When it comes to indoor show design, few names can hold a candle to Don Click. A larger-than-life personality, Don is as entertaining as the shows he designs.
His musical journey started in 1971 as a church choir singer at age three. And every Sunday night, his family would gather around the television to watch "The Wonderful World of Disney." Routine family trips to Disney World in Orlando only further ignited Don's passion for choreography and showmanship.
In addition, Don happened to have a great vantage to the world of marching bands -- literally. As a kid, he would sit on top of a rock wall at his grandparents' house to watch every movement and hear every sound of the Overton High School Marching Band. His pastime eventually took him to the football games, where the last thing he was interested in was the action on the field. He was fixated on the drumline in the stands, and didn't even bother to sit facing the field.
Surprisingly, Don wasn't a percussionist right from the beginning. His mother used to play the clarinet, so he inherited her instrument and began training at home.
But Don loved the drums so much that his grandmother eventually purchased him a five-piece kit from a Sears catalog. He would play along with an eight-track player without knowing how to read any percussion music.
Between his 6th- and 7th-grade years, Don's family moved to a new school district. Although not exactly planned or permitted by his family, Don told his new band director that he played drums.
That night, Don had to tell his mother what he had done.
Don: "Well, I'm switching to drums in band."
Mother: "But you play clarinet."
Don: "Well, not anymore… I've got this drumset, so I'm gonna take that."
Mother: "Well, you do realize you'll have to take the whole damn thing up there?!"
Later, when Don began classes at Brentwood High School, he simultaneously launched three other phases of his musical career. During his senior year in 1985, Don's percussion instructor asked if he was interested in traveling to another high school to help teach the drumline. Don happily obliged. Since then, Don has taught at least one fall marching band for 31 straight years. In most of those years, Don taught and/or designed for multiple marching bands -- as many as nine in one season.
It also began his tenure as a Disney performer. In the spring of his senior year, Don was recruited by the school's colorguard director to audition for a spot as an extra in the traveling Disney production on its way to Nashville. Don auditioned, and landed a spot as an extra.
Prior to the show, one of the lead character actors was injured. Fortunately, Don happened to fit the height requirements for the character.
Disney's directors were so impressed with Don's audition for the new role and subsequent performances that they told him if he ever wanted to work at Disney, he should call the choreographer for a spot -- he wouldn't even have to worry about auditioning.
Don Click displays proper rehearsal etiquette during summer band.
In the summer of 1985, the third phase of Don's musical career began. After marching in high school, Don auditioned for, and was welcomed to join, the Bridgemen from Bayonne, New Jersey. After returning from tour, Don enrolled in school at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, to pursue performance degree as a vocal major. But Don was intent on using his connections with Disney, and this time, he wanted to perform in Orlando.
During his freshman spring break, Don drove from Birmingham to Orlando to audition for a role at Disney World. He was cast immediately, and started performing that week. The choreographer later offered him a full-time position that Friday, but Don decided to head back to finish school.
Well, at least that semester.
As soon as the spring semester finished in 1986, Don left Samford to move to Orlando. He spent the next two years performing at Disney World. But performing wasn't enough for Don. He wanted to absorb how the Imagineers at Disney created these elaborate worlds and characters. So after he finished every shift, Don changed into civilian clothes to hang out at the park. He watched as many shows as possible, observed everything he could from park benches, and learned all the nuances that make Disney World and its performers special.
After a couple of years performing at Disney, Don realized he wanted to march his last two summers of drum corps eligibility. So Don quit Disney to march with the 1988 Suncoast Sound and age-out with the 1989 Blue Devils.
Don Click's reach isn't just in the percussion division. His work affects all of the WGI performers.
With his drum corps career complete, Don turned his attention to finishing college. He enrolled at UNLV, but struggled to choose a degree. While he loved the marching arts, designing shows, and teaching percussion, he admitted his heart wasn't committed to being a band director.
"No offense to my band-director friends out there, but I wasn't interested in teaching flute and clarinet and everything else," Don said. "That just wasn't my passion."
Don switched his degree to business, and transferred to the University of North Texas for their business program. Because of his previous musical achievements, Don was able to retain his music scholarship by performing in the North Texas drumline and taking lessons. He went on to win two Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) championships as a member of the indoor drumline. In the fall of 1993, Don graduated from North Texas with his finance degree, and moved back home to Nashville.
In 1992, Winter Guard International (WGI) was already an established governing body hosting indoor colorguard competitions around the country. Experiencing rapid growth, WGI decided to create a division exclusively for indoor percussion. Don saw this as an opportunity to teach and design shows for percussion while maintaining his day job.
It was the perfect scenario for Don and Chris Finen to start an independent percussion ensemble: Music City Mystique (McM). When any independent group or drum corps launches, the founders assume the roles of program coordinator, drill writer, music arranger, bus driver, cook, uniform fitters, mechanic, and custodian -- it was no different for Don and Chris.
Don began to fine-tune his skills as a show designer by writing the drill and developing the storylines. He admitted that, at first, not every show he created was a success. "You always think you suck," Don said.
But he constantly evaluates his designs to identify areas for improvement. So while some of his shows didn't live up to his expectations, he doesn't see them as failures. For Don, success does not alway equate to medals or championships.
"I don't want to base the success off of a particular performance on the trophies or placement. Because if we did that every time that you designed something that didn't win, then it's considered a failure," Don said. "And I don't think that's the case. Some of the shows I love the most are way down the line as far as [placement] goes."
Don Click was quick to give credit to the various staffs he has worked with over the years.
Don acknowledged his success as a designer was only possible because of the staffs he worked with during those early years at Mystique, and said "it takes an entire village" to create these shows. As years passed, Don transitioned through many roles with McM, but he was always deeply involved in designing their shows. Don said that his successes at the ensembles he has taught would not be possible without the support of his family back home. His wife Stephanie, daughter Piper, and son Avery, deserve so much credit for giving him the ability to grow the sport by allowing him to travel while they held down the fort back home.
When WGI decided they needed to reconfigure their Board of Directors to help evolve the sport, Don was elected to be their new percussion representative. He was also elected to the Executive Board of Directors for all of WGI. In addition to financial and advocacy efforts, Don said there has been a hard push to "put the I in WGI" -- rather than force international groups to come to WGI, it is now WGI's goal to go to them.
Over the past five years, the number of participating groups in WGI events has doubled. During the 2016 season, there were 3,421 colorguard units, 1,624 percussion ensembles, and 236 winds groups -- even though the winds division of WGI has only been around for two years. So far, the number of ensembles participating in this new division has doubled each year. For both WGI World Championship weekends (colorguard and percussion/winds), Don said there were 1,131 performances in just seven days of competition -- a staggering average of 162 performances per day.
"What we're are doing as an organization is affecting people, specifically young people, all around the world right now," Don said. "And I feel very, very good about that right now… I think we have a fantastic management team in place. The Board of Directors and the Executive Board are all on the same page."
You can see the gears churning away inside Don's creative mind.
While Don's legacy in the marching community was already cemented, WGI honored him even further in 2010 when they elected him to the WGI Hall of Fame. But success has not slowed Don down one bit. He continues to work tirelessly, designs up to 9-10 shows per season, consults on countless others, and pushes the boundaries of show design every year.
Don's musical journey has taken him across the country and around the world. And you can be certain that, next April, Don will be wandering around the Dayton Arena parking lot with polarized sunglasses and a neck weighed down by enough medals to make Mr. T jealous. But his biggest accomplishment is what he has done to advance the indoor activity and the joy he has designed into his shows for the performers and audience members alike.