I’m going to be up front with you and tell you that the person I interviewed for this story is a relative of mine. He’s my nephew, 18-year-old Luke Canrobert, the son of Charlie and Jenny Canrobert, both of Newton.
Currently a freshman at Western Carolina University, Luke did something on Thanksgiving Day that not that many people — relatively speaking — get to do. He and more than 500 of his WCU Pride of the Mountains Marching Band mates marched in the 2019 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
How cool is that! Luke’s family was so excited. We’d been informed that the band would appear on TV around 11:30 a.m. My husband and I couldn’t be in front of the TV at that time, so we recorded the parade.
With much pride and anticipation, we viewed the footage, looking as closely as possible for Luke, a saxophonist, among the throng of WCU marchers. The woodwinds were toward the rear. We crept closer to the TV, straining to see our guy. Nope, couldn’t see him. We replayed the recording, nearly pressing our noses against the TV screen. Still couldn’t see him.
It was just too hard to distinguish faces under the elaborate shakos — fancy military-style hats.
After the parade, we enjoyed a few FaceTime moments with Luke. His grandmother, Shirley Canrobert, suggested that he wear a Where’s Waldo? shirt the next time his band appeared on TV. The red and white stripes would stand out in a crowd of white, purple, and gold uniforms. I thought a lit sparkler attached to the top of Luke’s shako would be just as effective.
Luke didn’t seem inclined to heed such advice.
I wondered what it was like traveling to New York with hundreds of fellow band members and then playing one’s horn while marching in a parade that’s been a national favorite for 93 years.
I got the chance for a lengthy conversation with Luke three days later.
Before continuing, let me share some of Luke’s backstory. He joined the Newton-Conover Middle School band, playing the sax, when he was in the sixth grade. During his freshman year at Newton-Conover High School, Luke played the bassoon. During grades 10 to 12, he was the drum major. His director was Haskew Smith. Luke said that from grade 10 on, he was sure he wanted to become a high school band director. At WCU, he’s double majoring in music education and bassoon.
To become a member of the Pride of the Mountains, Luke had to attend a training camp during the summer of 2019 and send two videos to WCU band director David Starnes: one of Luke playing “The Star-Spangled Banner;” the other of him marching.
An email inviting Luke to band camp and formally asking him to become a part of the Western Carolina band program arrived in July. A mere four months later, Luke and the band headed to New York.
According to marching.com, “Band directors are invited to submit an application along with a video of a field marching performance to the Macy’s Band Selection Committee. Applicants are thoroughly reviewed and decisions are made by early May, approximately 18 months in advance of the invited bands’ appearance.”
This was the second time in five years that the Pride of the Mountains had made the cut and marched in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Every Wednesday for weeks, the band rehearsed “what we did on TV for one minute and 45 seconds,” said Luke. What they did was play rock band Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi.
They also practiced marching “as if in New York,” Luke described.
The band, including its technical crew, and 300 parents, alumni, and WCU chancellor Dr. Kelli R. Brown, headed to New York. Band members filled 10 charter buses, making the trip in 16 hours. They arrived on the night of Nov. 23. Their lodging was a Renaissance hotel in New Jersey.
On Nov. 24, band members boarded their buses for a riding tour of New York City.
Nov. 25 was a “free day,” said Luke. “We got dropped off [in the city], and we had the whole day to ourselves.” Luke and some of his pals went to Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Empire State Building. The day concluded with watching the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.
Nov. 26 included a trip to the highest point in New York City, One World Observatory in One World Trade Center. From the vantage point of the center’s 100th floor, Luke “looked out on the city’s skyline,” he reported.
Next was a visit to the 911 Memorial Museum. Said Luke, “It was humbling and very mournful. It was very silent.”
The band ended the evening of the 26th at the Broadway musical “Wicked.” Luke insisted that there could be no way I had seen any show as great as “Wicked.”
“The ‘Wicked’ cast gave the Pride of the Mountains a shout-out that night,” Luke announced, saying the congratulations came at the end of the performance.
Rehearsing resumed on Nov. 27 when the band went to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, “where the Jets and the Giants play,” Luke pointed out, and practiced playing and marching in the parking lot. A lunch cruise on the Hudson River followed.
Even college students visiting the Big Apple know when an early bedtime is a no-brainer — like when they have to, as Luke explained “be on the bus, dressed, instrument uncased at 2:45 a.m.” the next day — Thanksgiving Day. “The only reason I was awake was because I was excited,” Luke stated.
The WCU band practiced once more, this time at 4:10 a.m., an assigned rehearsal slot so they could go over their presentation in the location where they’d be on TV during the parade. Afterward, the band ate breakfast at the world’s largest Applebee’s and then waited for the parade to start.
Once en route, the Catamounts, or Cats, as WCU students are called, performed Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band,” the school’s fight song, and drum cadences as they marched to the point where they’d stop and play for the cameras.
The band looked and sounded great.
Luke enjoyed an unexpected reward after the parade ended. Though band members had been told not to approach celebrities, Luke couldn’t stop himself when he unexpectedly came upon Jimmy Fallon, who’d been two spots ahead of the band. Said Luke, “I told him, ‘I like what you do. I love watching your show, and I hope you have a great Thanksgiving.’”
“He said, ‘Thank you. You guys sounded amazing. I hope you have a great Thanksgiving too.’”
A weary but happy WCU band was back in Cullowhee by the night of Nov. 29. They had much to be pleased about. Not only had their “Mountains to Macy’s” experience been a success, but the news was out that they will be performing next year at the Bands of America Grand National Championships finals in Indianapolis, Indiana. “Only two collegiate bands were invited,” said Charlie Canrobert. “WCU and Ohio State. [WCU] will not be competing as they will perform in exhibition, but I’m sure they want to kick OSU to the curb. Go Cats!”
Maybe there’ll be a guy wearing a Where’s Waldo? shirt and a lit sparkler on his shako.