EMORY — Just four years removed from restarting its marching band program after a 50-year absence, Emory & Henry College’s band has more than doubled in size and is now just a month away from performing on a global stage.
On Jan. 1, Emory & Henry’s band will be one of two representing the U.S. in a parade that fills the streets of Rome and ends in St. Peter’s Square for the pope’s New Year’s blessing.
“As a music major, it’s kind of like the cherry on top of all of it — getting to do something that you want to do for the rest of your life, but getting to do it on an international scale,” Kaitlin Howell, a junior from Chilhowie, said.
Howell is one of 67 students going on the band’s seven-day trip to Rome, which includes a service project in addition to the New Year’s Day parade performance.
The cross-Atlantic trip has been a number of years in the making, said Matthew Frederick, Emory & Henry’s associate provost of academic affairs and director of bands.
When the school revived its marching band in 2015, 43 students participated. The band has now reached 90 people — or just less than 10% of the school’s undergraduate population, which the college’s website says is 1,019 students.
“We’ve seen tremendous growth, [and] we’ve seen tremendous opportunities for students; there’s scholarships available for them,” Frederick said. “It’s turned into a really vital … and vibrant part of the campus culture.”
The band regularly plays at football games, performs in exhibitions and sponsors the Chilhowie Apple Festival Band Competition for high schools. The Rome trip is a new step.
“In the past, I’ve taken students on concert trips to Germany and Austria and China, but we’ve never done anything with the marching band in terms of something big like that,” Frederick said.
After much preparation, research and fundraising, students say they are ready to perform abroad.
“We’re getting to bring back some pieces that we’ve played in different shows over the last couple of years,” drum major Landie Maness, a senior from Rutledge, Tennessee, said. “I’ve played these pieces before, but now I’m getting to conduct them on an international stage. That’s really cool, and it’s fun to bring back stuff that you’ve played in the past. It’s very nostalgic in a way.”
“We have this one piece we do in the stands for football games — it’s a tune called ‘Hey Baby,’ and we’re going to sing it in the language there. We’re just translating it all, and I think that’s going to be fun,” Bryant Bautista, a sophomore from Winchester, added.
For some students, like Spencer Boggs, a freshman from Coeburn, the trip is their first experience traveling abroad.
“I’ve never flown on an airplane at all. I’ve never been out of the country,” Boggs said.
It’s also junior Amber Blevins’ first time leaving the U.S.
“I often think of just being in this bubble, like Southwest Virginia as a bubble, and that I sometimes forget that there are things, like, bigger than me and way outside not just Southwest Virginia or our state, but also our country, so it will just be cool to experience that,” Blevins, who is from Chilhowie, said.
For Boggs, Emory & Henry’s band program has been quite a transition from his high school band, which had only 25 members. Now he’s part of a larger program and performs in front of hundreds of people at football games.
“But when we’re going to be in Italy, there’s going to be thousands of people there,” he said.
“The estimate is between 20,000 and 40,000 people,” Frederick said.
While on the trip, students will also contribute to a service project focused on people experiencing hunger and homelessness.
And the performance may prove to be an effective part of recruiting future students into the band.
“We’re now on the path where every four years we’re going to take a big trip like this, so if you’re in band, there is this recruiting incentive as well to it. … You’re not just playing for home games and high school students, but you’re going to get a chance to perform for the world as well,” Frederick added.
The Rome trip is still a bittersweet experience for seniors like drum major Maness, who are in the final stretch of their college marching band careers.
“It’s the last time I’ll ever put on my uniform,” Maness, who hopes to go to law school, said.
But she’s also looking forward to sharing the band’s talents with a new audience on New Year’s Day.
“We get to show off, and that’s the fun part — whenever you get the reaction from the crowd and you get to visibly see and hear all of your hard work paying off,” she said.