I was a twelve-year-old flag runner the first time I saw the Marching Royal Dukes perform at JMU’s annual Parade of Champions band competition. For many high school marching bands in Virginia, West Virginia, and even some in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas, PoC was the biggest competition of the year. Every football game halftime show, every Saturday competition performance, and every day of rehearsal was prep work for JMU. Every Monday, while watching tape from the last week’s show, the directors would remind us that our mistakes would not fly when we went to JMU.
JMU was a big deal. We took coach buses. We left when it was still dark out and got home in the middle of the night. We picked out our very coolest street clothes to wear after the show, just in case we saw anyone hot from another band. We brought all our spare cash so that we could buy t-shirts and CDs and whatever else might be on sale at the competition.
I was not a performer that first year, and I remember very little about the actual performance. The show was weak that year, I know, and our band didn’t do very well, but we’d never really expected to when there were powerhouses like Virginia High School in our class. What I remember most was that first time watching the MRDs perform.
JMU’s band marches nearly 400 members, with an additional 25 or so alternates. In comparison, our band had about 40 members, and my entire high school class had 200. When it was about time for their performance, a hush came over the very full stadium, and I didn’t understand why until I heard what everyone was listening for: the rumble of the drumline in the distance. And when they first came in to the stadium, thousands of high schoolers screamed like they were in the front row at a rock concert. The drumline marched in first, and then the rest of the band followed in sections. Each section had some kind of visual, and once they got on the field, they didn’t stand at attention and wait. They hopped. They hugged each other. They ran around. They rocked out to the drumline until the end of the cadence, then they came to attention. And then they just blew everyone away.
That first time seeing them perform was one of the coolest things I’d ever experienced, and I quickly joined a legion of high school kids who thought the MRDs were celebrities. We stared in awe if we came near one of them in a uniform. We spent all our money on their CDs and their t-shirts and old drum heads autographed by the drumline. We learned the words to their fight song and sang it on the bus on the way home. We all planned to graduate high school and go to JMU and join the Marching Royal Dukes. What we might major in was completely irrelevant – we were going to be members of that band.
Of course, I didn’t join that band, mainly because I learned that JMU’s financial aid packages were traditionally pretty low, and because JMU was not quite up to the extremely snobby standards I’d set for my future college. Instead, I went to Northwestern, where I had never heard the band, and knew only that it was one of the only Big 10 schools with a modern colorguard. Ginny, on the other hand, did exactly what we’d all planned. She went to JMU and joined the Marching Royal Dukes.
I soon learned how very different our bands were. NUMB was, of course, a lot smaller, but I also discovered that it had much more tradition and history and discipline and musicality than the MRDs had. When I went to visit Ginny one time shortly after I graduated, I was appalled to see members of the band walking around campus in half-uniforms, and just kind of showing up for things whenever, and generally looking very unprofessional. I wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving my dorm room without my uniform jacket on, or wearing uniform pants that weren’t clean or hemmed properly. Between having been in a college marching band myself and seeing some of the behind-the-scenes stuff with Ginny, my image of the MRDs became a little tarnished.
Mom and I drove up to Harrisonburg this past weekend to go to Parade of Champions and see Ginny perform. Though some of the schools I’ve choreographed have competed there over the last few years, it was the first time I’d been to the competition since my senior year of high school. It was a little smaller this year than in its heyday during my high school years, and instead of performing at midday and at the end of the night, JMU was only scheduled to perform at the end of the night. We watched some of the big high school bands, and some of them were very good, and I sat there thinking about how some parts of the day were so familiar and some had changed so much. I saw my high school’s name in the program as the Class A champion from 1993, my first year performing, and I remembered how we’d never thought we could do so well and how winning that trophy was like winning the Super Bowl as far as we were concerned.
We were waiting around at the end of the night for JMU to perform and Mom and I listened to the kids around us talk about how awesome the JMU band was, and how they hoped to meet some of them and so on, and I sat there with that kind of amusement that kids find so very annoying in adults. I was telling Mom how funny it is to hear these kids talk about the band like its members are celebrities, when really they’re just college kids and they’re having fun and doing what they do. I wondered if high school kids who saw NUMB felt that way too. And I tried to be all cynical and jaded about it. I swear I did.
But when I heard that rumble of the drumline in the distance, I jumped to my feet and cheered just like everyone else.