BENSON — An announcement this big could have used a drum roll, but all the drummers were in the audience with the rest of the West Johnston High School Band, waiting to hear the news.
Rumors had circulated that the 110-member band, a frequent and formidable contender in regional and national marching band competitions, was to be invited to play at something big, but nobody who knew anything was talking. Since May, band director Garrett Griffin had been sitting on this secret. He told only those who needed to know and swore them to silence. He didnt tell his own mother.
I wanted it to be memorable, Griffin said. And I knew they would remember it more coming from the people who were inviting them than if I just told them in the band room.
Finally, Robert Bone, executive director of the London New Years Day Parade and Festival, took the stage Thursday morning, followed by Councillor Catherine Longworth, the former Lord Mayor of the City of Westminster, wearing a red robe.
I would like to invite you to take part in the London New Years Day Parade and Festival in January, 2014, Longworth said.
Are you going to come?
Bone and Longworth made a similar appearance at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh on Thursday afternoon, extending the same invitation to the schools 84-member symphonic band. There was less suspense at Leesville Road; the invitation had been announced. But it will be the bands first overseas trip, and the students many of whom have never left the country were thrilled to hear the news.
Id always known we were good, but I didnt realize that we were considered good on an international level, said sophomore Ethan Kratt, who plays tuba.
Both bands are also scheduled to perform in concert halls while they are in London.
Bone said parade organizers try to give bands about 15 months notice. Any less, and they dont have time to raise the thousands of dollars theyll need for airfare and a weeks stay in London. Any more, and they end up with two classes of students who hustle to raise money for a trip they may not get to make.
And who wouldnt want to go, after the way Bone built it up?
Its the biggest, and we like to say the best, parade of its kind in the world, he told the students at West Johnston. That little thing Macys does through the streets of New York? Londons has twice as many participants, between 8,500 and 9,000.
Each year, 15 or 16 of those are marching bands from U.S. high schools, colleges and universities. Besides West Johnston and Leesville Road, Bone and the former lord mayor will visit several others this week to extend similar invitations. Many participants, Bone said, have never left the counties where they were born.
The parade is a huge draw, Bone said. More than 600,000 people line the narrow streets of London along the 2.2-mile parade route, which starts near the Ritz London Hotel, winds past Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, down Downing Street and ends at Parliament Square. The parade starts at noon on New Years Day and runs more than three hours, with millions of people watching on TV.
The former lord mayor loves all the pomp and celebration of the parade, she said, But I have to tell you: Im a sucker for marching bands.
English schools have fine orchestras, excellent choirs and great jazz bands, but except for the military, she said, We dont have marching bands.
Parade organizers found the Triangle bands as they do others, James Bond-style.
We have spies, Bone said, who scope out band competitions and take note of strong performers. They tell us whos good.
Leesville band director Chris Serina said his groups reputation and long string of accolades account for its invite. It also didnt hurt that Leesvilles choir director talked up the band program while taking her group to England several years ago.
The Leesville band got a chance to show off for Bone and Longworth on Thursday as it marched into the auditorium with military precision and filled the room with the sound of the Olympic theme.
I dont think Ive heard the Olympic theme done quite so well, Longworth said, as the navy blue-uniformed teens beamed behind her.
Leesvilles band sticks out at competitions around North Carolina, where it often takes first place. While some high schools march in matching T-shirts, Leesville has traditional uniforms.
We tend to have a lot of self-discipline, said Ted Elshof, the bands captain, or student leader. We like to keep in lines, very organized. We pay a lot of attention to small details.
The West Johnston band gave an impromptu performance at the lord mayors request. After their second number, an energetic piece inspired by the artwork of M.C. Escher, Longworth stood and applauded.
Now I know why youve all been chosen to come to London, she said.
Now comes the fundraising. Suki Pannu, a 15-year-old sophomore and alto saxophone player at West Johnston, said shes taken pies in the face to raise money for the band, and was hoping the group would get to go somewhere fun.
But this is beyond what anybody expected, she said.