Band director Parker Bixby sits in the announcer's booth several stories above the Mercer Island High School football stadium. Below him, 268 marching...
Band director Parker Bixby sits in the announcer’s booth several stories above the Mercer Island High School football stadium. Below him, 268 marching band students, with trumpets and clarinets to lips and drumsticks in hand, twirl and step in time and in sync with each other, all the while playing in tune.
At least that’s the goal.
“Hey guys, push it out! There’s hot chocolate today!” Bixby barks into a microphone, his voice booming over the field from the loudspeaker. “I’m hearing wrong notes and missed intervals. Let’s take it from the top of the show.”
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The band is playing to a slim audience during this recent practice — a lone jogger looping the field and a special-education student who is a longtime fan — but that will change Monday when the Mercer Island High School Marching Band performs amid the sweet-smelling flowered floats of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
More than a million spectators are expected to line the parade route and another 100 million will watch on television throughout the world.
It’s a big leap for a band whose only other parade experience is the high school’s homecoming.
Long known as the “Pride of the Island,” the band hasn’t competed locally and isn’t known much beyond its home turf.
Tournament of Roses Parade
When: The parade starts at 8 a.m. Monday and is about 2 ½ hours long.
TV: It will be broadcast live by nine outlets: ABC, NBC, HGTV, Tribune, Univision, Telemundo, Travel Channel, Discovery HD Theater, Sky Link TV.
Two years ago, it submitted an application to parade officials and was chosen as one of 25 marching bands — including bands from Canada and Mexico — to play in this year’s Rose Parade.
Although the parade itself isn’t a competition, participating is considered one of the most prestigious honors for a marching band.
“A lot of bands have been performing in competitions for years, and they have a lot of restrictions for those shows,” said Ray Larsen, 17, one of a set of triplets in the band. “Our band is more unique. We want them to remember us. We want people to notice our band is different.”
This will be a journey into “the wow” for the band, said Mark Harmsen, vice chairman of the parade’s music committee, which weeds through the applications to find the best bands.
“There will be canyons of people — grandstands filled with spectators watching them,” Harmsen said.
Keep those bells up
While Bixby, 32, directs from above, co-director Peter Haberman, 30, works the field on foot, directing musicians to “keep their bells up,” and “no shimmying.”
“Success and failure happens every beat out there,” Bixby said. “They have to adapt constantly. What they need to fix and what is going wrong is constantly changing. But today it’s actually going quite well.”
As a cold drizzle settles over the football field, Haberman jokes with the students.
“Welcome to sunny California,” he says.
“These kids know how to perform,” he says later. “So many of the bands at [the Rose Parade] look the same. But we’re fun and loud, and we’ll look good. Hopefully.”
The band, with all of its trombones, trumpets, mellophones, clarinets, saxophones, sousaphones, drums, snares and cymbals, stretches more than 250 feet long when marching.
With no streets on the island wide enough or long enough to practice on, the band is bused up to Paine Field in Everett to prepare for the grueling 5 ½-mile parade route.
Practices for Bandfest, a field show preceding the parade, are held on the school’s football field. While many marching bands spend weekends scuttling from one competition to the next, Bixby and Haberman made the decision long ago that the Mercer Island band wouldn’t compete.
“We want to teach, not win trophies,” Bixby said.
Mercer Island did have the honor of marching in the Rose Parade in 1993, long before any of the current students were out of elementary school, or before Bixby and Haberman were hired.
Bixby, who performed in the Rose Parade with his high-school band, wanted his students to experience the thrill of filing past the cheering masses, of marching past “TV Corner” where network cameras are set up, and of hearing the band’s name announced as thousands of spectators applaud.
“This parade is a ridiculous amount of work,” Bixby said. “But the students have no idea how special it is. I remember what an incredible experience it was for me, and I want my students to have that, too.”
An expensive trip
All told, the trip will cost about $300,000 — most of which students raised.
Being a noncompetitive band has its advantages because the band can tailor its show to the Rose Parade, said Bixby, as he keeps his eyes focused on the practicing players.
The sousaphone players take center stage, doing a turning and bending dance together. When the group performs this for real, the big brass horns will have covers that spell out Mercer Island.
The sousaphone players and drummers carry the most weight, 15 to 20 pounds. The drum majors spend the most time in rehearsals and helping the band directors get the show ready. The trombones and other horn players must hold their instruments steady at a 90-degree angle in front of them for the entire performance.
Everyone must keep moving precisely or they will end up in the wrong place and throw off the rest of the band.
For Anna Larsen, 17, the biggest concern isn’t walking in a straight line, or hoping everyone keeps their horns up and their arms angled properly. Her biggest worry is that the awe of the experience will be lost.
“I think this will go so fast,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to forget where we are because we’re so caught up in doing it right. I’m afraid we’ll miss the moment.”
Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or firstname.lastname@example.org