“How are your eyes?”
“ With pride!”
“How are your EYES?!”
This exchange is the exclamation point that caps off every performance from the Minuteman Marching Band, for which I played the piccolo for four years in the late 1990s. Band members answer their leader, voices in unison echoing through the Pioneer Valley, during halftime shows from Montreal to Michigan, and now inside Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, while Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst undergoes renovations.
The almost 400-member ensemble, known as “The Power and Class of New England,” began as a drum corps several years after the school’s founding as the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1863. A century and a half later, it has performed in three presidential inaugural ceremonies, several Bands of America Grand Nationals, and with the Boston Pops in Symphony Hall.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, as part of a select group of marching bands. The parade is watched by more than 3.5 million people along the route, plus at least 50 million more TV viewers.
The Macy’s parade is a new milestone for a band rooted deep in tradition. Today, the band is led by director Timothy Todd Anderson, associate director Thomas P. Hannum, and assistant band director and visual coordinator Frederick Omega Pye. Early leaders include Charles Morris, Charles Farnum, Doric Alviani, Joseph Contino, and John Jenkins, who preceded longtime band director George N. Parks. Jenkins brought Parks on board in 1977, and Parks was joined in 1984 by Hannum. Parks died suddenly in September 2010 from a heart attack after a band performance in Ohio, en route to perform at the University of Michigan.
The band played on, as it was, and that weekend in Michigan it brought the crowd to its feet in honor of Parks. “No matter what you’re feeling or thinking, the show must go on,” Kerstin Becker, an alum who’s now the band’s visual tech and historian, said, reflecting how Parks felt about commitment.
As a marching band alum, I attend Homecoming annually to cheer on the “bandos,” as we like to call ourselves. Last year we climbed the winding, gray ramps to our Gillette Stadium seats. We enjoyed time with friends, sang school songs like “Fight Mass” and “Roll Down the Field,” and when the maroon-and-white-clad band played Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” we danced.
The band is known for rousing its audience, playing songs through the years like Gloria Estefan’s “Get on Your Feet,” Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” and Madonna tunes along with musical medleys from shows like “The Phantom of the Opera,” and spirited fare such as the “1812 Overture.”
In recent years, the school built a multimillion-dollar facility for the band after a fund-raising effort led by Parks to help with costs (it’s called the George. N. Parks Minuteman Marching Band Building).
“The way the band carries itself, what Mr. Parks established, that sums up what the band is,” Anderson says. “Those moments when they crash the stands, when you see the joy on the kids’ faces, that has to be protected. That’s special.”
Each show ends with a performance of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” another enduring custom. The lyrics, sung by students, soar in the autumn breezes.
I’ve lived a life that’s full,
I traveled each and every highway,
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.”
The beat goes on.