Winter Percussion

The crowd quiets in anticipation as the stadium lights dim. The percussionists crouch low on the tarp, instruments at the ready. The electronics kick in, starting the first chords, as a single dancer makes her way across the tarp, activating each luminescent prop in turn. The percussionists rise and join in, the music swelling in one last show. 

The members of the Winter Percussion went to WGI Finals in Dayton, Ohio this past weekend, making their way through three rounds of intense competition. The group came away with seventh place in the finals, with a score of 92.3. Though the group had a slow start to the season, they quickly gained traction and with each performance bettered their show.

Senior cymbal player and visual soloist Avery Shelhamer said, “I don't even have words for how much we improved this season. I'm not even going to sugarcoat it; we were not good at the beginning of the season. We couldn't play together at all. By the end of the season, we not only played together, but we formed such good bonds with each other that everyone was crying for our last run.” 

As for that final run, many members in their final year of Winter Percussion were feeling very bittersweet for their last performance. After putting so much effort and time into the production, with that being their last year of work, it was very emotional for the senior percussionists. 

“I was feeling sad that it was my last performance ever, but at the same time, I was happy because it was a great run,” said senior center marimba player Chelsea Neely. “The last competitions are the most fun I have had during the year. Ending with them is always the best.”

Beyond the emotional stress, nerves and excitement of the performance, the group faced many physical challenges in their final competitions as well. Senior center snare player Travis Haskins suffered an injury on the first day of the trip, breaking his arm and nearly missing out on the rest of the finals. Despite his pivotal role among the battery section in jeopardy, Haskins pulled through and performed through the rest of the trip with one arm in a sling, his dedication and one-armed playing even bringing one judge to tears. 

After the trying events of the weekend, Haskins said, “The greatest lesson that I've learned in winter percussion is that friends are worth more than trophies. When I broke my arm on that day, I felt so cared for by everyone and I felt like they were the reasons I still wanted to compete with my injury. I would rather get seventh in open class with people that care about me than win with a group that doesn’t care about each other.” 

Despite Haskin’s feat of resilience, he wasn’t the only one making strong improvements in the final performances. Many who transferred to Winter Percussion were coming from a career in wind instruments for marching band, thus making a large shift in their musical work and having to catch up to the long-term percussionists around them. 

I was a beginner on cymbals this season, so it's insane the amount of confidence I gained both physically and mentally this season,” said Shelhamer. “In the middle of the season, the staff decided to make me the visual soloist for the show, and it gave me so much more confidence in my abilities. I can't thank them enough for that experience and faith in me.”

The bonds formed between members of the Winter Percussion group have proved beneficial for all involved. Many have found themselves inspired in either their musical skills or personal being, all thanks to the musicians around them. 

They inspire me by being themselves,” said Haskins. “They’re all such amazing people that I can't help but become a better person by merely being around them. Not to mention their musicianship is one of a kind. They are all so great at their instruments and I'm lucky to have an ensemble that provides the entire package.”

This final string of competitive performances, with long bus rides and near-sleepless nights, bore witness to the culmination of many strenuous months. The staff and musicians alike put much work into the props, music and choreography, in order to make their way to WGI finals. 

“WGI is a very rewarding yet exhausting experience. We practice late into the night and wake up far before the sun to go compete the next morning. It takes a great deal of mental fortitude to be able to perform at such a high level and put every ounce of your energy into the activity for three non-stop days,” said senior cymbal player Alexa Magnus. “However, the challenging nature of WGI makes it that much more rewarding, knowing you put everything you had into making those performances better than you could've imagined. Being a senior, it was even more challenging to know that this event was the last time I'll get to be a part of the Winter Percussion ensemble. Saying goodbye to my fellow performers and staff members was such a challenge because I know I'll miss them a lot.” 

This season of Winter Percussion, each member surrounded by fellow dedicated musicians and constantly pushed to do better, has seen many valuable lessons for each participant. On and off the field, these musicians have spent countless hours practicing and learning new skills to make this season the best that it could be. 

Senior snare player Marek Magnus said, “Adolescence is a difficult time that contains pressures and changes that will influence how you grow and develop. Perhaps the greatest strength we can have is the ability to have individuality. This season taught me that I do not have to be the best at everything in order to achieve something worthwhile. Life is about exploring the world and making it what you want. Even though this is the end of a chapter of my life, I am ready to enjoy the next chapter and embrace it as myself.” 

Story and photo by Annika Christiansen