LONGMONT — They tap on snares, shake maracas and play the marimba.
The teen members of the Skywot Drumline spend at least six hours a week practicing their swing show, which they take to competitions around the state each weekend.
Unfortunately, the so-called Skywot Drumline is in a class all its own, so even though the students would like to compete with drumline powerhouses like Longmont High School, they can’t.
“When we compete, we treat our scores as if we’re competing with other schools,” said Skywot director Ryan Melchior. “It’s been very tough because we don’t have large competition to go against. We know where we’ll be (in the rankings) every week.”
The group, which is made up of students from Skyline High School and Silver Creek Middle/Senior High School, is the only group in the state, besides the Blue Knights elite drum corps, that is made up of students from more than one school. That puts Skywot in an independent class, where it always takes first place and its 16 members dream of competing against other schools.
The group’s motto is, “we practice to better ourselves,” Melchior said.
Skywot originally was founded with students from Skyline and Niwot High School. This is the first year since the group was started four years ago that it has no students from Niwot. The moniker remains, however, because band members love the name and that is how they have always been known.
“We kept Skywot because we made a name for ourselves as Skywot,” said Melchior.
The 23-year-old communications and economics major at the University of Colorado has been drumming for 15 years.
When he started Skywot, it was a labor of love to help keep the Niwot High and Skyline High music programs going.
“Because Longmont is the dominating force (in drumlines), anybody who wants to be in a good music program goes to Longmont High School,” Melchior said.
The other schools in the district are too small to form groups large enough to participate in the marching drumline division, which is the division in which Longmont High competes.
Skywot is a concert percussion ensemble. Its members have to express themselves through their music rather than with movement and costumes.
“We treat it as if we are a marching group standing still,” Melchior said.
At a recent Skywot rehearsal, the students went from a loud, structurally fine but less-than-enthusiastic version of “I Wanna be Like You” from Disney’s “Jungle Book” to a jazzy, swinging, stylized version of the song.
That’s because for an hour of their rehearsal time they were self-directed.
Students from the group led the mallets and the battery in sectional rehearsals before bringing everyone together to run through their entire 61/2-minute show.
They stopped each other, gave recommendations and worked through weak sections of their performance.
It was only after their director showed up that they began to move from rote knowledge to drumming with emotion.
“This ensemble has helped me grow as a musician,” said 17-year-old Laura Nemeth, a senior at Skyline. Melchior is a “really motivating instructor and all the kids are so full of heart. All of us want to be here and are trying our hardest.”
“The best part about Skywot is we try to have fun with our show rather than get a good score,” said 17-year-old Shawn Crowder, a Silver Creek junior who is in his second year with the drumline. “That is a second priority. Our first priority is to the audience. A lot of groups we compete against are more judge-oriented.”
Crowder, who plays the full drum set during the show, said the current show is the “kind of music everyone can relate to and everyone can tap their feet to. It’s just fun to play.”
Crowder is a member of the Blue Knights as well, an elite Denver-based drum corps of students from across Colorado.
“Ryan is one of the best instructors I’ve ever had,” Crowder said. “I like his teaching style. He has fun with it. He doesn’t yell at you and tell you you suck. He uses positive reinforcement.”
The group’s members are close-knit and support their friends’ other musical endeavors.
Students from Lyons Middle/Senior High, Frederick High and Erie Middle/Senior High schools auditioned for the group, but they did not make it this year, Melchior said. He encourages students interested in percussion to try out next year because most of Skywot’s mallet players are graduating this year.
Many of the group’s younger members are worried Skywot will have to fold next year, but “we’re trying to stay focused on this season and finish this out,” Crowder said.
Chris Carpenter, 16, a sophomore at Skyline, said it is ironic that “even though (Skyline and Silver Creek) are two huge rivals, music has brought us together.”
Longmont High’s drumline, which dazzled audiences with its “Trolls” show last year, has toned down its set and costuming but picked up the pace on its marching.
The new show, “The Iron Road,” tells a story about the building of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
During the first song, the drumline members sweat and toil as they race to build the railroad track from east and west, meeting in Utah.
The music has a bluegrass feel to it.
“I try to do different things each year to give them a different experience, to let them play music they never get to play,” said percussion coordinator Dave Marvin. “Most of them have never heard progressive bluegrass bands.”
The 21-member ensemble works hard as Marvin continues to make changes to the group’s movements.
Veteran drummer John Myers, 17, a senior who has been in the group for four years, said he is convinced Marvin is trying to get them all to lose weight with the current show.
Last year, players wore large headdresses that made them look like trees. That limited their marching ability, he said. Without the heavy costuming, the Marvin expects his drummers to get out there and sweat.
“We’re getting a good response from judges,” Myers said.
The group recently beat out four other teams to take first in the regional competition.
“The show is not as elaborate, but drill-wise, the marching is a lot harder, but it is not as big a production (as last year),” said Max Burdick, 16, the drumline’s dulcimer player.
The group practices for three hours twice a week and Burdick said the team has “developed at the highest level and ended up with a production that is quite a bit different than anything else.”
Marvin wrote all the music for the show and his students continue to be impressed with his ability to add parts and instruments into the show.
“Dave is awesome. He’s a musical genius, a patient teacher and he’s a fun guy,” said 16-year-old Rachel Kimray, who plays the vibraphone. “I’ve never played anything like it before.”
Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-684-5211, or by e-mail at email@example.com.