I hear them before I see them. Sound punches through the propped gym door, frenetic, full and building toward crescendo like a roller coaster hanging in the air before a drop. I’d been told to expect a mix of marching band and musical theater, with props, costumes and an original score blending into a five-minute tribute to the 1986 Challenger disaster. Talk about impossible to picture …
Vegas Vanguard Percussion Theater is used to showing rather than telling audiences what it’s about. The movement style is somewhere between Samoan war dance and Japanese taiko, and the sound layers the front ensemble’s marimbas, vibraphones, synthesizers and auxiliary percussion with the line’s bass drums, tenor quads, snares and cymbals. The art form of competitive indoor percussion has been around for a couple decades and has diehard fans and a world-championship circuit, but I didn’t know it existed until I met Brian Howerton.
A longtime percussion teacher, Howerton founded Vegas Vanguard nine years ago to give young musicians a performance avenue in the off-season. Its Percussion Theater group for ages 14-22 (there’s also an all-ages Entertainment Drumline) has competed for eight of those years, the last two in the WGI Sport of the Arts World Championships. Vegas Vanguard took bronze in its division both times. Headed into the 2013 showdown in Dayton, Ohio, April 18-20, the group is ranked No. 1 among an international pool of 30 teams in the most "beginner" of WGI’s three divisions.
These musicians are anything but beginners. From where I sit, everything they do looks and sounds perfect. But Howerton has the eyes of a judge, and he tells the kids not to give them any reason to deduct. He goes over and over sections of the program, from the exact height of a stomp to the feather-softness of a mallet strike.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we can’t even enjoy the show. We’re just nitpicking,” Howerton says of himself and front-ensemble instructor John Speas. They both feel this could be it. This program and these 23 musicians have what it takes to win gold. Called Ascend, the program’s visual starts with a massive floor covering printed with an image of Earth in velvety space. Representing the crew of the Challenger, the drumline wears replica NASA flight suits from Kennedy Space Center, and the front ensemble’s button-ups, skinny black ties and thick glasses paint them as Mission Control. With NASA’s help, Howerton obtained authentic audio from the launch and wove it into the theatrics, along with historical sound bytes from Tom Brokaw and President Reagan. The result is jarring and tender, sad and incredibly hopeful. “How do you really find the soundtrack for the Challenger explosion? It’s pretty tricky, but the kids are able to pull it off. And that’s the thing we worry about the most as staff; we could come up with the best themed shows, the best costumes, the best music, but can they pull it off?” Howerton says. “I always tell them: ‘You guys are having success if there are people in the crowd that are crying, because they remember that moment.’”
That moment, the explosion that took the lives of seven astronauts and knocked this nation on its heels, is represented in the show by a crash of instruments and synthesizers. The musicians point skyward. There are gasps and bowed heads, and the drumline marches solemnly. It’s heavy stuff, and I ask Howerton if Vegas Vanguard typically takes the audience to such dark places.
“We’ve only done this once before, and that was, ironically, with the JFK assassination and the five stages of grief. So we kinda got a little dark back in the day,” he says. “But last year our show was anarchy. It was all about going against the system. And the year before, we did a gladiator show. We try to do stuff where they get to yell and scream, a little bit more interactive. … They’re doing all these body movements, kneeling down and standing up and still trying to make the music sound like it would in a concert hall. I always say, play like there’s a blind man that doesn’t get to see you march.”
The required intensity, coupled with the speed and intricacy of the moves, has left scars. Literally. Howerton says strained knees and twisted ankles are common, and every now and then someone spins the wrong way wearing a 40-pound bass drum. Just last week, one of the cymbal players sliced too close to his chest and drew blood.
“They’re hardcore, like, ‘These are battle scars,’” Howerton says of his band. That goes for the men and the women, the high school juniors and the college grads. They’ve been working on the music since October and the drills since January, practicing every Friday for a few hours and Sundays 11-8. Howerton and Speas volunteer their time, but the kids must still come up with $1,600 apiece for the travel and materials required to compete on this level. It’s a big commitment, but there are big rewards. Howerton says: “It teaches them a lot about life—being on time, being responsible, teamwork, goal orientation, just coming together as a group to achieve a common goal.”
That poise is obvious in Courtnee Alaniz. The 18-year-old has been with Vegas Vanguard for three years, and she’s an anchor of the front ensemble. She looks entirely at ease playing with two mallets in each hand, not just hitting the notes but seeming to dance with her marimba.
“It takes a really long time and practice, and it’s a lot of repetition. You get blisters on your hands,” she says, showing me a beauty on her right palm. “But it’s all worth it. The past couple years winning bronze, I felt like I had never worked so hard for something in my life. And I think this show is gold material. … [Brian] has been waiting to put out this show, and he says he found the right group this year for it.”
Chris Goeckner is a big part of that chemistry. It’s the 21-year-old’s sixth year with Vegas Vanguard, and it’s easy to see his influence out on the floor. His movements are right in the sweet spot of the timing. He’s often in the center of formations. And emotion radiates from his face all the way to his fingertips. As a UNLV student he plays for the marching band, too, but he says Vegas Vanguard allows for more personality, that the group is like family. When I ask what he would say to those who might assume they’re a bunch of band geeks until they see the power of this, he smiles.
“We look cool, but we’re still kind of band geeks,” he says, admitting that at this point in a season, he’s often overcome by what they can create together. “You just get so into the music, and it’s so overwhelming that there’s no other way to play it other than just show it in your whole body.”
Those are the moments Howerton waits for, why he never gets tired of this. “When you’re in that zone and you feel it, you feel it,” he says. “And there’s nothing quite like it.”