MOUNT VERNON — For many people, a parade is not a parade unless at least one marching band provides the cadence and rhythm to keep toes tapping and the spectators smiling.
The Mount Vernon High School marching band performs that function for the Christmas Parade, held each Thanksgiving Saturday, and also for the town’s Memorial Day observance. The symphonic band plays for Veterans Day activities.
Band director Gary McCutcheon has escorted his musicians in about 60 parades over the course of his career. Although not exactly mandatory, participation by Mount Vernon High School band members in the two parades — the Mount Vernon Christmas Parade and the Memorial Day Parade — is strongly encouraged. McCutcheon gives band members credit for marching in the parade, but does excuse those who have family obligations those holiday weekends. He just asks band members to let him know ahead of time if they are going to be out of town.
McCutcheon believes participating in parades is important for two reasons.
“First,” he said, “I think it’s an important educational piece. I mean, if you’re going to be in a band, being part of a parade is part of a band experience. Everything that we’re doing is all part of one class — concert band, marching band, pep band and jazz band. The musicians are getting a well-rounded band background. When they get to the college level they may have to choose one aspect. ... We’re giving them the background to make those decisions.
“Marching in the Christmas Parade and the Memorial Day Parade is also a community service piece. And, it’s often the biggest crowd anybody performs for. I think a lot of years the parade has had a bigger crowd than any [of our] football games. I always tell the band that, as far as public impact goes, ‘this is our moment.’”
Preparing for a parade is a little different from preparing for a halftime show. For one thing, McCutcheon said, the parade music is different from that performed at the halftime shows.
“Usually, the music written for a parade is typically written for a fairly easy march tempo,” said McCutcheon, “although the drum cadences are the same.”
He also pointed out that holiday music is not usually a feature at football games, so band members have to learn a different set of tunes for the holiday parades. This year’s parade will feature a medley of holiday music.
Some of the band members also play different instruments when they are marching versus when they are playing in symphonic or concert band.
“We don’t march oboes and bassoons and French horns,” McCutcheon said. “We do have some other brasses that we march that are strictly marching instruments, like mellophones, sousaphones and marching percussion. We use four different-sized marching bass drums, and you don’t use that in concert season. I have six tubas in the marching band, and one of them is a saxophone player and one is a flute player in concert band. I’ve got 12 mellophones in marching band and all of those musicians play something else — clarinets, flutes and French horns or others — in concert season.”
Halftime shows include various formations and drills, but parade marching is more straightforward, McCutcheon said.
“Once we’re in the lineup, that’s it. There’s no change in the formation, it’s just a matter of moving and stopping and starting. The drum major, Kim Reitsma this year, leads it,” he said.
The main thing is being ready for the unexpected. Stopping and starting is one example cited by McCutcheon.
“If you’re following a unit that stops a lot, you’ve got to be prepared to back off and wait for them and then be able to move out. Or if we’re ahead of the parade, we may be leading the whole thing, and we don’t want to run away from the other units,” he said. “Although it hasn’t happened recently, there used to be an issue with reaching points in the parade where the crowds would be shoved out so far we couldn’t fit. And we just had to scrunch in.”
Getting around horses, and what they leave behind, can also be problematic.
“The last few years,” McCutcheon said, “they have been lining up the horses behind us, and I appreciate that. It’s hard when you are following a horse and have a horn in front of your face ...
“We just practice marching so that the band members, 97 of them this year, are comfortable and ready to move. And then they can think about other aspects — the stopping and starting isn’t a problem then, and if they’re dodging around road obstructions, you just basically follow the person in front of you and go right around.”
One year, McCutcheon said, a train came through town after half of the band had already crossed the tracks. The rest of the band and the parade units had to wait about 20 minutes until the tracks cleared and parade resumed. Another time the band was parted when an ambulance came through an intersection.
“Hopefully we’ll have good weather, like we have had lately,” McCutcheon said. “Considering the time of year, we’ve been blessed with that. It could be awful. I can deal with snow. The kids are kind of expecting that, too. It’s a nice touch for a Christmas parade if there’s a little light snow going. The rain we can do without.”
The Mount Vernon Christmas Parade starts from the staging areas about 1:15 p.m. Saturday, and should arrive on South Main Street about 1:30.