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Wednesday, 19 November 2014 15:15

Marching toward The Big Apple

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cover“The whole world is watching.”

That’s the statement echoing from a megaphone strapped to the side of David Starnes, director of athletic bands at Western Carolina University. On a recent crisp late fall afternoon, 505 college students march up and down a large intramural field in Cullowhee. The instrumental sounds of Journey’s seminal 80s classic “Don’t Stop Believin’” ricochets around the campus, ultimately radiating into the Southern Appalachian mountain range cradling the school.

In two weeks, while most college kids will be preparing for upcoming finals and sitting down with their families at home for a Thanksgiving dinner, the members of  WCU’s marching band, the Pride of the Mountains, will be striding down the streets of Manhattan as one of the featured acts during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Filled with floats, balloons, music groups and Broadway productions, the televised parade is one of the most beloved and watched spectacles each year, with upwards of 44 million viewers tuning in. 

“This is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Starnes shouted across the field. “When NBC says go and they roll the cameras, you go. When they cut that ribbon and start the parade you are the first ones out, so this has to be perfect — horns have to be held perfectly, you have to play perfectly.”


Practice makes perfect

For the last year and a half, Starnes, his assistant coaches and students have been preparing diligently for the parade. Entering his fourth year at the helm of the athletic bands, Starnes isn’t a stranger to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, having taken high schools to perform at it in 1987 and 2005 — he knows what to expect, and what is expected of his students.

“We’ve known about this for awhile and have worked so hard,” Starnes said. “One of the requirements for the band this year was that you had to have been in the band last year, we just didn’t want to have people come in at the last minute and do it. The band and parade has a huge commitment level.”

Between endless hours of choreographing, fundraising and practice, the band is spending the last weeks leading up to the parade putting the puzzle together for a seamless fit.

“It’s going well. We’re doing a lot of new stuff, with this being the first time putting everything together,” Starnes said. “The kids have a lot of responsibilities with having to march over a block and a half in New York City, which makes it very difficult. I’ve been most impressed that musically we stayed together much better than I thought we would for that distance in practice.”

Alongside “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the band will also be performing the WCU fight song and Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” — a poignant melody by Joel about New York City, which will be the selection WCU will perform on camera.

“One of the biggest things is that we are at the beck and call of NBC,” Starnes said. “This is a production from the very beginning and they are timed to the second about allowing every act in the parade to have a spotlight, and we have to be, as the leader of the parade, perfect tempo-wise, pacing-wise, all the way from Central Park to the center star.”

To execute that perfection, the band consists of 94 student leaders, each with a role that culminates into a successful production. Some work behind the scenes getting logistics together, others head the different sections of the band, from percussion to woodwinds, brass to color guard. Each position is as crucial as the next, with any mistake in motion causing a devastating domino effect that ripples throughout the ensemble.

“What makes us so special is that we have 505 members and yet we’re the closest family I’ve ever been part of away from home,” said Charity Denton, a senior student coordinator majoring in music education, who also plays mellophone. “We’re all doing this because we love what we do.

“I came to WCU because of this band,” added Lily Gayeski, a senior student coordinator majoring in marketing, who also plays flute. “I fell in love with this band because everyone has this spark within them to get better. Our works are original — we aren’t the same old song and dance.”

When asked if they’d ever been to New York City before, a couple of the student coordinators shook their heads: “No.”

“It’s crazy to think that my first time in New York City will be marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” said senior percussionist Chris Smith. “There will be so many people screaming from the sidelines, it’s going to be wild. I come from a really small town and this is enormous for me – it’s the Super Bowl of parades.”

“I’ve never been to New York City, but I watch the parade every year with my family,” added senior Jasmin Tockes, who plays flute and piccolo. “I told my family I won’t be home for Thanksgiving, but I’ll be in the parade and they can watch me on television.”


Pride of the Mountains

Nicknamed the Pride of the Mountains, the band is nationally renowned for their intricately choreographed routines and original style. Their halftime shows during football season fill the stadium as the masses cheer on the passion and professionalism this group not only carries with them but shares with the world. 

And with that tireless effort comes a longtime reputation by the band as one of the academic and athletic centerpieces for the university. For WCU, there are hundreds who specifically came to the school to be part of the band, a melodic vehicle for career aspirations in music education and beyond.

“This year, approximately 12.5 percent of our freshmen at WCU are members of the marching band,” said WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher. “”Our marching band has become a major student recruiting tool and an attraction for prospective students who want to come to WCU to study and to be a part of something very special.”

Within their storied performance reputation is a long list of accolades and achievements. In 2009, they won the Sudler Trophy, which is akin to the Heisman Trophy for collegiate bands. In 2011, they were selected to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade (Rose Bowl). Being selected for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the band’s latest achievement.

“We are absolutely ecstatic that our band members will be sharing their talents and creativity with the millions of people from across the nation and around the globe who will watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, both in person and on television,” Belcher said. “The Pride of the Mountains already is regarded as one of the nation’s leading marching bands. The appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will elevate the band’s profile even higher, and will bring additional exposure and name recognition to Western Carolina University.”


Onward to the Big Apple

The sky darkens above the campus. Nighttime envelops the intramural field. Bright overhead lights soon click on and illuminate the band, still marching in unison around and around. Though the two-hour practice is winding down for the day, Starnes still is able to squeeze in a few more full run-throughs of the parade routine. 

Each time they finish the routine and Starnes tells them to do it again, hundreds of determined students run back to the starting point, many shouting excitedly, jumping around, ready to take on The Big Apple. 

“Millions of people will see you, and you may never again have millions of people watching you again,” Starnes voice echoes out of the megaphone. “You’ve got to get it now.”

With a loud whistle blow, the signal is given that practice is over for now. Starnes waves the band in. Instrumentalists hurry over and surround him as he gets up on a stepladder to properly address them. 

“This is a band director’s dream to do this parade and a band member’s dream to be part of this,” he said. “On Thanksgiving morning, you’ll get to do something you’ll remember for the rest of your life. You’ll tell your kids about this. You’ll be on the world’s stage and it’s got to be perfect.”

Starnes then dismisses the band. They scatter in every direction, only to regroup in their respective sections. The tubas congregate near the football field, trumpets near the river and percussion at a nearby tree, all getting in a few more minutes of practice. Every moment of preparation counts, every chance to get better will be seized upon, for when the band gets their moment in the spotlight they’ll be ready. Starnes soon packs up his equipment and gets ready to head home, but not before gazing across the fields and parking lots at his students.

“After all of this work, to be able to finally stand there in New York City and see their faces,” he said. “Well, I’m going to be the proudest I could ever be.”

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