WEST CHESTER TWP., Ohio - Years ago, it wasn’t cool to be in the high school marching band. The jocks and the popular girls hung out together. The band nerds hung out with themselves or with the math and science nerds.
Flash forward to today at Lakota West High School.
“The other students think we’re cool,” sophomore band member Nick Harvey says.
Well, maybe not all of them yet.
“We’re still the marching band to some people,” says senior Tristan McPhail, acknowledging some holdouts. “We’re the ones wearing dorky outfits with that great big thing on the top of our heads.”
But the band’s success has definitely won a lot of fans among their classmates.
“They’re excited for us,” says senior Rachel Cameron. “They’re like, ‘You guys are going to New York to be in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade !’”
It’s going to be a thrilling week for the 270 Marching Firebirds – and many parents – making the trip to NYC to perform in front of 50 million TV viewers and 3.5 million people Thursday.
They will march the 2 1/2-mile route from Central Park West and 77th Street, down Sixth Avenue and past Times Square.
After about an hour, the band will get a 75-second TV “solo” when they reach the end of the route at Herald Square.
That’s scheduled for 10:12 a.m.
“It’s going to be a blast,” said band director Greg Snyder. “The kids are so excited. We’re anxious to showcase our students in the national spotlight. A lot of people worked long and hard to get us there.”
Band members got up early Monday to board buses at 4:30 a.m. While in New York, they will visit the 9/11 Memorial and Ellis Island and attend a Broadway show. They got to choose from "Spiderman," "Phantom of the Opera" or "The Lion King."
In the overnight hours before Thursday's parade, they will get rousted from bed for a 10-minute, full-dress rehearsal at 3:10 a.m. at Herald Square.
The parade starts at 9.
On Friday, they will watch the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular before heading home.
Band members got new uniforms for the Macy’s Parade along with commemorative patches. The drums got new covers with the parade logo.
The band will play three selections.
The band will also perform Copland’s “Appalachian Spring ” and “Fight On,” the Lakota West fight song.
The Marching Firebirds, one of the best and biggest high school bands in the country, have performed on other big stages before, including the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif. (2008), Pearl Harbor and Waikiki Holiday Parade (2005), Sugar Bowl Parade in New Orleans (2003) and Hollywood Christmas Parade (1999).
Lakota West has already been invited back to the Tournament of Roses Parade in 2015.
Snyder has overseen all of that success. He started in 1987 as director of bands in the Lakota Local School District, covering West Chester and Liberty townships. Snyder spent the first nine years at Lakota High School before it split into Lakota West and Lakota East.
Since Snyder arrived at Lakota, the high school band program has grown from 100 students in grades 9-12 to more than 800 district-wide.
By itself, the Lakota West band is bigger than Ohio State’s, which marches 225.
“What’s interesting about us is that we have a separate freshman school, but we don’t march freshman percussion players. There are 130 in the freshman band, so if we marched everybody, we’d have about 400,” Snyder said.
Over the years, the Marching Firebirds have earned more that 35 Grand Champion awards.
“Kids that work hard and have high expectations,” Snyder said.
“It’s dedication and hard work,” echoed Cameron.
And camaraderie, said Cameron's twin sister Mackie.
“People in the band really enjoy spending time together. We’re like a family,” she said.
Bobby Knight, Hall of Fame college basketball coach, used to make his Indiana players visit band practice to see what it was like to bring your “A” game every day. Woody Hayes, the legendary Ohio State football coach, once observed that the OSU band practiced longer and harder than his team did.
So it is with the Lakota West band, members said.
They begin with three weeks of band camp in late July. Once school starts, there’s practice every day, football game performances on Friday nights and all-day competitions on Saturdays through the fall.
Plus, band members are always practicing their instruments on their own time.
“It’s a huge commitment,” Snyder said.
It’s a commitment passed on from one class to another.
Snyder stopped marching practice last week to make that point. He told the freshmen and sophomores to raise their hands and then reminded them that they hadn’t done anything to get the band its Macy’s invitation, that preceding classes had done that.
Now it's up to the young band members to work hard and continue that tradition.
“I’m extremely proud of that, to be part of the senior class that’s one
of only 11 bands (seven high school bands) in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” said Rachel Cameron. “It’s a tremendous honor. And I appreciate the classes ahead of us who helped us get to New York.”