Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Horrible Danger Of Giving Drums To Teenagers

Carolyn French and Andrew Thies, Drumline Entrepreneurs

"The more our kids do parades and performances, the better and more motivated they are."

Carolyn French hit the ground in full stride when she started her teaching career at Burlington's M. M. Robinson High School ten years ago. On top of her teaching workload, she immediately got involved coaching the school hockey team. She got to know her students through her extracurricular activities, her social studies classes, and her all-around approachable, friendly manner. It wasn't long before Carolyn and her partner Andrew Thies, also a teacher, got the notion of starting a school drum line.

Rewind way back to 1987 and you'll find Carolyn French in the Ridge Raiders Drum and Bugle Corps in Hamilton. She played with them until 1992. As a product of the Niagara District schools, she had started some music lessons in grade six. By 1992 she was involved with the Kavaliers up in Kitchener-Waterloo and was doing regular percussion work for the RHLI and the Lincoln/Welland militia bands. In the summers she worked with the Fort Henry Guard, and in 2001 marched snare with the Kingston grenadiers.

M.M. Robinson's Drumline 2011-2012.
First place finish in Ontario's first marching drumline competition,
held last month at St. Michael's College School, Toronto.
Even with little formal musical training, French is not lacking any of the essentials for being a great instructor. Her teaching experience includes years of training youngsters in the local Air Cadet band and summers at the Black Down Army Cadet Training Centre in Base Borden. French has built an impressive resume from years of parade ground and military band experience. She completed her teacher training at D'Youville University.

Continue in rewind mode. You'll find Andrew Thies playing drums in Steel City Sound, the junior group of the Ridge Raiders. By 1997 he was a leading drummer for the 713 Air Cadets. During his tenure the 713 cadets became the top band in the province, and his parade skills were being honed. Thies continued on as an instructor for them. He ramped up his commitment by attending the Kiwanis Kavaliers' winter camp in Fort Meyers, Florida on two occasions. He toured with the Kavaliers as a trumpet player.

Andrew Thies and Carolyn French
Thies went into formal music studies at Mohawk College in the Applied Music Program, where he studied with Anthony Michelli. He continued at McMaster, getting his Bachelor of Music degree. and completed his teacher training at U of T. Thies is now teaching K-8 music at James W. Hill School in Oakville, and spends two or three days after school co-directing the M.M. Robinson Drumline.

He and French were recently married. They originally met at the Black Down Army Cadet Summer Training Centre in 2003.

The MMR Drumline had a humble beginning, when French and Thies pulled a few kids together to do some drumming as part of a multicultural show. A student named Logan Traynor, after seeing the St. Michael's College School Drumline perform at Musicfest, was so impressed that he approached French saying, "Why can't we do that?" So they put together something for the show. Everyone was in the right place at the right time. Thanks to the visionary support of principal Leona Woods, they got some start-up cash to buy some used drums and started the school drumline.

Soon, a dozen kids were playing drums covered in mactac, and French and Thies began the process of transferring their skill and enthusiasm to the next generation. The students didn't learn how to march until the day of their first parade, which was the Stoney Creek Canada Flag Day parade, 2007. The teachers marched with the kids on that "super hot" day, and they played one song.

A sense of humour comes in
handy when you're spending
time getting teenagers to
line up and get organized!
A humble beginning. What French and Thies didn't foresee was that they were introducing precision drumming into a new market that was ripe and ready for it. Only a few other schools around the province were experiencing similar interest. 

Says French, "Ten years ago drumlines were part of a bugle corps or marching band. Now it is acceptable to be separate. Some organizations are looking to start drumlines only. In Ontario there are a lot of drumlines in high schools; the interest has been exploding recently."

"In the states there is indoor drumline, which is a combination of theatre, drumline and dance. We'd like to see the other schools doing this type of show, where there is a lot of movement."

French and Thies, because of their infectious interest in raising the bar and motivating their members, are always looking for new challenges. Next year they have plans to actively participate in the Wintergarden indoor drumline world championships, in Dayton, Ohio. 

After watching their marching drumline perform (and win!) at the Provincial Championships last month, I agree that the sky is the limit when you include the movement aspect to drums and percussion. Not only does it open up the artistic and creative possibilities, but it allows you to include more students in more ways.

Now, six years later, the M.M. Robinson Drum Line has become one of the most significant school drum lines in the province. Steered by the ongoing commitment of French and Thies, the ensemble pursues quality instruction and coaching, discovery of new ideas, and new ways of engaging with their community.The ensemble continues to expand its horizons and prove what can be done for the sake of putting on a good show. The MMR Drumline is a great success story and will be an inspiration to many.

The MM Robinson Drumline's Eight Part Formula For Success

  1. The Leaders - motivated, available, open to new ideas
  2. The Principal Who Started Them Up - visionary, affirming, risk-taking.
  3. Time Commitment - rehearsals, after school, 3 or 4 days a week.
  4. Equipment - start-up funding from school or community donations; ongoing funding is possible by accepting payment for parades and other appearances; sharing and cooperating with other directors.
  5. Instruction and Coaching - assistant instructors have been contracted to share the load. Hamilton drummer and percussionist Dave Simpson assists on a regular basis. Corey Pearce of the St. Mary's Crusaders in Hamilton is always available and helpful. Says Thies, "Corey is a great instructor. He is hilarious, passionate and caring. He connects with the kids instantly." Finding good instructors is very important. You need someone who gets along well with kids and has a sense of humour.
  6. Community Engagement: Fundraising, Parades, School Spirit, Social Media - the drumline participates in school pep rallies and sporting events. It leads the school's involvement in the annual Christmas parade in Burlington and in many of the surrounding communities. Students are learning the values of hard work and teamwork. Student leaders are being sculpted as they have opportunity to rally their peers around a good cause, and a new challenge.
  7. Discovering New Ideas: Traveling, Watching, Self-Coaching, Viral Excitement and Recruitment Hype - regular use of Twitter and Facebook helps the directors stay in touch with parents. Galleries of photos are there for sharing, and rehearsal videos are easily posted and shared instantly. 
  8. "What Next?" Attitude - this is the final and critical component of success for the M.M. Robinson Drumline. It will keep us watching them for their next exciting move!
You can read, and hear, more about them at http://www.mmrdrumline.ca/

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