EMORY — Just four years removed from restarting its marching band program after a 50-year absence, Emory & Henry College’s band has more than doubled in size and is now just a month away from performing on a global stage.
On Jan. 1, Emory & Henry’s band will be one of two representing the United States in a parade that fills the streets of Rome and ends in St. Peter’s Square for the pope’s New Year’s blessing.
“As a music major, it’s kind of like the cherry on top of all of it — getting to do something that you want to do for the rest of your life, but getting to do it on an international scale,” said Kaitlin Howell, a junior from Chilhowie.
Howell is one of 67 students going on the band’s seven-day trip to Rome, which includes a service project focused on people experiencing hunger and homelessness in addition to the parade performance.
The cross-Atlantic trip has been a number of years in the making, said Matthew Frederick, Emory & Henry’s associate provost of academic affairs and director of bands.
When the school revived its marching band in 2015, 43 students participated. The band has now reached 90 people — or just under 10% of the school’s undergraduate population, which its website says is 1,019 students.
“We’ve seen tremendous growth, [and] we’ve seen tremendous opportunities for students; there’s scholarships available for them. It’s turned into a really vital ... and vibrant part of the campus culture,” Frederick said.
The band regularly plays at football games, performs in exhibitions and sponsors the Chilhowie Apple Festival Band Competition. The Rome trip is a new step.
“In the past, I’ve taken students on concert trips to Germany and Austria and China, but we’ve never done anything with the marching band in terms of something big like that,” Frederick said.
After much preparation, research and fundraising, students say they are ready to perform abroad.
“We have this one piece we do in the stands for football games — it’s a tune called, ‘Hey Baby,’ and we’re going to sing it in the language there. We’re just translating it all, and I think that’s going to be fun,” said Bryant Bautista, a sophomore from Winchester.
For some students, the trip is their first experience traveling abroad.
“I often think of just being in this bubble, like Southwest Virginia as a bubble and that I sometimes forget that there are things like bigger than me and way outside not just Southwest Virginia or our state, but also our country, so it will just be cool to experience that,” said Amber Blevins of Chilhowie.
And the performance may prove to be an effective part of recruiting future students into the band.
“We’re now on the path where every four years we’re going to take a big trip like this, so if you’re in band, there is this recruiting incentive as well to it. ... You’re not just playing for home games and high school students, but you’re going to get a chance to perform for the world as well,” Frederick said.