Behind the scenes as Morgan State’s Magnificent Marching Machine prepares for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Nov 22, 2019 at 7:02 AM
It’s a Tuesday evening in November. The sun set over an hour ago. Despite the wind’s bite and the dropping temperature, members of the Morgan State University marching band dash to the sidelines at Hughes Memorial Stadium to shed jackets and sweatshirts.
Assistant band director Karl Stewart barks at them through a loudspeaker to hurry up: They’re running through a new formation for an arrangement of The Jacksons’ “Torture,” and there’s little time to spare.
More layers come off when the band’s trainer, Angela Pope, takes the musicians through stretches and a rigorous workout: Students jog up and down the stands, snaking from one section to another, until they’ve run the circumference of the stadium.
Morgan is the first of Maryland’s historically black colleges to perform in the parade’s history. Everyone involved, from freshman musicians to a director whose experience with Morgan State’s marching band spans five decades, is eager, and proud, to show off the group’s take on the physically demanding, high-stepping marching style often associated with HBCUs.
Their appearance includes a roughly 2-mile march through Manhattan to the star logo in front of Macy’s Herald Square, culminating with an original performance that band director Melvin Miles describes as “a medley of four different songs … about dance.”
Though Macy’s has struggled in recent years with slumping sales amid online competition and changing customer taste, its parade remains a bulwark of broadcast television and a tradition within American homes. According to Nielsen Media Research, as many as 30 million Americans tune in each year as they chop vegetables for sides and check the temperatures on turkeys.
For 18-year-old freshman and piccolo player Eboni Singletary, performing in that parade is just the cherry on the cake. What’s more rewarding is simply being part of Morgan State’s marching band.
“I always wanted to be part of an HBCU marching band growing up,” Singletary said, recalling the movie “Drumline” as an inspiration. “That was one of my big dreams.”
To be part of an HBCU marching band that will command so much national attention is, for her, “an incredible opportunity.” Now she’ll be the one inspiring kids with her music. “When they’re having fun, I’m having fun, so it’s a real exchange,” Singletary said.
Still, Singletary said, being in the marching band is “mentally challenging, physically challenging, musically challenging — you have to do so much.”
The band meets for three-hour practices five days a week and performs at weekly football games. In addition, Melvin Miles, who has been serving as band director since 1985, makes a habit of booking special performances. The band has played at Ravens games, the drumline at the White House for President Barack Obama. In the past, the band has appeared in movies like Chris Rock’s “Head of State.”
Miles is prepping his band for the high-profile performance. At practice, he nods to the lines of musicians running up and down the bleachers. “We want to make sure they can breathe, that they have the legs. The thing about the piece that happens on the [Macy’s] star, that’s the very last thing they do. You’ve got to do an entire parade, and then you’ve got to, bam, turn it on.”
Miles knows that they will — despite having to wake up for a 2:30 a.m. call time. “The adrenaline will kick in,” he said.
How could it not? At the parade, the Magnificent Marching Machine will share air time with celebrities like Celine Dion, Billy Porter and The Black Eyed Peas and floats like Astronaut Snoopy and Smokey Bear.
On parade day, members will rehearse their finale performance at 3 a.m., break for breakfast and get into their places by New York’s Natural History Museum to kick off the parade at 9 a.m.
Arté Warren, also an 18-year-old piccolo player and a sophomore majoring in flute performance, shares Miles’ awareness that the physical effort risks affecting his performance.
“The first thing that goes when you get tired is your wind. That causes intonation issues,” Warren said. “Your fingers might start to slip up.”
But for Warren, a Baltimore native, the adrenaline will also come from knowing that he will be marching “in commemoration” of his grandmother.
“Every year, since she was raising my mom, the Thanksgiving Day Parade was on in the morning,” Warren remembered. “This was her favorite thing.”
For band director Miles, too, the appearance at the parade is about honoring local roots. Miles said he wanted “to make sure that whatever we play, that it represents us. When people see us, I want them to know, ‘That’s Morgan.’ I want people to remember us.”
Wesley Whatley, creative producer for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, thinks that’s likely. After all, the Magnificent Marching Machine rose to the top of an applicant pool of over 100 high school, college and military marching bands from all over the country.
“The very first way we judge is we look at their product on the field,” Whatley said. “How well do they play in tune? What kind of energy do they bring to each performance? How does the audience respond?”
While Morgan’s is not the first Maryland college band to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — Towson University and the University of Maryland have also — it is the first Maryland HBCU to do so.
That’s partly what made Morgan stand out — not just as one of the 11 bands that made the cut, but as the ensemble that will lead the whole parade.
“We always get excited when a historically black college applies,” Whatley said. “The tradition of HBCU marching bands is its own unique genre … that has pageantry and energy and tradition all built into it.”
Whatley said of Morgan’s band: “It’s a lot about energy with them. We know that really translates to the streets of New York City. We knew they’d bring the kind of energy we want to lead our show.”
Specifically, the Magnificent Marching Machine is a show-style marching band: It has flair; it has swag. It uses a high-stepping marching style, requiring players to raise their knees to 90-degree angles with every step — a technique that is not exclusive to, but is often associated with, HBCUs.
Practicing with that energy in mind requires meticulous attention: At rehearsal, Stewart, the assistant band director, barely lets the band get through eight counts of a song before correcting someone’s placement on the field.
But in performance, with the band in blue and orange uniforms and the players laser-focused, the effect is sizzling. The musicians move like a single organism, but without the stiffness that the marching-band discipline sometimes creates. Around them, their color guard spins and whirls flags, and breakdowns for its dance troupe, the Foxxy Dancers, deliver even more pizzazz and style.
For Singletary, simply learning to high-step was an adjustment from the heel-to-toe corps style of her New Jersey high school band.
“I want to be able to give my all on the star,” Singletary said. In the meantime, she knows, “You have to hit these 90s, and you can’t let nobody see you slacking.”
Learning how to play and march with Morgan was “a really different experience” for her, but also one that provided a sense of family away from home. “Coming in as a freshman,” Singletary said, “being part of marching band helped me feel safe down here [in Baltimore]. If I ever needed something, I knew [my section] was there for me.”
Warren was already familiar with high-stepping when he enrolled — the marching band at his high school, the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, used high-stepping. For him, marching band has proved to be “a character-building experience. You learn how to focus, how to sit yourself down and get something done.”
Then, too, there’s the opportunity to learn from Miles, a graduate of Morgan State himself. Over his career, Miles, a trumpet player, toured with groups like The Temptations and performed at venues including the Apollo Theater.
But as someone who started writing and arranging for marching bands when he was in high school — and who has served on the faculty at Morgan State since 1973 — being involved in marching bands was “always” a part of his musical life.
That passion and experience are evident to the students in his band. Warren hopes to be a band director himself one day, and he admires the way Miles tailors his arrangements to their band.
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“There’s never a lackluster part of Mr. Miles’ arrangements. He understands the voices of the instruments — what voices can imitate the sounds in studio productions,” Warren said. What’s more, Miles “arranges for our band. He knows what we like to play.”
Miles does his part to bestow personal as well as musical guidance to his students. “My line to the students is always this,” Miles said: “As time goes on, the only thing you have are memories. If you look at your life and you can’t laugh and smile, it’s your fault. You need to take every time that you get and have a good memory — make it a joyful one.”
Playing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will be a “tremendous memory” for his students. “For me, that’s the joy I get out of it,” Miles said. “It’s always about them.”
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade starts at 9 a.m. Thursday, with the Magnificent Marching Machine giving its performance on the Macy’s star at roughly 10 a.m. The parade airs on WBAL (Channel 11) and WJZ (Channel 13).
If you go
The band puts on its annual show at 4 p.m. Dec. 7 at Morgan State University.