Marching All-Stars

Honor bands created by marching circuits and by prestigious parades give individual students a chance to shine in the national limelight.

Photo by Ken Martinson/

Tournament of Roses Parade

Every Jan. 1, the marching bands in the Tournament of Roses Parade welcome in the New Year. Out of the 20 marching groups, a few form as part of all-star ensembles. Some such as the Pasadena City College Tournament of Roses Honor Band and the Los Angeles Unified School District All District Honor Marching Band have an annual standing invitation to appear in the parade while other groups such as the Bands of America Honor Band and this year’s Hawaii All State Marching Band must formally apply and can appear every several years.

Pasadena City College Honor Band

Representing the host city of the Rose Parade, the Pasadena City College (PCC) Tournament of Roses Honor Band combines members of the PCC Lancer Band with high school participants. More than 500 students from 300 high schools in Southern California apply to march in the parade every year.

After selecting 240 students in October, the group begins rehearsals in November and continues practicing up until the day of the parade.

“It’s a challenge both mentally and physically,” says Esteban De Leon, former member of the band. “In no other group have I done 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. rehearsals back to back. I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

The PCC Honor Band has appeared in the Rose Parade every year since 1930. Its Herald Trumpet Unit has the distinct honor of proceeding the Rose Queen and her court.

The band also performs at Disneyland and opens the Tournament of Roses Bandfest field shows, where all participating bands perform in a noncompetitive scene.

“I’m very proud of the group this year,” says Kyle Luck, director. “We’re playing some of the hardest music I’ve ever put in front of them.”

LAUSD All District Band

Since 1973, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) All District Honor Marching Band has allowed high school students from all through the school district to perform in the Rose Parade. Any brass musician or percussionist within LAUSD can join with a recommendation from their school music teachers and a brief audition.

“The reason that we were given the title of honor band is that we are the only high school group that marches the Rose Parade every year,” says Anthony White, LAUSD coordinator of performing arts and director of the band. “We take this honor to heart, and we’re very lucky to represent our school district and our city.”

The band rehearses in the weeks leading up to the Rose Parade, giving the students across the district a chance to bond with each other. “You get to meet students from schools you’ve never even heard of,” says Javier Uribe, a three-year member of the band. “You can find so many differences and similarities between your bands.”

Bands of America Honor Band

Appearing every four years in the Rose Parade, Music for All’s Bands of America (BOA) Honor Band consists of 300 musicians and color guard members from high schools throughout the United States. The band first made an appearance in the 2005 parade, accompanying the float presented by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) and Sesame Workshop.

“In my 44 years as a music educator, I have never participated in an event that so exceeded my expectations,” said Bob Buckner, director of the 2013 BOA Honor Band in a video message on the Music for All website. “The excitement and the pageantry of the event certainly set [the Rose Parade] apart as one of the most amazing performance opportunities that a student will ever have.”

Cavalcade of Bands Honor Band

Looking forward to 2015, an honor band put together by Cavalcade of Bands, an East Coast competition circuit, will make its first appearance in the Rose Parade.

Directors will turn to technology in their preparation. Live streaming will allow students to rehearse together across 10- hour travel distances.

“The students are stepping outside their comfort zones,” says Mitch Adams, executive director of Cavalcade. “They’re showing everyone in their own schools that they can do something different, and I’m proud that they’re taking that step with us.”

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Macy’s Great American Marching Band

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is one of the most visible holiday events in the United States, and it passes that recognition to the Macy’s Great American Marching Band (MGAMB). First appearing in 2006, the band consists of more than 200 high school students throughout the country.

“You would think [organizing the band] would be a lot more difficult than it actually is,” says Dennis Rhoads, president of Music Festivals and Tours, which organizes and selects the band members. “The students that we accept are top-notch, they’re well-behaved, they’re really serious about what they’re doing, and they’re there to do the best job they possibly can. It’s amazing how smoothly everything runs.”

Auditions require submissions of recordings that demonstrate marching abilities and musical skill. Directed by Dr. Richard Good of Auburn University, the band meets in New York on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and begins rehearsals on Monday.

“It was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” says Tanner Holbrook, a 2013 drum major of the band. “We’re expected to be like a university band, and it’s really fun and energetic but also really intense at the same time.”

Although the parade is the main event, the MGAMB has performed for the “Today” show and at Comic-Con in San Diego and appeared in the movie “Tower Heist” and several Macy’s commercials during the holidays. “Macy’s has fallen in love with the band,” Rhoads says. “Many times you’ll see the band uniform appearing in Macy’s advertisements.”

After several days of rehearsals and sightseeing, band members march in one of the most recognized holiday parades in the country. “The parade is so energetic, fast-paced and fun,” Holbrook says. “The Macy’s Great American Marching Band is probably the most rewarding, amazing experience I have ever been part of, and I encourage anyone to join because they’ll feel the same way.”

Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade

Tournament of Bands

The Tournament of Bands (TOB) All-Star Marching Band began with the purpose of uniting 150 students from nine states to participate in the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The TOB formed the band five years ago at the request of Todd Marcocci, director of the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade from Under the Sun Productions and an alumnus of a TOB band.

Each year, students from every TOB-participating band are given the opportunity to participate. Four drum majors are selected during the TOB Atlantic Coast Championships. “One of the reasons we did this was to let young people from emerging bands participate alongside members from well-established programs,” says band director Tom Beebe. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to mix and match people of different ability.”

Without actual auditions, students of all skill levels can join. “Since you just sign up, it really provides a large opportunity for people to join,” says Noah Lucas, one of the band’s snare drummers. “There’s no grueling audition process, everyone is in, everyone learns together, and it works out nicely. You get to meet a lot of people.”

With less than a day of rehearsal prior to parade day, the experience can be stressful for many, but the payoff is well worth it. “The students get a chance to be in an All-Star band in a nationally televised event,” says Jeffrey Dent, director of the Tournament of Bands. “For many students, it’s a chance to meet other students from other bands in a noncompetitive environment, where they get to march through Philadelphia alongside rivals.”

Being a part of the all-star band brings pride to the group and to all the members. “In the TOB, it’s a point of pride to be an All-Star, and I think it’s well-deserved,” Beebe says. “To be recognized by your band director, family, band, school and community as a leader and then to represent them in Philadelphia at one of the biggest Thanksgiving Day parades in the country is a very great honor.”

U.S. Army All-American Bowl

U.S. Army All-American Marching Band

Only the best of the best high school football players make it into the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, and only the best of the best bandsmen perform there at halftime. Of more than 1,300 people auditioning, only 125 earn the title of “All-American” and become members of the U.S. Army All-American Marching Band (USAAAMB).

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) handles the selection of band members. Students who wish to join begin their audition process in the fall of their junior year with nominations from their high school band directors. After completing an online application and video submissions, accepted students are recognized in a selection tour alongside any other All-Americans at their schools.

During rehearsals prior to the performance, students look to each other—as much as instructors—for encouragement. “I was very surprised by how motivated the students were to be quiet and get things done during rehearsals,” says Christine Norton, former drum major of the USAAAMB. “It was surprising how they pushed me when I was used to being the one pushing my band forward.”

Along with rehearsals, the all-expense paid trip to San Antonio also includes a tour of the Alamo, a barbeque in the Alamodome, a New Year’s Eve party and a social event with the football players and Army soldiers.

“This past year, the Sergeant Major of the Army came in to talk to the band,” says Brian Prato, senior operations manager of the USAAAMB. “He actually missed his flight, so that he could shake hands and give an Army challenge coin to each member. When people of that caliber with those kinds of responsibilities take time to come talk to some high school kids, it’s something really special.”

About the Author

Samuel Sweetnam is a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California (USC). He played trumpet for three years in the Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Marching Band and became a drum major in his senior year. Sam continues to play trumpet as a member of the USC Trojan Marching Band.

About author

A photo of Daniel Belcher.

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