While more than 200 members of the University of South Florida Herd of Thunder wrapped up 2016 by joining the football team at the Birmingham Bowl, about 110 of their fellow marching band members started out 2017 playing in Italy.
“Sometimes the term ‘Once in a lifetime experiences’ may be tossed around too loosely – this really was,” said Matthew McCutchen, the director of USF’s athletic bands.
“We do view ourselves as ambassadors for the university and anything we can do along those lines, we’re happy to,” McCutchen said.
But before the Herd marched in the parade, they did something very few bands ever get the chance to do – perform in St. Peter’s Square.
On New Year's morning, they played between a mass conducted by Pope Francis and his annual address to the thousands of people in the square. McCutchen, who thinks the crowd was larger than any football game they’ve played in front of, said the Papal Swiss Guard approached the band before the Pope’s speech with a request.
"They pointed to the second window from the right on the top of the building, they said, 'When we tell you to, we want you to turn the entire band, point up to that room and play," McCutchen said. "And so, we did exactly that. We started off with ‘Fanfare for the Common Man,’ because he’s known as ‘The People’s Pope.’
"We played three or four tunes to a packed square. I can’t prove to you that the Pope saw us, but there’s a pretty good chance he did.”
After that, the band marched in front of thousands more people lining the streets in Rome’s New Year’s Parade.
"They were just so receptive to everything that we did, we were playing traditional Italian songs for the most part, and just seeing how excited they were, and just how happy it made them – it was just such a great experience for all of us,” said senior drum major and mellophone player Razanne Oueini.
That interaction was increased by people’s proximity to the band.
While a lot of American parades separate marchers and the audience, in Italy, many streets are so narrow, musicians sometimes literally rub elbows with the crowd.
Julie Chase witnessed that connection when the band marched in a second parade in Frascati, a small town just outside of Rome.
“There was a young boy, he had like a fake trumpet, and one of the stops, he came up to a mellophone player and they hugged and took pictures, and then the mellophone player played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little star’ and his face lit up and it was the sweetest thing," said the sophomore clarinetist. "Even though we couldn’t speak the same language, we shared a moment.”
The band increased that connection with their audience by playing music they were familiar with, like the 19th century Neapolitan song "Funiculi, Funicula."
“Every single time we started playing it, people turned, looked at us, smiled, started clapping and started singing," McCutchen said. "In Frascati, we played the aria "Nesseun dorma." An old man came right beside one of the drum majors and started singing at the top of his lungs.
"One of our real goals was to make connections over there, and they listen to American pop music, but we wanted to play some of their music and I think they really appreciated it."
Also unusual – but extremely sought after– was USF’s mascot, Rocky the Bull.
“He gave more hugs, more high fives, more picking up children and taking pictures with their parents," McCutchen said. "He was enormously popular.”
A number of of smaller ensembles also played following a mass in the Lateran Basilica, one of the oldest cathedrals in Rome, dating back to the fourth century.
As a musician, McCutchen appreciated the acoustics of a stone building with a high dome ceiling.
"The reverb must have been somewhere between four to six seconds," he said. "You would hold a chord and you'd hear it just keep on going up into the basilica and into the dome."
But, McCutchen added, there was something more than that.
“They build these churches for a reason, they build them for power, they build them for strength and they build them to make you feel a little humble, and it works," he said. "You feel like you're in the presence of something much greater than yourself, you feel like you're sitting in history, you feel like this is a unique and special moment, and I think that the vast majority of the students who did perform there, I think most would tell you that that was their favorite moment.”
"We played just some select hymns and other Italian pieces and both acoustically and emotionally, it was just a very rewarding performance," Oueini added. "It was something that we'd never done before, I'd never played a venue like that."
But it wasn’t all about parades and performances. During the week-long trip, the band visited a number of historic sites, like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Forum.
"The first time we turned the corner in the bus and the Colosseum came into view and you hear 'uhhh,'" McCutchen said, making a gasping sound, "because it's not a picture, it's right there. So my favorite part, historically, was watching them see things the first time."
And between the music, the history and the memories, many of the students felt as Julie Chase did - it really was the trip of a lifetime, and they were glad to share it with friends.
“The band gives you opportunities you can’t do anywhere else cause anyone can go to Rome, but not anyone can perform in Rome and really represent something bigger than yourself,” Chase said.
You can see a slideshow of photos from the trip at the top of the story, and we'll have a University Beat on WUSF TV report up here later this week.