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The Bands Played On

You think your holiday travel plans got snow bungled? Just be glad you're not a marching band coordinator.



You think your holiday travel plans got snow bungled?

Facing a deluge of canceled flights, Richmonder Bill Northen had to fly 6,000 high school and college band members, chaperones and support staff from the United States to London during the last week of 2010. Being late was not an option.

Northen is the band supplier for the annual London New Year's Day Parade, the largest event of its kind in the world. The 2011 parade marks the 25th year Northen and his company, Youth Music of the World, have sent American students overseas to perform in the parade.

And although last week he was bemoaning the mulishness of airlines — “the days of the friendly skies are long gone,” he says — Northen managed to get all of his musicians there in time.

In 1985 the lord mayor of Westminster wanted to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the city, which includes such sights as Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, by doing something spectacular. He appointed Robert Bone to organize a parade; Bone asked Northen, an old acquaintance, to send over an American marching band. Northen obliged. At the sight of the plumed hats and sousaphones, Londoners fell in love.

“The idea of a U.S. high-school marching band is such a novelty in Europe,” Northen says. “They don't have anything like it.”

Parade goers demanded more bands, and Northen made it his full-time job to supply them. With business partner Powell Johann and staff in Richmond and London, he vets school bands, schedules their performances and arranges their travel for an eight-day trip to London.

Outstanding bands are nominated annually by the previous year's participants. Northen does the legwork for the U.K.-based selection committee, listening to audition tapes.

Several Richmond-area bands have performed at the parade, including bands from Clover Hill, Deep Run, Monacan, Douglas Southall Freeman and Atlee high schools.

Northen's accompanying 24 bands to London this year, including James Madison University's. The performers gather in Berkeley Square in Mayfair and proceed along Piccadilly, Regent Street and Whitehall to Parliament Street, passing some 500,000 spectators.

That's the best part of his job, Northen says — seeing the students' awed expressions while they see the cheering crowds in Whitehall Square: “Just going, ‘Holy cow, we did it.'”

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