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The Big Challenges Facing What May Be This Rose Parade's Most Unusual Marching Band

A float is covered in roses and carries a marching band leader figure, followed by figures playing the drums, flute and trombone. A sign reads: "The Michael D. Sewell Memorial Foundation."
Band Directors Marching Band float roles down Colorado Blvd. on Jan. 1, 2022.
(Sharon McNary
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When they belt out "76 Trombones" at their first-ever public performance at Bandfest at Pasadena City College on Thursday, the Band Directors Marching Band will have had a whopping 10 hours of rehearsal together.

LISTEN: Band Of 270 Marching Band Directors Will March In Rose Parade

So Saturday’s Rose Parade will be a bit of a high-wire act for the 270 directors of bands who have come together from 48 states to march in the world famous parade.

“Our challenge is to take a group of people from across the country — from varying backgrounds, varying styles — and put them together and keep them in straight lines, keep them in good ranks and files, and to sound great marching down the street,” said Jon Waters, director of bands at Heidelberg University in Ohio. He’s in charge of the group.

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Listen To Them Play Bandfest

(The Band Directors Band plays at a rainy BandFest the day before the parade.<br/>)

Not only that, at the start of the parade, when they reach the famed TV Corner, where Orange Grove turns 110-degrees onto Colorado Blvd., they have a tricky maneuver to perform with a gargantuan flower-covered float depicting a band director and three musicians.

“We have to stop in the parade, turn toward the stands, and open as if the Red Sea parted, and the float comes down through the band as we are playing, and then we close up and march,” Waters said.

Getting Into Shape

There’s an additional challenge. These are not the spry high school and college students that make up most bands in the parade.

When you’re walking the 5.5 mile parade route playing your instrument, you gotta be fit. And — as they readily admit — some band directors are in better physical shape than others.

Three men sit at a fountain
Craig Orr, Greg Burns and Jon Waters at their hotel awaiting a band practice
(Sharon McNary
/ )

Trumpet player Greg Burns, from Chatsworth, Georgia, joined a gym and began walking every day to get ready.

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There was a little two mile loop. I started off there two miles a couple of times. Once I got good with that, I was like, Hey, let's do it twice,” Burns said. He recently extended his walk distance to five miles, so he feels ready.

Burns leads a middle school band. And he remembers his own time as a teen at loose ends.

I got into a lot of trouble in middle school. I will confess that,” Burns said. “But band helped me come out of my shell, honestly, and help me realize who I want to be, who I am and what I wanted to do.”

A giant yellow trombone sits in the foreground of a workshop, part of the float being made especially for the parade
Part of the float that will accompany the Band of Band Directors
(Courtesy Saluting America's Band Directors)

Craig Orr, a band director from Avon Lake, Ohio, has a similar story. Being in a band gave him a sense of structure and belonging that had been hard to find.

I have ADD and ADHD and also dyslexia,” Orr said. “So I was just in the corner all the time because I'm getting in trouble or getting notes sent home to mom and dad.”

For him, band life led to friends, college scholarships and band leader jobs. He uses his experience as someone who learns differently to inform his own work as a teacher.

“It's really helped me relate to kids, because every kid is special, every kid's unique, every kid has stuff and baggage,” he said.

Michael D. Sewell alongside the Pickering Ohio Marching Band that he directed
(Courtesy Michael D. Sewell Foundation)

So Much Talent

However ragged their marching, the music should be spot on.

It’s probably going to be the most talented group to ever perform in the parade, because of the résumés of all of the marchers. We have everyone from first- or second-year teachers that had to get their degrees in music education performing on their instrument,” Orr said.

“So they're already going to be at a higher level than any high school band that's ever performed.”

This once-in-a-lifetime convergence of musical mastery started in 2017 when Karen Sewell wanted to find a way to honor America’s band directors with a foundation named for her late husband Mike D. Sewell.

He was band director for a high school band from Pickerington, Ohio that marched in the Rose Parade in 2010 and performed at Bandfest.

Sewell and others at the foundation came up with the audacious proposal to create a band of band directors. It didn’t fly the first time they applied to march in the Rose Parade, but in 2020, they were accepted. Then the January 1, 2021 parade was cancelled, and plans rolled over to 2022.

The real test will be if all these band directors, who are used to being in charge, can take direction themselves, Waters said.

I wagged my fingers at our band members on a Zoom call, and I said, ‘You expect this off of your students and now we're expecting this of you,’” Waters said.

Greg Burns admits to some nerves.

When we wake up Saturday morning, I think we're all just going to be ... shaking,” Burns said. “We're like, let's do this for America. Let's do this for band directors."

“This is the granddaddy of them all.”

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