By Michael Norris, Pentagram Assistant Editor January 25, 2013
Three days before the Jan. 21 event, 135-plus youth from President Barack Obama's high school alma mater lined up along Sheridan Avenue on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall to rehearse for the 57th presidential inaugural day parade.
The Punahou School Marching Band from Hawaii made several syncopated passes along Sheridan Avenue Jan. 18, with varsity cheerleaders executing routines and Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps members flipping letters spelling out the school's name and motto.
Although it was a whole new crop of children on the trip, this was the second time the school had taken part in a presidential inaugural, after participating in the 2009 ceremony. Obama is a 1979 alumnus of Punahou, where he played basketball, contributed to the school's literary journal and sang in the boys' chorus and concert choir. "I feel it's an honor and privilege just being here to represent my school and our state. It's just cool to have the president be an alumnus of our school and for us to be selected for this parade," said Brandon Takao, a Punahou JROTC member. "It's an honor and we'll do our best and try to represent our state well."
Punahou Musical Director Darin Au first accompanied students on the 2009 trip.
"We survived the last time, which was much colder then, so we think we'll be OK," Au said. "Once the kids are playing -- music they're very familiar with -- they get comfortable. We'll just have to make do in the cold." "We were expecting it to be a little colder but we're having fun and we brought a lot of winter gear," added Marissa Yuen, one of 10 Punahou cheerleaders making the visit. "It's hard to move with all of our winter gear, but we're managing it. It's a different experience."
"We've been practicing by marching around the [asphalt] track at our school. I'm hoping the parade path will be just as smooth," said Kat Seth, the Punahou band drum major. "We all just feel incredibly lucky, because we weren't sure if we were going to get this opportunity. When we found out … we were so excited. Not everyone can say they marched in the inaugural parade."
"We started rehearsing New Year's Eve," said band mellophone player Nathan Wallace. "We're just incredibly honored to be here, to perform in the inaugural parade and for the president of the United States, partially because he's an alumnus of our school, but also because he's the president. That's just an incredible opportunity -- for all of us."
"It's exciting to represent Punahou and the islands of the state of Hawaii," said band director Mark Falzarano. "It gives students a chance to attend an important civic event and to understand that when you work hard, like the president, great things can happen."
Stepping away from his own inaugural preparations, The U.S. Army Band drum major Master Sgt. Scott Little stopped by the Punahou rehearsal to say hello and offer encouragement to students.
"I just want to tell you guys you sounded fantastic," Little said during a break. "Listening to your director, he's on the ball. The accents sound right. You've been keeping your alignment… "
Au asked Little what he thought was the most important assignment of The U.S. Army Band.
"Every day is an important mission, no more or no less important than anything we do," the drum major replied.
"Probably the most important thing we do is at Arlington National Cemetery every day with funerals. This definitely ranks up there in the top ten. And whenever you've got a great crowd, it's great to be out there playing for the public and sharing the Army story."
Referencing the cold weather, Little shared some TUSAB lore with the students, explaining how the group is prepared for contingencies like extreme weather.
"You've got to keep your instruments warm, because obviously they freeze up. We've got a tune we play if it's way below freezing and you can't get any music out," he said. "It's called the 'Anti-freeze March,' -- there's no valves or slides involved.
High school band members chuckled at the prospect. "Talk about a one-note samba," Au exclaimed.
"He gave us some real helpful advice," said Seth at the conclusion of Little's pep talk. In dealing with the cold, he said "to kind of embrace it and accept it into the environment. He also said to have a really great time, just to really enjoy ourselves, because it's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
In Washington for six days, the group hopes to do some sightseeing during the visit.
"Kids are excited about going to see the Smithsonian, Au said. "This [Friday] afternoon we're going to a U.S. Capitol tour and meet three of our four congressmen."
The high school band was slated to play a medley during the parade, including "Men of Punahou" and "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," also known as "Cheer, Boys, Cheer."
When passing the reviewing stand in 2009, Obama acknowledged his alma mater by giving the group the shaka hand sign -- a closed fist with thumb and pinkie extended -- signifying a greeting or aloha in Hawaiian.
Founded in 1841 as a school for the children of Congregational missionaries living in Hawaii, the K-12 Punahou School is the largest independent school on a single campus in the United States.