The roots of rhythm

a large group of teenagers playing hand drums with the spot line on one in front.
Mt. Lebanon Percussion is celebrating its 40th anniversary May 16-18 with a newly commissioned work, Heroes Among Us. For the traditional closing number, Sabre Dance, percussion alumni are invited on stage. Center stage is Brett Czarniak.

s long as we’ve had people, we’ve had drums. Mammoth bones dating back more than 70,000 years were found in present-day Belgium. They’re believed to be among the earliest idiophones, instruments that create sound through vibration. The Chinese had alligator skin drums as far back as 5500 BC, and ancient art from the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures include depictions of drums used in religious and cultural celebrations. The Aztecs had their ayotl, a turtle shell drum. The Celts had crotals, a rattle-type instrument.

In North America, enslaved people brought over the African tradition of drumming as communication; skilled drummers mimicked speaking cadences that could be understood by other enslaved people. Indigenous tribes have used large powwow drums and smaller hand drums for wartime communiques, as well as dance and celebration. Many tribes consider the drums to be a sacred instrument, reproducing the heartbeat of Mother Earth.

In the heart of our community, where the Seneca and Monongahela once walked, Mt. Lebanon Percussion, in the high school but not exactly of it, has welcomed more than 2,000 students to pound, slap, tap and whack, to jingle bells and shake maracas—and to become part of a family. They’re celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and will mark the occasion with a weekend of concerts May 16 through 18.

Founded by Mt. Lebanon High School alumnus and music teacher Richard Minnotte, the original 15-member percussion ensemble played one song at the high school concert band’s spring performance in 1985.

Almost 40 years later, the program boasts eight concert ensembles (including Brazilian and African ensembles), and the marching band percussion section. More than 200 students from grade four to 12 participate.

two teenagers playing a marimba at a chrismas concert
Mt. Lebanon Percussion has more than 200 students, in grades four through 12, who play in eight ensembles. Pictured, Elise Stock and Ky Larson.

Since 1996, the percussionists have performed on KDKA-TV’s Children’s Hospital Free Care Fund Telethon. Other appearances include several performances at the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association annual convention in Hershey, and the 2006 National Association of Music Educators national convention in Salt Lake City.  The group also played at the 2011 NHL Winter Classic, an outdoor hockey game played at Heinz Field on New Year’s Day.

Current program director Jeremy DeLuca has been with the group, as student, teacher and director, for the majority of its history, starting when he was in fourth grade.

“I would lug my snare drum up the hill to Washington School” from his Cochran Road home, DeLuca recalled. He stuck with it, and after four years with the various percussion ensembles at the high school, DeLuca moved on to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in music education, focusing on percussion and educational psychology.

While he was in college, DeLuca would return home on breaks to assist Minnotte with summer enrichment camps for grades four through seven. He also worked with the high school marching band’s drumline. After graduation, Minnotte hired DeLuca as an assistant.

“I never stopped,” DeLuca observed. When Minnotte retired in 2019, DeLuca became director of percussion studies.

a man in a suit speaking into a microphone with a quote "The program is very inclusive. Jeremy has made sure of that."
Jeremy DeLuca took over as director of the percussion ensemble since 2019 following the retirement of founder Rick Minnotte.

A couple of things to know about Mt. Lebanon Percussion: it’s a school-sanctioned extracurricular program, not a district activity. They receive discounts for equipment from national sponsors like MarimbaOne and Zildjian. DeLuca receives a coaching reimbursement, the same as sports coaches. Families pay DeLuca, his principal assistant, Subha Das, and assistants Jason Miller, Dan Meunier and Will King, all professional musicians, for private lessons. Students are strongly encouraged to take lessons in addition to practice and performance with the ensembles; scholarships are available. Parents pay yearly dues. Contributors to Friends of Mt. Lebanon Percussion and fundraising by parents cover other expenses.

Second, it’s not the boys’ club it was 20 years ago, DeLuca noted. Almost 40 percent of percussion students are girls, and this year’s sophomore class has more girls than boys.

On a related note, DeLuca nurtures the percussion program as a place for everyone. A gay man, DeLuca is very intentional about welcoming gay and transgender students, as well as kids of all ethnicities, those with varying disabilities, and others who might feel they don’t fit in elsewhere.

“The program is very inclusive,” said Katie Graybill (formerly Katie Ashbrook), Old Farm Road. She’s a percussion alumna as well as parent to percussion students Xavier, a sophomore, and Delaney, who’s in sixth grade at Mellon Middle School. “Jeremy has made sure of that.”

Katie and her husband, Jeff, met in the high school program. Both were recruited by Minnotte because they played the piano.

two adults, man and woman, and two teenagers girl and boy, standing in front of a marimba holding mallets in a room with trophies and various drums
Katie and Jeff Graybill with son Xavier and daughter Delaney. Katie and Jeff met when they were in the ensemble together in high school, and now Xavier and Delaney are members.

“He came and talked to our parents, explaining that piano skills transfer well to the xylophone and marimba,” Katie said. Both Katie and Jeff signed on. They’ve been together ever since, both graduating from Penn State, marrying, and moving back to Mt. Lebanon.

Katie’s friendship with DeLuca goes back to her senior year in high school: she was assigned to mentor DeLuca as he prepared to join the program as an incoming freshman. Now he teaches her kids.

Xavier recalled that when he was in third grade, DeLuca wrote out the snare drum parts for I’m a Bun, a song from the cartoon series Amazing World of Gumball.

Both Xavier and Delaney have taken to percussion. Delaney learned about Brazilian drums as well as culture in last year’s percussion summer camp. “I play the biggest drum in the (marching band) drumline,” Xavier said. His favorite instrument is the marimba, he added.

Xavier practices in the percussion department, nestled with the band and orchestra rooms overlooking center court, every day after school. “You’re encouraged to practice, and you have to manage your time and what you practice.”

Katie agreed. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the life lessons I learned through percussion.”

a quote, “Our job is not to make music majors. Our job is to make good people.”

Along with inclusion, DeLuca is passionate about instilling skills like time management and cooperation, as well as empathy and respect. He set up a “kind corner” in the percussion department, where students are encouraged to post anonymous, positive messages to each other, “like ‘You killed it on that solo,’” he explained. He has found that it can be contagious: “Once you’re touched by kindness, you want to start giving it back.”

“We really love Mr. DeLuca,” said Lisa Silverman, Pueblo Drive, a former percussion parent. “We’re big fans.” Her younger son, Jack, played marimba and various drums. His big brother, Ryan, who graduated in 2019, has Down syndrome. “He has always loved music,” Silverman said. Ryan started private lessons with DeLuca when he was in fourth grade. Silverman recalled DeLuca placing pictures of characters from Sesame Street, his favorite show, on the marimba keys—Bert for B, Elmo for E, Fozzie for F—so Ryan could learn the notes.

“Percussion made all the difference in Ryan’s life,” said Silverman. He especially loved the concerts: “Ryan’s a performer. He loves to be onstage.”

Jack has gone on to Georgetown University. Ryan works part-time at Chick-fil-A on Washington Road and Bunny Bakes in Squirrel Hill. He has a djembe drum he plays at home.

“Ryan’s inclusion in the program was a game changer,” Silverman added. “Mt. Lebanon Percussion is a treasure in our community.”

For this year’s landmark anniversary, the percussion department has commissioned a work, Heroes Around Us, by Nathan Daughtrey. It’ll have its world premiere at the spring concert. In addition, alumni of the program are invited back onstage for the finale of the matinee performance on May 18. The traditional closing song, Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance, will feature the percussion ensembles from grades four to 12, along with any alumni who have signed up. They’ll have a short rehearsal earlier that day.

“It’s a chance for them to shake the rust off,” DeLuca said. He expects to see more than a hundred former students, either onstage or in the audience.

Katie and Jeff Graybill plan to play at the concert. “It’ll be nice to see people,” Jeff said.

One last fact about Mt. Lebanon Percussion: it has a not-so-hidden agenda.

Only about 5 percent of their graduates go on to play music in college, DeLuca noted. Quoting the percussion ensemble’s longtime philosophy, he says “Our job is not to make music majors. Our job is to make good people.”

Tickets to Mt. Lebanon Percussion concerts sell out fast. Purchase tickets through this link


A teenager playing a hand drum solo

The Drum Kit

Mt. Lebanon Percussion has hundreds of instruments, more than any student will be able to play in their years in the program: more than 30 keyboards, including marimba and xylophone. Forty Brazilian drums. Eight different triangles. An exceptional collection, and students get a taste of all varieties.

“I tell them, ‘We are unique. You are spoiled,’” said director of percussion studies Jeremy DeLuca. Here are a few of the lesser-known instruments:


A brief explanation by assistant director Dan Meunier:

“The djundjun (or dunun) are the set of three bass drums used primarily by the Malinke people of Mali, Gambia and Guinea in West Africa. They are two-sided drums with animal skin heads played by a stick. Usually, they have an iron bell mounted on them that is played with a metal beater in the performers’ other hand. The instrument is used to accompany the hand drum known as Djembe in dance drumming occasions in traditional culture.”


If you’ve been to Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, you’ve probably heard a timbau (or timbal). It comes in various lengths and is made of aluminum or lightweight lacquered wood. The timbau originated in Brazil’s Bahia region, and is used to play Afro-Brazilian rhythms, including samba and reggae. Instrumentalists play by hand: the sound is loud, with rapid phrases slapped out.


This keyboard instrument is among the most popular in the Mt. Lebanon percussion program, and in the percussion genre in general. Like the xylophone or vibraphone, instrumentalists, or marimberos, stand to play, using mallets to strike bars on all three instruments.

The marimba sound is deeper and richer because of the tubes, or resonators, below the keys, which amplify the harmonics.

Marimbas originated in sub-Saharan Africa more than 500 years ago. Enslaved Africans brought them to Central America in the 16th century. The instrument’s popularity spread to South America, particularly the Pacific coast of Ecuador and Colombia.

Photos by Marilee Kline