The 21st annual Milwaukee Public Shool (MPS) Battle of the Drumlines had it all: high-energy performances; an enthusiastic crowd of all ages; finalists that included a first-year drumline; a nail-biter of a margin at the finish; and a drumline with tricks up its sleeves—or, actually, sticks up its sleeves.
In the end, the Rufus King International High School’s varsity drumline retained its title as city champions, winning its 16th Battle of the Drumlines on Saturday, December 9, 2023. Because King won last year, it played host to this year’s Battle of the Drumlines, held in the school’s gymnasium.
King’s varsity line claimed victory over Riverside University High School in the championship round by less than one point — 58 points to Riverside’s 57.25. Another fraction of a point separated Riverside and Reagan College Preparatory High School. Reagan came in third, with 56.5 points.
And in an unexpected finish by a first-time drumline, Washington High School of Information Technology tied for third place with Reagan in the first round to advance to the championship round.
Participation, both by drumlines and audience members, was robust this year, the best since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
This year, seven drumlines competed, up from four in 2022. Also vying at this year’s battle were Bradley Technology and Trade School, Milwaukee Marshall High School, and Rufus King’s junior varsity drumline.
Drumlines from Mac- Dowell Montessori School, Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts, and Humboldt Park School put on exhibition performances to kick off the event. The Milwaukee Hittaz Drum Corps, a community drumline, performed while judges compiled scores for the championship round. More than 600 attended the event.
“It was amazing. I was so excited by how many people were there to watch,” said Share Garcia, district music curriculum specialist for Milwaukee Public Schools. The growth in participating drumlines was exponential, she noted; the drumlines “not only showed up but showed out.”
The drumlines had their own distinctive approaches. “They’re completely different styles of music making. I’m glad the judges recognized everything that went into it,” Garcia said.
Garcia added, “I loved Marshall’s track suits. You can do it nontraditional and still look sharp.”
Two judges focused on the musical aspect of the performance and how the music and visuals go together; one judge focused on what’s called ‘the repertoire effect’ and the ‘showmanship effect’ — what the performance looks like and feels like, Garcia said.
That takes into account the synchronization and precision with which the drumlines perform, and the showmanship in elements, like the Riverside drumline dropping drumsticks from their sleeves, letting them dangle on lines as they held up their arms while leaving the floor.
Garcia noted that the district is grateful to Milwaukee voters for approving the $87-million referendum in 2020 to support MPS. The referendum’s aim was, in part, to attract and retain highly qualified teachers and expand music and other arts, language, and physical education instruction. The difference the referendum is making could be seen in the drumlines.
For instance, some of the drumlines’ equipment was new, but all of the drumlines that competed this year will have new equipment in time for the 2024 competition. In some cases, equipment that is more than two decades old will be replaced.
And the district now has two traveling music instructors with expertise in percussion and drumlines, each of whom visits six schools.
That could mean more drumlines at next year’s competition. “We hope this will just continue to grow,” Garcia said.