Drums of Thunder Plays Its Final Notes

As the 2018-2019 school year in Montclair comes to a close, a familiar hum of drums will come to a halt, with militant precision, for one last time.  

Former Drums of Thunder musicians pictured with Louis D’amico (2009) // Photo Courtesy of Hilary Taylor

Louis D’amico, the legendary director of Hillside Elementary School’s “Drums of Thunder” will be retiring in June after more than 30 years. His retirement also signifies the end of the acclaimed drum corps. During his time at Hillside, D’amico has also conducted the Hillside Drum Corp, Beginning Drum Corp, The Hillside Philharmonic, and has taught numerous percussion and instrumental courses.

For nearly four decades, Drums of Thunder has been comprised of 30 to 40 musicians, all of whom are fourth and fifth graders. These dedicated students spend one period every day with their fellow drummers, perfecting their craft, practicing their extensive repertoire until they form blisters on their fingers.

Louis D’amico did not found just any student music group– over the years, these 9, 10, and 11-year-olds have performed at some of the biggest sporting venues around the country, wowing crowds during half-time. From the U.S. Open to Metlife Stadium, Boston and Washington D.C., to numerous Knicks games at Madison Square Garden, and of course, back home in the Hillside auditorium, the young members of Drums of Thunder stunned and entertained thousands upon thousands of devoted audiences. Dressed in white button-down shirts, black tuxedo pants, and sequins bowties, cummerbunds, and suspenders, the musicians of Drums of Thunder have certainly made an impression on the world’s biggest sports fans, as well as their local community.

Over the years, Drums of Thunder has come to serve as a staple of not only Hillside but the town of Montclair itself. Much of this impact is at the hands of Louis D’amico. With a larger than life performance persona, D’amico has led his students to immense musical success, while also acting as a dedicated teacher and mentor to so many students. The Montclair Dispatch had the pleasure of speaking with Louis D’amico as he approaches this milestone in his career.

Louis D’amico, or Mr. D’amico as he is perhaps better known, has been teaching drums in Montclair since he was 18 years old. While playing percussion in a symphony orchestra in New Jersey, D’amico was asked by the symphony’s supervisor, a Montclair resident, to teach drums to students in the town. Shortly after, D’amico began instructing a Saturday drum program for students, held in the high school’s George Innes building. This eventually led D’amico to lead a summer music school at Hillside. And the rest is history.

It can be said with certainty that Louis D’amico’s teachings have impacted the lives of every single member of Drums of Thunder (also known as DOT).  During our discussion, Mr. D’amico articulated the idea that even after the students leave Hillside, there is an unbreakable bond between those musicians. When I asked Mr. D’amico to speak to the importance of the performing arts in elementary schools, he echoed his previous sentiment. He explained that the arts, and Drums of Thunder more specifically, has provided students with a sense of community, and makes the fourth and fifth graders feel as though they are a part of a team. Music allows the kids to freely express themselves, and safely share their sensitivities and vulnerabilities.

As Louis D’amico both reflects upon his legacy and looks toward his final weeks as the conductor of DOT, there was a palpable sense of emotion in his voice. I asked him if he could explain what  Drums of Thunder has meant to him over the years. While a daunting task, without hesitation, he simply said, “love.” For D’amico, his love of music, his love, and care for his students, their love for music, and their reciprocated love for their fearless leader have been his continuous driving force. “You can put love into any sentence about Drums of Thunder.” Mr. D’amico went on to say that in addition to love, trust has been the key to the group’s success. “The students won’t want to learn unless they can trust their teacher.”

While Louis D’amico is nearing his final days at Hillside, his dedication toward his students is not slowing down. “We have a performance on June 22nd, and on June 26th, my final day of teaching.” Throughout our conversation, Mr. D’amico’s love and admiration for his students became more and more evident, as did the idea that this will not be an easy goodbye for the leader of Drums of Thunder. For D’amico, “The connection that I have with these kids… leaving the kids is the hardest part.”

The author of the article is a Montclair native class of 2017, currently a student at McGill University, studying history and communications within the Faculty of Arts.

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