A recent rehearsal of Columbia's newest drum line began with a barn dance.
Hickman High School senior Rachel Keneipp stood by herself at the front of the Battle High School gym, playing "Turkey in the Straw" on marimba. Behind her, the other 17 members of Columbia Percussion United, all wearing cowboy hats, formed a circle and began line dancing. Then they moved to their instruments and joined in playing the American folk song.
Snare drums, tenor drums, bass drums, vibraphones, xylophone, keyboard, synthesizer and more marimbas built to a crescendo. The final, decisive note echoed beyond the gym walls, fading into silence.
On Aug. 2, Columbia Percussion United, its two directors Nathan Miller and Bob Thalhuber, Columbia Public School District Director of Fine Arts James Melton and Superintendent Peter Stiepleman will travel to Nagano, Japan, to perform at a summer festival of fine arts.
"We thought that the (drum line's) name sort of showed off well that we can come together and unite and create something that we couldn’t do in our individual schools," said Thalhuber, a band director at Battle.
Members come from Rock Bridge, Battle and Hickman high schools and were selected from about 30 students who auditioned last August. There are also two alternates, who rehearse regularly with the ensemble.
An indoor drum line closely resembles a marching band: Musicians move around a grid to create formations. The biggest difference is that an indoor drum line is made up only of percussionists and performs in a gymnasium atop a giant tarp, mostly to protect the floor but also for design purposes.
Columbia Percussion United has 10 drummers and, up front, eight melodic percussionists.
No drum major or conductor leads the group. The players listen and watch each other to stay together.
Snare drummer Max Kelleher, a junior at Battle, said the group is more engaging for the percussionists than marching band because it's smaller and they have to rely on one another more intensely.
Battle sophomore Anousa El-Walid, who plays several frontline instruments, was excited about the musical opportunity the group presented.
"When I first heard about it, it was basically like, 'Oh, my God, I can be in an indoor drum line while I’m in high school and I can get the experience from that,'" El-Walid said.
Because the percussionists come from three schools, they didn't have the luxury of longtime familiarity. But that changed after rehearsals started in August.
"It’s been a good way to expand my friend group and make connections throughout each of the three high schools here in Columbia," Rock Bridge junior Savannah Wittman said. She plays center snare, which means she sets the tempo for the ensemble.
Nathan Miller, associate vice president of Columbia College and the ensemble's director, said the show's name is "Missouricana" and is based on styles of music with a Show-Me State connection.
"We have ragtime, we have some swing, some jazz and then some hip-hop at the end," Miller said.
Each performer has three hats — fedoras and boaters in addition to the cowboy hats — that they change with the music.
After "Turkey in the Straw," the ensemble takes a musical journey through Missouri’s history with a Scott Joplin ragtime medley, pieces by Count Basie and Charlie Parker — both of whom were influential in the Kansas City jazz scene — and, at the end, St. Louis rapper Nelly.
"It’s actually really cool," said vibraphonist Justus Hightower, a senior at Battle.
Melton said the idea for the trip to Japan came about a year and a half ago when representatives from MU's Asian Affairs Center contacted the district about the opportunity.
Stiepleman, Melton and Thalhuber decided a drum line would be the best type of group to send because of the cultural connection to the Taiko Drum Festival that takes place in the region every year. They brought in Miller, who attended Columbia schools and received music degrees from MU, to direct.
"It’s a pretty cool experience for our students," Thalhuber said. "A lot of them have never had the opportunity to leave the country before, let alone go to Japan and perform."
The Japanese government will cover travel expenses for the students and two chaperones. A grant from the Columbia Public Schools Foundation will pay for passports, cultural etiquette lessons and other travel expenses.
In preparation, the group will compete in the Mid Continent Color Guard Association regional circuit from February to April. The drummers will continue to rehearse until they leave for Japan in August.
"I’m looking forward to the culture shock that I’m going to get when I’m in Japan because it will just be a completely new thing," Wittman said. "I’ve never myself been out of the country."
Hightower said he was interested in Japanese culture, partly because he studied the language in eighth grade.
"I’ve always wanted to go to Japan," he said. "So, to have a free opportunity to go to a country I’ve always wanted to — well, slash continent — and play music, which I love to do, it’s kind of a win-win."