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Pandemic Pivot by Aaron Ragsdale

Apr 26, 2021, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Pandemic Pivot 1

In 1994, a group of percussionists in eastern South Dakota, brought together by the desire to play drums "just for the fun of it," formed an independent drumline they called SuFuDu — the unique name being a portmanteau combining their home base of Sioux Falls and drums. Today, it is a select group of percussionists from South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa. SuFuDu educates and equips students not only to succeed in marching percussion, but also teaches skills that will aid in their continued personal, educational, and professional success. The group has entertained thousands in parades and special events across the Upper Midwest for over 25 years.

In March of 2020, just as SuFuDu was planning for the annual spring interest and audition camps, the COVID pandemic swept across the United States, the related shelter-in-place and quarantine protocols causing the group to be left without rehearsals or performances. 

Jesse Miller, president of the nine-member Board of Directors that steers the organization, summed up their options this way: “SuFuDu is, at its core, a performance organization. That's been the 25-year history of the group. What would we do, now that we didn't have any performances on the books? We could either see this as a reason to pack up the drums, lock up the trailer, and stay home for the summer, or we could figure out a way to continue to be a vibrant, integral, relevant, part of the community of percussionists here in the upper Midwest.”

Ultimately the board of directors, in consultation with Artistic Director Devon Melillo and the rest of the instructional staff, settled on a plan that integrated musical, professional, and social development delivered in a virtual environment until such time as face-to-face rehearsals could begin again. 

Pandemic Pivot 2

Aaron Ragsdale: What were the core components of the experience that you wanted to retain? 

Devon Melillo: The mission of the organization is to focus on technical growth in the members’ percussive skills, the opportunity to play and write exciting music, and to allow SuFuDu to act as a leadership development apparatus. Beyond the musical experience, and perhaps more importantly, to serve as a platform that builds a community of students from different backgrounds and scholastic programs and encourages organic, meaningful connections. 

AR: What, if any, new technologies/apps, etc. did you leverage? 

DM: We were able to meet weekly over Zoom in order to maintain a consistent rehearsal-like experience. The use of the Zoom breakout rooms let us play different JackBox ( games in sections and other groupings to try and replicate the social aspect of our in-person rehearsals.

In order to maintain individual forward momentum, the members submitted video assignments each week through the Flipgrid app ( This let the staff model exercises and provide feedback to individuals just as we would have during a face-to-face subsectional rehearsal block. We utilized Slack ( to relay announcements, videos, and supplemental materials.

Rather than practicing our instruments over live video feed together, we spent our traditional large ensemble time hearing from keynote speakers drawn from local leaders, regional and national clinicians, and alumni of the group that have gone on to establish themselves as music educators, studio musicians, and world-class percussionists. 

AR: What were the positives that you found from the move to a virtual environment? 

Jesse Miller: Because we have a board member with a background in grant writing, we were able to leverage some CARES Act funding made available through our state Arts Council to help supplement the loss of tuition revenue that would otherwise have gone to paying the instructional staff. Taking this particular cost off the books, and without the need for a dedicated travel or uniform budget, we could drop our season tuition costs from $450 to a $25 suggested donation. This really let us open the opportunity for instruction up to reach players that would not have otherwise had the means to participate. Not only was this good for meeting the educational mission of the organization, but it provides recruitment possibilities for future seasons. 

Part of our mission as an organization is to branch out from strictly percussion education and performance and include a focus on leadership and educational development. The 2020 season offered us the opportunity to really expand the type of offerings we could have because the distraction and pace of a normal performance slate was taken off the table for us. We were able to utilize our traditional Wednesday evening rehearsal time and our Zoom subscription to bring speakers to our members from across the country. 

Our guest speaker lineup included Paul Tenhaken, the mayor of Sioux Falls; Dave Hall from the University of Nebraska; Stephen Versaevel of Montana State University; and Darin Olson from Kent State University, who are all alums of the group that have gone into collegiate percussion teaching; Jack Gillie of Boston Crusaders; Kevin Peixoto of Broken City Percussion; and Dave Vanderlinde of rock band All Hail the Yeti. 

Without the push of the question of “how will we fill our time?” and all of our new-found Zoom literacy to bring people to us, we would not have had as rich an offering for the students that signed up for the group this summer. 

DM: The numerous positive outcomes that came forth included seeing many students still pursue learning despite the pandemic and having a blast hanging out with them online where we could still facilitate team-building activities and be a resource for each other. We did not get a chance to perform, but we were able to meet and play in person (while adhering to health regulation guidelines). This served as a sort of assessment of the progress made over the summer; the staff and students alike felt really gratified with being able to play our exercises and cadences and show off our hard work. Additionally, after finishing this experience, we generated lots of enthusiasm and momentum from the members as we look to the future of SuFuDu. 

AR: What, if any, were the negative outcomes that arose from the virtual experience?

DM: Like all activities, we needed to readjust our approach and vision of the season since we lost many extrinsic motivations and rewards. Truthfully, without the travel and performance aspect, there was struggle for the group to persevere through the season and retain “grit.” Also, when effectively teaching music concepts like sound quality or posture, nothing beats discussion that’s live and in person, but we did the best we knew how. 

Fortunately, through the reflection and communication of the student leaders, we could face our challenges with understanding and perspective, so the staff could be proactive to uplift the team in the right ways. We heavily relied on our leaders in the group to personally reach out to everyone and boost the group morale. They did a tremendous job in setting an example for others in their diligence and consistency, which ultimately was a leading factor in working through our obstacles. 

AR: Looking back at the experience, did you meet the expected outcomes, and what were the unexpected outcomes? 

DM: We absolutely met our objectives of growing, learning, experiencing, and connecting. The members, board of directors, and staff were happy with our efforts to make the season still significant in the face of COVID-19. What’s more, through this experience, the members further developed their character and solidified their life skills of determination, integrity, and team responsibility, all added bonuses! 

AR: Was the season a success by your definition?

DM: Although unusual, the season was definitely a success. The entire organization collaborated together to fill a void that all students needed this year: a distraction, a source of hope, and a safe, accessible way to enhance their craft with friends. 

JM: By the end of the summer, the restrictions on gatherings had been modified in such a way that we were able to have two in-person rehearsals — properly distanced and wearing face coverings. These rehearsals provided a satisfying cap to the season and let us see that, even without ever meeting face-to-face, our members had grown as individual players. 

SuFuDu is once again in the planning process for a summer season and, 12 months later, still grappling with many of these same concerns. School districts that would once open their doors for weekend camps are now, understandably, reluctant to bring outside groups into their facilities during downtime. Some of the traditional performance opportunities seem to be coming back, but there is concern that several of them might either once again be lost to another summer of protocols or might have been lost as a product of declining tax revenues for many of the smaller towns that populate their home in the upper Midwest. However, the board and staff agree that by utilizing these new resources, and by continuing an intentional focus on leadership development, the organization can continue to be an incubator for percussion education and performance in the region as it moves into its second quarter-century. 

Aaron RagsdaleAaron Ragsdale is Professor of Music and Director of Percussion at South Dakota State University, where he teaches applied percussion and percussion pedagogy, conducts the SDSU Percussion Ensemble, and serves as Assistant Director with the Pride of the Dakotas Marching Band. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he is an active performer as a soloist, chamber musician, and member of the South Dakota Symphony. Aaron holds a DMA from Rutgers University, a Master of Music degree from the University of Arkansas, and a BME from the University of Oklahoma.

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