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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Bring that drummer back

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Bring that drummer back

Levi Schuldt gets into full swing when he sits behind drums and cymbals for pep band tunes at the District 4-1A Basketball Tournament. He graduated from Powder Valley High School in 1998. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Levi Schuldt gets into full swing when he sits behind drums and cymbals for pep band tunes at the District 4-1A Basketball Tournament. He graduated from Powder Valley High School in 1998. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

When the numbers on the scoreboard freeze, Levi Schuldt's arms erupt into a frenzy of pounding.

And when Schuldt pounds, he pounds like a carpenter with a bagful of nails and a deadline.

Schuldt relishes timeouts.

He absolutely adores halftime.

For most people these lulls constitute the most boring part of any basketball game.

Players gulp oxygen and swig Gatorade.

Spectators scurry to the concession stand to satisfy a craving for popcorn, or to the restroom to alleviate a more pressing need.

Schuldt does not rest, and he neither slakes his thirst nor satiates his appetite.

He grabs a pair of slim wooden sticks, coated with black electrical tape near the tips to prevent premature splintering.

And then Schuldt does the thing he likes best, the thing no one with a working eardrum could possibly ignore.

He pounds.

The Powder Valley band is only halfway through its opening song, but already Schuldt's cheeks shine beneath a sheen of sweat and are tinged a shade similar to the blood-red baseball cap perched on his head.

The tune, appropriately enough, is "We Got the Beat."

Schuldt has the beat.

He smacks it out on the snare drum, punctuating the rhythm line with an occasional kick of the bass drum pedal.

He flails.

He lunges.

His hands fly around in an unpredictable, eye-watering blur of motion.

Schuldt, 23, played drums for the Badger band all four years of high school.

He assumed his career as the driving force behind a pep band was over, but when he returned to North Powder recently, band director George Russell asked Schuldt to sit in with the students.

On Wednesday afternoon Schuldt set up the school's battered black drum kit, the same skins he slapped at years ago, on the balcony of the Baker High School gymnasium for the first time since 1998, the year he graduated.

On the polished wood floor below, the Badger girls practiced layins in preparation for their battle with Burnt River in the opening game of the district tournament.

Schuldt was getting ready, too.

As he wrapped strips of translucent tape around his fingers — "your hands take a beating," he says, "at least if you play like me" — he described his enthusiasm about returning to this familiar position.

"It's fun, and I miss it a lot," Schuldt said.

He misses playing with the band, but he admits to other motivations.

At a high school basketball game, the drummer — at least during intermissions — commands more attention than anyone.

The announcer has a microphone, the referees their little whistles.

But no one in the building possesses anything like the sheer power of the acoustic artillery arrayed in front of Schuldt.

He likes that.

It's no wonder, then, that he cracks a sly little smile when Russell, announcing the next song to the musicians, caps his instructions with a pair of four-letter words.

"Play loud."

Schuldt loves to play loud. He always has, from the first time he picked up sticks at age 11.

But Schuldt also savored drumming because he noticed people watched him whenever he started pounding away.

"I always thought it captured everybody's attention," he said. "And it just sounded like a good idea at the time."

The truth is, though, that in many styles of music the spotlight rarely shines on the drummer.

In a rock or pop band, for example, the drummer invariably is relegated to the rear of the stage, barely visible tucked behind stacks of cymbals and towering tom-toms.

Drummers can't move around much, either, confined as they are by the short length of their sticks.

Meanwhile the singer and the guitarists cavort across the stage, freed by their cordless microphones and seemingly endless power cords.

But Schuldt doesn't play with a rock band.

Playing drums for a pep band at a high school basketball game is an altogether different experience, he said.

For one thing, his fellow musicians haven't a single speaker to supplement the sounds their lung-powered instruments produce.

And with no megawatt electric guitar amplifiers to compete against, Schuldt dominates the decibel race.

"The drums," Russell points out unnecessarily, "carry a lot farther."

Even the songs popular with high school bands seem designed to concentrate listeners' attention on the drummer.

Powder Valley's playlist includes several of the beat-driven anthems beloved in basketball arenas across the country — "Louie Louie," "Tequila," "Rock and Rock, Part 2."

"We play a lot of older music, and everybody in here knows the older music," Schuldt said, gesturing to the bleachers. "There's so much we can do with it, and have fun with. That's a big part of it."

Another big part is attitude.

Both Schuldt and Russell say they have noticed that pep band drummers seem to share certain personality traits.

"I would say it's part of your character," Schuldt said. "It takes a certain type of person to be a drummer."

The type of person who never is content merely to provide a tempo for the saxophonists and clarinet players, but who considers it his duty to pound out half a dozen fresh echoes before the last has faded into the inaudible.

The type of person who figures if one cymbal crash is good, then 20 are better, and 50 a worthy goal.

Russell, who has directed Powder Valley's band for 17 years and taught music to high school students for 26, explains the drummer mentality this way:

"I don't want to say hyperactive, but they've got a lot of energy it seems like," he said. "Everybody (in the band) is important — the drummer's kind of the frosting on the cake."

Schuldt admits it's difficult to express exactly why he loves to drum, and why he agreed to assemble Powder Valley's well-worn kit five years after he graduated.

Oh, sure, some of the fringe benefits are obvious.

The way the fans, from tots to octagenarians, dance on the bleachers when you play one of their favorites, the way they try to clap in time with your rhythm.

The way even a coach, studious as he plans strategy during a timeout, sometimes can't help but tap out the tempo as you smash through the solos in "Wipe Out."

But Schuldt said the greatest rewards are the ones well-known and well-loved by any musician who ever picked up an instrument.

"The better we play sometimes it seems the better the team plays," he said. "They'd rather have us play than a CD.

"This really is the ultimate for a drummer."

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