Band to March in National Macy’s Parade

Rockford band students threw confetti into the air after learning they will perform at the 2017 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Long after the shrieks of surprise and sprays of confetti, the fact remains like a shining trumpet solo: The high school marching band is Macy’s-worthy.

The selection of the Rams to play in the 2017 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, announced April 15 to an auditorium full of stunned middle and high school band members, means they will perform before about 3.5 million live spectators in New York City and 50 million more viewers on television.

That’s a very bright spotlight on a top-flight West Michigan program that has been years in the making – and an honor that blew away students who had no idea it was coming – until they were personally informed by Wesley Whatley, creative director of the Macy’s parade.

“I watch the parade every year,” said freshman Taylor Cullen, a member of the band color guard. “I can’t believe I’ll be able to do that with my closest friends and peers and everyone watching.”

“It’s really important to me,” said freshman trombonist Cameron Shope. “I really like music, so to play in the Macy’s parade is a big deal.”

Being selected from nearly 200 applicants as one of 10 marching bands to perform is “absolutely massive” recognition of the entire Rockford band program, and reflects years of building the high school band to about 250 musicians, said Brian Phillips, its director since 2001.

“This is just an awesome showcase for them to be on the national stage, and something they’ll remember for the rest of their life,” said Phillips, one of few school administrators who knew it was coming.

High school band director Brian Phillips congratulates his students after Macy’s Welsey Whatley, in background, announced their selection for the parade
High school band director Brian Phillips congratulates his students after Macy’s Welsey Whatley, in background, announced their selection for the parade

Commitment to Artistry

Rockford was selected by a committee of music professionals who meticulously reviewed submissions by high school, college, military and specialty bands, said Whatley of Macy’s. Video of a field show from last fall was part of what set Rockford apart as one of seven high school bands selected, Whatley said.

“Rockford stood out in a big way because of their sophistication on the field and their commitment to artistry,” Whatley said. “They’re not just about performing certain songs, but it’s the way they perform. It’s the way they approach each and every moment of the show, with such deep attention to detail. They’re making an artistic statement on the field, which is a beautiful thing to experience as an audience.

“That sophistication requires a lot of work,” he added. “A lot of bands can achieve that on the concert stage, but to do that while moving as quickly as they move, and play with such intonation, it’s a remarkable feat for a high school band.”

The sophistication has earned the band high honors, placing in the top three in the past seven years of state competition and making four trips to the Bands of America Grand National Championship.

It also reflects strong community support of the band program, carefully planned rehearsals and a constant push to improve, Phillips said. Students each year “figure out what they want to do better,” he said.

“Their improvement every year never ceases to amaze me,” he added. “The kids really work their tails off. They have such a commitment to taking this product and making it the best that they can.”

He noted the band has an unusually “conservative” rehearsal schedule compared to other competitive bands, practicing once or twice a week. That allows students to participate in music as well as athletics and other activities, he said.

Freshman Lecia Strunk, right, celebrates the surprise announcement with friends from the marching band
Freshman Lecia Strunk, right, celebrates the surprise announcement with friends from the marching band

On the World Stage

At the surprise announcement, high school Principal Dan Zang told the student musicians how proud Rockford is of them.

“You are going to be on the world stage,” Zang said. “Our community is going to celebrate and cherish this moment.”

Since it will happen in 2017, this year’s juniors and seniors will not be in the parade. But senior Zach Bennett said he was happy for his younger bandmates.

“It’s really cool we gave them the chance to do this,” said Zach, who plays trombone and baritone as well as in the jazz band. “It will be a really cool opportunity for them.”

Freshman Allison Werkema tried to get her head around the fact Rockford was chosen.

“I never really believed our program would get to this point,” said Allison, who plays clarinet. “I never even heard of our marching band before I got into here, and now we’ve traveled so much farther than we ever believed we would.”

As for those millions of Macy’s viewers, freshman Jason Polakowski said, “I feel nervous playing in front of our school at football games. This will be a little bigger.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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