From Farmer City to Washington, D.C.: Blue Ridge Marching Knights perform in national parade

The Blue Ridge Marching Knights and color guard played in front of approximately 250,000 people during the 2018 National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C., last month.

The opportunity began two years ago with a phone call from Gov. Bruce Rauner's office.

"About two years ago, my principal got a call from Gov. Rauner's office and didn't quite understand everything they said so I called back and talked to the chief of staff," Blue Ridge band director Christopher Mitchell said. "They said Gov. Rauner nominated three bands in the state of Illinois to perform at the National Memorial Day."

The Marching Knights, which also included eighth-grade performers, left for Washington on Thursday, May 24, traveling through the night and arriving that Friday morning. The bandmates toured the capital's sites Saturday and Sunday, including area memorials and museums.

"We went to the Marine Barracks Dress Parade on Friday evening," Mitchell added.

The students were also presented with the opportunity to attend the Memorial Day concert Friday night, which is broadcast by PBS.

"This is probably not an opportunity our students at Blue Ridge are going to have again," Mitchell said. "We have a pretty high poverty rating."

Before traveling to the East Coast, Mitchell had his young band perform a so-called dress parade rehearsal in Farmer City one week before the May 28 performance.

"(It's) so the community could see what we were doing and so the eighth-graders had an opportunity to march with the whole ensemble."

The band performed the song "The War to End All Wars," which included tunes such as "Over There" and "It's a long way to Tipperary."

Though Mitchell had a different song set in mind for the capital performance, parade organizers asked that the Knights play a piece from the World War I era.

"The parade is intended to be a living timeline," Mitchell said. "A small section is the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, etc."

The approximately 60-member band and color guard began their march on Seventh Street before turning onto Constitution Avenue on Monday, May 28.

"You march between the Washington Monument and the White House," Mitchell added.

Mitchell, who has been the band director at Blue Ridge High School for 18 years, said his takeaway from the opportunity was simply seeing how the experience transformed many of the students' lives.

"You could see as the days went on how more involved they became in the memorials and all of the tributes to the veterans," Mitchell said. "And I think you could just kind of tell the weight of it all, they started understanding more and more about this holiday and what it all meant."

More than putting Farmer City on the map, the students' experience of marching in the National Memorial Day Parade provided an unmatched learning opportunity.

"It's an opportunity to see the impact they can have in a small way, even being in a small town in central Illinois."

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