Music City Mystique

2014 marks the 20th season for indoor percussion dynasty Music City Mystique. The group has won seven WGI championships throughout its 20-year history. Fresh from a second-place success, charter-member-turned-coordinator Shane Gwaltney shares the past, present and future of Mystique.

Photo courtesy of Music City Mystique

Nashville-based Music City Mystique (MCM) has an impressive track record in WGI indoor percussion competition—the group has medaled 16 times in the past 20 years, including the current silver. Shane Gwaltney, visual designer and program coordinator for the ensemble, was in its charter group in 1995. Read what he has to say about the group as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Halftime: What made you want to be a musician?

Gwaltney: Personally, my family has always been in the music business, whether they were in live bands or just loved music in general. Music would always be playing in the house. I got a drum set when I was in middle school, joined the band and was inspired by the camaraderie. You always have like-minded people around you.

Halftime: How did you get involved with MCM, and how did that experience shape your career?

Gwaltney: I got involved the very first year, in 1995. I marched for five years in the ensemble. That experience with the staff helped shape what I do for the organization now—and with my career. I learned a lot from the staff that taught me fundamentals. And most importantly, I saw the rawness of the organization in the beginning, the drive to make it happen. It was very new at the time, so that was part of the intrigue—having that one special thing that nobody else does. I aged out in 1999. In 2000 I wrote a little bit of the drill, and in 2001 I took over as visual designer—the “Gladiator” show was the first year that I wrote. In 2002 I started writing the music and visual entirely with Don Click as our consultant. And in 2004 I took over as the “main guy” who’s leading the charge.

Halftime: What do you most enjoy about working with the group members?

Gwaltney: I enjoy watching them achieve the unachievable in their eyes. It’s interesting to watch kids come in and audition nowadays—back in the day, we took anyone who had a heartbeat and two legs who could move around the floor—but now the competition is stiff, so when they join the organization, they know what to expect. It’s great to see them grow past what they ever imagined they could achieve. As a designer it’s also great to know that we can do anything with the talent we have.

Halftime: Being a charter member, you’ve seen a lot. How has MCM changed over its 20 years?

Gwaltney: A lot has changed as far as how we do shows; the importance of cosmetics and aesthetics—the competition mainly. When I started, there were seven independent groups total [in WGI]. And over the course of the years, it’s grown. There have been groups that have come and gone. Through our fundamentals we’ve been able to keep the organization at the top and create a dynasty—no one thought we’d last 20 years.

The talent has also changed, for sure. The first year 95, maybe 98, percent of the group was in high school; there were maybe three or four college kids. Nowadays, we don’t really have high school students, just because the talent is so strong. It’s almost impossible for them to compete on the same level as some of the talent we bring in. We have members who travel up to nine hours to practice. We’re just weekend warriors. It allows everyone to go back and have a real job while still getting our fix.

Halftime: Speaking of the 20th season, are there any plans for a celebration?

Gwaltney: I think making it this far is celebration enough. As an independent organization, and not being affiliated with drum corps like they were in the beginning, we’re kind of an anomaly. But there are lots of groups, like RCC and Rhythm X, who are getting up there. I will celebrate with them because the more those organizations stay around, the stronger WGI is going to be.

Halftime: What is MCM’s greatest success?

Gwaltney: 20 years. 20 years, period. I think our greatest success is our fundamental approach to the activity—being able to be on the forefront. I don’t think anything has been given to us, but we’ve been able to stay where we’re at. And in 20 years, we have not medaled only four times, and we’ve got seven championships under our belt. We also had a three-peat in the 90’s, but it was a little easier then than it is now.

Halftime: What are some of the challenges that the group has faced?

Gwaltney: Money is always an issue. Finding a facility is always an issue. You need a home to exist. You can have instruments, staff and members, but if you don’t have a gym, you can’t succeed. Luckily for us, Meagan Hills, our front ensemble head, is a band director at a middle school and has housed Mystique for several years. In the beginning, if you were a member, you had to bring your own instrument. Members had to pack a keyboard, a xylophone, a marimba, whatever they had. We got our own instruments around 1998.

I think another big challenge is being able to work with the same people over 20 years and still keep the team intact. The other directors and I are all friends, but after 15 years, there are quirks. I think our success is being able to work through those and conform to each other’s needs. Everybody has Mystique’s best interest in mind, period.

Halftime: What are your plans going into the future?

Gwaltney: For Mystique, I wish I could say. We’ll probably take a week off and then get back to work. We are always looking for inspiration, whether in music, a book, a sign, a magazine or a movie. And we are constantly looking for something neat, tangible and fun. We don’t plan our shows to win. We just do what we do and hopefully we’re successful at it. I can’t really say where we’re going. We’ll get there when we get there.

Halftime: What advice do you have for students?

Gwaltney: Don’t give up. Don’t let the instrument that you’re asked to play get the best of you. If you’re playing an instrument that you don’t want to be playing, remember—it’s a team sport. It’s not about you; it’s about the organization you’ve joined. Practice slowly. Watch shows and read as much professional literature as you can. The technology kids have today is in their hands. Use the tools that are given to you. Immerse yourself and love what you are doing.

About the Author

Natalie Brdar is an editorial intern at Halftime Magazine. She recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati (UC) with a degree in English literature. She marched alto saxophone with the Olmsted Falls (Ohio) High School Bulldog Marching Band for four years and marched tenor saxophone during her three years with the UC Bearcat Bands.

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