EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Mark Kadetsky stood in front of the students in the darkened auditorium, battered drumsticks in hand. The students in the percussion ensemble in front of him had already warmed up with some scales.

Now was the time for the big song.

Kadetsky quickly snapped the drumsticks together, and the group of students behind xylophones, bass drums, marimbas and tympani drums at the recent rehearsal played "Bavarian Strut," a funky reinterpretation of “Für Elise,” one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most popular compositions, with a brief detour through his Symphony No. 5.

Kadetsky swayed in time with the music, as did several of the students.

It sounded almost flawless, but not enough, Kadetsky said. "Hit the accent — make the note tweak."

The group ran through the song again, but Kadetsky urged more life: "Play the music, not the notes, this time. Play it like you like it!"

The almost two dozen students in the auditorium of Fernwood Avenue Middle School are a rarity: a large percussion ensemble in an era that has seen more schools across the country reduce arts and music programs.

The group has taken part in competitions and sent students to regional orchestras. And while most of the musicians are in eighth grade, the group preps them to step into the band at Egg Harbor Township High School.

The school hosted an indoor color guard and percussion competition on Feb. 8, featuring 13 groups from around the region. Fernwood Avenue, which was the only school in its category, scored 69.1 points, relatively high for this early in the season, Kadetsky said. The group has competitions March 9 in Egg Harbor Township High School and April 21 at Highland Regional High School in Gloucester Township, Camden County.

The group will also take part in the New Jersey Music Educators Association competition in New Brunswick, Middlesex County, on Feb. 22.

Kadetsky, 42, served as the band director at Egg Harbor Township High School for 15 years. Now, in addition to his Fernwood duties, he is an assistant director at Southern Regional High School Marching Band, in Manahawkin.

The goal is to get students more interested in music, while evolving a relatively simple drumline into a more sophisticated percussion ensemble.

"I think it's really good," said Katie McLaughlin, 13, during a break. She played a rosewood xylophone, and said, "Not a lot of middle schools have a drum line like us. I think it's really fun."

She picked up the instrument when she was in fourth grade. Her brother played the saxophone, so she chose the xylophone and has continued ever since.

Similarly, Aidin Hendricks, 14, likes playing glockenspiel with the ensemble. "It's a lot of fun. I like going to the competitions."

Nearby, Josh Hornstein, 13, stood behind the tenor drums, similar to the medium-sized rack of drums in most marching bands. He started last year, but picked up the instrument quickly, in part because of the influence of his mother, Colleen Hornstein. She has taken lessons for five years, he said, and plays in services at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Northfield.

Kadetsky bounded up on stage to share personalized advice with several students. He hopped down, and it was time to practice their newer piece, "Jupiter II." It's a new song that they are readying for the spring competition. The musicians were becoming more acquainted with it, and since the band hadn't practiced it as much, it showed. Kadetsky had some quirky advice:

He stopped them, encouraging them to play looser with one more piece of advice: "think zombie apocalypse."

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