WASHINGTON — They must command their instruments, batons, headgear — and in one case synchronized lawn mowers — keeping in time and in tune as they follow new President Barack Obama through the January air from the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.
For many of the 90-plus groups that are expected to march in the nation's 56th Inaugural Parade, however, the hardest part will be over by the time the parade starts: getting there.
With about 1,300 applicants — more than three times the norm, according to transition officials — each had about a 7 percent chance of winning a spot in the mile-and-a-half long parade.
Obama's transition team aimed to have at least one parade participant from each state. That hurt some applicants and helped others. Applicants sent audio and video of their performances and awaited word.
There were hardships: practice, practice, practice, and finding the money — $50,000 or more in many cases — to cover transportation, lodging and the sprucing up or purchase of new uniforms.
"It's been an eight- or nine-month process," said Cassandra Tucker, the president of the booster club for the Marching Band of Gold at Harding University High School in Charlotte, N.C.
The 108 Harding students who'll march, a majority of whom are African-American, should meet their $50,000 fundraising goal, but the band looked into hotels so late that they'll be staying in Richmond, Va., about 100 miles south of the parade.
Tucker, whose son Julian, a senior, plays the trumpet in the band, said that band director Anthony Jones told the musicians last summer, "We're going to the inaugural."
The students were skeptical of their chances, but they were excited enough about Obama's chance to become the first black president that they went for it. Many band members were new, and some had never picked up instruments before. They committed to a rigorous practice schedule and played at an Obama rally in September.
"I think for the kids it was the significance of this election," said Tucker, who's black. "What it's done for our kids is give them an awareness of the political arena to express their views in terms of what they expect for their leader. And certainly for my son, having an African-American president gives him the hope that all things are possible."
The sizes of the groups in the parade vary, from a half-dozen to the Virginia Military Institute's entire student body, about 1,700 cadets.
Some performances will have a regional flavor. The Blue Springs High School Golden Regiment Marching Band from Blue Springs, Mo., will play "A Taste of Kansas City" as members pass the presidential reviewing stand.
Others are repeat performers for Obama. The Manning High School Golden Pride Band from Manning, S.C., played at Obama rallies in three cities during the campaign.
Most groups in the parade are high school or college marching bands. These include five bands from historically black colleges; the JROTC band from Obama's alma mater, the private Punahou School in Hawaii; and the band from Michelle Obama's alma mater, the public Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago.
Other participants include Native American tribes; drill teams; Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; black Civil War re-enactors; a gay and lesbian band association, for the first time; and a precision lawn-mower group called the World Famous Lawn Rangers.
The band at Colony High School in Palmer, Alaska, down the road from Gov. Sarah Palin's town of Wasilla, learned that distance meant higher costs.
Band director Jamin Burton said that early thoughts of raising $100,000 were scrapped as unrealistic, and a bare-bones budget was set at about $60,000.
With a bid for taxpayer assistance rejected, the band turned to private fundraising efforts. To make the budget, the kids will fly into Newark, N.J., rather than Washington, and bus down. They'll sleep on the floor of a Lutheran church in Virginia if they can't raise more money for hotel rooms. Burton said they might be eating mostly peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
The songs they've selected seem on point: "Thriller," "Traffic Jam" and, finally, "Traveling Band."
Coming from Alaska has some advantages, though.
Competition, for one. Colony is the only high school marching band in the state, partly because it's so cold for most of the school year in much of the state that instruments with valves won't play. Burton, who thinks the valve-freeze fear is overblown, started Colony's band four years ago. An Eskimo Dance Group from Barrow, the northernmost point in the U.S., also is making the long trip to march.
Alaskans also may find that they have an advantage when it comes to the weather. "It's been 30 below here all week," Burton said in a telephone interview Jan. 7. "The idea of 20-to-40-degree weather sounds very, very nice."
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