TARPON SPRINGS — A remote control helicopter buzzed over the musicians’ heads, filming their every move. Yet even a few near collisions weren’t enough to break the synchronized marching of East Lake High School’s “Silver Sound” Band members during their final practice Tuesday before one of the biggest performances of their lives.
On Monday at 2 p.m., 67 members of the Tarpon Springs-area high school’s band will march just over a mile through Washington, D.C., down Constitution Avenue and past the White House, in the National Memorial Day Parade. It’s a huge honor, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, said band director John Fulton.
“This is the biggest trip East Lake has ever taken. Apart from a few trips to Atlanta for a competition, this is probably the farthest they’ve ever traveled,” Fulton said. “It’s incredibly exciting, a bit nerve-racking, but these guys are truly family. They really have each others’ back and care about each other, so nerves aren’t really an issue. I’m incredibly proud.”
The band received an invitation to apply for the parade in January after receiving straight superiors at their marching competition, and were accepted earlier this month after submitting letters of recommendation and video of their performances. Then, it was up to the band to pick a song and get to work, with weeks of extra practices and fund-raising for the $800-per-person trip.
Their selection: Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and a drum cadence.
“I’m a tad apprehensive, but we’ve prepared a lot for this and its going to be a blast,” said 18-year-old senior Harrison McNulty, the band’s drum captain. “This is the first parade we’ve done for years, and even that one we just went across town in a stinky little Christmas parade. I knew our band was going to go on to do great things, but it’s still setting in that I’m around to be a part of it.”
The National Memorial Day Parade, organized by the American Veterans Center, is the largest Memorial Day event in the nation, featuring celebrities, floats, bands and veterans. The performance is broadcast live to troops around the world, and at home it can be viewed on the Pentagon channel, Reelz or streamed live online at www.americanveteranscenter.org/parade/.
The band will get to tour the White House and watch a performance by the United States Marine Corp Band. Then it’s on to the 17-hour bus ride home for finals and graduation, said 18-year-old senior Kelli Yeazell, a saxophonist and the band’s drum major.
“They’ll be ready by show time,” said Yeazell, who hopes to live in D.C. after graduation. “I’ve had lots of family members in the military — I have a cousin in the Army now — and being in the parade in the capital will be such a beautiful reminder of the sacrifices and the risk they take for us.”
The march will be a triumph for each member, Yeazell said as she yelled commands, straightened errant elbows and corrected syncopated steps as the band marched around East Lake High’s football field during the final practice. Marching while playing heavy instruments that require breath control and rhythmic movements isn’t easy for a few feet, and the mile-long, two-hour route is by far the band’s longest parade. No one has ever gotten sick, but a few people have passed out before, Yeazell said.
Fulton helps to ease his students’ fears. Before every performance, the band starts with a stretch, then they break into sections and put their arms around one-another, sharing an encouraging word to build each other up. At the end of the day, the parade will be a spectacle and the students’ main concern should be on taking it all in.
“It’s not going to be perfect. There may be times when the floats are slower, the bands stack up or, even worse, there are horses in front of us,” Fulton said to a collective “eww” from his class. “Don’t think about it. Just keep on playing and enjoy it. Someone will clean up the mess.”