COLUMBIA — The whistle blew from the drum majors, signaling it was time to start. Shoulders back, feet together at a perfect 45-degree angle, instruments held out squarely away from their bodies — it was their first time playing the memorized notes while roll-stepping heel-toe, heel-toe in sync formation.
For the eighth graders in Columbia's junior high school bands, Friday's Providence Bowl Parade was their first public marching experience. The three junior high marching bands, alongside the high school bands, also played the national anthem at the rivalry game.
"Most of the students haven't done this before," said Tom Sweeney, the West Junior High School band instructor. "This will be the first time putting on the uniforms and marching. Some can't wait. Others are cautious. We get to the parade and see all the other schools and they say, 'I get this. This is cool.'"
Jefferson, Oakland and West junior high marching bands participate each year in the high school homecoming parade, but this year the high schools' homecomings fell on different weeks. The traditional homecoming parade became the Providence Bowl Parade and opened up an opportunity for the junior high bands to participate.
"Some of them are nervous about whether they will be ready," said Jaime Canepa, the Jefferson band director. "It seems they are really excited, especially since this is the rivalry game."
Since the beginning of the school year, band students arrived for practice at 7 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Percussion and color guard had extra practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Students learned how to stand at attention, how to stay in step and hold their instruments and how to mark time. They also learned the coordination of marching while playing the music.
"We played every day," said Tia Kitchen, an Oakland eighth grader. "We would take it home and practice."
"A lot!" fellow clarinetist Jennifer Hopper chimed in.
The students spent weeks in the classroom memorizing the tune that was played over and over as they marched down Broadway. For many, this was the first time having to learn the notes by heart.
"The biggest thing I tell them is they have to challenge themselves," said Patrick Sullivan, the Oakland band director. "I have them memorize small chunks. We flip over the music and play small pieces. Then I ask them to look at what they missed, and we play it again until they have the whole thing."
For some, memorization came naturally, while others required a little extra work.
"I don't think it was difficult," Kitchen said. "We had a lot of time to prepare."
When Friday arrived, the bands gathered in a small park on Broadway and waited to begin. Each band congregated in clusters, identifiable by their colorful uniforms: red, white and black for Jefferson; white, blue and gold for West; and orange, white and blue for Oakland.
Some of the students gathered in groups, joking and laughing. Others practiced the song, working on trouble spots.
When asked about what she was feeling while waiting for the parade to begin, Jefferson eighth grader Erica Beck said, "I'm hot. I'm not too nervous, though."
With the band properly organized in block formation, the whistle blew again and instruments instantly snapped into place. The percussionist pounded the roll-off on the bass drum. Instruments went up in playing position and the left feet began their first marching steps down Broadway against the cheering of the spectators.