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J.J. Pipitone

Josh Harris • Features • November 1, 2002

Photos by Jaime Carrero, Carrero Photography, Lewisville, Texas.

The students in the Lewisville (Texas) High School marching band arrive at the band hall at 6:30 a.m. each day for a before-school rehearsal. The percussionists, led by Percussion Director J.J. Pipitone, begin the process of moving all of their equipment to the football stadium for rehearsal, which is held from 6:45 to 7:45 a.m. every day before school.

Rehearsals are held on Saturdays, too. In the fall, three hours of Pipitone’s Saturday mornings are spent in drum line and marching band rehearsals. When marching season is over, all-day Saturday rehearsals begin for the springtime percussion ensemble.

“That’s a lot of Saturdays for me, all year long,” notes Pipitone, who has been teaching percussion at Lewisville for seven years.

 

During their in-school rehearsals, the band’s 48 percussionists work on perfecting their drumming chops, particularly on the snare, timpani and keyboard instruments. A long-term curriculum teaches students to master these instruments and helps prepare them for college auditions and scholarship eligibility, according to Pipitone.

“All three instruments are strong by the end. Those are the three instruments that colleges want to hear students audition on,” he explains.

Providing a well-rounded educational experience for the percussion students extends to the performance arena as well. During the fall, Pipitone introduces various fine arts elements into the drum line’s repertoire – from costume and set design to prop usage and choreography. In the spring, the percussion ensemble performs classical, Stomp-style and world percussion pieces as well as a grand finale rock song to round out the program.

With a 95 percent retention rate and a near-perfect attendance record among percussionists, Pipitone’s “making it fun” approach to teaching the school’s drum line and percussion ensemble seems to be working. Students begin in the sixth grade learning fundamentals, propelled by visions of MTV stardom. The seventh and eighth graders get a taste of performing on a drum line at their own school’s football games. By high school, Pipitone points out, “I’ve got them hooked. They love it and they can’t get enough of it, and I have to throw them out of the band hall when it’s time to go home.”

School Band and Orchestra: Describe the drum line/percussion ensemble. What is the ensemble’s role in the music program?

Pipitone: Our year is broken down into two parts. The first part of the year – from the fall until Christmastime – is drum line. It’s the marching percussion instruments, the pit instruments and it’s more of a marching percussion focus. The second half of the year – from Christmas until the springtime – is percussion ensemble. We put all the marching drums away and no one’s allowed to touch them. We do concert percussion. We do a whole percussion ensemble that’s more of a classical side to the music. We try to have the kids be well-rounded.

Forty-eight students are in the drum line. In marching band, we don’t march double reeds (bassoons and oboes) so the double reed players have the option of either color guard or drum line. Actually, some of the best keyboard and cymbal players I’ve had come through here have been double reed players. There are probably about eight double reed players. So it’s 48 in the drum line, but when the springtime comes, those eight players go back into the concert band and play their oboes and bassoons and I lose them for the springtime.

Marching band is the only thing we do that involves everyone in the program, as far as the percussion kids go. The drum line is something extra we do. We actually work on that during the school day. All the kids are also in that. Then in the springtime, all those kids are in the percussion ensemble, and they’re in the concert band, except for the double reeds. So they do the marching band and the drum line in the fall, and they do concert band and the percussion ensemble in the spring.

SBO: As the director, what do you hope participating students will gain from the ensembles?

Pipitone: I hope that what they gain from the percussion groups and in the band program has something to do with music but mostly to do with life. I think that hopefully we instill in them a sense of responsibility and work ethic and dedication and the importance of perfect attendance. Hopefully they’ll develop some self-motivation, self-confidence and a strong self concept. Hopefully the students will gain some time-management skills by learning to balance band and work and school and family and church and all the things that are important to them, and still find time to practice and develop our instruments on a high level. If they can take all those skills that we learned and that we instill in them, after having done it for so many years, hopefully it becomes a part of them and a part of their life, and then they can apply to college and on into their career. Most of what we try to do is teach the kids, and it’s not necessarily about rudiments and scales; it’s so much about life and providing them an experience where they can learn and grow and then go out into the real world and be successful.

SBO: In your experience, how many of the students stick with percussion from sixth through 12th grade?

Pipitone: We have probably about 95 percent of the kids sticking with it. I try really hard to make it fun and have them work hard, but they don’t really know they’re working hard because they’re having so much fun. Some of them go off and do athletics, but most of them stay in.

SBO: What is the goal of the drum line and the percussion ensemble?

Pipitone: What I try to do with the drum line is to combine all of the elements of the fine arts that we have. We do music. We do drill and movement. We have props, and that involves someone that designs the props and then the kids come and paint them, so there’s a lot of art that goes on. The kids make their own costumes. We do a lot of acting and role-playing and theater-type things. So I take all of the elements of the fine arts and combine them into one package because I think that gives them a more enriched experience.

For the percussion ensemble, we try to get the kids to be well-rounded. All the kids play keyboards, snare, timpani. We have them play all different things. We try to get them to be well-rounded because that’s what gets them into college and gets them scholarship money. That’s really geared toward them and focusing on getting them into college.

SBO: Are these two ensembles part of the curriculum or are they extracurricular?

Pipitone: The marching band rehearses one hour a day before school. We have to rehearse before school in Texas because it’s so hot. So it’s one hour before school every day and then we do a three-hour Saturday rehearsal. In Texas, there’s a rule that you can’t rehearse more than eight hours outside of the school day. So with one-hour rehearsals before school each day, that leaves three hours we can rehearse on Saturday. And that’s it. We can’t rehearse any more than that. The idea is that they don’t want the directors to go overboard with the amount of time they spend on band. They want the kids to be able to work, do school, do family and just be kids, so that they’re not always in band rehearsal. They have the opportunity to go do other things. They know that if they don’t put a cap on the rehearsal time, band directors will go way overboard with the amount of time they spend rehearsing. It’s good because that gives us directors time with our families and forces us to be efficient in rehearsal.

Then during the school day, we’re on block schedule, so there are four periods. Each period is roughly an hour and a half long. First period, all the percussionists are in my class. During that class we work on the drum line show. That’s in the curriculum and part of the school day. We don’t do anything that has to do with the drum line show outside of class. We don’t usually do any of the marching band music in class unless there’s a problem.

SBO: How are the two ensembles structured and does that composition change?

Pipitone: In the percussion ensemble, we have eight different pieces that we perform in concert. Every kid in the program is required to do a classical piece. Each kid does a stomp-style piece – one year, maybe it’s garbage cans, another year it’s brooms. We have two levels of classical pieces and two levels of stomp pieces. We divide the group in half. They each do one of those in each category. Then, from there, there are things that they can choose. We usually do a work that’s predominantly keyboards. We do a work that’s focused on battery percussion, with no keyboards. Then we do a couple of pieces that are cultural – maybe a Guatemalan marimba piece to teach them about a new culture that they don’t know about, or maybe something from the Middle East, a gamelan-type piece. We have done a Brazilian ensemble in the past – some sort of a world percussion thing where it’s a culture they know nothing about and we get to teach them about it. The very last thing we do is a pop chart, something that’s off the radio that they can feel like a rock star when they play it. All the kids are involved in that. We have drum sets. We bring in a couple of guitar players, and it’s a big, fun way to end the concert each year. So there’s lots of different pieces. On each piece, they switch instruments. So if they play marimba on one song, then they’re going to play snare drum or something different on another song. They have to play different instruments.

In the drum line, they try out on an instrument and they keep that instrument the whole time.

SBO: Is there an audition and/or a prerequisite for these ensembles?

Pipitone: There’s an audition for both. For the drum line, we have auditions in May and they come and play for us during four different rehearsals. We sort it all out. We don’t ever cut anyone, but we may move them from one instrument to another, depending on what they can do and where we need them. Once they’re given an instrument – if they make the snare line, then they’re going to play snare drum the whole marching season. The following year, if they want to play something different, they can try out on another instrument.

For the percussion ensemble, our kids work on a set of pieces for snare, marimba and timpani that are considered the standard for high school percussionists in the state of Texas. They work on the pieces all fall, for this huge festival that sets them on the track to All-State. We use this music to audition everyone for concert band season. We’ll take all 40 percussionists and have them play in a blind audition – where we can’t see them and they can’t see us – and then we put them in order and break them down into five different bands. The top two bands combine to play the top-level classical piece and the other three bands play the second-level classical piece. The top two bands play the top-level stomp piece and the other three bands play the second-level stomp piece. We break it down like that. From there, they can sign up for other pieces that they want to do.

SBO: In your opinion, what characteristics make a good drum line/percussion ensemble participant?

Pipitone: As far as the drum line, in general, we’re looking for kids who have good grades. The high-level keyboard percussion instruments and the high-level drum line instruments have to have good grades. In Texas, we have the “no pass, no play” rule, where if they’re making a 70 or below, they can’t play. So if they’re making a 70 or below come audition time, they’re not even going to get an audition on one of the battery instruments or one of the upper-level keyboard instruments. Grades are first and foremost during drum line season because we can’t have holes. Then I would say, specific to the drum line, the students have to be very athletic because they’re about to strap on a drum and run around the field playing all this music with the drum on. It’s a pretty athletic activity. As far as the pit goes, they really need to have some self-motivation and a good focus because they’re going to have to learn to read and play a lot of advanced, four-mallet techniques. They have to have the ability to concentrate and get into a practice room by themselves and spend some hours developing the techniques.

For the percussion ensemble, it has a lot to do with them taking the initiative to work up these pieces on their own. We do have a private lesson program that’s 100 percent participation – all the kids take private lessons. It’s not required, but they all do it. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s in there that they work on those audition pieces. The audition happens around Thanksgiving and then we break them up into the different bands. So, for percussion ensemble, it’s very much them having to be self-motivated because they have to learn these things on their own. They have a once-a-week lesson but a lot of the work is done on their own, so they really have to take the initiative. That’s probably the biggest thing there: if you want to get into one of the higher bands and play in the top percussion ensembles, you really have to have responsibility, time-management skills, and self-motivation.

In the drum line, all 48 kids play together, but in the percussion ensemble, one of the eight pieces may be 10 players, so we make sure that every kid gets to play on at least two songs, but every kid doesn’t play on every song. It’s good for them. It’s more time on me but it’s less time on them. We’ll have a Saturday rehearsal and each piece will meet for an hour and a half. I’ll have to be there the whole day for all the pieces, but they only have to come during the time their piece meets. So they have a lot more free time in the spring.

SBO: How do you generate student interest in the percussion ensembles?

Pipitone: When they’re first starting out, they all want to sign up for percussion because they think that I’m going to turn them into that drum set player that they see on MTV with the ripped up clothes and the earrings and the wild hair. So they come thinking that that’s what it’s going to be. What I have to try to do is teach them the basic fundamental things that are sometimes not fun, but make it so that it’s fun. We may do some boring fundamental things but then, at the end of a lesson, I may teach them how to twirl their stick through their fingers. That’ll keep them going through the next couple of weeks – they’ll be so excited. They can’t wait to get to class to show me how they practiced their stick twirl. So little things like that can keep the sixth graders totally into it.

Then in the seventh and eighth grade, once they move up and go into the band, we try to do some drum line-style things that they can play during their football games – middle school has football, too, and pep rallies, just like we do. We may do some fun things with different, funky cadences to keep them going. Most of what they’re doing is fundamentals and scales and rudiments and developing, but we will do little fun things throughout the course of their sixth, seventh and eighth grade years to keep them excited about it. I also try to have them come to the drum line shows and help us move equipment. They see how cool it is and they look forward to doing that all through middle school. And once they get to high school, I’ve got them hooked. They love it and they can’t get enough of it, and I have to throw them out of the band hall when it’s time to go home. You just have to try to keep it fun.

SBO: Why do you think it’s important for your music program to have these percussion groups?

Pipitone: I think that the music program is like a very diverse tree. Each branch of the tree is color guard, drum line, the different ensembles that we have. I think it’s important for each branch of the tree to be strong so that the tree as a whole can flourish. Like I said, we do marching band all together, but we also have different things that we do, like drum line, color guard, percussion ensemble – some of those smaller ensembles and different venues to perform at. The director and the band staff are very supportive of each of the things that go on and so when each of these little things is successful and plays on a high level, it makes the whole program stronger.

SBO: What do you think sets your percussion ensembles apart from other schools’ percussion groups?

Pipitone: That’s a tough question. In the Dallas/Ft. Worth, there are a lot of great percussion groups. I feel like this is the Mecca of high school drum lines, in the state of Texas and this area that we live in. They’re all fantastic. What I try to do is run a program a little bit more democratically than I think some other people do. The kids have a lot of responsibility and they have a lot of freedom. They’re involved in every aspect of our program, from fundraising to designing props, costumes, all kinds of things like that. There’s really nothing we do that they’re not involved in. They have a lot of ownership and they have a lot of pride in the program because they’re so involved in everything that we do. I try not to do much of anything by myself. I try to have them involved in every aspect of it so that it’s more than just playing music. It’s a lot of skills that they can use in their lives. By letting them have a lot of responsibility and running it more like a democracy, I think that probably sets us apart from most of the dictatorships. I try to let the kids do a lot of the work and have a lot of the responsibility.

SBO: What is the band camp schedule?

Pipitone: There’s a one-week drum line camp with just the drum line. And then the band camp is two weeks long afterward. The one week of drum line camp is the last week of July. Regular band camp is from Aug. 1 to Aug. 11, which is when school starts. The drum line camp is eight hours a day, five days a week. If they’re doing really well, we’ll go to a movie. We’ll say, “You’re working really hard and we can tell you’re getting a little fried, so tomorrow morning, everyone bring five dollars and we’re going to go see ‘Star Wars.’ ” It’s scheduled for eight hours a day for three weeks, but we may go to a movie or do something fun, too.

The practices are all outside, so we have to be careful how we do it. They all have to wear hats. They have to bring water jugs. We rehearse sometimes standing under a shade tree and sometimes marching around the field. But we try to give them plenty of water and plenty of breaks so that they’re not dying of exhaustion and that sort of thing.

SBO: What is your approach to teaching the drum line? Do you work with a particular curriculum?

Pipitone: During the classes, it’s more geared toward teaching the music and teaching the drill of the marching band show and the drum line show. We do try to incorporate all those fine arts elements, like I was saying before. It’s not as much like a curriculum as other disciplines are. We do have a long-term curriculum for snare, marimba and timpani. It’s a curriculum of books and literature that they have to play in their development on each of those instruments. At the end of their senior year, they will have completed each curriculum to develop them into a fine snare drummer, a fine marimba player, a fine timpanist that we hope will be able to go to a college audition and win a scholarship and go on in percussion, if that’s what they want to do. We also have kids that go and get percussion scholarships but they’re not music majors, they’re just using music as a recreation and for a little scholarship money. Our goal is to try to get them into college and if we can help out with some scholarship money – even if it’s not a lot, every little bit helps. So our curriculum is more of a long-term thing that goes through different method books and different solo pieces to try to develop them on each of those instruments. They begin that formal training in the ninth grade and finish by the time they’re seniors. We try to tailor it to their individual needs. So if a person is weaker in a keyboard area but can drum really well, they’re going to spend most of their time on their keyboard skills so that by the time it’s all said and done, all three instruments are strong by the end. Those are the three instruments that colleges want to hear students audition on.

SBO: How do you grade student participation in the drum line?

Pipitone: We break down the grading into four different categories. The first grading category is attendance. We strive for 100 percent attendance and encourage the students to fight through small illnesses and that sort of thing. Some days I wake up at 5:30 and don’t feel like going to school either, but we have to fight through that sometimes. Just about all of them have perfect attendance. One or two kids have been absent this year so far, and that’s all. In terms of attendance, as far as their grade goes, if it’s an unexcused absence or they’re late, they get marked off. But if it’s a legitimate excuse, then obviously they don’t get marked off for that. They have to be on time, which is a half hour early because we have a lot of stuff to move. They’re required to be there a half hour early. They have to be on time or else it comes out of their grade. The second grading category is a daily playing grade, where they have to pass off, for me, certain parts of their music. They’ll get a playing grade based on that. And they usually do pretty well because they’re great about practicing. That category actually carries more weight than all of the others. We feel that if they can practice each day and they’re up on their practicing then that means more to us than any of the other things. The third grading category is test grades. The students have tests where they have to come pass off music, or they have drill tests. The fourth category is performance grades. We have football games every Friday night. We have marching contests. We have drum line contests. Each one of those things are for a grade and basically you just have to do everything you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to show up on time. You’re supposed to have all your uniform parts. We do an inspection of the uniforms – make sure everyone’s got black socks instead of white.

SBO: What is the most challenging aspect of directing these percussion ensembles?

Pipitone: The most challenging aspect of what we do is that at our school we have a lot of different groups and only four periods in a day. So there’s not much space to rehearse. A lot of times, especially if it’s raining and all the athletic teams, and the ROTC and the cheerleaders and everybody are trying to get a place to play, sometimes I come out to rehearsal and I don’t know where we’re going to rehearse. We have to figure it out. That’s the most challenging thing: getting locked out of a rehearsal facility or not having a rehearsal facility and finding a way to be productive during that time. There are a lot of obstacles like that that get in our way. And that’s probably the most challenging part about it. The kids are great. I have nothing but good things to say about them. It’s just that sometimes we never know where we’re going to be rehearsing.

SBO: What is the most exciting aspect of directing these percussion ensembles?

Pipitone: The most exciting part is standing there and watching them play during a performance – the feeling I have when I watch them perform and knowing all the hard work that they’ve put in and finally watching them achieve their show at such a high level. There’s no greater feeling than listening to them and watching them play that show and it’s finally good and it’s such a rewarding feeling because it’s taken so much work to get to that point. I usually wind up getting pretty emotional because they do work so hard.

SBO: What kind of a support staff do you have?

Pipitone: We have a wonderful staff. There are four band directors. We have two other assistant band directors besides myself – I’m the fourth band director. As far as the percussion goes, I’m the director and I have someone who’s my right-hand man, who teaches the private lessons for grades six through 12. I do all the beginner classes and he teaches all the private lessons. We have a second private lesson teacher who handles all the overflow lessons – there are about 150 percussion students in sixth through 12th grade. We have another person who does our choreography for our drum line show and has his hand in everything visual that we do. I have a student who designs our props, backdrop and floor and does all the artwork for that. She designs it and all the kids come help paint it.

SBO: What is the theme for this year’s drum line show?

Pipitone: We’re doing Les Miserables this year. I absolutely love that music. I’ve always wanted to do this. We have a tarp that’s painted like cobblestones, like in the musical. And we have props in the background that are really neat. All the costumes are French Revolution-style. A lot of the girls have dirty-looking, peasant-style dresses and the guys all have dark pants and vests and they look French, which is what we’re trying to do.

SBO: What are your goals for the future for the drum line?

Pipitone: Our goals are always to get absolutely as many kids into college – and with scholarship money – as we can. My personal goal is I’m trying always to get better at my music arranging skills and my drill arranging skills.

We want to get bigger and better each year. We want to bring in some new equipment and we want to keep trying to make a difference in these kids’ lives so we can move them onto college and have them be successful. I’ve been doing this for seven years now so it’s wonderful when a kid comes back to me after graduating from college and tells me this is what he’s doing. It’s just really exciting. We’re in the business of teaching and helping kids and that’s our main thing.

SBO: Do you do the music and drill arrangements for the drum line shows?

Pipitone: I write all of the percussion music for all the shows and I do all the drill for the drum line show. It’s a lot of work.

SBO: Is there anything else you would like to add about the Lewisville High School drum line and percussion ensemble?

Pipitone: I would add that one of the things that makes us successful is the support of our parents. Our parents are very supportive. They get our kids to school at 6:30 in the morning, every morning. They come and work very hard, loading equipment, chaperoning and doing all kinds of things. We really couldn’t do anything we do without their help. I would like to thank them for all they do.

 

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