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Student uses summer research project to create drum line music for Blugold Marching Band

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

Andrew Smits loves everything about being part of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s always popular Blugold Marching Band, one of the largest collegiate marching bands in the country.

“Some of my best friends are on the snare line with me, standing right next to me,” Smits, a senior music education major from River Falls, says of performing with the BMB. “It’s been a great opportunity to really find out where I fit at the university and to have a great time with the people around me.”

Now in his fourth year on the drum line, Smits has enjoyed helping to bring the marching band’s music to life every year during Blugold football games and other performances. This year, however, he took things a step further — he wrote and arranged the drum line music for this season.

Valuable learning opportunity

Music professor Dr. Jeff Crowell (left) collaborated with Andrew Smits, a music education major who plays in the Blugold Marching Band, on a summer research project, “Blugold Marching Band Formation Research Project.”

Music professor Dr. Jeff Crowell (left) collaborated with Andrew Smits, a music education major who plays in the Blugold Marching Band, on a summer research project, “Blugold Marching Band Formation Research Project.”

This summer, Smits collaborated with Dr. Jeff Crowell, professor of music-percussion and the BMB drum line instructor, on “Blugold Marching Band Formation Research Project.”

The collaborative research project culminated with Smits creating a drum line book, which includes music pieces specifically for the BMB drum line for the 2021-22 season.

It’s been an extraordinary opportunity to be part of the internationally known BMB for four years, Smits says. Being asked to be the drum line arranger and writer has made the experience even more meaningful, he says.

“It’s such an honor to do it,” Smits says. “When you write the music, it creates an identity within BMB. It travels with BMB wherever we go. It’s a privilege to contribute in this way.

“I always thought it would be really cool to write music. Now I have the opportunity and it’s really awesome.”

Doing the research

Before any music could be written, Smits and Crowell had to complete significant research into music pieces to know what best fits and aligns with this year’s theme in BMB.

“I’m not a scientist so I don’t know about laboratories and things that people stereotypically think of when they think about research,” Crowell says. “But for us, it’s a similar idea; it’s just really creatively based. We really dig into things like the structure, rhythmic base, how the music functions within the show and the impact points. If we listen to the music, do people respond? If it worked well, why? For us, the research is picking the music apart and then recreating it ourselves for a new show.”

Each year, Crowell invites one student from the drum line to partner with him on the summer research project so they can prepare for the next year’s season.

The biggest challenge his student researchers face is understanding how the writing they do for the drum line fits with the entire ensemble, Crowell says. Since the drum line sets the tempo for the full band, the music created for it is critical to the success of the entire marching band.

“We sort of start planning from the outside in,” Crowell says. “It’s not just about how to write a part, but how to see that part and the music as part of a bigger picture. We work through the structure. We look at the music from the outside and then the inside, and then we write for the Blugold Marching Band.”

Like most musicians, Smits had plenty of ideas about music that could work for the BMB, Crowell says. So, Crowell had to set parameters so Smits would know where he could and couldn’t go with the music.

“We had to set up the boxes or parameters for how he should write things,” Crowell says. “It would be more challenging if he had no restrictions. He needed to know what end result we were going for. So, it was a matter of confining him within the structure, and then telling him to go for it.”

Smits, like other student researchers before him, had to shift his mindset so he was thinking about something bigger than his own instrument section, as well as creating something beyond what he likes.

“For musicians, it’s really about the end result,” Crowell says. “When we write something, we need to see it from the audience’s perspective. What it’s going to be like when listeners hear it. Ultimately, that can be the hardest thing as a musician. We actively listen to the music and try to understand the audience’s perception of it. There are lots of challenges.”

Smits agrees, noting that it was challenging to consider the music from different perspectives. At times, he had to purposely set aside something he thought would be cool for the snare drums when he realized it wouldn’t work for the ensemble as a whole.

“Writing the book has definitely taught me how to be aware of my personal biases,” Smits says. “That’s a great skill for me to learn.”

Looking ahead

Crowell says the research and Smits' hard work this summer paid off — the music Smits created for the 2021 BMB drum line is wonderful.

“It was really exciting to see it come together,” Crowell says. “Andrew has done a fantastic job. Being in the Blugold Marching Band for (the past) three years, he really gets it.”

Smits says the summer project also will help him in his future career as a music educator. Working alongside faculty experts who have impressive professional experience is helping to shape how he will approach his own career, he says.

“Working with Dr. C and Dr. (Randal) Dickerson has been a really great opportunity,” Smits says of his research collaborator and Dickerson, the director of BMB. “Working with those professionals — collaborating with them, finding out what they like, what they don’t like, what they want and don’t want — was really helpful. It taught me how to fit the drum line music into the puzzle of what sounds good and what feels good to play. It was a great experience.”

With 412 students in the 2021-22 band, the BMB remains one of the largest marching bands in the country. The marching band performs at UW-Eau Claire events and regional events, as well as venues throughout the country and the world.

The BMB will kick off its 2021 season during the Blugolds' first football game, which will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 4, in Carson Park. You can find the BMB schedule here.