`Millennium' teaches band show biz ups, downs


January 10, 2000|By Sally Voris | Sally Voris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ON NEW YEAR'S Eve, seven students from Mount Hebron High School played 55-gallon oil drums with the British group Stomp. The young people from Ellicott City were like Cinderella at the ball.

Waiting to perform in front of an audience of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the students mingled with celebrities. And once on stage, they were seen by television viewers across the country.

"[It] was the most amazing experience I've ever had," said sophomore Aimee Fukuchi, 15. She was excited to see Tom Jones, she said. "After that, it was all routine."

For freshman Emily Newton, 14, who chose to play the bass drum because, she said, "I like making noise," the best part was "being on stage with all the lights on you and knowing that all the famous people you had watched were watching you."

"All the publicity, it's overwhelming," she added with a smile and a sigh.

The Mount Hebron band's reputation and a twist of fate conspired to give the students their moment in the limelight.

In November, Mount Hebron band director Bob Johnston got a call from southern California inviting the band to perform with the University of Maryland Marching Band as part of "America's Millennium" -- the New Year's celebration produced for CBS by Quincy Jones and George Stevens Jr. with Will Smith as host. The Maryland bands would be the only high school and college bands on the program.

Johnston jumped at the opportunity, and 70 of his 130 band members signed up. He sent in the paperwork -- including information needed for security checks on the students. Between Christmas and New Year's, the band went to Washington to rehearse.

Members spent long hours waiting and watching other performers rehearse, returning to Ellicott City as late as 1: 30 a.m., Johnston said.

Then, on Friday morning, two hours before the buses were to leave Ellicott City for Washington, Johnston got a call. The band's performance was canceled.

The concert's organizers had invited too many performers -- on the premise that not everyone would accept. Some acts had to be shortened. Others, like Mount Hebron's, were canceled on short notice.

"It took me two hours to call all the kids," said Johnston, who made the calls himself. "Some were extremely disappointed. Some went back to sleep, and some wanted to write a[n angry] letter."

"It was very disappointing," said Jamie Hilliard, a junior drum major with the band. Still, she was glad for the opportunity to see the performers in rehearsal. Smith spoke to her, she said.

But not everything was lost. On Dec. 28, Stomp had asked the two band directors if any of their percussionists would like to accompany the troupe in one of its numbers.

Seven Mount Hebron band members and three University of Maryland students signed on: sophomores Fukuchi, Grant Otto, Jeff Klima, Derrick Reeser, Nick Kolesar and freshmen Newton and Jason Lobe. Ellicott City resident Rachael Yost, 19, a University of Maryland student and Mount Hebron alumna, was one of the three university students who volunteered.

The students rehearsed with Stomp from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 29 at the Washington Hilton. Sitting on the flowered carpet of a meeting room, they banged out rhythms on the 55-gallon metal drums with wooden drumsticks. Otto said he got chills down his spine when he saw how the rhythms they were learning came together with Stomp's act.

Fukuchi, a mallet player who usually plays bells, "freaked out of my mind," she said, at having to play drums for the first time in a performance with stars. Members of Stomp helped out by simplifying her part.

"That first hour was a total hour of fear," Fukuchi said. "By the end," she added, "I knew it by heart and could play it well."

On Dec. 30, the Stomp musicians gave the Mount Hebron students black sweat shirts and hats with the Stomp logo. As the kids left the rehearsal after midnight, they were thrilled to hear passers-by say, "Look, there's Stomp!"

Then came the night of the performance.

Stomp invited the students into their dressing area. They saw stars walk on and off the stage -- Tom Jones, Quincy Jones, Sam Waterston, Kenny Rogers, Mary Tyler Moore and Elizabeth Taylor, among others. Otto said he talked for 20 minutes to TV star Avery Brooks -- Captain Benjamin Sisko of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

At 12: 25 a.m. Jan. 1, the Mount Hebron group walked onto the stage at the Lincoln Memorial.

"The lights were very bright when we walked on stage," Klima recalled. It was, he said, a "huge stage with two big screens on each side" and lasers shooting green beams of light behind his head.

After a while, he relaxed.

"Once you start up," he said, "you ease into it and start having a good time."

Rachael's mother, Maureen Yost, who chaperoned the Mount Hebron group, said she saw them "light up when they got on stage. The energy that they put out on stage was incredible. You could just see the fire."

"It was pretty cool playing on the trash-can drums," Lobe said. "It sounded so good."

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