TARPON SPRINGS — For 18 months, the more than 200 students in the Tarpon Springs High School marching band have stomped up and down the school parking lot after class, preparing for what many call the most important performance of their lives.
Their actual performance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will last one minute and 15 seconds; but with a PBS documentary shadowing their preparations for the trip, expected to air in April, and a seemingly endless stream of media coverage and community fundraising events, the experience will be preserved in memory for a lifetime, said band director Kevin Ford. This is the first time the award-winning band will perform in the parade — and also the first time band leaders sought to perform.
Every year seven high school and three college bands, all from different states, are scouted from hundreds of applicants to join the U.S. Marine Band in the parade. The Seminole High School marching band performed in 2010.
Before bands are allowed to perform, they have to prove to the Macy’s creative directors they can afford to show up in New York; countless Tarpon Springs High band parents, alumni and community members with no ties to the school whatsoever have pitched in to make the trip a reality, Ford said. With about $350,000 raised by the community, every student in the band will be able to afford the trip.
“We’ve played Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center; but from the community outpouring, you would think this is the most incredible thing to ever happen to Tarpon Springs,” Ford said. “As a country, it’s one of the few times — maybe the only time — when everyone stops, turns on the TV and just kind of [watches] the same parade. Before this, I don’t think I truly understood what that tradition meant to people.”
For many of the dancers in the color guard, the Macy’s parade represents the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of dancing alongside Rockettes, said Ford’s wife, Jeannine Ford, the color guard director. For band members, it’s a chance to interact with members of the New York Philharmonic. The students, many of whom have never been to New York City, will also get to see “Wicked” on Broadway and go behind the scenes of a stage production, but the performance itself means much more than that.
Band leaders wanted to find a theme for their show that reflected American culture and the true meaning of the holidays. Inspiration struck when Ford saw the iconic photo of the American sailor kissing a woman in Times Square on V-J Day. For the school, Thanksgiving is about reuniting with loved ones and celebrating American freedoms, and the picture epitomized those values.
The band will be bedazzled in red, white and blue sequins, the color guard in dresses that look like the international envelopes that carried letters to and from servicemen during World War II. Students with veterans in their families wrote essays about their service to share with the band, and 20 names were placed on giant envelopes that the girls will hold while dancing. But the giant envelopes on the color guard’s flags and dresses all have the same recipient: Ford’s grandfather Sergeant Lee Gunner.
“This is a way for us to honor them and bring their stories with us, and it’s been really neat to see the kids reconnect to their grandparents and understand their sacrifice more,” Ford said. “It may not be something that’s obvious to millions of people, but it’s certainly deeply personal to us, the people in our community and the people that are being honored.”
The students will wake up at 1 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day to perform three full dress rehearsals with NBC before their performance is broadcast live at 10:59 a.m. After the show and some naps back at the hotel, the band and about 450 family members will join together at the Marriott to eat Thanksgiving dinner, then go watch the Rockettes’ Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall.
“It’s kind of hard sometimes to put in all these hours, but moments like this make it worth it,” said 18-year-old senior Isabelle Atchia. “It’s not just because we all love music, but we all truly love each other. We’ll always be each others’ family.”