As an undergraduate at Eastern Michigan University in Warren, Mich., Rob Ciesluk was part of a percussion trio called Axis Indoor Percussion. After graduation, the trio disbanded. Ciesluk went off to serve as the band director at St. Wendelin School in Fostoria for three years and worked on a master's degree
at Bowling Green State University.
Somewhere along the line, Ciesluk wanted to create a larger performing percussion ensemble. That opportunity came this school year at Tiffin University, where Ciesluk is director of bands.
"It's been evolving in my head for quite a few years," Ciesluk said.
The season typically starts in October, but Axis was not launched until December 2012. The group includes 27 men and women, including students from area high schools, BGSU and Tiffin University. Ciesluk said membership in the ensemble is open to musicians ages 14-23, but preference is given to those with ties to Tiffin University.
It is not necessary to be a music major.
In choosing a name for the ensemble, the members had a brainstorming session.
"TU has many touring groups, so we wanted something distinctive," Ciesluk said.
With the mix of members, they did not want Tiffin University as part of the title. Because the original Axis was defunct, Ciesluk proposed that name for the group, and the musicians adopted it.
Although based at Tiffin University, Axis is an independent organization. Membership is free for those enrolled or employed at TU, but everyone else must pay an annual fee of $350. The university provides the instruments, transportation to competitions, an equipment trailer, meals and other touring expenses.
Even with the delayed start, Ciesluk and his assistants, Aaron Wheeler and Mike Hejka, were able to prepare a competition routine for the Ohio Indoor Performance Association competitions.
The group's first program is called "Tribal Affect." Jonathan Thomann wrote the drill, with music composed by Ian Grom and John Mapes.
The percussionists decided to paint their faces and march in bare feet. They wrapped the drums in striped fabric and dressed in earthy colors and animal prints. Ciesluk designed a circular floor mat with African art work. The mat marks the performance area and helps keep the marchers oriented and properly spaced. Ali McClintock collaborated with Ciesluk to paint the mat.
"I had three or four pictures, and then we put them together and made it," Ciesluk said. "We have a giant tarp that covers one basketball court. Generally, you would paint that tarp, but we decided we didn't want to have 10 extra people worrying about that, so we would just go with a smaller one this year."
With members coming from various locations, Ciesluk tried to schedule weekly practices that run 9 a.m.-5 p.m. or sometimes 9 a.m.-9 p.m. in TU's Heminger Center. Occasionally, they had an overnight "camp weekend."
Ciesluk said each ensemble has a time limit in which to perform.
"There's set rules. It needs to be at least 41/2 minutes and it can't be longer than 6 minutes. ... You can only have a 9-minute total of what they call 'interval time.' So if your show is 6 minutes, then you only have 3 minutes to set up and tear down," Ciesluk said.
At its debut appearance Feb. 16-17 at Springfield High School in Holland, Ohio, Axis won first place in its division. It also competed March 24 at North Royalton High School. Before the final competition of the season April 6, the musicians showed up at Heminger at 9 a.m. for a 3-hour practice before driving to Wapakoneta.
The marimbas and vibraphones form a stationary front line. Just behind them are keyboardist Morgan Hammond and Billy Gruber on drum set. Various drums and cymbals do most of the moving about the mat, but even the front line has choreography and vocalizations to perform.
Bowling Green student Paul Sansing plays toms, vibraphone, marimba and even throws in some didgeridoo.
"It's a lot of fun and a lot of work," he said.
In addition to the cadences and beats, the drummers must do fancy stick work, arm and body movements and intricate footwork in different directions while fading in and out of formations.
Billy Sheak, a Bowling Green student, is one of the quad drummers. He describes his participation as "stressful but fun."
Spectators may find it difficult to choose what to watch. The flying mallets on the front line provide quite a show in themselves. Katherine Hickey of Bowling Green, who plays those instruments, said she has been doing percussion for nine years, but this is her first experience with an indoor percussion team. She said mistakes are more noticeable in the front line than they would be in a large marching band.
"The performance is more personal because we're closer to the audience," Hickey said. "At BG, I'm one in 12 cymbals, but here there's only two vibes. ... You have to be on top of your game."
TU student Jacob Simon of Morral played bass drum with Axis. His experience includes about 16 years of playing percussion in marching and concert bands, but this is his first involvement with an indoor drum line.
Like Hickey, he learned Axis differs from traditional marching units.
"Axis taught me a lot about determination. This activity demands a great deal of energy, and you just have to stick to it. Without dedication and positive energy from each member, the final product would not have been such a success," Simon said.