Kristen Ulloa, along with the rest of the Towson University marching band, is used to playing in front of a few hundred people, maybe even a few thousand at TU football and basketball games. But when they march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Thursday, an audience approaching 50 million people will be watching. But like most of her fellow Marching Tigers, she insists she's too excited to be nervous.
"This is probably the coolest thing that could happen to a band," says Ulloa, a 20-year-old junior from Finksburg who's a member of the band's color guard. "Sure, I've been to New York before. But never like this."
Thanksgiving will offer Towson's Marching Tigers the sort of stage bands yearn for, an audience unparalleled - especially since the only bands these days that play the Super Bowl, the only event with a bigger potential audience, are those fronted by people like Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger. Towson's was the only college band selected to perform this year, and the only band from Maryland. For band members, Thanksgiving will begin with a 2 a.m. wake-up call and 4 a.m. rehearsal near New York's Central Park.
"This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime memory, a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment," says Band Director John Milauskas, who in his sixth year as director has seen band membership climb from 75 to 230. "This validates us as a big-time university band."
Of course, the national spotlight comes at a price. It will cost $757 a person to send the band to New York from Wednesday through Saturday. Band parents, the Towson Macy's (where the band performed for customers earlier this month) and the university development office chipped in to raise money.
But beyond the cash, there's the cost of perfection. There are new tunes to learn (including a secret one they'll play upon reaching Herald Square, but are contractually prohibited from revealing), precision marches to practice, intricate steps to get down. There are 5 a.m. appearances on Fox 45's "Morning News" to endure (even if it is raining, which it was when the band appeared Thursday). And there are practice sessions to work through, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Conducted on Towson's Burdick Field as afternoon fades into evening, the band's weekday practice sessions look like something out of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." Percussionists gather on one side of the field (the band includes more than 40 of them), while trombonists and other horn players gather on the other. Drum Major Jennifer Rosso, a 19-year-old sophomore from Carroll County, stands atop an elevated platform, conducting with the same verve she'll later display on the field herself.
"Step away from your partner," she shouts, her arms swinging up and down to an electronic metronome's metallic beat. "Twist, loosen up."
After several minutes of warming up - during which the cacophony sounds more like a jet engine taking off than a collection of musical instruments - the band members line up about 10 deep. At the word from Milauskas, a sea of sweat shirts starts advancing forward. They play "Maryland My Maryland" and the Towson fight song; later, they'll swing and sway to Arturo Sandoval's Latin-influenced "A Mis Abuelos," complete with jazzy trumpet solo from 23-year-old Drew Wilkie, a transfer student from Manahawken, N.J.
"Being from New Jersey, it's not such a big deal going to New York," says Wilkie, who talks from vast experience - not only has he visited the Big Apple often, but he marched in the 2001 Macy's parade in high school. "But what's really special is that you get to do something that only a few people get to do every year. And the audience is huge - I mean, it's not a niche audience."
Nearby, the color guard practices its drills, spinning flags and launching prop rifles into the air. "Your main emphasis here is body control and set-up size," shouts instructor Paul Reyes. Later, Ulloa will be throwing her rifle high up into the air, practicing her spins, when it falls chunkily to the ground. Unfazed, she flicks her foot and sends the rifle spinning back up into the air, grabbing it and going on as if everything were part of the plan.
A Macy's spokesman said parade organizers are looking for more than competence from their bands. They want flash.
"We are looking for high-performance ability," says Macy's spokesman Orlando Veras. "They will be taking part in an 83-year tradition that is truly beloved by the nation. In terms of being in a band, it's pretty much the biggest audience they will ever perform for." Besides Towson, the parade will feature eight high school bands and a ninth composed of representatives from high schools throughout the country.
The selection process is so involved and so carefully structured that the band was told it would be in this year's parade nearly two years ago, in March 2008. Just to apply, Milauskas says, the band had to provide photographs, a CD recording, a performance DVD, a list of where it's played and recommendations from others.
Since the selection was made two school years ago, this year's band members realize they owe their good fortune to the hard work of their predecessors, many of whom have graduated. "Remember," Milauskas says, "others before you have made this opportunity for you. Make the most of it."
For some band members, getting Macy's-ready has meant more than just working hard. Trombonist Tara Muggenberg misses Wednesday sessions because of a chemistry lab, meaning she has to do a lot of the drill work on her own, while flute player Beatrice Rugby, whose high school did not have a marching band, has had to learn from scratch what most of her bandmates have been working on for four years or more. For Donald Woolfrey, a 19-year-old from Essex, this will be his first Thanksgiving away from home, and the first without his grandfather, who died late last year.
"That makes it kind of tough," he says. "But hey, I'll have a cell phone."
Then there's Kate Phillips, a 23-year-old senior from Frederick who has been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which causes her heart to race violently at times and has led to six surgeries in the past seven years. Phillips still has episodes about twice a month, sometimes nearly incapacitating her. But she's determined that she and her mellophone will make the trip to New York and that 2.65-mile march from Central Park to Herald Square.
"It's kind of touch-and-go sometimes," she says after blowing a few notes of the Baltimore Colts fight song on her mellophone, an instrument similar to a French horn. "Some days I'm really fine, some days I'm out of commission. But I'll be there, even if they just have to drag me along."