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Shawn Vestal: Sacajawea Middle School students prep for Junior Lilac Parade

Max Sadler, 12, plays his trombone with the Sacajawea Middle School Thunderbird Marching Band and Drill Team on Thursday in the neighborhood along Manito Boulevard. The band was practicing for Saturday’s Junior Lilac Parade. (Colin Mulvany)
Max Sadler, 12, plays his trombone with the Sacajawea Middle School Thunderbird Marching Band and Drill Team on Thursday in the neighborhood along Manito Boulevard. The band was practicing for Saturday’s Junior Lilac Parade. (Colin Mulvany)

It is a little after 7 a.m., and the sun is low and bright in the sky, and sprinklers are sprinkling, and garbage bins are parked at the curb, and it’s a beautiful morning in the neighborhood, and here come 200 boys and girls right down the middle of the street, banging their drums and blowing their horns, marching in step and swinging their instruments, their shadows long on the asphalt, delivering a funky, brassy wake-up call to all they pass.

Good morning, “Jungle Boogie.”

It’s not Kool & the Gang, but the Sacajawea Middle School Thunderbird Marching Band and Drill Team. It’s their final early morning practice before the big event of the year, Saturday’s 63rd Annual Junior Lilac Parade, and they are winding through the South Hill neighborhoods around the school, following their traditional practice route.

“I’m extremely pleased,” shouts band director Patrick Shamblin during a break, “at how we look today. Far better than yesterday. Maybe everybody got some sleep last night, huh?”

Shamblin’s group of seventh- and eighth-graders is one of around 40 marching bands from middle and elementary schools that will participate in Saturday’s parade. The bands and drill teams are judged by divisions, and a grand champion overall is named as well. Last year, that was the Sac band, but Shamblin says he doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on defending the title.

“I downplay the winning/losing aspect of the parade,” he said. “We just get to represent our community in the hometown parade.”

Since returning from spring break, the members of the marching band have been in intense preparation. The group is made up of students from Shamblin’s four concert band classes, his percussion class and the drill team. They began by learning the songs so well they were second nature – “Jungle Boogie,” a 1974 hit as a nod to the parade’s Expo ’74 theme, and the school’s theme song, which is set to the tune of “Tequila.” Then they progressed to practicing marching and eventually a little choreography – swinging instruments and shoulder shimmying.

“It was difficult at first, but now it’s just a lot of fun,” said Anna Powell, a seventh-grade trumpet player.

The challenge is different for different band members. Bass drummer Thomas Aleto has to match his steps precisely to his beats: “One and three are left foot. Two and four are right.”

For trombonist Max Sadler, the coordination is not so linear – he’s got to work the slide in a rhythm that doesn’t match his steps. But “once you memorize the song,” he said, “your arm just knows where to go.”

Because the parade prep has to fall outside school hours – there is no standardized test to prepare for in marching band – the group has been meeting at 7 a.m. each day for the past week. “It’s a little rough at first,” said Kristine Werschler, an eighth-grade flutist. “But there’s always coffee across the street.”

On Thursday, the band lined up in the parking at the school bright and early: Drill team at the front, drums at the rear. The players line up in rows, and each stands at the center of a kind of imaginary square, with four steps of space in any direction. Shamblin emphasizes that they must stay in their rows – “steel rods through our shoulders” – and keep an eye on the diagonal lines ahead of them as well, to maintain formation.

“Follow the people in front of you,” he shouts, “but you guide to the diagonals and the diagonal line.” He orients a couple of students. “Diagonal. Diagonal.”

The drummers start playing the cadence, the band members start marching in place, and then they’re moving, heading west on 33rd Avenue toward the homes along Manito Boulevard. The horns kick in, the drummers drum. They do not hold back due to the earliness of the hour. Shamblin has taught music at Sac for 11 years – he’s in his 30th year of teaching, and was just awarded the Outstanding Music Educator for Eastern Washington by his fellow music teachers in the state – and in that time he’s encountered just one cursing, grumpy neighbor.

“We don’t get phone calls saying, ‘Would you please stop that?’ ” he said.

The band snakes south on Manito Boulevard and crosses 37th while a line of cars waits. A woman in a housecoat comes out onto her front step and aims her cellphone at them. The drill team dances. Silver flutes flash in the sun. The band makes its way through the neighborhoods just south of 37th, and eventually back to a spot along the access road through Hart Field, where they take a break. “Someone massage me!” cries one tuckered-out drummer, flopping onto the ground.

Aleto, a different drummer, says that marching through the neighborhood is a fun way to prepare for the parade.

“People come out, take pictures, watch us,” he says.

Do any of them ever complain?

“Oh, no,” he says. “It’s music.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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