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Drummer helps students find their own beat

North Kitsap High School junior Bryson Breakey plays the vibraphone Thursday during percussion ensemble practice at the school. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
North Kitsap High School junior Bryson Breakey plays the vibraphone Thursday during percussion ensemble practice at the school.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The North Kitsap area is known for its pristine trails, mountain vistas, small-town hospitality and … world-class drummers?

A group of dedicated teachers and talented students have turned North Kitsap into a training ground of sorts for young musicians, and percussionists in particular.

Next month, North Kitsap High School will send 30 musicians — 16 of whom play in the school’s percussion ensemble — to the state solo and ensemble competition in Ellensburg. The Kingston High marching band last month won $2,500 in a Seattle radio station’s “Battle of the Bands” contest, and will march in Portland’s Grand Floral Parade in June. Kingston Middle School is developing its own crop of percussion talent with a “drum challenge.” And West Sound Academy, which focuses on music and arts education, is in the process of becoming an international baccalaureate-accredited school, placing it among the most prestigious secondary schools in the world.

At the center of this revolution is Terry Marsh. Marsh came to town six years ago via Boston’s Air Force Band of Liberty and the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra. He founded his own studio in Poulsbo, the Drummer’s Den, and has a following of about 40 students. He’s worked with the bands at North Kitsap High and Kingston Middle School, and is developing the music program at West Sound Academy.

“He’s really interested in what’s going on,” said Amy Van Cleave, one of Marsh’s students at North. “He really goes out of his way to help us.”

At North, Marsh and band director Susan Peters developed a Broadway-style percussion show that he likens to “Stomp!” or a performance by the Blue Man Group.

“I think that these kids have a great opportunity,” Peters said of the show. “The kids here are getting a very unique percussion experience. They really get to showcase their talents.”

Many of the students in the show are part of an indoor drum line that Marsh founded in January, and are in the school’s percussion ensemble. The ensemble will compete with the top high school musicians in Washington at the state Solo and Ensemble Contest April 23 at Central Washington University.

The North Kitsap High marching band is also ranked fourth in the state in a division containing about 25 bands with 100 or more students each.

“Our kids are pretty well noted for the fact that they’re doing well,” Peters said.

Several of Marsh’s students have continued their music studies in college, and are winning praise at the university level.

“It’s very obvious that Terry has got a successful thing going on over there,” said David Jarvis, a music professor at Washington State University and a judge at the state solo and ensemble contest.

Jarvis taught Marsh in the mid-90s, and has begun to rely on him to train and send capable musicians to Pullman.

“At the college level, you’re always looking to get some kind of feeder program,” Jarvis said. “It’s always a great connection to have some of my former students send me students.”

Not all of Marsh’s students move on to WSU, but most do end up playing at universities. Many collegiate drummers start learning in elementary and middle school. Marsh is training students at that age too.

Marsh and Klahowya band director Jeff McBirney developed a “drum challenge” three years ago to train middle school drummers for the high school band. The challenge was made up of about 10 tests the drummers had to pass to receive prizes. It worked.

“I’ve never seen a group of kids improve so quickly,” Marsh said. “They totally could play. They were actually teaching the high school drummers how to play.”

This year, Marsh brought the challenge to Kingston Middle School. If the drummers make it all the way to the end, they get a special prize, like a snare drum or some other coveted piece of equipment. To keep them motivated, students get a stripe on their sticks for passing each test.

“It’s kind of boasting rights,” said Matthew Knowles, a seventh-grader at Kingston.

Marsh is just one in a collection of enthusiastic North End music mentors raising up great percussionists. He says he couldn’t do his work without the help of dedicated teachers willing to put in extra time and effort for the benefit of their students.

“You have a guy like me, I come in like, ‘I want to do this Broadway show with drums,’” Marsh said, “and you’re explaining it, and most band directors would say, ‘That sounds like a lot of work.’ But Susan, she’s like, ‘Let’s do it.’

“Adam Campagna (at Kingston High), he’s trying to draw outside the lines all the time. He’s always looking for another angle. And Jeff Haag (at Kingston Middle School), that guy, he treats his band like a high school band.”

The hard work from the teachers and students is paying off. Accolades keep rolling in and standards keep rising.

“The kids are making a name for themselves,” Peters said.

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