It’s been quite a year for James Madison University freshman Blake Mabe and quite a career for JMU senior Aaron Raffeinner.
Named both Drum Major and Homecoming King at Carroll County High School as a senior last year, Mabe added another once-in-a-lifetime experience to his portfolio Thursday as he participated in the 87th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
“It was unreal,” Mabe said of the time-honored national tradition. “First and foremost, it was extremely tiring, but awe would be the word. I never expected that amount of people on the streets. It was people as far as the eye could see. To be in the middle of all the balloons, The Today Show host and all the celebrities, it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Mabe, a freshman majoring in computer science, plays in the sax-alto section for the Marching Royal Dukes of James Madison University. The 2013 band’s members represent 47 academic majors, and more than 400 Marching Royal Dukes are non-music majors. The 485-member band is the largest in JMU’s history.
The band performs at all home football games, travels to select away games and represents JMU at local and regional high-school exhibitions and community events.
The JMU band was one of 11 marching bands performing in the parade, and one of only two college bands - the other was the University of Massachusetts Amherst - that were invited to perform. The Marching Royal Dukes were selected from more than 150 applications sent to Macy’s Parade’s Committee. This is the band’s third appearance in the parade. They previously performed in the 2001 and 2008 parades.
And while it’s been a big year for Mabe, the trip to New York City caps an incredible JMU band career for Raffeinner. A native of the Carroll County side of Galax, Raffeinner’s days with the Marching Royal Dukes got off to an exhilarating start as he was in the band on Sept. 11, 2010 in Blacksburg when James Madison pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history with a 21-16 win over 13th ranked Virginia Tech.
“The two things are kind of incomparable in my opinion. They are both once-in-a-lifetime events. I had never heard of JMU beating Tech before that, and I don’t know if they will ever play them again or if we will ever beat them again,” Raffeinner said. “And then Macy’s is one of those experiences that even though the band goes back ever four years or so, it will never be the same program as when I was in it. I wouldn’t have traded them for anything in the world. When we beat Tech, we painted that stadium purple.”
That same year, Raffeinner, a 2010 graduate of Carroll County High School, joined the Marching Royal Dukes in London for its New Year’s Day Parade. The band got some interesting looks he said, as it belted out Bill Chase’s 1971 classic ‘Get It On.’
“We performed Get It On for a bunch of nobles and I am sure that many British nobles have never had the look on their face as they did that day when we played that,” Raffeinner said. “It was also a once-in-a-lifetime thing. They were all absolutely wonderful experiences.”
Raffeinner is now a senior Music Education major at JMU. The son of Jude and Leah Raffeinner, he plays trombone in the Marching Royal Dukes. He also credits his amazing college career to his Carroll County roots.
“I would have never been here and I would have never thought about doing the things I am now if not for the music program in Carroll,” he said. “They did so much for me and opened so many opportunities for me, and those opportunities led to opportunities that led to other opportunities until I am marching on national TV, I am in London, and I am getting one of the best educations I could ever hope for. It is all thanks to the music program at Carroll.”
Mabe said while the Marching Royal Dukes were shown performing live on NBC during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the parade route and preparations were much more extensive than the four or five minutes they were shown on live television. Mabe said the parade route was two miles long, after which the band performed on Herald Square outside of Macy’s.
“It is actually pretty interesting. Before you do the parade, that morning you have to do one practice run-through with the NBC producers. We did that at 1:30 in the morning until 3. Then we came back to the hotel and slept to 5, and then loaded back up and got to the parade about two-and-a-half hours before it started to get ready and practice,” Mabe said. “I was frozen to the core. It was in the 30s, but the worst part was the wind chill. I even had hand-warmers and foot-warmers but my face and limbs were just frozen.”
Much like the city of New York, Mabe said the massive floats and balloons have to be seen in person to appreciate their sheer size and pageantry.
“My favorite would have to be the classic giant turkey at the beginning of the parade. It is something that is so iconic, and to actually see it in person, it is huge,” Mabe said. “It is probably four or five stories high. It is awesome.”
To get to New York City, Mabe said JMU took 11 charter buses. The actual trip from Harrisonburg to the Big Apple itself was only about six hours, but more like 8.5 hours once traffic was factored. Not only did the trip to NYC open new horizons for Mabe, it also gave him a deeper appreciation for home.
“Traffic in New York was crazy,” he said. “But If you ever get the chance to go, I would strongly suggest it. It gives you a different perspective. It not only allows you to see how other people live, but going from a quiet Carroll County town to New York, I miss it. It gave me a deep respect of not only New York, but also back home. It is two completely different ways of life, each with its ups and downs.”
Blake is the son of Keith and Karen Mabe of Cana. Missing Thanksgiving with family was bittersweet, Mabe said, since it was to be a part of something so iconic and so engrained in the hearts and minds of every American.
“Seeing the pictures and posts on Facebook from Thanksgiving back home, I hate I missed it,” Mabe said. “I miss my family, but it’s also something not many people can say they have accomplished, so it had its ups and downs.”