman Amy Diaz, who plays a bass drum she has christened “Professor Snape,” is one of three women on the drumline.

For Diaz, music is an outlet and a way to escape.

“Life can get stressful, and so can college especially, and I found this as an opportunity to automatically make new friends, learn about everything and just gain knowledge about music in general,” she said.

Although she and the other women on the line are part of a minority within the larger group, Diaz, who started playing in middle school, is used to being one of the only women in a larger group of men.

“It’s not some really big challenge, it’s just something (I’ve) been accustomed to,” she said. “I have to be a little bit tougher, which I don’t mind, and a little bit more aggressive, a little bit of a tougher skin, which I cherish, because that’s how life is. They’re just going to throw you and you succeed or you fail and being in something like this, they’re just going to be honest with you. They’re not going to sugarcoat anything.”

A week after the first tryouts, the drumline met as a whole for the first time to assign instruments and get accustomed to one another. Everyone who tried out made it. Line members took out brand new sleek, black Yamaha drums lined with Kevlar for a tighter sound.

As they opened the drums out of the cases like kids unwrapping presents on Christmas day, line members chatted excitedly with one another as they got a feel for the new drums.   

The drumline is looking at playing at a volleyball game in October for their first outing. They’re also gearing up to play at home volleyball and basketball games.

Gerard said she hopes to march the line in this year’s homecoming parade.

The drumline may be small and it may not compare to those of larger universities, but Gerard, who played in the drumline at Central Michigan University, has firsthand experience in how important it can be to a university, especially its musical community.

“I really hope that this drumline, because people will be able to hear it from a farther distance, that it will just let people on this campus know that there is music,” she said. “We have music. We have a pep band, we have a wind ensemble, and we have choirs. We have all this stuff and nobody knows about it. … That’s one of my hopes for this, it’s not just that the drumline is something cool and that everyone loves. I hope that it lets people know that there’s music on this campus.”