An image of the Lancaster High School Percussion ensemble performing.
The Lancaster High School Percussion Ensemble []

Bruce Gerken credits students and parents for 45 years of the Lancaster High School Percussion Ensemble

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LANCASTER (WOUB) – In 1978 Bruce Gerken graduated from Ohio University with a Master’s in Applied Percussion and promptly landed a music teacher position with Lancaster City Schools.

During the interview for the job, Gerken was asked what he would like to do with the position if he were to be hired. The young educator said he’d like to take the school’s young musicians to the Ohio Music Education Association (OMEA) State Conference.

Within just a few years, he did just that. However, this would just be one of the first on a list of increasingly impressive accomplishments which would unfurl for Gerken and his students over the course of a dazzling 45 years.

“The journey of the percussion ensemble has been nothing short of extraordinary,” Gerken said. “It’s a testament to the hard work and talent of the students who have been a part of this ensemble.”

Gerken’s passion for music began at a young age. He received a drum set for Christmas when he was in the seventh grade and proceeded to teach himself how to play by ear; imitating what he heard on his favorite records until he could play along with them.

As a young adult Gerken took his passion for drumming to Ohio University, earning both his Bachelor’s in Music Education and the aforementioned Master’s in Applied Percussion.

At Ohio University Gerken worked extensively with Professor Emeritus of Music Guy Remonko. Remonko is remembered for his lengthy tenure at Ohio University, as well as his impressive drumming career which included performances with artists such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Pearl Bailey, and Phyllis Diller.

At Ohio University Gerken says he learned a lot about traditional chamber music and what it takes to facilitate it professionally.

“[…] and that’s not what I had when I came here,” Gerken said. “I think I had like six, seven kids.”

Gerken quickly realized that this small group of students could perform as a percussion ensemble. On top of that, Gerken decided to experiment with teaching the group not only classical songs, but also popular ones that the students would recognize. This was an approach he’d seen modeled in a percussion ensemble performance at Ohio University not too long before.

“The first thing we did was Nadia’s Theme that you hear on The Young and The Restless on TV,” he said. “And we started playing that and all of a sudden the kids liked it. And so the rest is what you would call ‘history’ from that point on.”

And so the Lancaster High School Percussion Ensemble was born.

The ensemble has grown to include increasing numbers of players and instruments over the years, but Gerken explained that presently the percussion ensemble includes wooden keyboard instruments like the marimba and xylophone; metal keyboard instruments such as the glockenspiel and vibraphone; a piano, synthesizers, and, of course: many different types of drums.

The group has a hybrid repertoire that doesn’t shy away from popular music. For example, the ensemble’s spring performances earlier this month included renditions of Styx’s Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man), YYZ by Rush, and Journey’s Separate Ways (Worlds Apart), in addition to songs by Heart, Mötley Crüe, and Van Halen.

The percussion ensemble has consistently grown not only in size, but also in reputation over the course of its existence.

The logo for the Lancaster High School Percussion Ensemble.
Gerken and his students have graced stages in Nashville, Orlando, San Francisco, and even Washington, D.C. In 1995, they traveled to Orenburg, Russia to play a series of concerts to commemorate the 50th anniversary of VE Day.

Gerken said one of the most rewarding aspects of his work with the ensemble has been facilitating relationships between his students and the number of special guests who have performed with them. Acclaimed English drummer Alan White is one of those.

White was the drummer for progressive rock giants Yes for decades; but he also notably played drums on John Lennon’s Imagine album, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and even played with Ginger Baker’s Air Force for a time.

“I really appreciated [Alan White] because how many people from a rock group that has toured the world are going to take the time to play with a high school group?” Gerken said. “Afterwards I thanked him for taking the time and giving us the opportunity to play with someone of his stature when he could have been touring.”

White isn’t the only impressive guest artist who has taken the time to play with the ensemble over the years.

“We’ve had a lot of ’em,” said Gerken, referencing a lengthy list of guest performers which includes the likes of Charlie Adams (drummer for Yanni) as well as their most recent guest, Nate Morton. Morton is the house drummer for The Voice and has performed with artists such as Paul Stanley of KISS, Miley Cyrus, and Madonna.

Gerken attributes the success and growth of the ensemble to the hard work of the many students he’s worked with over the years, as well as the work put in by their supportive parents. He noted that while the ensemble’s early performances were relatively simple, they’ve grown alongside the reputation and stature of the ensemble.

“We get a lot of help from the students and their parents, as well as from parents who were students at one time, as well,” Gerken said. “It means a lot to have those people appreciate what we’re doing so much that they want to help us succeed.”