The 75th anniversary remembrance of the D-Day invasion begins this week in France. On Monday, June 3. the Florida State University Marching Chiefs were on their way to that nation's observance.
This initial week of commemorative activities includes June sixth, the actual day the vast armada of Allied forces landed in Normandy 75 years ago. The Marching Chiefs are the only American collegiate marching band participating. It is a great honor, although FSU Director of Bands Patrick Dunnigan was quick to say it’s not as though French President Emmanuel Macron called up and said, “Send me the Marching Chiefs!”
"The folks at Music Celebrations in Tempe, Arizona worked with the folks in Normandy to identify bands to participate," he explained. "They were looking for bands, we were looking for a place to go and we just sort of found each other. The fact that it's the 75th anniversary really rang our bell as being a special benchmark date. So that's how it came about."
For the Chief’s Drum Major Alex Arbeiter, a fifth year senior, the news hit like a thunderbolt.
"Excitement is a little bit of an understatement," he admitted. "Honestly the first time they announced the trip to us it was after a morning rehearsal for a game day. It was really hot outside and we were sweaty. So when they announced it I was like, 'That's a joke; they're not telling the truth, I don't believe this!' It took about a week to really hit me that we were actually going on this trip and this is amazing and unbelievable!"
The Chief’s Assistant Drum Major Amelia Addeo said Director of Athletic Bands David Plack wasn’t immediately forthcoming when he called the band members together and told them he had an announcement, but they had to guess what it was about.
"And we said, 'What's a hint? Give us a hint!' And he goes, 'D!' And I kept saying, 'Indoor practice field,' anything that started with a 'D.' And then he said, 'D-Day.' I felt so dumb; I didn't catch it, nobody caught it. And then just tears! Immediately a lot of people just got chills, even as hot as it was, we got major chills."
This trip is doubly huge for Addeo. For one thing, it’s her first sojourn to Europe. And there’s also a very personal connection to the event she and her colleagues are helping commemorate.
"When I called my mom to tell her that we were going, I phoned her after morning practice like Alex said and she just started crying. She said, 'Your grandfather is going to be so proud!' He was in the Navy during D-Day. He wasn't on land, but he was out there and a part of it and is still alive! So when I told them, they said they'd help fund this trip and they've been helping me and asking if I need anything and they're so excited and constantly sending me text messages. It means so much to me and my family!"
Unlike a trip to an away football game, this trip comes at a considerable expense for the band members and others taking part in the June third-through tenth excursion. Airfare and accommodations comes to about $3,500 per person. Various band and community fund raisers - such as the recent tee-shirt sale at Madison Social - got the cost down to around $2,500 per person. That’s still a chunk of change. Which is why Director Dunnigan was a bit awestruck by the level of participation.
"We were hoping to maybe hit 150 or 200 (persons), which would be great. But we ended up taking over 380, which is almost the entire complement of Marching Chiefs," he said, adding, "If it wasn't complicated enough, there is what they call a 'shadow tour,' which consists of alumni, parents, friends; there's another 100 people involved in that. We'll be rolling through the countryside of France in 11 charter buses."
Those charter buses will be rolling from Paris to two small villages in Normandy, which overlook Omaha Beach, one of two American D-Day landing sites. It is through these villages that the Chiefs will be strutting their stuff. And Drum Major Arbeiter says getting ready for these crucial performances will be a major challenge for the players.
"We haven't had the opportunity to have many rehearsals leading into this trip," he explained. "We've had the necessity rehearsals to get a lot of logistics down. The very first day we get off the plane in the morning, we're all going to be super-tired and we have a rehearsal that morning. And I know when we get to that rehearsal and everyone's tired, that's when it's really going to hit them and I'm going to hear how the ensemble sounds that day and I'm going to know they understand what this means!"