Florida A&M Band High Steps For Historical Event

Florida A&M University's Marching 100 has been selected to participate in the president's inaugural parade Tuesday. This will be the high-stepping band's third appearance in an inaugural parade. But this time, the band, from a historically black college, feels more of a sense of history.

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You can't have a parade without music. And tomorrow, after the presidential swearing-in, marching bands from around the country will parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. The largest band is 440 members strong - never mind that it's called the Marching 100. It's the band from Florida A&M, a historically black university that's no stranger to inaugural parades or to Barack Obama. NPR's Greg Allen spent time with the band in Tallahassee as they prepared for the big day.

GREG ALLEN: There are marching bands larger than the Marching 100, but not many. In the band room on the Florida A&M campus in Tallahassee, it's a sea of brass - trumpets, trombones, French horns, saxophones and, as band associate director Shelby Chipman confirms, more tubas than you've ever seen in one place, at least 40.

Dr. SHELBY CHIPMAN (Associate Director of Bands, Florida A&M University): We have the world's largest sousaphone or tuba section, and we received this year 23 sousaphone freshmen. Now, that's a sousaphone section in itself.

(Soundbite of marching band)

ALLEN: Dr. Chipman and all the band members say being picked to march and play in the inaugural parade is a thrill. But to be perfectly honest, for many, it wasn't completely unexpected. The Marching 100 - the name comes from an era when the band was much smaller - performed in both of Bill Clinton's inaugural parades. And with Barack Obama, band members put in their bid to play at his inauguration early, back when he spoke on campus in 2007. Junior Jeremy Battles(ph), a snare drummer, is one of the band members who played and had their pictures taken that day with Mr. Obama.

Mr. JEREMY BATTLES (Snare Drummer, Marching 100 Band): It was one of the guys, he's in my section, his name is Gene. He said, Barack, you're going to invite us to the inauguration, right? And Barack was like, no doubt about it.

(Soundbite of marching band)

ALLEN: Florida A&M is one of five historically black universities marching in Barack Obama's inaugural parade. His election to the presidency is something many black marching bands have already commemorated. The Marching 100's lead drum major, senior Michael Scott(ph), takes pride in the routine his band put together and performed last fall, just weeks after Mr. Obama's victory.

Mr. MICHAEL SCOTT (Lead Drum Major, Marching 100 Band): We did the United States formation with his name in the middle. And so, you know, most bands may just do his name, or may just do one aspect. We did both.

ALLEN: But now, who was it? Was it Bethune-Cookman did actually - the picture?

Mr. SCOTT: They actually did the picture face, and that was actually kind of neat, also. But it still wasn't better than us.

(Soundbite of marching band)

ALLEN: At Florida A&M, the level of musicianship is high. Nearly three-quarters of the band members played first chair in their high school orchestras. But on the field, they're known as much for their innovative, high-stepping routines as for their music. Sophomore Taheeda Adbullah(ph) says learning those routines can be grueling, but it's worth it.

Ms. TAHEEDA ABDULLAH (Member, Marching 100 Band): One of the major things that the band instills in you is like a lot of pride, you know. Like, we call it shamming on the field when you're not doing as good as you could be. So everybody - you know, we all encourage each other like, you know, no shamming. So it's like, they encourage you to do your best at all times, and never to settle for anything less.

(Soundbite of band practice)

Unidentified Male: Face the trombone. Hold it, drum major. Face the trombones. OK, first-ranked trombones, hold your instruments up. And let's get these lines straight, folks.

ALLEN: Out on the drill field, it's 9 p.m. on a school night. The lights are on, and the Marching 100 is practicing for the inaugural parade and an important competition coming up just a few days afterward: the Battle of the Bands. Drum major Michael Scott is putting band members through their paces.

(Soundbite of band practice)

ALLEN: Band members are swaying to the music, going up at times on one foot, even leaping into the air, all without missing a note. They've been given 30 seconds for a routine on Pennsylvania Avenue. But what they're planning, they won't say. But no matter what they do, Taheeda Abdullah says, she knows it will be a day to remember.

Ms. ABDULLAH: It's like history in the making, and you're really proud to be there, and you're really proud to contribute. You're kind of doing a good deed to the country, you know, like - I don't know. It just gives you like, a nice, warm, tingly feeling inside.

ALLEN: Abdullah and the rest of the Marching 100 will need to hold onto that warm, tingly feeling. These are mostly Floridians, remember. And the forecast tomorrow calls for a high temperature in the 30s. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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