The booming sound of drums punctuated every touchdown, completed pass and first down during New San Juan High’s homecoming football game earlier this month. But the school doesn’t have a band.
The roaring beat was courtesy of the Grant Union High School Drum Line.
The drum line’s 15 members, each wearing a white T-shirt with a giant “G,” have become a common sight throughout the Sacramento region, from school district celebrations to Sacramento Kings games and campaign fundraising dinners.
But the best invitation the Pacer drum line has received so far is a spot in the 2015 National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C. The trip will be the first time some of the band members have been outside California or even been on a plane.
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“The invites have been insane,” said James Van Buren, drum line director.
Unlike most drum lines, Grant’s is not part of a marching band. At games, members rotate between keyboards and snare, bass and tenor drums. The bass drums can be heard throughout the stadium and vibrate every fiber of people sitting nearby. The musicians sway. They throw drumsticks into the air and catch them between beats. Sometimes they break into dance moves in the stands.
And students say it is “cool,” a word not often used to describe a high school band.
“It’s awesome,” said Christian Castillo, a 17-year-old Bella Vista High School student watching the game at New San Juan. “It adds something extra.”
The drum line’s growing fame gives students at the Del Paso Heights school a dose of pride beyond their renowned football program. The 80-year-old school, located in one of Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods, is among the lowest-ranked high schools in the area academically.
“People think Grant is a bad place to go,” said Tevin Lee, a drum line member. “We’re good at sports. We have a good drum line. There are good things to do at Grant.”
Drum lines have a storied history in the United States, especially at historically black colleges and high schools with large black populations. Marching bands and drum lines are often the “showpiece” of a university or high school, said Christy Walker, who marched for four years in North Carolina A&T State University’s Blue and Gold Marching Machine and is the creator of the website The5thQuarter.com.
As is the case at Grant, bands at historically black colleges are considered cool. “You don’t call each other band geeks,” Walker said. “It isn’t a negative thing to be in band.”
The drum line is so popular among Grant students that nearly 30 hopefuls are waiting to be accepted. An hour before the thrice-weekly practices, the “newbies” come to the band room to work with Van Buren, whom the students affectionately call “Mr. V.” Students are eligible to join the group once they can play five of its most difficult songs.
“I saw them and knew that’s what I wanted to do,” said DeMarrie Richards, a sophomore waiting to make the grade.
These days, most of the “newbies” are girls. Van Buren predicts that in three months 80 percent of the drum line will be female. “There’s been an influx of girls in the drum line,” he said. “I love it.”
Five years ago, only one girl was in the Pacer drum line. In 2012, Kayla Coleman and Classey Bent joined the group. “They set the tone,” Van Buren said.
Their arrival in the drum line wasn’t celebrated by everyone. “People thought girls didn’t have the power to be on drums,” said drum line member Ted Lee.
The girls pounded on. “They kept on telling me that I couldn’t play the snare drums,” Bent said. “So I kept on trying.”
During a recent Wednesday practice, girls in the “newbie” group credited the two juniors for influencing their decision to join. Breanna Presley said the drum line gives girls something to do after school other than joining the Pacerettes, the dance squad that often performs with the drum line.
Walker said that drum lines have been a lifeline for students from impoverished neighborhoods. “I’ve heard stories of students who would be on the streets if it weren’t for the drum line,” she said. “... It allows them to focus and, during practice for a few hours, they don’t have to think about their trouble.”
Grant High juniors Tevin and Ted Lee, twins who live with their aunt because of family problems, were kicked off the drum line their freshman year when their grades fell below the 2.0 grade-point average required for all extracurricular activities at the school.
The drum line members rallied to help the brothers through tutoring and encouragement. The twins now boast grade-point averages above 3.0.
Ted says he was motivated to be a better man because of drum line. “I used to get in trouble and did not care about school,” he said. “I wouldn’t do my homework. I would always yell at the teacher or talk back. Once I was in drum line, I wanted to be an example.”
“Drum line is family,” Tevin said. He said the camaraderie of the band room extends to after school when the band’s members hang out at the park, go to movies or organize skate nights. “Any time you feel down, you can call a drum line member.”
Performances pay band expenses
Mr. V is as much a member of the band as he is its director, picking up his drum sticks alongside the high school students. A musician in his own right, Van Buren plays saxophone with the band Elements. He also is the son of noted jazz musician and vocalist James Van Buren Sr.
Van Buren was teaching math at the school in 2007 when he started hosting casual after-school jam sessions in his classroom. He said students would congregate in the room to play the keyboard and drums, as well as sing. “It was like a nightclub,” he said, adding that the activity gave students an outlet and reduced fights on campus.
A year later, the school’s principal asked Van Buren to start a drum line so there would be live music at Pacer football games. The school previously relied on recorded music to accompany the Pacerettes. Twin Rivers Unified would pay his stipend, but no other expenses, Van Buren said.
It didn’t take long for the band to find gigs to pay the bills. It has played at the California State Fair, Kings basketball games, a U.S. Census kickoff event and numerous other public events. The drum line uses the money it makes from appearances to purchase and maintain instruments, as well as pay for uniforms and travel costs. The drum line plays about 20 performances a month. In September, in an effort to raise money for the Washington, D.C., trip, they played 35 gigs.
“We’ve been playing like crazy to go to Independence Day,” Van Buren said.
The band does not compete against other school bands.
“We don’t have time,” Van Buren said. “We are totally funded by ourselves. We elect to play for stipends.”
The band does volunteer for causes that benefit muscular dystrophy, autism, heart disease and cystic fibrosis research. “We don’t take money from them,” he said of nonprofits. “We need to show that we are giving back. We continue to get plenty of gigs where we get paid and can provide for drum line.”
Van Buren is proud about what he and the award-winning drum line has achieved.
“We might be the best in the nation,” he said. “I claim so.”
What: The Grant Union High School Drum Line is attempting to raise $100,000 so it can perform in the 2015 National Independence Day parade in Washington, D.C. Donations will pay for the travel expenses of 25 members of the drum line, 10 members of the Grant dance team and 10 chaperones. The money also will pay for additional instruments and for uniforms.
How: Send checks to Grant Drum Line, Grant High School, 1400 Grand Ave., Sacramento, CA 95838