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Heart of the band: Freshman stands as lone female in IU Drum Line


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Inside the cement-sealed walls of the John Mellencamp Pavilion, music from 280 distinctive instruments crashed and reverberated off the walls, sending a deafening echo cascading back to the turf practice field.

At the center of the instrument formation is the bass line. It functions as the heart of the band, keeping its beat and helping the blood of bass flow to the surrounding sections of its body.

Made up of six pounding drummers, the white faces of five bass drums form a visual line while the sixth drum dips the line noticeably lower. The sixth bass drum is strapped onto the petite Emilie Mitchell.

Mitchell is a percussion performance major in the Jacobs School of Music. However, she is not the average drummer in a concert of the music school’s, as she is the only  freshman and only woman in IU’s Marching Hundred bass line.

She is also currently rehearsing for Super Bowl XLVI. Mitchell will perform with the rest of the band for the Super Bowl next Sunday at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.

Her fellow drummers are all male and, as Mitchell put it, “all especially large.” But her outsized talents as a percussionist and musician seem to fill any void in size between Mitchell and the rest of the band’s bass line. She said her experience makes her confident about performing on one of the biggest stages in sports.

“You’re so into the music and performing that you don’t really notice people,” Mitchell said. “It’s sort of like a wall, they just happen to be there. It’s a big mental game to  perform.”

Mitchell said she has come to the conclusion that she has to assume people are there to enjoy what the band is doing. She said it is important to keep that in mind while performing.

“You just do your thing and they just get to experience it,” Mitchell said. “I hope the Super Bowl crowd will like what we give them.”

Mitchell is accustomed to being different, and she said the way she started her percussion career is different, as well.

In the fourth grade, when it came time to choose an instrument for the band program at her school in Chicago, she wanted to play the clarinet.

But her orthodontist told her not to play any oral musical instruments, leaving her with one choice: violin or percussion. Mitchell said she made a good decision.

From that moment, she has increased her range in percussion. She joined the drum line for Naperville North High School’s competitive marching band, starting with the bass drum as a freshman and moving to the snare for the following three years.

She played her senior year in the Winter Guard International, an organization that holds competitions for elite color guard performers and for percussionists. All these experiences eventually translated into her passion for drum line.

Once she decided to come to IU as a performance major in the Jacobs School of Music, Mitchell’s next move was to audition to be a part of the Marching Hundred’s drum line, which she said is the most competitive section of the band.

Joel Brainard, the drum line’s director, said he spotted Mitchell’s talent right away.

“She had drum corp experience coming in, so she already had really good hands and, quite frankly, was as strong as some of our senior members, even as a freshman,” he said.

Usually, the bass line has five drums, and five veterans of the Marching Hundred were returning this year.

“They were saying that they were going to add a sixth drum, which doesn’t happen very often,” Mitchell said.

What Mitchell was attempting to do was to drum through obstacles to earn a position in the bass line. She transcended the traditional mold for a bass line and demanded the addition of a drum with her skill.

“I was the only freshman, the only rookie and the only girl, so I was the ultimate outcast,” Mitchell said.

Despite those factors, Mitchell earned a spot. Needless to say, the auditioning aspect was still left — winning the approval of Alan Donofrio, Kevin Hood, Matt Grimm, Ben Sisson and Ben Conover, the five upperclassmen of the bass line.

Mitchell described performing at her first home IU football game as nerve-racking. Even though she spent time rehearsing with the other members, she said she knew she had to prove herself.

She had not been taught the music the band plays in the stands and was left to figure it out on the spot. Mitchell said that’s when the teasing began.

The upperclassmen snickered and yelled “cut” as they made “scissor” gestures with some smiles. They joked she would be cut from the bass line for her rookie mistakes. Mitchell figured the music out quickly, though, and said the others’ humor showed they accepted her.

After adjusting to the bass line, Mitchell jokingly ordered Grimm, known as “Scouts,” to hold the door for her, declaring “ladies first.” Grimm responded, “What? You’re not a lady here.”

She said it made her feel like one of the guys.

In their pre-game performance at the Super Bowl, Mitchell and the Marching Hundred will play “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” by John Mellencamp and their crowd favorite, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which features the bass line.

“They have almost a variety show of gimmicks and gestures,” Brainard said. “It’s like watching six clowns play unbelievable split parts for three minutes in a row. It’s really cool.”

Mitchell described the bass line as a family multiple times. She was dubbed “Rugrat” by this family and said she plays the role of a little sister.  

“I was the most different and I’m short,” she said. “I think it fit me pretty well.”

Despite her nickname, Mitchell said she seems to stand-out. Whether it is because she’s the only woman, freshman and percussion major on the bass line, or just because of her size, Mitchell is doing what she loves and doing it with people she now considers to be her family.

“People may describe me as quiet, maybe introverted. But when I perform, I’m a different person,” she said. “It’s like putting your heart on your sleeve, then adding your deepest, rawest emotions, feelings, way of life and what you stand for.”

Mitchell said performing is like showing your inner self, the one that nobody usually sees.  

“I don’t want to go through life without this joy or without sharing this joy with others,” she said. “That is why I am a percussionist and, foremost, a musician.”

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The IU Marching Hundred bass line practices "Sing, Sing, Sing" on Saturday at the John Mellencamp Pavilion. Steph Aaronson Buy Photos
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Freshman Emilie Mitchell stands in the center of the IU Marching Hundred during rehersal Saturday at the John Mellencamp Pavilion. The band is performing during the Super Bowl on Sunday. Steph Aaronson Buy Photos
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Freshman Emilie Mitchell flips her drumstick while playing "Sing, Sing, Sing" at an IU Marching Hundred rehearsal Satuday at the John Mellencamp Pavilion. As a Jacob's School of Music student, Emilie struggles to balance her time between the Marching Hundred and classwork. Steph Aaronson Buy Photos
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Freshman IU Marching Hundred bass drummer Emilie Mitchell laughs and wipes her brow after taking off her drum during rehersal Satuday at the John Mellencamp Pavilion. Steph Aaronson Buy Photos

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