Look around the walls of the first-floor hallway of Hillside Elementary School, and you’ll find photo after photo of Drums of Thunder out on the road: in front of the Washington Monument, at Madison Square Garden, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, to name just a few places where they’ve performed.
And where the 34 boys and girls go to perform, so too does Louis D’Amico.
D’Amico, a longtime music educator in the Montclair schools, has been at the helm of the drum corps for fourth- and fifth-graders since its inception 35 years ago. And it has gotten to the point where the sons and daughters of past members are taking their turn at the drums.
“So I’ve sort of lapped them,” he says fondly.
D’Amico received a commendation in December from the state Legislature honoring his work as a music educator. Late last month, the Montclair Township Council presented D’Amico with a proclamation of its own recognizing his work.
Drums of Thunder has played at sports stadiums, professional concert venues, and colleges and universities, along with numerous local shows in and around Montclair.
Audiences are always amazed at the band’s level of technical skill, D’Amico says. “What they see, is young, little children, and what they hear is such a contrast.”
Yogi Berra was among the band’s fans. The band played at Berra’s 90th-birthday celebration, and at his memorial service after his passing in 2015. The late state Sen. Raymond Bateman was also a fan.
Drums of Thunder routinely performs on television, including appearances on “The Today Show” and a performance at the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show in Philadelphia. The band is also set to appear on “Wonderama”; the band’s episode will  air on Easter.
In 1998, a planned appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ show, “Ellen,” fell through. But DeGeneres sent cookies to the band, D’Amico remembers.
D’Amico became a full-time music teacher after he graduated from Montclair State University in 1973, when it was Montclair State College. But he has been teaching music in the schools since he was 18, and has been at Hillside for most of his career. “I know every tile, every crack in the wall, every brick in the building,” he says.
Music is part of D’Amico’s family tree. His grandfather, an immigrant from Italy, was a musician, and his father was a percussionist. His uncle was the White House pianist during the Eisenhower years and a member of the United States Navy Band; he was among those killed when the band’s plane crashed in Rio de Janeiro in 1960. On one trip to Washington, D.C., D’Amico took the students to visit his uncle’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
D’Amico himself played in the New Jersey Junior Symphony in high school, and was promoted to the New Jersey Symphony when he turned 18. On one occasion, the symphony performed Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a percussion-heavy composition. The symphony’s assistant principal cellist, Vincent Scelba, was the music supervisor for the Montclair school district at the time; he approached D’Amico and asked him to come teach a Saturday morning music class at the George Inness Annex. “Just teach the first lesson you were taught,” D’Amico was told.
With the advent of Montclair’s magnet program in the 1970s, D’Amico was transferred to Hillside, which had been designated the performing arts and gifted magnet school.
He started having ideas of setting up a drum ensemble as part of the school’s music program. “I wasn’t thinking drum corps,” he said. “I was thinking teaching instruments and starting a concert band.”
Then in the early 1980s, the school’s principal organized a parade to display each of the “creative eyes”: art, music, math, science, reading and so forth.
There were lulls in the parade, so D’Amico came up with a drum riff for the percussion section to play. That riff became known as “Vinnie,” a rhythm that is instantly recognizable to Drums of Thunder fans.
Other riffs followed.
“And it just grew from there.”
Third-graders start with drum lessons, and enter the beginning drum corps. At the end of the year, they’re invited to try out for either Drums of Thunder or the Hillside Drum Corps. Students who do not make either group on the first pass continue with drum lessons and are invited to audition again in a year.
Those who play in Drums of Thunder for the full two years are promoted to captain in the fifth grade.
“You don’t give a lesson and say, go home and practice,” D’Amico says. Instead, the band’s class sessions are times for conductor and ensemble to practice together.
In between the lessons on the correct way to hold the sticks and to master a cadence or riff, there are other lessons too: on respect for one another and the music, the value of hard work and reaching for goals. It is especially meaningful when Drums of Thunder visits colleges and universities, D’Amico says, because the students are reminded of where their education will take them.
It’s not unusual for Drums of Thunder to get floor-shaking standing ovations wherever they play. “At Villanova, we exited the court ... they were still going crazy,” he said of the crowd in the stands.
D’Amico is scheduled to give a talk at the John J. Cali School of Music in May on May 8. He will be speaking to the school’s three groups of music majors: therapy, performance and education. “What’s rewarding for me, in my career,” D’Amico says, “is being in the company of those will pick up the ball and go forward.”
D’Amico keeps in touch with many Drums of Thunder alumni; some have gone on to be professional musicians, while others become music educators themselves.
“I love young people, and I love music, and I love putting them together. Music is a language that we all understand,” he says.
“It’s not just notes. It’s music.”