December 31st, 2012
07:08 PM ET

American, Chinese marching bands unite for Rose Parade

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - Some 20 years ago, when Troy Gunter was a new band director, he had the crazy idea that his high school students should someday march in the Rose Parade.

It’s a lofty goal for any band. The annual march through Pasadena began in 1890 and evolved into a New Year’s Day spectacle of music, flowers and football watched by 700,000 along the route and 39 million more on TV.

Gunter's school, Valley Christian High School in San Jose, California, grew from a few hundred kids to more than a thousand. The private school's marching band ballooned to about 150 students and evolved into the school's Conservatory of the Arts. Over the years, the marching band took on more competitions, longer parades and overseas travel.

A few years ago, when Gunter and the band returned from a trip to Cambodia, an idea struck: Why not apply to the Rose Parade now, with an international partner?

Problem was, they didn’t really know any overseas bands. They weren’t sure how they could practice together, let alone organize for the grandest stage a high school marching band can reach.

With the 2013 parade deadline looming, they got in touch with Beijing’s No. 57 High School. The band’s director, Lu Jin, was familiar with the Rose Parade, and his band had played a few major events, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“Through a contact of a contact of a contact, we got together,” Gunter said. “It was like a blind date.”

Without ever meeting, Gunter, who doesn’t speak Chinese, and Lu Jin, who doesn’t speak English, agreed to go for it.

Students said it felt like a long shot at best. They knew more than 70 bands had applied for spots in the 2013 parade, bands that were bigger, bands that had appeared in the parade before, bands that didn't have to leap a language barrier just to rehearse.

But the Valley Christian High School East-West Fusion All-Star Band got in.

The bands rehearsed together last week for the first time since April.

Twenty-one bands will be marching in the Rose Parade on Tuesday. They come from Pasadena and nearby Los Angeles; from Lexington, Kentucky, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Orange City, Iowa; Japan, Mexico and El Salvador. New Orleans-based Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, founded by 2009 Top 10 CNN Hero Derrick Tabb, will be marching.

Each submitted long applications and performance DVDs in hopes of being selected. Those chosen spent more than a year choosing and rehearsing music, mapping a sharp 105-degree turn and coaching members to march 6 miles without fainting.

This year’s theme: “Oh, the places you’ll go!

“It’s a call to action, take charge of your life and follow your bliss. Sometimes, that would cause you to make unconventional chances,” Tournament of Roses President Sally Bixby said of the Dr. Seuss-inspired choice.

Bixby couldn’t remember another case when U.S. and international bands filed a joint application. The idea so intrigued the parade organizers that she joined the Valley Christian band when it traveled to Beijing last April, when they first met.

The early rehearsals in Beijing were rough, by all accounts. Translators helped, but they weren’t musicians. Marching band vocabulary and high school jargon fell to students like Felicia Fang, a senior flutist who served as Valley Christian's field show drum major this year. Her parents grew up in China, and her family often speaks Chinese at home.

“I wasn’t sure how we’d be able to join together and form one working band. We had to group the instruments together, figure out the names of the instruments in Chinese. Should we have the American band sitting first? The Chinese band?” Felicia said. “In the end, we kind of sat down and worried about that later.”

Playing music was the easy part. Rehearsals might take a different tone, and marching might require a new step, but adding 100 musicians to a band always makes it better, she said.

“The volume was great. That’s when we started to get excited,” Felicia said. “If we can march with that great of a sound, why wouldn’t you want to?”

Combined, the U.S. and Chinese bands have more than 240 members.

On the Valley Christian band’s last day in Beijing - its last hours, really - something shifted. The temperature had skyrocketed as the bands posed for photos in their heavy blue uniforms. They were exhausted and overheated, and finally, they had a moment of unscheduled time to hang out, to talk -  or translate and wave hands wildly to make their points.

The students, staff and parents all saw it happening: Students hugging, students playing basketball, students laughing and exchanging email addresses. One student brought Felicia a bag of Chinese snacks to take home to her parents, little treats her fellow flutist thought they might miss.

“When you’re at your weakest, you’re really tired, really hot, you’ve really studied hard, your inhibitions go,” Felicia said. “Band kids are band kids.”

It hasn't felt so simple since then. The Valley Christian band was on summer break, then immersed in its fall field show. Each band independently rehearsed its Rose Parade music, a new arrangement of “Shenandoah,” a traditional American tune, and “Jasmine Flower,” a Chinese folk song. The color guard in San Jose sent videos of their flag routine to the Chinese band and hoped for the best.

"Patience is the word," said Kathryn Read, one of the army of parents who raised money for the China trip who was on hand to find gloves and serve food for the combined band.

“I certainly saw a growth in (students) being able to connect with the music, to understand other cultures love to do the same thing they do, and put in the hard work that they do,” said Read, whose son and daughter are marching in the parade. “They have an understanding, even if they can’t talk to each other.”

The U.S. color guard sent videos of the routine to the Chinese guard.

The bands finally met again last week, when 105 students from Beijing No. 57 arrived in California for a few more days of rehearsals and a schedule packed with performances. They have more in common than they realized at first, said Brooke Read, a color guard captain.

“You don’t need words to express what you want accomplished. You do it more in your actions and body language, being able to show and do, not yelling at them, talking at them” said Brooke, who will be the featured twirler during Tuesday’s parade.

“Leaders don’t always need words. They need actions.”

Early Tuesday morning, the band from San Jose and the band from Beijing will meet at the bus at 5:45 a.m. and travel to the starting point for the Rose Parade. The music will be memorized, the feet in step, the flag flourishes in sync. The bands will wear matching uniforms – Valley Christian in light blue, Beijing No. 57 in red – and they’ll spread into a parade block by instrument, not by country or band director.

Brooke Read will be toward the front, her dress speckled with 400 rhinestones. The parade is the ultimate reward for her senior year,  for her band director's long-ago dream, for the 240 kids who learned to speak without words.

From the first note, the first step, she knows she’ll be thinking something still hard to believe: “This is my band.”

All of them.

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Filed under: High school • International students • Music
soundoff (55 Responses)
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    January 7, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
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  3. Chris in MN

    This group was so much fun to see in the parade! Proof positive that music is the international language. My son was in marching band for 4 years in high school – I never met a better group of kids. Well behaved, well spoken, no conflicts. They were all hard working & dedicated to being the best they could be. Politicians could take a lesson from all of these kids.

    January 2, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • Andy

      Chris, your last sentence was so right. These 'kids' perform and behave like adults ... it'll be a great day when the majority of our elected officials can do the same.

      January 2, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
  4. bonjourno

    what beautiful people and flower displays and still going strong after 124 years

    January 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  5. CNNENewEngland

    This is great to see. I marched with Londonderry High School Marching Band and Colorguard, over 320 strong in China for the pre-olympic festivitals in 2008. One day on our trip we were able to perform for a high school in Beijing and then they performed for us. I wonder if it was the same. Our school was later fortunate enough to perform in the Rose Bowl 4 years later. It was the 4th time for our school. A great experience all around. This collaboration will be amazing for the participants.

    January 2, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  6. OvernOut

    One of my kids participated in an audition video for the Rose Parade. There are three high schools in our district, they combined all three bands to make the video. They almost made it, lost in the final cut, they will have to try again. What is left out of these events is that many kids will play for the audition, but they will not march in the parade if their band is selected, as they will have graduated by the time their band is chosen. The juniors and seniors from the audition tape will only march in the Rose Parade if they are part of the college bands from the Rose Bowl.

    January 2, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  7. Jennifer French

    I saw this performance on TV and was so pleased at how well they played and marched together. What a wonderful accomplishment! Congratulations to all of those involved!

    January 2, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  8. Martin Gray - Miami, FL

    Importing 500,000 chinese students to America would elevate the level of education in our country across the board. Much more then money. I'm all for it.

    January 1, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • Robert

      It would also skyrocket the unemployment rate dummy. I hope you feel smart now

      January 2, 2013 at 4:25 am |
      • kevinshomeremedies

        The only problem with your statement is that these would be students. Most won't be looking for a job, especially if they are coming overseas to focus on education. Plus higher education is proven to lower unemployment and cause economic balance. So although it would have some temporary downfalls, I think the benefits of importing 500,000 students would eventually bring America to a higher level all together.

        January 11, 2013 at 3:59 am |
  9. RealAmerican

    This is it folks. This is how it begins.

    This is likely a covert Chinese plot to sneak saboteurs into America. If this becomes a regular event, the Chinese will use it to sneak hundreds, if not thousands of special operations onto American soil.

    This will be the precursor to a full scale invasion. The saboteurs will arrive hidden inside the bass drums, and will escape shortly after arriving in America. Once they have enough critical mass, likely in a few years, they will launch their operations.

    Don't say I didn't tell you so.

    January 1, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • RealAmerican

      Might I also add that all parents of girls should be especially mindful their children don't get kidnapped and whisked away to China during this event. We all know the male to female ratio in China. Don't kid yourselves.

      January 1, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
      • AnotherRedBloodedOne

        Not only that, but they're probably going to steal the plans for our trombones and start turning out cheap knockoffs the minute they get back to the People's Republic. Sure, they SAY they can't speak English but that is obviously a ruse to get red-blooded American kids to inadvertently give away our baton twirling secrets. This so called "co-operation" is probably a precursor to the godless red hordes from the East swarming ashore to take over southern California and forcibly "re-educate" the residents of gated communities into becoming rice farmers on communes even now being established in the Central Valley.

        January 1, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
      • Michael Winston

        Clearly you don't know WHY there are fewer females in China. D'oh.

        January 3, 2013 at 8:31 am |
    • HK

      Paranoid!

      January 1, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • Herbert

      You're one crazy MoFo

      January 1, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • An American

      Troll.

      January 1, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
    • Snacklefish

      WOLVERINES!!!

      January 2, 2013 at 9:28 am |
      • OvernOut

        SPARTANS!

        January 2, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • The Greeks voce

      know that you made this comment in jest. America needs leaders like you..Shame on you for ringing politics into this..I was in Korea during the war and had they known that we are not enemies it would not have happened and people on both sides getting killed. You are probably sitting on your ass and nothing to do..Grow up. start traveling around the world and your thinking will mature..I am a senior .

      January 3, 2013 at 3:03 am |
  10. Sean

    I really hate how some medias brand China. Remember the advertisement on a Chinese telling the Chinese crowd about the downfall of America? How many politicians like to hang around their mouth: We owe the Chinese.... 8% of the debt is owned to the Chinese.... the rest? Other countries and the majority... US! Keep it honest.

    January 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  11. Michael

    This only shows that we dont need formal language or cultural training to get on with our fellows. We only need the will. I can only imagine if 25% of the world made this kind of conscientious effort, what a place this would be!

    January 1, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  12. ScottCA

    In regards to China's diplomaatic relations this really won't matter much unless the sentiment will rally the Chinese people to disaude their government from Agreessively bullying their neighbors with their armed forces in attempts to expand their territory and seize islands.
    That the world sits back and lets china bully Taiwan and other neighbors is shameful, but far worse is what they are allowed to continue doing to the Tibetian people.

    January 1, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Ruby

      The longest journey in the world begins with the first step. Let us hope this is such a step.

      January 1, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • Kenny

      ...and supposed we haven't done so ourself? Right, we just go to wars to kill the 'bad guys' for no reason.

      January 1, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • Jeremy

      Way to turn this story into something political... I don't remember reading anything about the governments of China and the US in this story. It's a story of people overcoming language and cultural barriers to work together as one marching band, not governments working together to play the Rose Bowl. Politics does not have to be in everything and it definitely was not in this story.

      January 1, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
      • George

        My sentiments exactly!

        January 1, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
      • HK

        Yes, I agree with you Jeremy. Thanks for posting.

        January 1, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
      • abqTim

        Agreed.

        January 2, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • knowledge is power while the opposite is most dangerous!

      This bird-man is trying to tell people how painful baby-delivery feels like just like he is saying the Chinese government is doing this and that without knowing a bit of China and its history! It is predicted that he will raise and educate his male kids into 'women' and his female kids into 'men' using this kind of mentality.

      January 1, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • scottcworden

      Please keep your politics and cynicism away. We have enough negative people in this world. This was a great story and you just urinated on it.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:21 am |
  13. lindaluttrell

    This is proof positive that everyday people can overcome obstacles and get positive things done! OK...world leaders and politicians...take note here!

    January 1, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • pingpaul

      It usually happens that way – real people from any country know instinctively that we are better together.

      January 1, 2013 at 5:59 pm |