It was the happiest I’ve ever been to wake up at 1:30 a.m. Normally I’d be drowsily tossing my smartphone aside and readying myself for sleep, but most nights I don’t have my University of Massachusetts marching band uniform at the foot of my bed, down to the sunglasses that are mandatory for full uniform in the tuba section.
Most nights I don’t have to swallow the excitement of being on live television in an attempt to salvage four hours of sleep. Most nights, I don’t prepare for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
At around 4 a.m., just before dawn began to pierce the New York skyline, we (and every other band) were taking orders barked by NBC executives. We had to perform our routine for when we reached the Macy’s star, just to make sure it was up to their standards. The set was still being built by grizzled men in ski jackets, complaining about the sports team of their choice.
Between reps, sound bites for the neighboring floats were tested as well, just to ensure we would all operate inside the given time parameters: 76 seconds. The UMass band will perform at 11:24 a.m., and the parade will be over by noon (the sanity of the road-warriors had to be preserved). Besides a couple tweaks here and there, we were able to brave the cold, noise, and flash photography and were back at the hotel for breakfast by 5 a.m.
We weren’t called upon again until our parade entrance at 10 a.m.: “UMass Minuteman Marching Band, please enter the parade!” That statement began our three-mile hike through Manhattan sandwiched between the Power Rangers and Fall out Boy. Never before had I felt the rush and power of the attention and focus of thousands of bystanders who all appeared to adore us. They cheered with the fight songs, stood empathically during “God Bless America,” and sang vibrantly along with “Sweet Caroline.” Gone were the intense Boston/New York rivalries for those blissful three miles; there was only love.
Once we’d made it through the meat of the parade and were nearing dessert (the performance on the Macy’s star), we had to cease playing immediately and crept up as slowly and quietly as 393 people can muster. Sure, we’d practiced parade-style marching on a few occasions throughout the season, but the minute-long show on the star was all we’d rehearsed for the past two weeks. We could play every note, march every step, and execute every dance move in our sleep.
We knew that even though we’d played our hearts out for the parade onlookers earlier, none of those moments would be captured on television and broadcasted into the homes of millions of Americans. As our band and percussion directors constantly reminded us, this was the one that counted.
Our rendition of “Big Noise” from Winnetka was one we performed at Bands of America Grand National Championships my freshmen year, and at the end of every basketball game the hoop band attended. It has deep roots in the university. But on top of all that, it’s the best song we know. That minute was one of the greatest and most momentous of my life, and I’ll cherish every single scream until the day I die.
The aftermath included both hugging and crying, as the seniors knew the marching band season had unofficially ended. My brothers and sisters in the tuba section of 2013 will be forever enshrined in my heart, and I couldn’t have asked for better family for Thanksgiving Day.