By Daniel Schack
For percussionists involved in indoor percussion and drum corps, Tom Aungst is a staple. His career includes a relationship with the Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps starting in 1981, during which time the percussion section attained seven high drum trophies. He currently serves as the percussion director for the Dartmouth school district in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Dartmouth’s Scholastic World indoor drumline (PSW) consistently places within the top three and has set the standard for production and performance quality since their inception. Aungst’s indoor productions push the boundaries between drumline and theatrics without losing the quality of the players in his lines. In a few words, Tom Aungst has it figured out.
In 2014, Winter Guard International welcomes Tom Aungst to the WGI Hall of Fame. Tom took some time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his career, design process, and educational philosophy.
What are your first/most vivid memories of early Winter Guard International?
Before Dartmouth High School began participating in WGI in 1998, I was able to watch videos of other scholastic groups from all over the country. It was truly amazing to see how creative these groups were. I instantly knew this was a fast growing activity that was here to stay. I also remember the groups that we competed against when we first participated in 1998, [including] Ponderosa High School, King Phillip High School, and North Glen High School, just to name a few. They were the standard for the activity at the time and those shows still stand as quality shows today. Watching these schools and other groups over the years has helped inspire me and my staff to build my program at Dartmouth.
What got you interested in the indoor percussion activity?
I became interested in the indoor percussion activity in the early 80’s. I grew up and went to college outside Philadelphia at West Chester University. At that time, there were 2 indoor percussion circuits in the area. The indoor activity, at least in this part of the country, was going strong. Because of this, I was able to judge and write for various groups in the area. The first indoor show I wrote was for West Chester University. We did local shows in Eastern Pennsylvania. The thought at the time was that drumlines could continue to build their technique and musical skills for next year’s marching band season. But I think for most groups, like Dartmouth, we use the marching band season to develop for indoor percussion. It’s funny how that has changed over the years.
What steps have you taken at Dartmouth to make them a premier competitor every year?
This will be my 22nd year as the percussion director in the Dartmouth Public School system. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a school district that has a vertical instrumental music program. It basically allows me to teach the percussion students starting in 5th grade and watch them grow and mature for the next 8 years. It’s taken many years to develop a culture of excellence at Dartmouth, especially at the high school. Participating in WGI for the first time in 1998 was a huge part of developing that culture. Getting students and parents to understand the kind of commitment, hard work, and dedication it takes to compete at the world class level was and still is an ongoing process. I must say, I’m extremely proud of the students I teach and how far the program has come. The students’ commitment and work ethic are off the charts. I feel like I‘m teaching at the Cadets again. It’s truly amazing! Students get to rehearsal an hour early sometimes, working on their own or in sections. The leadership is so important for the success of the program now and for the future. They help educate the younger players, better than I can sometimes. When I first started at Dartmouth I would run leadership workshops. Now, the leaders run these workshops.
The students really have to buy into the total program. I want them to have ownership. To do that, I will sometimes have the students write tenor or snare features, or have them teach when we split up for sectionals. I’m also blessed to have a strong private lesson program, a committed band parent organization, and an indoor staff that I consider to be the best in the country. I’ve had a core group of staff members together for a long time, especially the creative staff, Darcie Aungst, Jeff Sacktig, Ian Flint, and Jason Mederios. I’m also proud to say that many of the technical staff are former Cadet and Dartmouth alumni. It’s cool to have them give back to the program they enjoyed. Because of these important components, Dartmouth has been consistently able to compete at the highest level.
Do you believe scholastic programs can be consistently successful without a strong percussion program in their school system?
I believe that any percussion program can be successful no matter what the music program or district is like. First of all, you need a person and a staff that are willing to work at developing a program in that system. Secondly, you need a total commitment to work through the issues that will stand in your way. I understand scheduling, administration, and money can be road blocks for many programs, but I truly believe that anything is possible. People may have to be creative and persistent; it’s obviously not a one year endeavor. Set your goals, advocate for your program and your students, and find ways to get what you want. Prove to people that this is worthwhile and that you are committed to the students you teach. Again, you may have to be creative. For example, I grew up in a band program where the vast majority of percussionists in that district took private lessons from the same teacher. That teacher was also the middle school and high school drum instructor. He wasn’t a full time teacher in the district but he knew he could have great drumlines at the high school if students took private lessons from him. I know of a few schools that run great programs with this same concept.
What is the design process at Dartmouth like?
The design process at Dartmouth has been basically the same since before we participated in WGI. Really the only difference has been that I have added other writers and more staff. For the most part, up until 2005 I pretty much wrote everything: the drill, the front ensemble, and the battery music. At the time it was myself, Darcie Aungst, who did and still does the choreography, costumes, set design, and show concept, and Jamie Eckert, my front ensemble person for many years. I knew that in order for the group to progress, I needed to hire specialized writers, like Neil Larrivee and Jeff Sacktig. So now, my job is battery writer, producer, and director. I’m the person that tries to bring all the ideas to life. Also, after all these years I still love to teach the students how to play. Technique and approach to playing is something I still get excited about. So, the overall concept comes from Darcie Aungst. I then try to find music that would fit the concept or story. We sit and listen to music and talk about effects. From there I’ll lay out a basic sketch of the music. As I construct the music, I’m always thinking about the concept, what we would do visually on a phrase, and the overall musical direction of the ensemble. I think of this process as putting a theatrical and musical production together; it’s not just drums in a gym for me. I also want to mention how important the costumes are to us, which are all done by Darcie Aungst. People think we have tons of money, but we truly don’t. In fact, our district gives us zero dollars for costuming. Darcie is able to make the students look like a million bucks without spending a million bucks.
How has your work outside with the Cadets and Blue Stars influenced your work inside with Dartmouth?
My work at Dartmouth has always been an extension of my drum corps experiences.
Like most music writers, I developed a certain writing style. There are things that I did while at the Cadets that you can hear in my writing at Dartmouth; it’s only natural. On the other hand, there are things at Dartmouth that I have done that have influenced my writing in the drum corps activity. But, besides the writing, being a drum corps guy with top level drum corps for years has helped me experience excellences at the highest level. In a way, I’ve taken that drum corps culture and work ethic, and made it part of my Dartmouth program.
Do you like the influence WGI has had on DCI? Do you believe this is a trend?
Yes I do like the influence WGI has had on Drum Corps.
To me, the biggest effect has been that players are playing year round now. The individual playing level of students is pretty amazing compared to when I marched in the early 80’s; especially at the scholastic level.
Have you ever wanted to teach/design for an independent group?
Yes, I would be willing to write or help design an independent show, but it has been tough in the past because of my day job. I am a full time music teacher at Dartmouth. Plus, I have two wonderful sons that keep me busy. My oldest, Alan Aungst, is now a senior at Dartmouth High School as well as the section leader for the drumline, and Noah Aungst, who is in fifth grade and is also coming through the program. Both of my sons are well rounded percussionists and musicians and I am so proud to be their father. Consulting with independent groups is probably more feasible for me right now.
Do you ever envision yourself judging WGI?
Sure, I would love to give back to the activity. Plus, to be around the activity in any capacity would be great.
What advice do you have for up and coming designers and arrangers?
First thing is to understand your personal strengths and weaknesses. Know what your good at and surround yourself with people that can strengthen your weaknesses. Second, know the strengths and weaknesses of your group. Use that to help define who you are as an ensemble. Don’t try to be like anyone else. Third, always making the playing the most important aspect of your program. That’s really the biggest thing you can control with your students. Finally, don’t take competition so seriously. Competing can obviously help motivate your students but it shouldn’t be the focus of your program. If you live by the score you will die by the score. The overall experience is more important!
WGI thanks Tom Aungst for the interview and congratulates him, alongside Julie Davila and Jim Dwyer, to the WGI Hall of Fame!