Marching band can change your life

I was going to say it’s a fair season, but some might think I mean that summer is not the excellent season it usually is. What I should say is it’s an exhibition season but that sort of implies people running around exhibiting themselves, if you get my drift, which if you were going to do that, summer is definitely the right time for exhibition. How about: it’s parade season.


I was going to say it’s a fair season, but some might think I mean that summer is not the excellent season it usually is.

What I should say is it’s an exhibition season but that sort of implies people running around exhibiting themselves, if you get my drift, which if you were going to do that, summer is definitely the right time for exhibition.

How about: it’s parade season.

That works. On account of we just had our yearly parade this week to kick off our yearly Fair, which — coincidentally — is also known as an Exhibition.

I like parades. Although these days it seems to me many parades aren’t the grand extravaganzas that they used to be.

Nowadays there are maybe a couple of floats, one or two of clowns (also some people dressed up as clowns), some big noisy street sweepers following a few horses who are actively leaving road muffins behind them, a little posse of aging Shriners running over people’s feet in their tiny cars, and mostly, endless businesses advertising stuff and reams and reams of real estate agents and politicians waving from vehicles.

Also, thank goodness, there are some marching bands — fewer than their used to be, but still a couple wonderfully loud and colourful musical marchers to rouse even the most blasé parade watcher.

King-sized kudos to our own musical mavens, the Royals, who for over 40 years now have been making us proud, marching (literally) all over the world, blatting, tooting, thumping and paradiddling their way to awards and making friends from Australia to Ireland.

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working in various musical productions with some of the former directors of the Royals — Jigger, Keith, Rob — stellar gentlemen and wonderful musicians whose real gift was that of mentoring, guiding and making music with young people, and in the process, changing their young lives for the better.

My own rotten kid — the son one — was a proud (and tall) member of this elite group, marching, clarinetting and saxophoning all over the planet.

He billeted with a family that spoke only Italian (this was in Italy, I believe), stayed with a household of Aussies who really did put shrimp on the bar-bie (this was in Australia, I believe), and lived with about a hundred bandmates in various school gymnasiums during the big parades like the Calgary Stampede and Capital Ex. (I’ll bet the ole gym air was a wee bit rank and rare after a few days of the Royal invasion.)

With faraway eyes he still relives the finale of a big show in Europe.

It was the late night after a long hot exhausting day of performances and parades, and the band was on a huge field in a huge open-air stadium full of people.

They reached the big finish of their high energy performance, nailing the last note and whirling around to snap into a final pattern pose and to everyone’s surprise the organizers, with perfect timing, launched a booming explosion of fireworks.

A heart-flipping, soul-stirring spectacle filling the night sky, surrounding these kids from small-city Alberta as the crowd leapt to its feet.

The cheering and clapping and hooting and yelling standing ovation for a bunch of talented, hard-working Canadian teenagers went on and on as the fireworks celebrated the moment with breath-taking sound and fury and goose-bump beauty.

Now that’s something that can change a kid’s life — or in the case of a marching band a world away from home — change about 100 kids’ lives.

Like son, like father.

A marching band changed mine, too. It was way back when this city didn’t even have a mall.

When the escalators at The Bay downtown were a big attraction. When a marching band was called the Optimist Drum and Bugle Corps, and we wore golden silk shirts and white boat captain hats and weren’t even embarrassed.

For that little hoard of a couple of dozen bank geeks whose idea of marching was to stumble more or less in the same direction at the same time and who took all winter and spring to learn a barely recognizable version of When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, a big-time band trip to us was to the Rocky Mountain House Fair parade.

And we even gigged in Camrose once, which seemed as far away as Australia.

I still remember a big hill by a park with swans in a pond on account of that’s where I almost passed out from lugging around the golden tenor drum that was about the same size I was.

But my firework peak experience moment came not in Europe, but in a place pretty nearly as exotic to our little “Opti-Corps” — Sylvan Lake. We were doing our version of “marching” along Lakeshore Drive, playing our proud version of The Saints like there was no tomorrow.

There was a nice big crowd along the parade route and they were clapping for us, and we were stumbling along more or less in formation playing our hearts out, just passing by the old boathouse and the old wooden pier and suddenly from nowhere a terrific roar drowned us out and from over the lake and out of the sky appeared like a flash, the most incredible sight.

Six massive golden jet planes, flying a perfect V came right over us, so close you could almost touch them, roaring and shining and sparkling in the air like fireworks.

I had never been to an air show; I didn’t even know about the Golden Hawks — the Canadian military precision flying team and precursor to the Snowbirds — so when those amazing machines turned, changed formation and screamed back over the parade, me and my drum almost fell over. I think the entire trumpet section nearly swallowed their mouthpieces and it was all we could do to hit the last big note of The Saints as those Golden Hawks boomed a majestic sonic boom right over us, right on cue.

It was a pure and magical moment that still sends chills up this aging spine.

Life-changing. A parade can do that. A marching band can do that.

No wonder everybody loves a parade.

Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.

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