Their popularity transcends Morgantown. Their rallying cries through melody and motion breathe a note into the hearts of music and performance lovers all across the country.
In November, the country will be able to see and hear the “Pride of West Virginia” in all its majesty as it marches in the Oscars of bands — the 2016 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — for the first time.
There’s 115 years of history that’s led up to this moment. That moment on 34th Street will mark a continuation of a legacy — a legacy shaped by a cast of characters past, present and future with a flair for the dramatic.
Pride of the present
Head drum major Tayler Morrow, a senior studying psychology and biology, bought into the legacy. She has her older sister, Adriane, a Mountaineer Marching Band member from 2000-04, to thank.
“Watching her and her friends marching in front of those huge crowds on game days really sparked my interest,” said Morrow, a Morgantown, W.Va., native. “I thought, ‘I need to get in that marching band someday.’”
HEAD DRUM MAJOR TAYLER MORROW WILL LEAD THE BAND ON 34TH STREET THIS YEAR AT THE MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE.
Once Morrow picked up the clarinet as a fifth-grader, band geekdom never left. She played in her schools’ bands and wound up as a drum major at University High School.
Then, she would follow in her sister’s footsteps. Morrow started out playing clarinet for the WVU band but quickly shot up the ranks to become an assistant drum major her sophomore year.
For the musically unversed, a drum major is a leader who directs the band’s performance. (Or as the online Urban Dictionary jokingly puts it, a drum major is the “self-proclaimed god of band.”) Drum majors typically carry batons and are positioned at the head of the group. Think of it like a general leading soldiers onto the battlefield, but the weapons are tubas, saxophones and piccolos.
“You’re like a human metronome,” Morrow said of her role. “You relay messages to the band, plan logistics and make sure things roll smoothly. It’s my favorite part — to work with all the different sections.”
Morrow will be one of four drum majors helping oversee nearly 400 students for the upcoming season.
In addition to football game performances, the 2016 roster will make Mountaineer Marching Band history as it takes its place alongside bedazzled floats and inflated superheroes in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
From a pool of 175 applicants, the Pride was chosen as one of 10 bands to march in the nationally televised holiday spectacle. Each year, the parade seeks bands that have the stage presence, musical wherewithal and marching abilities to captivate more than 3.5 million live spectators and more than 50 million television viewers.
“The Mountaineer Marching Band is one of the most entertaining bands in the country, and they know how to put on a high-energy, thrilling show.” — WESLEY WHATLEY, MACY’S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE CREATIVE DIRECTOR
“The Macy ’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is proud to share with our audience what the West Virginia University community has known for decades: The Mountaineer Marching Band is one of the most entertaining bands in the country, and they know how to put on a high-energy, thrilling show,” said Wesley Whatley, creative director for the parade.
Consider the band’s already stacked résumé. The band received invitations to participate in two Presidential Inaugural Parades in Washington, D.C. (Richard Nixon in 1969 and Ronald Reagan in 1985), was the first collegiate marching band to play at Disney’s Epcot Center, and in 1997 won the Sudler Trophy, which honors the nation’s most outstanding collegiate band.
“I’m surprised the Pride hasn’t already done the Macy’s Parade,” Morrow said. “When I heard we were going, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. This is such a big deal.’”
One of Morrow’s bandmates, color guard member Brittany Tennant, a senior studying child development and family studies from Arthurdale, W.Va., anticipates that fans along the streets of New York City will be cheering on the ’Eers.
“We’ve been all over the country,” Tennant said. “No matter where we go, we see people saying, ‘Go WVU!’ For us, we can be so far away from home, but people will still know who we are.”
When the band first formed in 1901, it was hardly a big deal. What we’ve come to know and love about the band, from “Simple Gifts” to flashy formations, weren’t embedded in its repertoire until decades later.
It began as an ROTC band, with only eight male members. Under that structure, students like Morrow — women and non-military students — would have been prohibited from joining.
Walter Mestrezat, who led the 1st West Virginia Regiment in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, served as founding director. While the band marched at football halftimes, its primary purpose was to provide music for military events, marching in “strict military style.”
Membership remained limited to ROTC males in the band’s first 24 years. But a group of 11 non-ROTC males broke that mold in 1925 by joining the musical infantry, with permission, of course, and for less pay than their military counterparts received. That didn’t sit well with the non-ROTC crew, which soon splintered off into a separate “rebel” band. In order to become an official University group and to perform at football halftimes, the rebel band pledged as a Greek fraternity now known as the Omicron Chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi.
MOUNTAINEER MARCHING BAND IN NOVEMBER 1977.
Years later, WVU President Frank Trotter merged the two groups into one unified University Marching Band. Membership shot up to 70 by the time Mestrezat retired as director in 1938. Little by little, the band grew throughout the next few decades, particularly the 1960s. That’s when the Band’s seventh director, Budd Udell, rolled out two WVU fight songs, “Fight Mountaineers” and “Hail West Virginia,” songs still performed today.
Yet the band hadn’t reached its full potential. Its restrictive beginnings in 1901 lingered, keeping the band from gaining the same national recognition as its peers. And although it expanded from an ROTC band to include non-military members, it was still a good ol’ boys club after 70 years.
Finding a groove
Before arriving at WVU in 1971 to take over as Marching Band director, Don Wilcox taught at California high schools, Wichita State University and California State University, Long Beach.
When he came to WVU, he was perplexed. Wilcox inherited an all-male group of 88 students his first year on the job. As a father, Wilcox imagined his three daughters being denied an opportunity to join the band if they ever had the desire.
“I taught in high schools and two other universities,” Wilcox said. “I never saw a band that was not a coed group. I told the president of WVU that it wasn’t right and was probably illegal. We needed to fix it.”
So fix it they did.
In 1972, for the first time, the Mountaineer Marching Band included women — 12 of them. Not everyone welcomed that change.
“A lot of the guys had a fit,” Wilcox recalled. “Some said they’d quit. I told them, ‘Well, go ahead and quit. Or you can just deal with it.’”
None of the men followed through on that threat. They stuck it out with the band though some continued to “grumble” and “complain,” Wilcox said.
“[The women] were all determined to succeed,” he said.
BRITTANY TENNANT, A CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND FAMILY STUDIES SENIOR FROM ARTHURDALE, W.VA., IS A MEMBER OF THE COLOR GUARD.
The Wilcox-era brought forth even more big changes to the Marching Band.
One nuance of the old guard that Wilcox revamped was the way in which the band marched. Wilcox noticed that the band relied on a left-footed style whereas a majority of college bands marched with the right.
“When the band started on the left foot, they’d take one step in place without going anywhere,” Wilcox explained. “They’d step with the left foot and then start the motion with the right foot. It looked insecure and lacking in confidence. That’s not the way to do it, so we changed from a left-footed band to a right-footed band.”
Under Wilcox, the band really started to find its stride with its mesmerizing pregame and halftime performances. Many of the traditions you see today — from tunnel entrances to playlists — emerged from Wilcox.
“Because the drum section is its own world — and the drums are huge — we decided to bring them out through the tunnel first due to space constraints,” he said. “It was purely logistics. Those are the sorts of things that accidentally became traditions.”
Wilcox would find out, over his 34-year reign, that messing with tradition is something you don’t do. The band first performed “Simple Gifts” — originally a Shaker song that became popular in the ballet “Appalachian Spring” — as a halftime selection in 1973. The audience loved it so much that Wilcox made it a regular part of the pregame show.
After a few years, Wilcox grew tired of “Simple Gifts” and removed it from the set list.
Angry phone calls were made. Letters to the editor were penned. People even questioned Wilcox on the street about the song’s omission.
“By the third game, we put it back in,” Wilcox said. “Change tends to cause uproar. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I imagine if we’d ever quit doing ‘Country Roads,’ they’d hang the band director in effigy.”
“I imagine if we’d ever quit doing ‘Country Roads,’ they’d hang the band director in effigy.” — DON WILCOX, WVU BAND DIRECTOR 1971–2005
The 1970s also saw the band refine its role as a performance art, namely in its formations and outlines. Forming the outline of West Virginia proved to be a hit. Wilcox also realized that the band had been performing visibly on only one section of the field.
“You can’t ignore the 25,000 people on the other side of the field, so we did things to play to both sides such as forming circles and flipping from one side to the other,” Wilcox said.
The goal of entertaining every fan in attendance mirrored a certain philosophy Wilcox preached to his students each year.
“I told the kids to imagine two people sitting in the stands,” he said. “One is deaf and one is blind, and it’s your job to make both of them enjoy the show. It’s got to be musically appealing enough to entertain the person who can’t see it, and entertainment visually for those who can’t hear it.”
JUSTIN TAFLAN, A COMPUTER SCIENCE SENIOR FROM WEIRTON, W.VA., ON TUBA.
As the football team became nationally prominent, the band seized the spotlight as well, performing at NFL games and two Peach Bowls in Atlanta. In fact, it was during the 1975 Peach Bowl that the band was christened with a nickname that has stuck ever since. That’s when Fulton County Stadium public address announcer Marshall Mann referred to the band as “The Pride of West Virginia.”
Earning that recognition and fanfare began to stack the band’s legacy — and Wilcox’s.
“The most fun I had was watching the band grow every year,” Wilcox said. “I saw it grow from 88 to nearly 400. It became a band that the University and the state really got behind.”
The song remains the same
If you (or your parents or children or uncles or aunts or cousins) have ever marched in the Pride, chances are that Dawn West, BA ’87, Elementary Education, was there.
West joined the band in 1983 and was surprised she made the cut. She’d only been playing trumpet for a few years, as a student at Valley High School in Wetzel County, after buying an instrument for $50 from her brother’s friend.
“I saved my babysitting money to buy that trumpet and I started teaching myself,” West said. “Honestly, I wasn’t that good.”
But she was good enough to make the band — and remain in it for more than three decades and counting.
This fall, West, 51, will suit up with bandmates who could almost be young enough to be her grandchildren. It will be her 33rd year marching with the Pride.
How is that even possible?
To be part of the Pride, you must be enrolled in the Marching Band class. But it took more than that for West to stay in the band.
After graduating in 1987, West asked then-director Wilcox if she could continue marching in the band. She planned to attend graduate school, and at the time the band was only for undergraduates.
“I just couldn’t let it go, so I went to Mr. Wilcox and was granted special permission as a grad student,” West said.
But in a couple of years, West would earn her master’s degree in education, with an emphasis on learning disabilities.
Wilcox let her stay in the band — but she had to remain a student, meaning she had to take a slate of at least 12 credits.
Paying for classes began to take a toll (though West says she accumulated enough credits for various certifications), so by the ninth year, she considered hanging up the trumpet. But she found another excuse to stay.
“My brother was going to be on the football team and I thought, ‘I’d be in that tunnel when my brother runs through it. How cool would that be?’” West said.
THE MOUNTAINEER MARCHING BAND DURING THE VIRGINIA TECH GAME IN 1983.
After the 10th year, West’s presence morphed into its own new band tradition of sorts. Wilcox would personally invite her back every year, and since then West has only had to register for the Marching Band class every year.
Today West works as a remedial specialist at Long Drain School in Metz. It’s a one-hour drive to Morgantown — a drive that she makes after school every day for band practice. Then she takes the hour drive back.
“The gasoline prices back in the late-’90s and early-2000s were so high, that was killing me,” West said. “But that’s how much I love this.”
And the band loves West.
Around her seventh year, band members began to affectionately call her “Grandma.” It’s a nickname she welcomes.
“When they started calling me that in my seventh year, it was funny to me,” West said. “But after all these years, it has taken on a new meaning. What’s neat is that I’ve gotten to share my experiences with so many different personalities and different generations. I’ve marched with some of these kids’ parents.”
“I always wanted to be married and have children, but that never happened for whatever reasons. But with the band, I can say I have so many grandchildren.”
The sense of togetherness is mutual among West’s bandmates, including Morrow. That display of camaraderie will be in full-force at the Macy’s Parade. Perhaps it’s that family-like quality and tradition of unity that attracts so many fans.
“It’s amazing how so many people can come together and work toward one goal,” Morrow said. “Putting together a field show is not easy. It still baffles me how we can pull it off.
“The friends I’ve made and knowing how much we mean to West Virginia are what I love most about the Pride. And I think tradition is what people love about us. People love us, win or lose.”