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Practice for Pasadena

By Katherine Sather

Forget Islander football rivalries, basketball victories and state titles.

This year, the Mercer Island High School marching band stole the show.

Since last November, when band members were selected to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., the Island has rallied around the 268-member ensemble.

Band members logged long hours rehearsing, fundraising and planning for the honor of marching in the Jan. 2 parade that's viewed by millions of people. Along the way, they say, friendships were strengthened and memories were made.

``From day one, it has renewed a sense of purpose,'' said Parker Bixby, who directs the band with Peter Haberman. ``It's been a real compass for us.''

Just about every band member remembers when they found out they were going to Pasadena. It was the end of the third quarter of a football game, with Bellevue ahead, when Bixby's voice came over the loudspeaker. He wasn't even able to finish talking before the cheering began.

``It was funny because the football team was losing at that point, but all the people started screaming,'' said Michael Holtzman, a junior and clarinet player.

It was a testament to the support for music on the Island. About 20 percent of the school's population is in the marching band. They were one of only 25 bands from around the world selected to march in the parade, along with 19 other high school bands and some collegiate and honor bands.

After the celebrating, the hard work began. The trip to Pasadena, including travel, accommodations and food during a week's worth of events, has a $340,000 pricetag. They began fundraisers: a carwash, a raffle, letters asking for donations. The band's spirit found its way into just about everyone.

The most exhilarating fundraiser, says junior Kat Meagley, was performing with Grammy-winning trumpet artist Alan Vizzutti for a benefit concert last January. He performed with the band in a sold-out show, netting $16,000.

``It was cool that he wanted to help us,'' Meagley said. ``It's rare you ever get a chance to play with someone like that.''

Besides the fundraising, the students logged hours of rehearsal time for the event. Bixby, who marched in the parade twice before, offered guidance.

``There's no preparing students for what they're about to do,'' he said. ``The fact its just called a parade doesn't do it justice.''

The annual fall band-camp was extended to 60 hours this year. For some rehearsals, they took buses to Payne Field in Everett, one of the only places large enough to fit them when they're lined up in full, 50-ft. long formation. They march in a rectangle comprised of 11 rows of students, each 26 people long.

``There's not a street on the Island that's wide enough to hold us,'' Bixby said.

The first rehearsal on Payne Field, it snowed. Parents brought hot cocoa to the students while they logged mile after mile to condition for the trip. For rehearsals in uniform, band directors Bixby and Haberman kept up a strict sock inspection. Black socks are required for the uniforms, and students who forget get a dose of black spray paint on their white socks.

``That's why during marching band season there's black paint on the pavement and grass,'' said Alicia Mangubat, a sophomore who just started playing the flute this year.

Usually, students say, there's some division between younger and older members of the band. But the time spending preparing for the Tournament of Roses created unity among ages, said Meagley, and among students who play the same instruments.

``Within the groups there's more bonding and spirit,' she said.

For other band members, the Tournament of Roses marks a culmination of years of friendship through band. A group of four senior girls who call themselves ``Flute Punch,'' will end their Mercer Island musical careers this year and go to different colleges. The quartet began band together in the eighth grade, and has performed in solo ensemble competitions each year since. The girls, Kate Jiranek, Lauren Gibson, Jamie Andonian and Anna LArsen, advanced to competition at the state level last year.

They have matching T-shirts and flip flops that say `flute punch' and they've become good friends outside of band too, Gibson said. They're excited to go to the Rose Parade, where they'll march in line beside one another.

``We know we can always trust eachother no matter what happens,'' Gibson said.

The marching band hopes to provide a unique performance at each of the events on it's schedule in Pasadena, Bixby said. In addition to the parade, they'll perform at Bandfest, a field show, and at Disneyland.

``We're different than every other band that plays because we've made the choice to be noncompetitive in the way we implement our program,'' he said. ``We want to represent what we stand for, and have a great time while playing in a noncompetitive setting.''

He smiles when he thinks about the experience the students will have. When the band rounds the first corner of the parade route, he said, they'll see helicopters, blimps TV cameras and thousands of cheering people.

``The first thing they'll experience is just awe,'' Bixby said. ``Two hours later, exhaustion.''

TV broadcast

The 2006 Tournament of Roses Parade will be broadcast live on ABC, NBC, Univision, HGTV, Travel Channel, Discovery HD at 8 a.m. PST. on January 2. The Mercer Island Band will be seen about two hours into the parade.

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