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To the beat of their own drum: Percussion ensemble takes international stage

What do laptops and drumsticks have in common at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire?

Just ask the eight music students who used the combination of technology and percussion during an ensemble performance at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, this past November.

Featured in the ensemble were Cassie Venske, a senior music education major from Waunakee; Alli Wilmes, a junior music education major from Stillwater, Minnesota; Rick Haneman, a senior instrumental music major from Lake Geneva; Nick Junker, a junior music education major from Hastings, Minnesota; Shawn Muench, a senior music education major from Cumberland; Joe Hujet, a junior music liberal arts and business administration major from Appleton; Elliott Rittenberry, a senior music education major from Chippewa Falls; and Jack Donovan, a senior music performance major from St. Louis Park, Minnesota. David Kocik, a sophomore English education major and music minor from Hudson, was an alternate.

This ensemble was one of only five groups selected from around the world to perform at the Thinking Forward concert, said Dr. Jeff Crowell, associate professor of music and the ensembles director.

"This is the pinnacle of what we can do," Crowell said. "There is no higher honor for a percussion ensemble than to be selected to perform at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, which is attended by more than 6,000 percussionists. It's a chance to show the rest of the world what we do here at UW-Eau Claire and represent the department and university to the best of our abilities."

The piece the ensemble performed focuses on the idea that people's actions, thoughts and feelings are heavily influenced by movies, Crowell said. Scored for nine percussionists, "Show Us How to Live" addresses performativity in society and combines predetermined musical structures, improvisation, indeterminacy, acting, mimicry and theater.

"The score for this work is in the form of PowerPoint presentations," Crowell said. "Each percussionist uses a laptop to display a variety of score instructions, including pitch and rhythm materials, videos of gestures and facial expressions, timers and text instructions. The percussionist in the center (Crowell) acts as a leader for the group and provides cues and timing for synchronous sections. The work contains a variety of musical characters, from beat-oriented music to silent actions to a free-flowing fabric of sound and movement."

People are constantly learning how to act from each other, and the trends that permeate society can range from absurd to serious. This work highlights this characteristic of humanity and draw attention to all aspects of it, Crowell said.

The experience of playing at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention is one that will be remembered for a lifetime, Wilmes said.

"It is a huge honor to have been accepted to premiere our new piece," Wilmes said. "This performance is the most important performance of my musical career thus far. The members of our ensemble are some of my best friends and that makes this experience even more significant to me. I am so excited to show percussionists from all over the world what our studio can do and also to premiere a very new style of music. Our piece uses a brand new and innovative style of notation, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this process. Being able to represent our studio and also the university itself is a huge honor that I take very seriously."

During the four-day convention, the students also participated in clinics with experts and professionals in the percussion field from around the world.

"I was most excited to see performances given by excellent percussionists," Venske said. "Being in one place with so many others who are passionate about the same thing is a rare opportunity. Without Dr. Crowell, it is highly unlikely that we would have played at the convention. His philosophy regarding music and life helped all of us to grow into the people we are today."

During her time at UW-Eau Claire, Venske said she has been most affected by the music department's commitment to high-quality music.

"The expectation that we as individuals will always be devoted to the music wholeheartedly is the best preparation because it is a mindset;it is the way that we always strive to approach our work."