Boy, were they in for a surprise.
Instead, the young musicians got the shock of a lifetime Tuesday afternoon when they learned they had been invited to march in the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
“I flew in from pretty far away because this news is so exciting, I felt like I needed to share this with you in person,” said Wesley Whatley, creative director for the parade and head of the band selection committee. “It gives me great pride, and it is with great pleasure that I announce to you today that for the first time in this school’s history, the Woodland High School marching band has been selected to represent this school and represent the great state of Georgia and perform in New York City at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”
The band room immediately erupted in squeals and screams as soon as Whatley said “New York City,” and he had to wait for the noise to die down before he could quickly add “at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”
“I am so excited,” said freshman Abby Matthews, a clarinet player who will be one of the lucky students making the trip as a junior. “It’s like a dream. All the classes of people before us, they’ve been waiting for so long.”
Abby said she didn’t expect to hear what she heard when she was called to the band room.
“We were thinking it was going to be our uniforms that we’re getting, or just [Superintendent] Dr. [John] Harper because we knew he was going to be here, but we didn’t know about this,” she said. “Quite a surprise.”
Whatley explained that while the juniors and seniors in the group will have already graduated by then, “what you guys did on the field this fall was extraordinary.”
“It’s stunning work that only happens in a small fraction of schools across the U.S., and you should be very proud of the legacy you’re leaving behind,” he said.
He also said the band committee had had the Wildcat band “on our radar for a number of years now.”
“We’ve been watching you guys over the course of several falls, and you should feel so proud, so proud of what you put out there,” he said. “There were some awesome other bands from Georgia that applied as well, and you guys were picked as the top one.”
Director of Bands Eric Willoughby, who has known about the surprise for almost month, told students it was the “longest secret I’ve ever held onto in my life.”
“I just want you to know that there is no greater joy you could give me,” he said. “... Ultimately, performing and entertaining is what we’re here to do so we have to work really hard to do that well. And then to hear that someone recognizes that at such a high level and to see your faces during that ... to hear that recognition, that’s the joy of what I get to do. I could not be more proud of what you do.”
Whatley concluded the celebration with two traditions that make the invitation official — presenting Willoughby with a drum head bearing the parade logo to hang on the wall as a reminder of their goal during the next 18 months and shooting off confetti flick sticks.
“Each and every Thanksgiving morning, there’s a tradition that begins the parade,” he said. “We count down from five — ‘five, four, three, two, one, let’s have a parade.’ Those words have echoed across the Upper West Side of Manhattan for 90-plus years, and we’re going to practice that.”
After the countdown, confetti rained down over the entire band room, creating the type of mess New York City loves, according to Whatley.
WHS Principal Dr. Wes Dickey was thrilled with the band’s selection.
“I’m so proud of each and every one of you,” he said. “This is truly a group effort. ... Several weeks ago when Mr. Willoughby first told me about this happening, I had chills up my spine.”
The 230-member band was one of 10 high school and college marching bands chosen from more than 100 nationwide applicants to march in the 92nd edition of the annual holiday spectacular, which officially marks the start of the Christmas season.
The only band representing Georgia — selected from more than a dozen applications from the state — will be among the 8,000-plus entertainers performing for more than 3.5 million spectators along the 2.5-mile parade route through the streets of Manhattan as well as more than 50 million viewers across the country.
Willoughby said he was “very excited, no doubt” to be chosen after several years of submitting letters of recommendation, local press clippings, performance photos and a video of each fall’s halftime show, only to receive a “nicely written, very cordial” form letter every April that says “Thank you. We encourage you to apply again.”
“I was at South Central Middle School recruiting eighth-graders, and I got the phone call ... and was elated when Wes Whatley said, ‘Hi, I’m from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,’ and I knew exactly what that was,” he said. “This time, that call came, and I was elated.”
But Willoughby had a feeling this might be their year.
“I’ve felt like in the last few years that we had a very strong ensemble, a very strong application,” he said. “Each time we get those letters ... last year, Wes, on his letter, wrote a little hand note that said, ‘Your submission this year was outstanding. Please apply again next year” in blue pen. That was a little exciting for me because I’d had three or four years before that, just the form letter without any ink other than the signature. So to me, that was a sign that maybe, even though that wasn’t our year, that they’ve been impressed for a couple of years.”
The band, Willoughby thinks, keeps improving every year, “and it seems like they’ve now recognized that maybe it’s time to give them a shot to perform on the big stage.”
“We’ve felt like we’ve been putting forth good performances year after year, but this might be the strongest group that we’ve had, for sure,” he said, crediting the juniors, seniors and recent graduates for getting the band to this point. “... As far as quality and talent and skill, this was definitely our strongest year.”
Macy’s band selection committee looks for bands that will represent their state well and are made up of the “finest” high school and college musicians across the country, Whatley said.
“We’ve had our eye on the band for a number of years and so we knew that this program would well represent the state of Georgia,” he said. “They’re able to integrate innovation and technology into the performance — they had some really cool, innovative concepts — and we thought that was exceptional and really special, and we know that that kind of program that can think outside the box is going to be able to offer something surprising or special to our audience. We want to entertain America as best we can.”
Willoughby said he has thought about what music the band — which will consist of this year’s seventh- and eighth-graders, freshmen and sophomores — will perform in the parade, “but all of my energy has been going towards telling no one and keeping a secret.”
Now that the cat is out of the bag, he said he’ll begin “imagining what kind of production might represent our school and our community in a way that’s unique.”
“When people turn on the TV and see Cartersville, Georgia, represented ... we want it to be something special and different that they’ve maybe not seen before,” he said.
Band members now will spend the next 18 months working on their parade appearance with countless hours of rehearsal and lots of creative fundraising events to pay for their once-in-a-lifetime experience.