Three former members of the Homewood-Flossmoor High School marching band spent New Year’s Day performing in the Rose Bowl parade as members of the North Carolina A&T University’s Blue & Gold Marching Machine.
Clarinet player Zahra Harmon-Cohran and trumpeter Antonio Bonds II, both of Homewood, and trumpeter Cameron Barton of Glenwood spent four years as members of the H-F marching band and took their talents to Greensboro, North Carolina, to be members of the band there. They each wanted to attend an historically Black college or university (HBCU). That N.C. A&T had a renowned band was a plus.
The three graduated from H-F in 2019 and joined the band as freshmen.
“H-F prepared me for college band. In the way Ms. Whitlock, (H-F band director) she helped me a lot learning music, learning how to think differently along the lines of music and not only I can play this but what does this sound like, what does this feel like, how does this relate to me,” said Bonds. “She always made us think differently like that. A lot of people say that’s unorthodox but it was needed for the time we were in. She coached us to be musicians.”
H-F combines showband marching with corps style that using militaristic movements. The three graduates say much of what they did at H-F was transferable to their college marching band experience.
They had a successful first season, but then the pandemic reduced the band’s activities for the 2020-21 season to some practice sessions but no marching presentations. When the 2021-22 season opened, it was back to an arduous work schedule. Practices generally ran from 5:30 to 10 p.m. every weekday, with special work sessions added on.
Barton said he put in the time. “You enjoy what you do and do what you have to do to do it.”
Harmon-Cohran tried out for band on a whim and couldn’t believe it when band members said there is no free time, just dedicated time to the band.
“There is no YouTube video that is going to describe your experience,” Harmon-Cohran said. “You just have to do it.”
Those long hours led to the band being invited to perform half-time at a Detroit Lions game, at DisneyWorld and major battle of the bands events. Two weeks before the Rose Bowl, the Blue & Gold Marching Machine took the top prize in the ESPN-sponsored HBCU Band of the Year competition in Atlanta.
The band received the invitation to the Rose Bowl a year ahead of time. The preparatory work schedule was grueling, especially the marching drills. There is one major corner turn on the parade route, something marchers don’t have to deal with on a football field. For most bands, marching five or six across, that’s not a big deal, but the Blue & Gold Marching Machine is formulated to march nine across.
Harmon said band director Dr. Kenneth Ruff, wanted the students “to emulate on our practice field what the route would look like and we drilled in over and over and over again.”
A few days before the Rose Bowl Parade on Jan. 1, the 230-member Blue & Gold Marching Machine had an afternoon practice session at a regional high school and performed in the Band Fest with the other 19 bands in the parade.
The Rose Bowl Parade is a six-mile walk primarily down Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard. Crowds line the street long before the 8 a.m. start. The three H-F musicians say it was exciting to participate.
“That was one of the greatest performances I’ve done,” said Bonds. “It was just that parade in itself, that was just a different beast. I never marched six miles in a parade while playing five different songs multiple times. At that volume and at that class, that was just something I’d never done, and it just said it all.”
The students’ six days in California included tours of Hollywood, Universal and Warner Bros. studios, Fishman’s Wharf at Redondo Beach Pier, Griffith Observatory and Park, Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach and Marina Del Rey.
As their senior year at North Carolina A&T wraps up, Harmon, Bonds and Barton say they will always carry the experience with them.
“Knowing how this started (at H-F) and how this ended, it was just a great moment for us all. We’ve really been through it all, through the practices; through the mud, through the (rain) water. Hours on hours on hours. I don’t even know how it was possible to spend so much time on one thing, but we made it work.” Bonds said.