Boynton Beach Could See Up To 50 Donation Bins Across City

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By Sonja Isger

Palm Beach Post staff writer

Photography by Greg Lovett

Park Vista band: Duct tape, sweat, heartbreak on the road to Macys parade

A year and a half ago, a stranger flew down from New York City, traveled to Park Vista High and delivered the pinnacle in marching band honors to more than 200 students: an invite to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The only band from Florida. One of only 12 in the nation. And they’d done it on their first try.

But in the minutes before the Striking Cobras’ first home game this season, Kim Firth, one of the dozens of band parents, is simply glad they’ve managed to replace the drums before the duct tape gave out.

Black electrical tape holds together a tuba for a band member in The Park Vista High School Performers. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The road to the Macy’s Day Parade, as it turns out, isn’t paved with confetti.

It is sweaty and sunburn-inducing, requires perseverance, detours through heartbreak and devours no small amount of cold hard cash – about $400,000 of it.

The Performers — as this combo band, dance and drill team is called — have been planning and fundraising ever since that fateful visit in 2017. With half a dozen Friday nights to go, the grown-ups estimate they’ve got the cost of student travel covered, but there’s still the matter of getting tubas, xylophones and the like to the Big Apple. FedEx proved cost-prohibitive.

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And some of those instruments? The drummers got an upgrade, thanks to an anonymous donor, but several big brass pieces remain dinged, corroded or held together with, yes, tape — black electrical tape.

The students have survived a summer of parking lot practices — the football field is reserved, for, well, football. They’ve put in 12-hour Saturdays, too, learning this year’s show — the one judges at competitions will see. They’ve memorized dozens of formations and reams of music tailored specifically to them. Their parents have toiled, too, repairing equipment, troubleshooting logistics and constructing props. (Twelve-foot-high, three-dimensional Roman numerals aren’t built in a day.)

Together, they will be polishing and adding to this 8½-minute performance into mid-October.

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The Macy’s Day Parade? That’s an entirely different show to produce — though a giant number one will certainly make the trip. Band director Patrick Duncan isn’t focused on that yet. Those plans will have to simmer for a couple more weeks.

When Park Vista High opened west of Boynton Beach in 2004, no one had their sights set on Macy’s — yet. Not that it couldn’t be done.

Two other Palm Beach County high school bands have marched into Herald Square: Lake Worth High in 1974 and Jupiter High in 1989. Drill team kids from other schools have gone, too, but not with an entire school band in tow.

As new schools must, Park Vista started from scratch. Drawing from Wellington High’s old boundaries, it didn’t even have a senior class — those students didn’t make the move with their neighbors. The band’s uniforms and a baby grand piano came courtesy of a $65,000 contribution from then-County Commissioner Burt Aaronson.

The band was lucky; the Macy’s gig falls in the year that a fresh wardrobe was already in the budget cycle. Other timing wasn’t so great: The uniforms were still at the factory when they stepped onto the field for their first competition last month.

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Some who earned it won't go

For the juniors and seniors of 2017, the invite was bittersweet.

They’d earned the ticket, taking the band to three state titles and a top five ranking in the southeastern U.S., but they graduated before they could grab their two minutes of fame in front of Macy’s grandstands.

Along the way, the band director of more than a decade, the man who gave The Performers their name and whose vision had gotten them this far, Aaron Snipes, announced he’d be leaving. Just two months after the invitation arrived, the band — and alumni – gathered in the parking lot to bid farewell with a rendition of “Ave Maria” that he had written for them.

Tears flowed. And the challenge was on. They needed a new band director to take them not only through the 2017-18 season but also onto the Macy’s stage.

Who knew they’d find someone who once held a backstage pass?

Band director Patrick Duncan gives instructions to The Performers. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

Patrick Duncan took up the trumpet in fifth grade. He played in the marching band in high school.

At some point, the Florida native figured he’d become a dentist — high school band directing is demanding and far from lucrative. Duncan wasn’t sure the job was a good fit for someone intent on raising a family.

But Duncan’s studies landed him at Auburn University, where the director of bands had a side hustle of sorts: He was a director of The Great American Marching Band, which fills its ranks from high schools across the country. And as his student, Duncan’s Thanksgivings became working holidays.

“I worked the parade four years in a row. One year, my last with them, I wrote all of the formations that they did,” Duncan recalled. “I got to see how the Macy’s parade worked.”

The call to direct a high school band proved irresistible. And in 2017, as Snipes was saying goodbye, Duncan was at a smaller high school on Florida’s west coast – and in Park Vista’s sights.

All agreed it would be a good fit. Duncan liked their style. He knew many of the other pro advisers involved in The Performers’ success. Taking a high school band to Macy’s parade was on his bucket list, and Park Vista was already on its way.

The Park Vista High School Performers perform at their first competition of the year at Boca Raton High School Sept. 29. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

“I’ve known people who’ve gone for years and not gotten selected,” Duncan said. “So that was part of it. But what really drew me to Park Vista is the potential. The ceiling is just so high.”

The one hitch — The Performers would have to perform that fall with a new director who literally was phoning it in, while closing out his time with his current band. The band’s various consultants — consider them the equivalent of a football team’s assistant coaches — held strong. The band’s student leaders did, too.

“It was done beautifully and with a lot of grace,” said Dan Kellman, whose saxophone-playing son is now a senior.

“A lot of it was set in motion by the way Mr. Snipes exited. He gave a lot of good advice. There was sadness and a little bit of anxiety, because, ‘Now what?’ It’s change,” Kellman said.

“Mr. Duncan sure stepped up. Different isn’t always bad. It’s just different.”

As Edrick Rhodes, the man in charge of the district’s arts and music education, sees it, the band changed hands, “but they did not miss a beat.”

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Two minutes in front of Macy's

Macy’s parade, after all, is more than a parade; it’s a dream come true for most anyone who’s ever stepped in time in a high school band.

“Macy’s is just a whole different category. Millions of people watch that,” said the band’s lead drum major, senior Jason Brooks.

“Every year, we watch it,” agrees trumpet player and the band’s student executive officer Faith Southwick. “I’m hoping for snow. I’m a Pittsburgh baby. We moved here in 2010, so I’m hoping for snow.”

Onalee Rathjens practices with the color guard of The Performers. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

A sophomore in the band’s color guard, Onalee Rathjens is more than eager to sacrifice her family’s parade-watching-over-pancakes tradition for the chance to toss, catch and march on national TV. Her older brother, a senior who plays trumpet, will be there, too.

The band will be in mid-competition season before it pivots to the Macy’s performance, one that will take them from Central Park to Herald Square somewhere between 9 a.m. and noon Thanksgiving Day.

The airline tickets are reserved. But the cymbals, the sousaphones — every musical instrument the students play — and more than 230 uniforms will travel Interstate 95 in a semi.

The Park Vista High School Performers stretch while waiting to perform at their first competition of the year in September. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

On Thanksgiving Day, parade-watchers gather as early as 6 a.m., but the Park Vista crew will have been awake for hours. Reuniting with their instruments, they will do a full rehearsal by 3 a.m. Duncan expects the band will be playing pop and holiday tunes along the 2.5-mile route, but the real performance happens in front of Macy’s flagship store, where The Performers will have less than two minutes to shine for millions.

In 1989, the Jupiter High Warriors practiced in a blizzard at 2:25 a.m. and weathered 30-degree temperatures to march through the first Thanksgiving Day snowstorm the parade had seen in 51 years.

New York in November is typically a 50-degree affair. But Duncan has seen some Macy’s parades where the saxophone players couldn’t feel their fingers despite wearing gloves, and others when they sweltered in long-sleeved uniforms under the morning glare.

And there’s no guarantee any amount of preparation will gird them to play for the throngs gathered for the nation’s foremost turkey day tradition.

When the Jupiter Warriors finally arrived in Herald Square nearly 20 years ago, the band’s performance stuttered due to timing issues at the network. It was a minor flaw that left the band feeling temporarily defeated and deflated but, as it turns out, was not captured on camera, according to a Palm Beach Post account of the day.

The Park Vista High School Performers practice their marching in the school parking lot Sept. 25. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

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Hours of practice on pavement

The band isn’t only about that moment.

“I’m excited to see what we can do this season now that we have all the wheels turning,” Faith says on lunch break from a daylong practice that makes snow on Thanksgiving seem like a distant mirage.

Onalee, a nearly lifelong dancer, wanted to be part of the band for years after her older brother got there first.

Brother and sister live outside of Park Vista’s boundaries, so Onalee’s ticket was getting into the school’s medical magnet. But color guard is her passion.

A decade of dance experience helped her land a spot in the band. But, it’s taken awhile to master the art of the “catch.” (Students of the color guard are the ultimate multitaskers. They throw rifles and the like spinning into the air and then snatch them out of the air while walking to a beat in patterns only a bumblebee — or a band director — could appreciate.)

Tiffany Wu (center) and Kate Le (right) play games during a rain delay before their first band competion of the year in Boca Raton Sept. 29. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

And while practices can stretch for hours of military precision, they can also dissolve into silliness with a snack break comparison of tan lines, or it can erupt in friendly competition.

Who can raise the most pocket change for props in the next month? The sole losers in this competition? Band leadership. At the top, Mr. Duncan, who promised to roam the school’s hallways in whatever outfit the winners concoct.

The only ground rule, according to sophomore Kayla Toussaint and her pals on a break days before the start of the school year: “He said, ‘No shorts. Nothing see-through.’”

In the end, Duncan was spared, though they came “VERY” close by his account. Instead, the drum majors and captains roamed the school grounds as superheroes and gender-bent cheerleaders.

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These parents are roadies

More than 3,000 students attend Park Vista. Some 230 of them march in the band.

“We are a huge band. It’s hard for us to come in subtly. When we roll, we’re five buses,” notes Faith’s mom, Eileen Southwick.

More precisely, five coach buses, two 26-foot box trucks and one semitrailer.

When pro bands travel, they have roadies. When The Performers travel, they have parents.

As is common with big high school bands, the parents have organized a booster club of sorts, electing leaders, appointing tasks. Southwick is vice president. Lenny Brooks is president. There’s a director for equipment and another for food, as well as coordinators for chaperones and volunteers, another for uniforms.

There’s someone who handles events and even a parent who deals with the BB&T Center in Broward — because when parents volunteer at concessions there, they earn money for the band here. (The parents call this fundraising; the BB&T Center gets to call it a legit tax write-off — the pay to volunteers is instead a donation to charity.)

The percussion section and the color guard also have parent coordinators.

On game nights, and when the school hosts its annual Park Vista Striking Cobra Invitational, parent Luis Cowan is front and center.

Parents sell food at a home game at Park Vista High School to raise money for The Performers. The band needed to raise $400,000 to pay fall of their expenses going to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

A home game has the potential to raise about $500 off fried Oreo cookies and similar fare from the patch of grass just south of the football team’s brick-and-mortar concession stand. Cowan moves into that stand for the Invitational — when more than 20 South Florida bands compete. The Invitational earns up to $50,000.

Cowan, serving his second tour as a band parent with daughter No. 2, is perfectly suited for the task.

“We call Mr. Duncan, the band director, our fearless leader, and this is our ‘fearless feeder,’” says Kim Firth.

Cowan spent a career as a Publix bakery manager and became a banker when it became apparent he needed banker’s hours instead of baker’s hours.

During summer camp, Cowan cooked burgers, ordered pizzas and delivered subs. Before the season’s opening home game, Cowan was the one to serve up 180 Chick-fil-A sandwiches. The kids go through 750 bottles of water per game.

He’s landed donations from Publix and Trader Joe’s. And still, it seems every parent meeting starts with a call for donated H2O.

Of course, the band needs to be watered, fed and funded. But these parents also provide the sweat equity to make the performance pop.

The Park Vista High School Performers practice while waiting to perform at their first competition of the year at Boca Raton High Sept. 29. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

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Quite a bit of theater

Some marching bands are very traditional. Others dance to their rhythms. Park Vista’s show is more akin to performance art.

Two years ago, the show was titled “DespAIRadise.” The nearly 12-minute bit of theater opens in a noxious dystopia in which the pit crew on xylophones and marimbas begin wearing gas masks, an ominous cloud spills out from under a bridge erected at the 15-yard line, and performers writhe on the grass. On the opposite 30-yard line stands a larger-than-life flower bud whose petals unfold as Mother Nature rises to the rescue, sunflowers in hand. The flag corps sheds monochrome for color.

“I did the mechanics of that prop. I wired it up. There was another guy in charge of props back then named Dan Moss. He was amazing,” says Kellman. “Two 12-volt deep-cycle batteries, a smaller battery running the winch. We had two inverters for a total of 1,500 watts worth of power,” he ticks off his work. As for the pod’s aesthetics: “I did not make it pretty.”

This year the theme is “In Due Time.”

Moss is gone, but Kellman has risen to the helm with plenty of power-tool owning parents in his outdoor workshop — er, tented parking lot.

“Having watched previous years on YouTube, I was amazed how elaborate the props were,” said Daryl Haughn, whose trumpet-playing son is now a sophomore in the band.

Haughn failed to heed his wife’s advice to pace himself and perhaps not mention he’s an architect when volunteering with the group.

Parents unload a prop for The Park Vista High School Performers’ first competition of the season in Boca Raton. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

“I jumped in headfirst,” Haughn said. And now, after knocking down Roman numeral V and X and so many other numeric references, he’s on to the number 7 and wishing that when it comes time to take the “1” to New York that they could at least tie the wheeled beast to Bart Simpson and let the balloon do all the tugging.

Instead, that job will rotate among crews of students, parents and staff.

The volunteer bench is deep and someone could’ve mechanized the thing, but that’s against Macy’s rules.

And Macy’s is the one thing on everyone’s mind.

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Video of the Park Vista marching band

GALLERY

Photographs of the Park Vista marching band

“In these two minutes, we’ll play for more people than we will in any other capacity all season,” Duncan says. Some 10,000 to 20,000 folks will watch Park Vista perform at a football game or competition this season, he estimates. “Once it hits live TV? Millions.”

By Macy’s calculations, more than 3.5 million people in New York City and another 50 million at home watch the parade.

Rhodes, the guy bragging on this band from district headquarters, began in the band. He, too, was a band director who harbored dreams of Thanksgiving parades. “We applied when I was in West Boca High, and we made the alternate list. It is a very difficult and strenuous process, so to be selected as a Macy’s Day participant is a big deal.” The band beat out more than 100 other applicants, Macy’s reports. “This is a big moment for our district.”

Prop master Kellman, dad of an Atlantic High band graduate, another in Park Vista’s band now and a third son headed for the ranks next year, sees something bigger at play.

“As extraordinary as this program is, the lessons you get, the things you learn are the same in any band,” Kellman said. “They learn teamwork and others before self.” They also can make friends for life. “I did marching band when I was in high school and I still keep in touch with my buddies.”

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Want to help?

To donate to the Park Vista High School marching band go to the bands website parkvistaband.com or mail a check made payable to the Park Vista Band to: Park Vista High School, 7900 Jog Road, Lake Worth, FL 33467

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