Getting Ready for Macy's

By David Anderson Jr.
Published August 8, 2008

Reed Pfeifer practices playing his saxophone in formation with other musicians during a two-week band camp at West Johnston High School.

Reed Pfeifer practices playing his saxophone in formation with other musicians during a two-week band camp at West Johnston High School.

Marching back and forth over a steaming asphalt parking lot for hours on end in early August, as the temperature hovers near 95 degrees, may not sound like an ideal summer vacation to most teens. For nearly 200 West Johnston High School students, however, there is no place they would rather be.

Today marks the end of West Johnston’s two-week long band camp: an intense routine of physical and mental exercises aimed at getting the students ready for their performance in the 82nd annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

Lance Britt, band director at the school since 2002, said the opportunity to be one of only six high school bands invited to march in the parade is an incredible opportunity for the 192 students participating, and no one is taking it lightly.

“Seven years ago, I never thought we’d be where are today,” Mr. Britt said. “The largest marching band in the state, having played for a president, heading to Macy’s. It’s been a quick rise, but it’s been fun.”
In 2005, the West Johnston band was invited to perform as part of the festivities for President George Bush’s Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. The next year, the band sent in its application for the Macy’s parade, including a video profile describing its achievements and a performance tape. West Johnston’s application package was one of more than 300 sent to parade organizers.

In April 2007, representatives from Macy’s flew to North Carolina to make the surprise announcement to the West Johnston band: They would be performing in the 2008 parade.

Over the past year, the process of planning for the trip — making travel arrangements for hundreds of people, finding affordable lodging in the Big Apple, coming up with a suitable routine and scavenging for funds to make this dream a reality — has built tremendous excitement among band members.

But it hasn’t been until now, at camp, that they are able to really stomp it out and begin preparing for their Nov. 27 performance.

Joseph Partin, left, Will Franklin, right, Allie Jarrett and Alex Stevens, center, white shirts, march with the rest of the band as the group refreshes their musical skills following several months of summer vacation. ‘While I’d love to think they sit at home and practice all summer, something tells me they probably play a little more X-Box than practice,’ band director Lance Britt said.

Joseph Partin, left, Will Franklin, right, Allie Jarrett and Alex Stevens, center, white shirts, march with the rest of the band as the group refreshes their musical skills following several months of summer vacation. ‘While I’d love to think they sit at home and practice all summer, something tells me they probably play a little more X-Box than practice,’ band director Lance Britt said.

Mr. Britt said this year’s camp, while not set up differently than in years past, has an added level of seriousness to it.

“I think the kids have come in with a more serious approach. They know what’s coming,” Mr. Britt said. “They really are working hard to improve, because they know at the end 43 million people are going to see them in person and on television.”

Nick Hunter of Angier leads the band as drum major. He said the biggest task ahead of him is keeping everyone working together toward the same goal.

“This year there is so much more on our plate,” Nick said. “It’s not necessarily harder, it’s just getting prepared.”

Elizabeth Pfeifer, a teacher at West Johnston, has two children participating in the band program this year.

“The excitement is just incredible,” Ms. Pfeifer said. “This is just an enormous honor.”

Ms. Pfeifer said the time and money that are part of band membership are well worth it when it comes to a child’s long-term educational and life goals.

“Kids in bands, and music in general, often do really well academically,” she said. “Upwards of 60 percent of our band members are on the honor roll.”

Long Days
A quick look at the daily band camp schedule makes it clear that preparing for a New York performance is no walk in the park.

“Band is kind of the center of our lives, in a sense,” said Chris Rhodes, 17. “We spend more time here than anywhere else.”

During the first week of camp, students are at school for more than nine hours each day. They take advantage of the cooler morning hours to work outside, starting each day with a run and exercises to stay in shape. Then it’s off to the school’s back parking lot to practice marching techniques, both in instrument sections and as a large group.

This outside portion of camp lasts for more than three hours, interspersed with just a few five-minute water breaks. A noon lunch is the only real break of the day, lasting 30 minutes. After lunch, students participate in team building exercises and leadership training, before breaking up into sections and heading inside to rehearse their music.

During the second week of camp an extra marching session is tacked on to the routine at the end of the day, following a 6 p.m. supper. This brings the workday up to 12 hours, running from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. all week. This final evening session is the teens’ first opportunity to put their entire performance, including the music and marching techniques they’ve been learning in sections, together from beginning to end.

With so much going on at once Mr. Britt, as well as assistant directors David Duffy and Garrett Griffin, have their hands full, to be sure. To make the most of the opportunity that camp offers to develop and train the young musicians, some extra help was brought in for the two weeks. Sixteen additional musicians, all marching band specialists, traveled from around the country to participate in West Johnston’s camp.

“They’re experts in the field,” Mr. Britt said.

In his daily life, Jonathon Diego is an insurance adjuster from Miami, Fla. An experienced touring musician, he took two weeks off from work and traveled to Johnston County to help students perfect their marching and music.

“They work hard, man, they’re good kids,” Mr. Diego said. “They put in a lot of time.”

Goal In Sight
After camp ends this week, the band has only about six weeks left to perfect their show. Although they don’t leave for New York until Nov. 23, they must submit a video of their final performance to parade organizers early in October.

Mr. Britt and his staff have to personally deliver the tape so that Macy’s officials can review the band’s planned performance and address any deficiencies before the parade.

To make the pre-performance as accurate as possible, Mr. Britt has arranged to have West Johnston High School’s rear parking lot painted and striped to mirror Herald Square in New York, the street in front of Macy’s where the band will perform. He will even include the giant five-point, the hallmark of the parade, that graces the street front on Thanksgiving Day.

While preparing for the performance is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, Mr. Britt says the most difficult element of the event is getting the money together to make it happen.

“There’s no additional money from Macy’s at all, and that makes it tough,” he said.

To make the trip affordable for everyone who wants to go, Mr. Britt has asked students to personally come up with half of their expenses — almost $600 each — while fundraising efforts are under way to gather the rest.

So far, the group has raised more than $50,000, but that is only about one-third of the amount the band has pledged to raise.

In addition to paying for eight buses, hotel accommodations for 200 students, food for the group and sightseeing expenses, the band also has to buy new uniform pieces and other items specifically for the parade. The band parents’ association is conducting fundraisers such as car washes, raffles and spirit nights.

While the idea of collecting more than $200,000 seems daunting, Mr. Britt said every donation helps. When the band traveled to Washington in 2005, the majority of its funding came from small donations, of $10 to $15, he said.

Despite the challenges, Mr. Britt is confident the West Johnston band will make it to New York and proudly represent North Carolina to the world.

“How many other times will 43 million people hear about Johnston County?” he said. “This is an American tradition that a band from Johnston County will get to participate in. The best way to show the world what you’re about is showing kids doing great things.”

 

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Text and images copyright 2008 by The Record Publishing Company.
Used with permission.

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