On December 28, almost 400 students, teachers, and chaperones will march onto a plane early in the morning and head to Pasadena, California. At three AM, the group will hike up the steps of school buses, drive to the airport, go through security, get back on buses, and board a chartered plane.
The band and its entourage, which equals about two-and-a-half percent of all people who live in Niceville’s city limits, have a chartered plane that will move the passengers, their instruments, banners, silks, uniforms, and clothes across the country so the group can participate in the nationally televised Rose Bowl Parade on New Year’s Day, 2024. They will join in the float-laden parade with bands from across the world, including Japan and Costa Rica.
On the evening of December 18 and every day until the 28th, they practice their formations, stepping, and music to ensure perfection. Band Director Dan Wooten, who’s had three bands march in Rose Bowl Parades with the Eagles, has a 41-year career in music education. On this cold evening in the last gasp of fall – he hollers, jokes, points and otherwise directs his charges through their paces.
How does he feel?
“Scared,” Wooten chirped, “They are 13-18 year olds. Wouldn’t that scare you? There’s some things that I don’t worry about this time that I did the other times. And there are things I worry about this time that I didn’t the other times.”
But he’s also hopeful. The kids in sweaters, jackets, beanies, and boots give him hope for a future that is much more than that of the marching band. Their selflessness and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good of the unit stirs something in the veteran bandmaster. “They’ve given themselves over to something bigger than themselves, and that’s not the society we live in anymore,” Wooten said, “That whole World War Two, ‘we’re all in it together mentality.’ Those people, those people’s kids, are gone. This is very much an individual accomplishment in the society we live in – and Niceville is no exception to that. Except, when these guys commit to each other, they do it like the old days. So, watching them be a part of something way bigger than them… That’s probably the most fun for an old guy like me.”
The band practices marching on the track surrounding the on-campus football field at Niceville High School. A cascade of brass instruments reflects the stadium lights in the cold, (otherwise) quiet night. At the front of the band – a maroon sign the school will march with that tells the world who they are and where they are from. The majorettes twirl their batons immediately behind it. Instruments follow next – then the color guard with neon pink silk flags that flutter and snap as the kids twist them in time as they mouth ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight’ to themselves to stay in rhythm.
After a march, band members move to the football field. Senior Drum Major Quinnlyn Holsinger steps up the tall aluminum ladder to her position as the student band leader. She has most of her classes this semester at Northwest Florida State College – so she has few exams. This band’s success consumes her energies – until the afternoon of January 1.
“It’s a lot to think about. Going all the way over to California, playing in front of millions of people on national television and the people in the stands, it’s a little intimidating, but I’m also really excited. I have some of the best people in the band to share the experience with,” Holsing said, “I just want people to knowh this experience means to us.”
Junior saxophonist Jacob Milz agrees. “I’m really excited; I’m kind of nervous. I think things are coming along quite well,” Milz said, “I feel like seeing ourselves on national TV in front of millions of people is going to be absolutely breathtaking.”
But, as you can imagine, 250 band members, 28 chaperones, 21 staff members, and 79 friends and family members don’t travel light.
The band has a parent who heads up the logistics for this trip – and he says it’s like planning an operation for the military. Lots of moving parts – and lots can go wrong.
Chaperones need to know where all 250 students are at all times. The students have a uniform of the day – so no one goes missing, “and so we know if someone is goofing off whether it’s one of ours,” a parent with a laugh that reminds you these students are – after all – 13 to 18-year-olds.
They also need to ensure they have all students’ instruments, batons, flags, stands, marching uniforms, food, water – the list goes on. Students will get off the plane, march, and hop back on the plane, too. The group wants to make the most of the roughly $3,300-per-person ticket price. The Eagle Band has a six-day itinerary in Southern California, which includes a trip to an amusement park, a hockey game, a band exhibition, dinner on the Queen Mary cruise ship, and more. It’s no small task, and an army of volunteers must make it happen.
“28 people have given up their Christmas and New Year’s to make this happen,” said Head Chaperone Kim Hodges, “There are going to be two points when I cry: When I see them coming down the road, and when the wheels on the plane go up as we take off.”
The names of the bands who will march on New Year’s Day, 2024, were announced almost two years ago. Since then, the school’s band boosters have engaged in fundraising mode to get about $1.25 Million to pull off the trip to the Rose Bowl.
Doug Woodley, the parent president of the Niceville Eagle Pride Booster Association, led those efforts and successfully raised the capital to make the trip happen, provide scholarships for kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to go, provide discounts to chaperones and work out payment with the travel company who will ferry the band back and forth to Pasadena.
The boosters raised money from sponsors, parents, drives, and other fundraisers to make their goal – and were helped out by something outside their control, the additional revenues brought in by extra football games at home this year. The football team had nine home games (including a playoff game) this year, where a school will typically have five.
“It’s been a non-stop effort. The final fundraiser just finished, right at the finish line,” Woodley said.
An effort that the band leader says matters to the community and the band members. “We appreciate the interest, the community here,” said Band Director Wooten, “Every time we’ve done this, or Macy’s Day Parade, or the Fiesta Bowl, or we’ve played Carnegie Hall, or at the Kennedy Center, the community gets behind us. I’ll walk down the aisles of the grocery store, and I’ll have someone… walk up and say, ‘I’m so glad you are going back [to the Rose Bowl]. It’s the sense of community.”