A super conductor: UI's Barry Houser

A super conductor: UI's Barry Houser

CHAMPAIGN — The first time Barry L. Houser worked with the Macy's Great American Marching Band for the Thanksgiving Day Parade, he thought the music would never come together.

After all, the huge ensemble is made up of nearly 250 high school students from all over the country.

Before meeting up in New York, they don't know each other and they haven't played together.

And in New York they have only about four days of rehearsal before performing before a live crowd of 3 million people and another 50 million watching from home.

"The first time I was like, 'No way. No way is this all going to get done.' Now that I've been there all these years it does happen and it's kind of magical," Houser said.

It's also hard work.

For him, most of it centers on making sure the students learn the music and the drills.

At times, he also writes the routine the band performs at Herald Square, where it plays for 2 to 21/2 minutes for the NBC-TV cameras.

However, "the true work begins once we get to New York City," Houser said. "By the time we get there we pedal down and get it all done."

He and the students arrive the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Houser left Saturday after conducting the Marching Illini during the Illinois-Penn State game at Memorial Stadium.

Once he arrives in New York, he and the other adults in charge battle New York traffic as they drive staff cars to the New Jersey hotel where they and the band stay. The band headquarters is the hotel ballroom, where the students are fitted for their marching-band uniforms — Houser and the other two co-directors wear black.

Their first rehearsal takes place Saturday evening, also in the hotel ballroom. Rehearsals over the next few days, however, are in a military armory 30 minutes from the hotel.

"There we practice and put together the routines for the big day," Houser said.

The full band, its three co-directors and 12 section leaders work from around 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

"Sunday (today), it's full on," Houser said. "Teaching the drill, reviewing the music and marching fundamentals. Learning the Macy's routine, the marching portion of the parade and the drill in Herald Square."

The band members, accompanied by chaperones, go into Manhattan to sightsee in the evenings. Houser usually stays at the hotel preparing for the next day's rehearsal or watching sports on TV. Or he and the other adults might check out a restaurant near their hotel.

Sometimes he goes into Manhattan with the students if they're seeing a show he wants to see. In past years he's taken in "Mamma Mia," "Lion King" and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes.

By Tuesday, Houser and his colleagues can tell whether the Great American Marching Band has the chops for their Thanksgiving performance.

"After that short amount of time you either go into panic mode or feel you're going to be all right.

"It's gone well each year. Each year it seems like it gets better. We've had the same leadership team in place and it's getting more effective.

"We're now getting it down to a science: This is what we need to do each day."

The worst thing that's happened in the five years Houser has co-directed the Great American Marching Band? Extreme weather. Some of the band members from the Deep South never encounter that kind of cold back home.

"We have never experienced anything disastrous or had to say, 'Oh, gosh, I hope no one saw that' because we rehearse and rehearse and get that music in their heads. Through repetition and more repetition, we eliminate those kinds of mistakes," he said.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the pressure mounts as the NBC-TV crew visits the armory to record the marching band's routine. The pressure continues into the wee hours as the band goes into the city to rehearse at Herald Square some time between 1:30 and 4:30 a.m. Thursday.

There they do a run-through for the NBC-TV camera crews. This year the tunes they will play at Herald Square are Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven" and Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off."

Their timing has to be precise.

"If your timing is not correct you have to go back and do it again," Houser said.

After the early-morning rehearsal the band and staff eat breakfast at the Hard Rock Cafe at 1501 Broadway — it's among the few restaurants in the city that can accommodate them all.

After breakfast, they go to the parade VIP section. There they wait to discover where they will be in the parade formation — and mingle with celebrities, among them Matt Lauer, host of NBC's "The Today Show" as well as a co-anchor of the Thanksgiving parade coverage.

Does Houser sleep the night before the big day?

"No. Some of our students might go to bed at 9 but are so excited about the next day they're lucky to get an hour or two of sleep."

Adrenaline keeps them all going Thursday. After the parade, they return to the hotel for a light lunch. That evening they celebrate at a Thanksgiving banquet at their hotel. Awards are handed out. Recognition is given.

Later, the students have a dance.

"I'm upstairs packing," Houser said.

Friday, exhaustion sets in.

But also great pride, as Houser and the other co-directors and the band members review and share the compliments they've heard via social media about how they did in the Thanksgiving parade.

Houser's not sure why Macy's tapped him to be a co-director of the Great American Marching Band. It might have something to do with his work each summer at Eastern Illinois University as director and head clinician of the Smith Walbridge Clinics, one of the largest marching band/leadership camps of its type in the country for high school students.

The campers may automatically participate in Macy's Great American Marching Band at Thanksgiving. Others have to send in audition tapes to be selected for the ensemble. Directors try to choose two students from each state.

Houser feels it's a great honor to help lead the Great American Marching Band. This year might be his last, though. Next year at Thanksgiving he will accompany the Marching Illini to New York, where they will perform in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

After the 2015 Thanksgiving with the Marching Illini, Houser feels he should remain home in Mahomet for the holiday with his wife, Abbey, also a musician, and their two children, Caroline, 2, and Emmett, 16 months old. Caroline is getting old enough to realize when her father isn't around, he said.

At the UI, the friendly, upbeat Houser is assistant director of bands and director of athletic bands including the 360-member Marching Illini. Traditionally it's been considered one of the nation's top collegiate marching bands.

Houser, 37, played in marching bands through high school and college — he was at one point a drum major. He grew up in northern Indiana. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer but he had music on his mind.

Instead of pre-law, Houser went to the University of Florida to major in music education. He worked for two years as the assistant director of bands at Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Fla., and then became director of bands and performing arts at NorthWood High School in Nappanee, Ind.

He was at NorthWood for eight years. He made a big name for himself there: The NorthWood marching band performed at major events and received regional and national honors. He left to come to the University of Illinois to work on a master's degree in wind conducting.

After he was here a year, Eastern Illinois University called, offering him a job as director of its marching band and associate director of bands. While in that position, Houser finished his master's here.

After becoming interim director of bands at EIU, the position of director of the Marching Illini opened. Houser took it, in July 2011.

Houser-conducted marching bands over the years have performed not only in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade but also at the Target Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Indianapolis 500 parade, the Outback Bowl Parade and Halftime Show, the Hollywood Christmas Parade, the Washington, D.C., National Memorial Parade and at Chicago Bears games.

Whether Houser's conducting a band of high school or college students, it's not about him.

"It's all about the students and seeing their pride and their excellence come into play. That's why I love my job with the Marching Illini."