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A cacophony fills the room in the basement of the Music Building before rehearsal begins.

Music students roll marimbas as big as small dining room tables into the classroom one after another.

One of the 16 musicians practices arpeggios, and the timpanist swivels around instruments that look like enormous eggs split in half.

Soon, the room becomes an optical illusion, appearing smaller than the army of percussion it contains, the marimbas, a gong, a drum kit, timpani, chimes, a guitar, a celeste (it looks like a tiny piano), a xylophone, a bass, concert toms, a vibraphone and crotales (antique cymbals, small and stacked).

Oh, and more marimbas.

After the string instruments make their procession out the door from an earlier class, and the percussion instruments finish rolling in, the stage is set.

Each of the wooden bars of the marimbas sit taut and in place.

"Tarkus Eruption" is on the music stands.

The musicians have mallets in hand.

They're ready to play.

For the next 50 minutes, Robert LedBetter, a music professor and director of Percussion Studies at the University of Montana, will take the percussionists through a rehearsal that is as precise as it is swift.

The result will be a Friday, March 11, performance of the UM Percussion Ensemble and Islander Steel Drum Band themed "Art Rock of the '70s and '80s." The students will practice on steel drums another day.

For fans who have already discovered the annual concert, it may as well be a gig played by professionals.

To James Rubich, a music education major, the show is anything but the stereotypical dry student recital a novice audience member might expect.

"With the percussion ensemble, you're going to hear arrangements of music you've known your entire life," said Rubich, a senior. "It's just a lot of fun for anybody who actually does come."

To Chris Naro, a senior music major, the group based in the School of Music is a hidden gem in the community, and one more people ought to explore. The group's fan base is dedicated but small.

"It deserves more attention," Naro said. "If more people came to the concert, they'd realize they've got something really special in town."

***

The musicians packed into the rehearsal room all have a thing for percussion, though they come by it through different avenues.

Naro, who came to UM for its high musical standards, remembers being attracted to the loudness and excitement of the drum line since he was a child.

"That's one of the first things I saw as a kid. I immediately got drawn to the snare drum," said Naro, a Boston native who has lived in Bozeman the last six or seven years.

Hannah Hutchins, another senior in music education, said percussion feels good to her, and she loves to see professionals perform. A percussionist might play six or 10 different instruments, and multiple ones in the same setting.

"I've just always loved mallet instruments," Hutchins said.

For Rubich, the draw is the variety, the constant evolution. Each year, he said, percussion brings new literature forward and expansions in the field.

"Unlike wind and string instruments, which are plateauing, percussion is constantly evolving, and new instruments are coming out every year," Rubich said.

The draw can be a mystery, too, LedBetter said, like the moment an athlete saw Michael Jordan play basketball and keyed into the sport.

"Everyone comes from a different place," said the professor, at UM for 25 years.

On the stage, he brings them all together.

***

This day, the musicians tackle a movement in "Tarkus" first, and LedBetter coaches them through both the musical arrangement and, at one point, the mythical story line. Tarkus, an imaginary creature who looks like an armadillo, is attacked by a manticore in a 1971 art-rock piece by Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

"(Tarkus is) wounded, and he goes into the sea and just sits there and dies in the ocean," LedBetter said.

The angst threads through the passage, but when the players amp up the volume too quickly, LedBetter stops them.

"That's too abrupt," LedBetter said, and he sings them the line they need to ease into. "It's got to just sneak in. Maybe a bit more crescendo on that F."

They play it again, fast this time, and he tells them they're at performance tempo. When they hit a new and difficult section, he has them step back again for a couple of rounds.

"Let's slow it down. This is the hard part," LedBetter said.

As the clock ticks, the musicians scribble notes on their music, ask questions about tricky passages, and mime the malletting when it isn't their turn to play.

Years ago, musicians used five fingers to play the pieces UM percussionists now take on with just two sticks, LedBetter said.

"Sometimes, that means they have to figure out which hand does what," he said.

They talk out the "sticking" in rehearsals: "Left-right, right-left." Or "Right-right-left, right-right-left."

The mallets fly, and the professor and crew wring every ounce of practice time possible out of their 50 minutes.

"At the same time, we're percussionists, and we have fun," LedBetter said.

***

In rehearsal, the students pipe down when the professor shushes them, and as Naro sees it, he keeps them pushing toward a common goal.

"He's on the train there with us. He's not trying to command us or get down on us," he said.

Naro seeks to emulate the work ethic of his teacher, who is at once a demanding educator and personable host barbecuing for his students at his home at the end of the semesters. Naro himself gets up a 5 a.m. every day to practice because he knows LedBetter gets up early to take care of his chickens and horses.

"I've just always thought that was a great inspiration," Naro said.

Rubich, whose favorite instrument is the marimba, said the spring concert takes him back to his childhood, when his parents played Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Now, he's playing a new twist on a piece that's 20 years older than he is.

LedBetter does that well, he said, blending old and new and keeping the students on a constant quest to learn.

"He tries to adhere to old tradition, but at the same time, he likes to push us forward and be on the cutting edge," Rubich said.

On March 11, the pieces the musicians rehearsed on marimbas, steel drums, and other instruments will sound different because they're shared with new listeners, Hutchins said. Taking the music from hours in the practice room to a live audience is the best part of performance.

"It kind of seems new again because they haven't heard it before," she said.

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University of Montana, higher education