Onstage at the Charles Playhouse, Tyler Pedersen hears the tune for the first time. It’s a sprint of a song, one fit for a high-speed car chase: swift snaps on the hi-hat, the bass drum throbbing like thunder, the toms thumped with breathless muscle.
Pedersen, 24, from Marblehead, counts the beats, practices a few times on the drum kit, and — just 10 minutes later — plays “Drum Finale Throwdown” without a flaw.
It’s a rapid rehearsal in a mostly empty theater, and for a performance Pedersen might never give. To play the song with Blue Man Group before a live audience, he’ll first have to win the Drum-Off, the Boston group’s fifth annual competition of drumming skill and performance savvy.
On Saturday at 5 p.m., Pedersen and the Drum-Off’s other four finalists will each perform a three-minute solo at the Summer Block Party at The Lawn on D. The winner, as selected by a panel of four judges, will get more than $6,000 in prizes and the chance to perform the song in an encore with the Blue Men at the Summer Block Party.
“It’s a real artistic statement for each individual,” said Steve Ballstadt, Blue Man Group’s full-time drummer and a judge of this year’s Drum-Off. “It’s super positive. It exposes everyone to how hard everyone’s working to achieving their goals.”
This year’s contest received 25 submissions from drummers across the United States. The applicant pool was whittled down to 10 semifinalists, who performed two-minute solos live before judges at the Charles Playhouse in June. The judges then settled on the final five, a group that includes a woman (the Drum-Off’s third-ever female finalist) and one non-New Englander, who drove 14 hours from North Carolina to perform in the semifinal round in Boston.
“It’s not often the technical things that make a winner. It’s usually personality and passion,” said Ballstadt, who taught the finalists the encore song at the rehearsal. “All things equal, you like the people with personality — if they can bring the crowd in and make everyone a part of their mission for the time they’re playing.”
For competitors, the contest offers a unique opportunity to gain exposure. The winning solos get posted to YouTube. (The video of last year’s winner, Justin Winters, who performed wearing a backpack, has more than 31,000 views.) Organizers estimate that as many as 3,500 people will attend the live finals at the Summer Block Party.
Past winners praise the Drum-Off for its emphasis on musicianship, community, and “good vibes.”
“It actually helps a lot,” said Jarrell Campbell, a student at Berklee College of Music originally from Texas and winner of the 2016 Drum-Off. “In terms of professionalism, I didn’t have a lot of things put together — social media, a website. After winning, it forced me to step it up.”
The competition has also helped launch non-winners. Kyle Harris, from Northborough, lost in the final round of the 2015 Drum-Off. When Blue Man Group was looking to hire a part-time drummer early the next year, he practiced four to six hours a day in advance of the audition. He got the job.
“It’s a showcase until we have to choose a winner,” Harris said about the Drum-Off. Through the competition he became close with two of his co-finalists, neither of whom won either. The three have since shared gigs and gear with one another, he said.
Professional percussionists emphasize the difficulties of being a drummer in Boston: costly practice facilities, a dwindling number of live performance venues, and competition for gigs from students attending the area’s many music programs.
“The city’s squeezing the artists,” said Ballstadt, who has been with Blue Man Group since 2005. “It’s so expensive to live here, and artists have a hard time making it work. It’s unfortunate because it’s a great city, and it used to have such a great arts scene, a great live music scene.”
Cameron Roux, the winner of the first contest, in 2014, was just 14 years old when he won. He called the contest his “number one accomplishment.”
“I’d recommend it for any drummer, of any skill level,” said Roux, from Salem, N.H., who will attend Berklee in the fall. “Everyone there is friends. You all want the same thing. You’re there to have fun. There’s not a lot of places that allow you to perform before other people on drums. It’s a great opportunity to show yourself, to meet other people with the same goals in life.”
For his part, Pedersen — who also made it to the finals last year — says he has enjoyed the process just as much the second time.
If he doesn’t win, would he enter a third time?
“Yeah, I’ll do it again,” he said with a smile. “If I lose, I’ll be upset and bummed. But the next day, I’ll be like, ‘I’m still doing it again next year.’ ”Graham Ambrose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.