Taking the beat to the Far East: Dover High Rolling Thunder to perform in Japan

DOVER — The precision of Dover High School’s percussion unit is no secret, considering their drum cadences routinely boom off the walls of storefronts and buildings down Loockerman Street during parades.

Dover High’s drumline, named Rolling Thunder, has also captured the attention of thousands of people at NASCAR races at Dover International Speedway, Philadelphia 76ers basketball games and many community events throughout the area.

Now, 15 members of Dover’s drumline will get a chance to show off their stick work in Japan in the summer of 2017 after the Capital School District Board of Education unanimously voted in favor of their trip at its monthly meeting last Tuesday night.

Terri Sharpe, associate principal at Dover High, outlined the drumline’s journey to the 41st All Japan Senior High School Cultural Festival in Miyagi Prefecture next August to the school board members.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for our kids on the Rolling Thunder drumline at Dover High School,” Ms. Sharpe said. “Dover High School is the only Delaware high school going to this event, which is going to be huge.

Dover High School’s Rolling Thunder perform at halftime during a Dover vs. Sallies football game at Dover Stadium. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Dover High School’s Rolling Thunder perform at halftime during a Dover vs. Sallies football game at Dover Stadium. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“They are anticipating 150,000 people at this event. Of that, 20,000 are going to be student participants, 4,000 will be teachers, and there will be 126,000 spectators. And all of these students who will be there will be representing 3,000 schools.”

News of the school board’s approval of the trip to Japan spread as rapidly through the hallways of the school as a Senator’s drumsticks cranking out a drumroll.

For sophomore Mackenzie Bryan, who plays cymbals on the drumline, the possibility of traveling to Japan is amazing. She said it’s a long way from the Senators’ band trip to South Carolina last year.

“I’m really excited about it. I really want to go for it,” Ms. Bryan said. “We haven’t really done anything out of state other than the band trip and we haven’t been out of the U.S. before. It’s going to be new for pretty much everyone, I think.”

High school students representing every prefecture in Japan will attend and multiple foreign countries will also have representatives participating.

Garrett George, Dover High’s band director, said he is probably just as excited about the news as his percussionists are.

“It’s incredibly exciting. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around that often,” he said. “To be able to expose the kids to another culture is going to be amazing.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling. It’s something that I never got to do when I was a student [at Dover High] and I’m fortunate to be a part of it this time.”

Members of the drumline said they owe a lot to the school’s Japanese Club, which has fostered a sister-school relationship with Kakuda High School, which is located within the Miyagi Prefecture, over the past 10 years.

Actually, Delaware and Miyagi have also been sister states since 1997.

Miki Smith, a Dover resident who was born in Tokyo, organizes an exchange program with schools in Delaware and schools in Miyagi. She played a vital role in getting Dover High invited to the cultural event.

“I just came back from Japan about two weeks ago and I had another meeting with a government official and then [on Oct. 17] they were visiting here and they made a point of visiting Dover High School,” she said. “So I’m very excited about it because the kids don’t get this kind of opportunity.
“They’re going to get the chance to perform in front of an audience of thousands that’s an international program. It should be an incredible experience for them.”

The general opening ceremony and parade will be held on the first day of the All Japan Senior High School Cultural Festival.

The following four days will feature presentations and exhibitions in 19 different categories as well as special co-sponsored categories from the hosting prefecture.

Some categories hold their own contests and provide students with opportunities to hear comments and participate in cultural exchange events.

“There is a lot that is going to happen in that week-and-a-half to two-week time period in the summer of 2017,” Ms. Sharpe said. “We’ll also get to observe and participate in some of the convention events and tour the facilities within Miyagi Prefecture.

“So there’s a lot that will be happening at the end of July and beginning of August next year.”

Perhaps the biggest problem facing Mr. George and the Rolling Thunder drumline is the fact that only 15 students will be allowed to participate.
Next summer, after this year’s seniors graduate, the drumline will have 19 members – which will leave four unable to attend.

“It will be unfortunate for some, and I wish that we could take everybody,” Mr. George said.

“We will have an application process,” Ms. Sharpe said. “There will be a selection process and a committee that will go through the selection process. We want to look at all of the parts of the [student], so we want to look at academics, attendance, and behavior.”

Five chaperones, including Ms. Sharpe and Mr. George, will travel to Japan with members of the drumline. Ms. Sharpe said the trip will cost around $20,000, which will work out to around $1,000 per person.

“The government of Japan is actually the Miyagi Prefecture Executive Committee and is covering travel costs within Japan, lodging in Japan and cost of all of the events that will be happening there,” said Ms. Sharpe. “So the Japanese government is covering most of the cost for the trip.”

The school is asking parents of the drumline members to put down a $100 deposit and if their child isn’t selected to go the money will be refunded. They are counting on a lot of fundraisers to help them reach their goal of performing in Japan.

Mr. George is just pleased that Rolling Thunder has received this opportunity.

“Ms. [Diane] Neutzling, Ms. [Joanne] O’Connor and Ms. Smith are the faculty advisors for the Japanese Club, so they’ve been cultivating that relationship. They’ve been having exchange programs and we were lucky enough to just kind of get the invitation to tag along,” he said.

Ms. Neutzling thinks Mr. George might not be giving his talented drumline enough credit.

“I’m thrilled about this trip,” she said. “It’s a really disciplined, very fine group. So I think they’re really going to make us proud … what an amazing opportunity for these kids.”

For sophomore Erick Woods, a trip to Japan to perform has been in the making since he started banging the drums when he was around 1 year old.

“Going on the Japan trip will be fun,” he said. “It’s a chance to get out of the states and it’s going to be a bonding trip for us — and I love playing the drums. I love music, period.”

Bryan said the upcoming trip is an amazing bonus to just doing what she loves to do.

“I love doing drum line,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do it because I always thought it was a really interesting thing to watch, but it’s even better to be a part of it. It makes everyone around you happy and it’s just a whole family type of thing.”

Now it’s time for members of Rolling Thunder to gain some knowledge of Japan and raise money for their excursion.

“Our Japanese Club will be asking students to consider joining them so that we can build our cultural background before we go,” Ms. Sharpe said.

Mr. George said he just can’t wait for the whole spectacle of the event to unfold.

“The size of the event won’t be a problem for them,” he said. “They’re prepared and they work really hard. It’s the location of the event that’s incredible.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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