Combine Disney magic with some of the best music instruction in the world, and you get the Disneyland All-American College Band. Read about one member’s journey on this wild ride.
Photo by Christine Ngeo Katzman
Many of my peers thought of the Disneyland All-American College Band as a joke. I was teased and laughed at for accepting the gig. It turns out that the joke was on them because this program easily became a catalyst for my largest growth as a musician and as an individual.
It was one of the most laidback auditions I’ve ever done. I played two standards, a flute transcription, and did some sightreading of the infamous “Earth, Wind & Fire Medley.”
Ron McCurdy, the director of the band and a jazz professor at the University of Southern California, asked numerous questions. There was one question that I really wrapped my mind around. I remember Ron very clearly stating, “We rarely hire freshman for this gig, mostly because of their maturity level. They have a tendency to take a passage up an octave or add a lick. Would you have the discipline to keep the program the same the whole summer?”
I simply replied, “Yes.”
Although it may seem intimidating, this audition process is great. If there is anyone thinking about auditioning for the College Band, do it. What is there to lose?
After the audition and the “freshman” response from Ron, I gave up on the idea of making the band. I made plans to do other things and decided that I would turn down the gig if and when it was offered.
That type of mentality was in my mind up until I listened to the voicemail offering me the lead tenor saxophone chair. I was shocked, and I instantly second guessed my previous thought of turning it down. Realizing how big of a deal this was, it took no more than 10 minutes to make my decision. I left a voicemail accepting the position.
Disney Boot Camp
The All-American College Band’s show consists of four “street” sets and one “sit-down” set. The street sets include three to four tunes that are all carefully choreographed. We had two weeks to memorize 11 songs and learn the moves. We hit the ground running. Each day, we began rehearsal at 9 a.m. with an 8:15 a.m. bus pickup.
At one point, my roommate Matt said to me, “The only way you can ruin my day is by saying ‘Earth, Wind & Fire Medley.’”
It was a pretty stressful time for all of us. Each day was eight hours long, chock full of dancing and playing music. To top that off, we had night rehearsals.
At the end of the two weeks, I was shocked when I realized that I actually knew all the material.
It all led up to an all-night rehearsal from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. in the park at the actual places we performed. It was amazing. We spent the whole night in a completely desolate park. Unreal.
Gettin’ the Groove
We started performing in the park on June 19. This was the beginning of our routine for the rest of the summer.
11:00 to 1:00 Rehearsal/Clinic
1:00 to 1:30 Personal Training
1:30 to 2:00 Costume Change
2:20 to 2:50 Carnation Plaza Gardens Set
3:15 to 3:45 Pre-Parade Set
4:00 to 5:00 Lunch
5:00 to 5:30 Castle Set
6:00 to 6:30 Tomorrowland Terrace Set
7:00 to 7:30 Town Square Set
Surprisingly enough, this day flies by. The Carnation Plaza performance is what we like to call the sit-down set. It is the only set where the band sits in a standard big band format and plays many different styles of big band repertoire. It is also the only set that changes throughout the summer. Our clinicians perform with us during this set as well.
The Pre-Parade set is the hardest set to get through. At 3:15 p.m., the sun is directly over Main Street. We walk down Main Street and perform “The Impression That I Get,” “Hips Don’t Lie,” “Tuba Tiger Rag,” “Hey Baby,” and “Stevie Wonder Medley.” Every once in awhile, Ron will call out “Chicago” or another song in place of “Stevie Wonder.” By the end of the set, every person in the band is drenched with sweat and ready for a well-deserved lunch.
Lunch became my favorite part of the day toward the end of the summer. I would eat quickly and take my computer to a little booth outside of costuming. All the saxophonists would get together and practice playing tunes without a rhythm section. It was really difficult to keep up with the other guys at first, but after doing it all the time, I feel like I have risen to a level, so that I am able to at least hang with them.
The last three sets of the day are the most fun. The first was in front of the castle where we perform “A Dream is a Wish,” “Disney Movie Medley,” “That’s How You Know” and what we call “Attractions Medley” (a musical tour of Disneyland).
This set is fun because park guests surround the circle that we perform in. I perform as “Scar” from “The Lion King” and when I’m introduced, I run out into the audience and roar. If I was lucky, I would make someone scream from fright. If anything, the attempt was always good for a laugh.
Tomorrowland is a completely different feel. We start off with “Impressions,” then go right into “Tower of Power Medley.” This is the first song of the day that we do some real dancing. The “Tower of Power” seems to me as a warmup for the last song: “Earth, Wind & Fire.” This song is about nine minutes long and involves tons of solos, dances and laughs. One of the songs in the arrangement is the famous “Let’s Groove Tonight.” The band walks into two lines and does a move that was referred to as “melty legs.” No one does it the same, but it never fails to get everyone in the audience to smile and point out one member of the band. We end the high-energy set with a screaming high trumpet solo while all of our horns are facing up to the sky.
The last set in Town Square quickly became my favorite. It starts at 7:05 p.m. when the sun is setting and the weather is great. We have a high-power set starting with our mantra “Bubbles Was A Cheerleader” followed by “Chicago Medley,” “Stevie Wonder Medley,” and ending with “Earth, Wind & Fire.” In this set, the band plays “Bubbles” on the stairs of the train station to attract guests.
By the end of “Chicago,” the band is completely surrounded by guests on all sides. “Earth, Wind & Fire” comes alive in the setting. The band feeds off the huge audience in a way that we can’t do in Tomorrowland. I’ve never made so many people smile in my entire life. That is one of the real treats of this gig: the instant ability to brighten someone’s face with music.
Behind the Scenes
The Disneyland College Band selects 21 university musicians from auditions held in various locations across the United States. I auditioned in Chicago, where I attend DePaul University. Other locations included Florida, Texas and New York. This year, more than 350 students auditioned, so obviously we had an incredible group of musicians.
Each apartment had four members of the group from other sections and separate schools. I developed a bond with my roommates as well as the rest of the band very quickly. After the boot camp, we all knew each other EXTREMELY well. My roommates—Matt, Phil and Landres—and I felt like we lived together for months.
The bond was evident in one instance early on. One of the members of the band was having trouble with the choreography and decided he was going to quit the band. He walked into our room and told us that he was leaving, and we had no idea what to say. He left, and shortly afterward we went after him to try and talk him out of leaving. We found him in another apartment minutes later and spent the next two hours talking to him about all the good times that happened and how there was so much to come. Needless to say, we talked him out of it.
Once our performances in the park started, everything became pretty calm. Each day started with a two-hour rehearsal of the music that we would play later during the sit-down set. The sit-down set is where most of the learning takes place.
We spend the morning rehearsing the music that we will play no more than three hours later. My ability to sight read and go with the flow is much better thanks to this process.
Everything went smoothly until one Saturday when one of the members in the band didn’t show up. Luckily for the sit-down set, we were playing with another big band, and his chair was filled. However, we spent the entire day on our toes. Since we were one member short, every bit of choreography was messed up. The band pulled together, and the show went on.
We later found out that the show had to go on permanently in this fashion. Although the band was incomplete, we came together and made it into a learning experience. I realized how bad it is to leave any group hanging and what kind of bridges can be burned.
Help From Outside
Every week, one or two professional musicians come in and give clinics and play the sit-down set with us. One weekend we had the U.S. Army Blues come in for a clinic. We played a show for the band, and we broke off into sections.
I had an amazing time just speaking with the band members about their gig and what else they do outside of it. It all culminated with a concert. This concert was particularly special to me. We split both bands in half and played five tunes with half Army Blues, half College Band. I was lucky enough to play every song. It easily was one of the best concerts that we put on.
Another aspect of the program is that it offers areas of study. Our choices are music composition, music recording and music industry. Every member of the band is also supposed to get business cards made, have a current resume and have a website. I chose the composition study.
Rick Schmunk, an assistant professor of music at the University of Southern California, is one of my favorite clinicians. He came in every Wednesday morning and taught us about music technology and recording technology for five weeks. He opened my eyes to a lot of different methods of study that I look forward to exploring.
Another great aspect of the program is the ability to study privately. I have taken lessons from Matt Harris and Sal Lozano, and both experiences helped me learn a little bit more about my playing.
Each member of the band found someone who they want to study with in the L.A. area. It is uncanny to see how many of these players react when I say that I’m in the College Band. Sal Lozano gave us a free session and then bought us lunch. He wouldn’t take “no” for an answer!
The type of love that these musicians show to the band is inspiring. Jiggs Whigham did a clinic with the band and said, “Do I need to be here? Yes. Absolutely. The music has given me so much, and I have to give back.”
I was moved. His positive attitude rubbed off on us that day. The band went out and played the sets better than ever. This attitude was present in every clinician. Rick Baptist, a trumpet player who has been on almost every movie that has come out of Los Angeles in the past 20 years, came in and was more than happy to be there.
A Fairytale Ending
Disneyland is truly, in their words, a “magical” place, and the Disneyland All- American College Band is a highlight in my life. While I am more of a jazz player, my stage presence and musical abilities improved a thousandfold.
In addition, I was able to meet some remarkable people. The program is dedicated to improving our skills and continuing to build career musicians. I can’t stop thinking about how quickly the summer went by. The memories are endless, both on and off the stage.
I want to thank everyone in the band for everything they did for me. I’ve grown more in this band than I could’ve imagined, and I am incredibly grateful. I wouldn’t give up this magical experience for anything.