By Maddie Orton
It’s all led up to this. The lessons, the daily rehearsals, the code of conduct. Now the fourth- and fifth-graders of Montclair’s Drums of Thunder wait to make their entrance onto Lincoln Financial Field. It’s their first performance of the season and they’re kicking off halftime at the Eagles game in front of nearly 70,000 people. But let’s rewind a few days.
“Every year, I do get a little nervous in the beginning: ‘How are we going to do this?’ This year was particularly challenging for us because we’ve only been together as a new corps for four weeks,” says founder and teacher of Drums of Thunder Louis D’Amico. “They’re trained and they’re ready.”
Hillside music teacher D’Amico founded Drums of Thunder over 30 years ago. The group that started as four or five students has now grown to 34, and about 100 kids audition for those spots.
“It’s a wonderful experience for them because they work as a team and they rely on each other,” D’Amico says.
D’Amico believes the experience instills confidence in kids as well. And certainly trips to perform at the U.S. Open, the Washington Monument and other major events don’t hurt student interest either. Still, it’s a lot of work and discipline for these 9- and 10-year-olds. Are they having fun?
“Heck yeah!” fifth-grader Raeden Oliver says excitedly. “I get to be in this class every day. I get to dance, so I’m in front more. That’s really the best part.”
Oliver’s also a big fan of his teacher, as is principal Michael Chiles. He attributes success to D’Amico’s passion for percussion. “They try to duplicate us, but it’s difficult to do that because they don’t have a Lou D’Amico,” says Chiles. Alumni have gone on to play with symphonies across the country, and even with Earth, Wind & Fire.
Right now, he’s focused on keeping his kids focused and reminding them not be flustered by the crowd. The students of Drums of Thunder have a history of performing at major events, but even for them, an NFL game is a big gig.
“I think that I’m mentally ready for this right now,” Oliver says. When asked how he was feeling, he responds, “Great.” His face quickly falls into a nervous stare onto the field.
Anxiety becomes energy for the young musicians, and Drums of Thunder is met with thunderous applause. The group still has a whole season of exciting, nerve-wracking performances ahead, but not to worry.
“I think they learned trust and respect for each other. That they can do it together, whatever their circumstances might be,” D’Amico says of the group’s performance.
“After this, I’m pretty sure I can handle the rest,” Oliver says proudly.
Drums of Thunder will impress at Montclair State, Fordham and Rutgers football games this season, but before they do, the student musicians will play for the audience that loves them most of all at back-to-school night.