Grambling State University's World Famed Tiger Marching Band and students, faculty and staff are busy preparing for the 57th U.S. presidential inauguration as "goodwill ambassadors."
"We are ambassadors for the state of Louisiana, Grambling State University, the town of Grambling and all the other HBCUs," said Larry Pannell, who is leading the band for a third presidential inauguration parade since he became band director. "It feels good the second time around."
Grambling State's band played during President Obama's first inauguration parade in January 2009, and the band is the only Historically Black College and University participating this time. The band is only one of two marching bands returning for a second Obama inauguration; the other is the president's Hawaii high school.
"It felt extremely good the first time to have a president of color and you're asked to perform," added Pannell, who's a GSU graduate, "but the second time around is even better now that you're the only HBCU."
The 200 band members, two drum majors and band faculty and staff won't be the only ones representing Grambling State University. The band is busy practicing getting ready to pack four, 55-passenger buses and an equipment truck for the 20-hour drive from Grambling to Williamsburg, Va., where they will stay because they couldn't get accommodations any closer once they got the good news about the parade in late December.
With a waiting list of nearly 50 students, joining the band will be more than 100 university students, faculty and staff in two more, 55-passenger buses, costing over $12,000 each. Students were offered the chance to attend the inauguration for $150, including transportation and two nights in a Williamsburg, Va., hotel, where the Favrot Student Union Board has reserved 33 rooms. They will leave Saturday at 4 p.m. The band leaves separately on Saturday.
Students will be traveling in style as they go about the long journey to the East Coast. "These are executive coaches. Our kids will be comfortable," said Rusty Ponton, dean of student activities. "They are very comfortable buses. They have Wi-Fi, plug-ins for the cellphone, and for students to use their laptops."
Ponton, commonly known as "Coach P," anticipates having a greater experience this second time due to a student getting lost for an hour back in 2009, which he said was the scariest hour of his life. "We learned some lessons from then that we will now bring forth this time," said Ponton. "This year we will use a buddy system and set points where group leaders will check in."
However, there are some worries heading into the 2013 Inauguration parade, since there will be thousands of people in attendance. While patting his black and gold sweatshirt, Ponton encourages students to wear GSU paraphernalia so it will be easier to identify university spectators.
Classes at the university started after the holiday and winter break on January 7, so there hasn't been much time to get ready. All of last week and all of this week, including during a couple of cold, wintry days with freezing drizzle and rain, the band has been practicing - indoors and outdoors.
A former Tiger Marching Band member when he was a student at Grambling State, Pannell is known as a demanding, strict, music-focused band director. He's had band members practice -- and exercising - more than 20 hours each week.
"Practice has been very intense and challenging as far as weather conditions," said drum major Prince Gray Jr., a senior marketing major. "This experience itself will help motivate the band to preserve and accept the challenge of this milestone achievement."
Gray has been with the band for four years and played in the 2009 Inauguration parade and he said that he's most excited about the experience this second time.
"What I'm expecting the most is a mark in history that is about to be made amongst HBCU bands," he said. "When I think of the 2013 inaugural parade I can forever say I led the World Famed Tiger Marching Band."
Students, faculty and staff have heard the inauguration parade warm-ups each afternoon and evening as the band bundled up and marched along campus streets, often with campus police escorting them with horns honking and lights.
It's not the same as being a movie spoiler - and Pannell freely shared the game plan - so Washington, D.C. spectators can expect a musical change from the band's 2009 inauguration performance of Stars and Stripes Forever.
While sticking with traditional military marches such as Them Basses and Our Directors March, the band will groove the crowd with the 1982 hit Early In The Morning by The Gap Band. Pannell got the idea came from the fiscal cliff negotiations when President Obama and other government officials worked into the night and early morning hours to get a deal. He said that he thinks the president will understand the message.
"I know the president, having some soul in him , will understand that it's The Gap Band and that he will have to get up late at night and early in the morning to deal with the economy and bipartisanship," said Pannell.
Even with honor of playing for the president comes at a cost. Trips like this one with the band are not paid with state funds. It will cost a minimum of $125,000. President Frank G. Pogue established a specific band travel fund for alumni, friends and others can donate whatever they can to help the band make history. The school is continuing to request donations.
This is the third presidential inauguration parade for which Pannell has led the band as director. The World Famed Marching Band also played for the Inauguration Parade of George W. Bush in 2001. This trip is emotional and personal.
A few weeks before the 2009 performance, Pannell lost his 50-year-old wife to lung cancer on Nov. 4, 2008, the same day President Obama was elected president for his first term. Pannell recalled his ailing wife asking him about her absentee ballot days before.
Referencing biblical text, Pannell recalled, "I gave up on God. I wrestled with him like Jacob." He cried to and from Washington D.C. in 2009.
This 2013 parade is more therapeutic. "This time I'm Job," he said. "I'm going back with the patience and as man knowing that God doesn't make mistakes."