Julia O'Malley: Clark Middle School is planting the seeds of a noisy parade

jomalley@adn.comJulia O'MalleyJanuary 18, 2014 

At Clark Middle School on Wednesdays and Fridays after the last bell rings, a racket spills out of the gym and bounces off every corner of the building. It's a sound you might describe as a ratatatat crowd-surfing on a sea of clackaclackas. Once in a while, it swells into a shock wave of booms.

It's drumline, one of Clark's music programs. Ingredients include snare, quad and bass drums, and cymbals, all of them played loud as a stampede, and tween-age kids, boys mostly, their faces serious as stone. As far as I can tell, it is Anchorage's only drumline, middle school or otherwise. Being middle school, it has the advantage of also being adorable.

The program is so popular that each drum has at least two students lined up to play it. Most of them are beginners but when you stand in the gym and the kids fall into rhythm, the sound chews into your bones. You have to surrender to it. You have to nod along. It's one of those things that make you think: Why don't we have more of this in our town? (Like our Fourth of July parade. It is so quiet I have literally seen people asleep on their floats.) Lucky for all of us, Clark is planting some noisy parade seeds. I can't wait to see how they grow.

Last week I found about 50 students practicing drums. Half of them marched in formation, hammering away; the others watched, marching along. Weaving among them was Clark's band teacher, Aeneas Alldredge. He wore a Hawaiian shirt, his hair was spikes on all sides and he had a nub of a goatee. As the band skittered to the end of a number, he squinted his eyes the way you do when you hear two cars crunch together in a parking lot. A snare drummer had forgotten to march and everybody got tangled up. (Drumline is as much choreography as it is rhythm.)

"That was awful. If that were a pizza, I'd send it back," Alldredge hollered. "I say that with love."

Drumline started last year with a few kids and some cobbled-together drums, Alldredge told me later. Then Clark Principal Cessilye Willams wrote a legislative grant application to get drums and other instruments for a school marching band. Williams, it should be known, is drumline's biggest fan. She's a genteel, impeccably dressed tough cookie from Texas. She is also totally nuts for marching bands. ("In Texas it goes, like, God, football, marching band, and family is somewhere in there," Alldredge said.) Williams played clarinet. When she talks about her childhood band camp, her voice gets soft like she's talking about a kitten being held by a baby. She still remembers her band routine. She did part of it for me in her office.

When Williams hired Alldredge, she said, there was only one open band teacher position in the city. She had lots of good candidates but she hired him because, she said, she wanted a marching band and she knew Alldredge, a longtime rock drummer, brought the energy she was looking for.

"He has exceeded, above and beyond," she said.

Williams calls drumline the "heartbeat of the band." Clark's marching band, including drumline, will play in the Fur Rondy parade next month. The school also has a flag corps. And a show choir. And an orchestra. And a jazz band. What's next?

"Maybe baton twirlers," Williams half-joked. "You know, I do come from that era."

The cool thing about drumline, Alldredge told me, is that it pulls in kids who don't see themselves as musicians. Drums are "a gateway instrument." Students learn drumline compositions by ear. Pretty soon they want to play in band, he said, and they start learning to read music.

"You get them in the door and then you trick 'em with classical music."

When drumline started, he said, "it was like someone threw a drum set down a stairwell." But they've shaped up and they keep getting better, he said. They get addicted to the rhythms. They practice all the time, sometimes drumming on the lunch tables, which they get in trouble for, constantly. They know now how to talk about what they are doing using time signatures. They have written some of their own compositions.

The musical dynamics of drumline aren't very subtle, he said. It is, basically, "loud, louder, and louderer." Which, naturally, is part of the appeal. I talked with four drumline kids Friday morning whom Williams pulled out of class for an interview. Three of them were girls who play cymbals. (The cymbals are an all-female operation, known as "All the cymbal ladies.") They all pulled up their sleeves to show me scars from "cymbal bites," caused when the big metal pans accidentally catch the delicate skin of the forearm. A cymbal bite in Clark's drumline is a badge of honor, they said. Alldredge takes a picture when it happens. Word has spread at the school that drumline is fun, the girls explained, so more kids keep showing up

"We look cool and we get to go different places, so I think that's why people like it," said Summer Kuhns, 14.

The lone boy in the interview party was Nathaniel Meeker, also 14. He is the lead snare drummer. He also plays percussion in band but that's not like drumline , he said.

"There's a lot of classical," he told me.

Last week, cymbal lady Princess Argonas informed me, Nathaniel played so hard his stick broke. (They go through about 20 sticks every three weeks, Alldredge said.) That was cool, the girls said, but not as cool as the kid who played so vigorously he went through his snare top.

Meeker was attracted to drumline because it is unique; no other school offers it, he said. All the kids nodded.

"And we get to play really loud too," Argonas said.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


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