By Ingrid Schnader
At 412 members, the largest band in Alabama calls an Over the Mountain community home.
It’s the most-seen high school band in the South, and it has performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade more than any other high school band in the country — the Homewood Patriot Band.
Band director Ron Pence is gearing up for the band’s ninth performance at the Macy’s parade in New York City. The band first went to the parade in 1978, making this year the 40th anniversary of Homewood’s involvement in the parade.
“To take a band four times is just a miracle and a blessing, and it’s very exciting that we’ve been able to keep the tradition of the Homewood band going for so long,” Pence said. “Seventy-eight to now is a long time of excellence. Some bands may get to go once. That might be it. But to go nine times is just fantastic.”
Band members will start the commute to New York City on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. They will arrive on Monday and spend the next two days touring the city, watching the School of Rock on Broadway and seeing the Radio City Rockettes. That Wednesday night, the students will be asked to go to sleep by about 9 p.m.; they’ll have to wake up early the next morning.
A Grueling Schedule
“The day of the parade is a very challenging day for the kids,” Pence said. “We usually get up about 1 a.m. on the day of the parade, and we head into Manhattan and rehearse for the producers of the show.”
The rehearsals give the videographers a chance to figure out the best angles for when the band is broadcast on national television. These rehearsals usually last until 4 a.m., and then the group will go to breakfast at the Hard Rock Cafe. At about 7 a.m., buses will take the students to Central Park.
“Being at Central Park right when the sunrise is coming up – it is just a surreal experience,” Pence said. “You’re in Central Park in the greatest city in our country and one of the most beautiful places there is. And on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, it’s just a bustle of people, thousands and thousands of people.
“It’s just so exciting because one of the greatest American traditions is about to start. And when you’re with the band, you’re getting off the bus and you know this is about to start,” Pence said. “All these years of planning, because for this event, it’s been about 2½ or three years in planning, probably for me as a band director, 20 years of planning.”
All 400-plus members of the Homewood band will pile into the sidewalks of Central Park with trumpets, tubas and other instruments in hand. They aren’t told where they will be in the lineup, so they must wait for a couple of hours and listen for their name to be called.
“So you’re sitting in this mass of humanity waiting for everything to start,” he said. “Everybody’s buzzing.”
When the announcer says, “Homewood Patriot Band, let’s have a parade!” the band will start its 2.5-mile trek from Central Park to Macy’s.
“When we play, our first note is in the street, heading down to Columbus Circle,” Pence said. “So we’ll make that turn. And the kids are just on fire. They’re ready to go. We probably play our music just a little too fast and with a little too much energy. The crowd is just cheering you on and screaming.”
Pence said he can hear people screaming, “Roll Tide!” “War Eagle!” and “Yay Alabama!” as band members march their route.
The event is rain or shine, and Pence said band members had to march once in a storm that resembled a monsoon.
“We still played,” he said. “Kids’ hats were flying, and we were catching them. By the end of the parade, the water was a foot deep to the side of the road. We were soaked to the bone. But when we got to the camera, we were spot-on. The kids still performed.”
When they get to Macy’s, there is a giant star painted on the street where band members will stand for their one minute and 30 seconds of TV time.
After the parade, the group will go on a Thanksgiving dinner cruise with family members who have made the trip.
Once it’s all over, Pence said it takes a while to recover from the exhilaration.
“It’s such a great challenge to put it all together and to see it come to an end – and hopefully successfully to an end,” Pence said. “I won’t lie, it takes a long time to recover from it emotionally and physically, because it drains you so much. I’m not getting a lot of sleep now thinking about it and trying to get ready for the football season and make sure our band is our band when it shows up.”
Pence said the performance this year is a family event. His youngest son, Sam, will be marching in the parade this year. The assistant band director, Chris Cooper, will have two children in the parade.
“It’s exciting because we’ve been to New York so many times, and I’ve seen the band go through it and march in it,” said Mason Cooper. “It’s fun to be a part of it now, especially with (my sister) and my dad and the Pence family.”
Mason’s sister, Molly Kathryn, has been a Star Spangled Girl for the past three years. She agreed that it’s exciting, but she said she’s a little bit nervous, too.
“Because it’s going to be on TV,” she said. “And there’s a lot of people. I think it’s going to be really fun though.”
For other kids, this will be their first time to New York. Pence said he is doing everything he can to help every student who wants to go.
“The balloons are as big as buildings. It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “Put it on your bucket list, because it is just magical.”