OCOEE — During the National Memorial Day Parade, which begins at 2 p.m. May 25, in Washington, D.C., among the only bands from Florida, only one band’s trumpeters from the entire country will play taps to honor the fallen after a moment of silence.
That band will be the Ocoee High School Marching Band.
About 90 students — about half of the school’s marching band — will board a bus around 4 p.m. May 21 for a long ride to the national capital, where they will play in the parade after plenty of sightseeing and learning about places connected to their history studies, said Bernard Hendricks Jr., the founder and director of the band program since 2005.
“It’s an honor to go and play and honor your country,” he said. “We’re able to mix in not just the performance but a lot of the history and stuff that’s in Washington, D.C., with the museums and all the different monuments. It’s really cool that we’re going to be able to do all that. A lot of kids are excited about that because what they’ve been studying in U.S. history, that’s when they’re going to see it, and a lot of these kids won’t get the chance to see it.
“Parents even said, ‘This is great, because the kids can go see stuff they’ve been studying and don’t have the opportunity to go on their own,’” he said. “I’ve always felt that, if we have the opportunity and the ability to go somewhere, then let’s go, because everybody doesn’t have the pleasure to be able to travel with their family.”
One of those students who might be seizing her only opportunity to visit Washington, D.C., is senior drum major Brooke Sprague, who is eager to perform and see various monuments, Smithsonian attractions and the White House.
Hendricks began the application for this performance at the start of the school year, and Ocoee was one of fewer than 20 high schools selected among many vying for the opportunity, he said.
“I thought it was a great honor,” Sprague said. “We knew that a lot of people had requested to have a part in this, and knowing that we had a really great honor to perform in the Memorial Day Parade, it really means a lot to me and the entire band, because we take it to heart.”
Since Hendricks learned that parade officials had selected his band, the members going on the trip have been practicing marching to get back in top form. The band had to fundraise about $785 per member for this optional trip to work, he said, with the city, school and community members chipping in. Despite money being tight for some, virtually every member of the band who wants to go will be able, Hendricks said.
“They make sacrifices and make it happen,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing how resilient these kids are.”
The parade has just 30 bands from high schools and colleges around the country, part of 112 entries, and Ocoee will be No. 95, with the exclusive opportunity for its members to play taps after a moment of silence.
“A couple of weeks ago, we got an email from the parade coordinators, and they said, ‘Your band has been selected to perform taps,’” Hendricks said. “An hour into the parade, they have a national moment of silence, and our trumpet players and mellophone players will be dispersed along the parade route and be playing taps for that national moment of silence. I don’t know how they selected us, but it’s pretty cool that we get that honor. In the communications they sent me, it says the entire parade must stop at 2:58 for a national moment of silence at 3 o’clock. At 3:01, the trumpet players from Ocoee High School will be playing taps. At 3:03, the parade starts again. It’s listed just like that.”
Although those members of the band were excited to learn that, they were also cognizant of the challenge it will be to play taps in unison from throughout the parade route, Hendricks said.
“They’re not going to be playing together,” he said. “They’re not going to be able to hear each other, and nobody will be conducting them, so they have to have the confidence to just play it by themselves.”
The parade route is a straight shot along Constitution Avenue Northwest from Seventh Street Northwest to 17th Street Northwest, about a mile long, with a particular spot for airing live on Reelz Channel, American Forces Network and military.com. At that spot, the Ocoee band will play “Our National March,” a take on “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Hendricks said. The band will perform its standard tunes with a disco feel in other parts of the route, he said.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY TRADITION
“We do a big trip like this every other year, so at least two out of the four years here, they’ll have the opportunity to travel,” Hendricks said. “We’ve done the Veterans Day Parade in New York, which was a great experience. We’ve done the Cotton Bowl Music Festival out in Dallas, Texas. The last trip we took was the Liberty Bowl up to Memphis, Tennessee — that was a good food trip — we had some good barbecue up there. And we did the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade a few years back. So this is our fifth one.”
Hendricks hopes one day the program will be selected for the Rose Bowl Parade or a Macy’s parade.
But even more than these grand trips, events at home are building this program into a community icon.
“I took the jazz band over to Ocoee Elementary School, and we did their building dedication,” Hendricks said. “They moved into their new school this year. It was really cool because the high-school kids played while the elementary-school kids were singing, so it was this collaboration. I was really impressed with the elementary-school kids, and I think my high-school kids were blown away.”
The two groups fed off of each other’s energy for a mellifluous performance Hendricks wants to make a regularity, with Ocoee Middle School in on collaborations, too. Sprague, who began playing in sixth grade and has been in the marching band all four years of high school as a trumpeter, section leader and drum major, is one of several products of such a partnership who already have progressed through Hendricks’ program.
“The band director at my middle school was really good friends with the band director here, so it was a really easy transition, because he always used to come and teach us and prep us for our middle-school (Music Performance Assessments),” she said. “So when I got into high school, he seemed to be a great guy to be with, so I’m really grateful to be with the band four years.”
Beyond that, the high-school band performs in numerous local parades and community events that help them embrace their Ocoee identity, Hendricks said.
“We have a lot of interesting little things that go on right here in the community, and I think it’s catching on,” he said. “The community always comes out and supports whatever we’re doing, and I think the kids really enjoy playing in the community. Everybody does their spring concert in the auditorium, but when they get out and do these extra little performances around town, they really feel connected, like they’re a member of the community.”
Moreover, there are lessons beyond notes and marches, with students maturing in responsibilities and leadership, Hendricks said.
“I haven’t really done anything this whole rehearsal, and they’re still rehearsing and it’s effective, and kids are getting in shape,” he said. “It’s been a ride. I’ve enjoyed it a whole lot, watching the kids grow; watching the program grow; more ups than downs. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, a lot of time. But these rewards are great.”
Among the greatest rewards is the power to unite Ocoee, Hendricks said.
“We want to get the community more connected to the school, and what better mechanism than a marching band?” he asked rhetorically. “I always tell the kids, ‘Everyone loves a marching band — if it sounds good.’ If it sounds bad, they might throw rocks, so be careful.”
The sound of this band is Sprague’s favorite part, and if critics she has spoken with are any indication, Hendricks and his program should not be dodging rocks anytime soon.
“Because we play so much different music compared to everybody else, when they see us, they go, ‘Oh, that’s Ocoee’s band,’” Sprague said. “We just play completely different music than what everybody else is playing.”
And on Monday, Sprague and her bandmates have the opportunity to show the nation that Ocoee flair.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].
WHEN: 2 p.m. May 25 (feed goes live at 1:30 p.m.)
TV: Reelz Channel (check local listings)