Halftime performances are the usual milieu of the Westfield High marching band. But for one day, marching down the palm tree-lined avenues of southern California, the Marching Bulldogs were the main event.
Westfield was one of a select group of bands to march in the 125th annual Rose Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, Calif. The renowned parade drew hundreds of thousands of attendees, and an international television audience of millions.
“In this parade, the focus is on the bands,” band director Steve Panoff said. “For this week, for this moment in time, these kids are treated like rock stars. And they deserve it.”
The Westfield band became the first from Fairfax County to march in the 5.5-mile parade, and just the third band from Virginia. Richmond’s Hermitage High School participated in 1993, and Prince George High School in 1964. Of the 20 bands that performed in this year’s parade, just three were first-time participants, according to Panoff.
The Marching Bulldogs also were one of three bands chosen to stop and perform a televised routine. About halfway through the two-hour march, the group performed the Taio Cruz dance tune “Dynamite” to the cheers of thousands of onlookers in the bleachers lining the street.
“All the lights were shining, beaming on us,” said freshman Jasmine Mitchell, who plays alto saxophone. “You’ve seen the Rose Parade on TV before, and all of a sudden you’re there. It’s a whole different experience.”
The Westfield band’s march on the morning of New Year’s Day was the culmination of a two-year journey.
The rigorous application process started in January 2012, requiring video demonstrations, essays, and letters of recommendation from Gov. Bob McDonnell and Sen. Mark Warner.
After months of compiling their application, and then a few more months of waiting, in September 2012 the group found out it was among the 10 bands selected. (Of the other bands that marched in the parade, a handful won their way in through competitions, and several attend the event every year.)
The Marching Bulldogs dove immediately into a year’s worth of rehearsals and practice. In the final months leading to the parade, students plowed their way through three-hour Saturday morning practices.
Some band practices ran for two hours without a single break to make sure students would be prepared for the long trek in Pasadena. The official parade route is 5.5 miles, but from start to finish the bands march close to 7 miles.
Finally, on Dec. 27, the 273 band members (plus 39 chaperones) flew out to California. But even a week on the West Coast was not a vacation for the band. The first full day in Pasadena included a four-hour rehearsal to fine-tune their performance for the Rose Parade.
The band did squeeze sightseeing in between a hectic event schedule, but on New Year’s Eve, the band members celebrated an early East Coast midnight at 9 p.m. Pacific Time before hitting the hay so they would be ready for a 4:45 a.m. wakeup call the day of the parade.
In the end, all their preparation paid off. The Marching Bulldogs were one of just two bands to have every member march all the way to the end of the parade route. The other? The U.S. Marine Corps band, which participates every year.
The band members credited their success to their family and friends, many of whom made the trip to Pasadena as well and were watching from the sidelines.
“When we were marching down, there was one section where all the Westfield parents were screaming ‘We are Westfield,’” said freshman clarinetist Sarah Pak. “That gave us more motivation just to keep moving.”
In all, more than 300 family members and friends of the Westfield band traveled to Pasadena.
“All the people in the bleachers gave us the push we needed,” said fellow freshman clarinetist Jackie Oh. “Without the parents and everyone else helping us, we’d be nothing.”
Even the return from balmy California last Thursday, Jan. 2, to the icy blast at home has not the dulled the glow of the Rose Parade for band members.
Freshman trumpeter Ken Masaki wore his Rose Parade jacket, a souvenir all band members received on the trip, out shopping last weekend. He said members of the community went out of their way to congratulate him.
“Strangers were coming up to me and shaking my hand,” Masaki said. “It has been an unbelievable experience, and we’re still living it.”