In step with the times at the Rose Parade

Times Staff Writer

It's called the Rose Parade, so it's not surprising that most spectators, whether along Colorado Boulevard or in front of the TV, are pretty much in it for the floats. Everything else is just a potential bathroom break. Especially the marching bands. Marching bands mean halftime in any language and halftime is when you grab a hot dog or give a few minutes' attention to your date.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a former member of a marching band.

As a recovering clarinetist for the Marching Owls of Westminster, Md., I rarely attend parades. In fact, I avoid them, though it's not exactly something that's come up in therapy. But in the early hours of this new year, the reason for this subconscious aversion became as clear as the breaking day. On our way to the Rose Parade, we slowly passed a line of band buses. Their interiors were illuminated, and I could see the young men and women struggling with their cases, their uniforms. Suddenly, the past crashed down like a dozen clarinet cases from an improperly closed overhead bin: Did they all have their gloves, and were they clean? Had they brought their shoe polish, were there enough spare reeds and cork grease, were all the hats accounted for? Because you could get by without a white shirt or suspenders, but it was death by demerits if you forgot your hat.

Full-blown parade anxiety.

When the parade began, my state of mind worsened. I watched the lines pass and my heart ached for the out-of-step trumpet player, for the snare drummer who could not keep his line straight. In every hefty clarinetist I saw myself, hoping she was in tune, that she wouldn't step in horse poop again.

It was excruciating. Nothing had changed.

Then I noticed that there were girls playing the trumpet. And the trombone. And percussion. Not just one here and there, but many and in every band. This was not the case in my day, at least not in our band or the ones we came up against regularly. Twenty-odd years ago, in Maryland at least, girls played clarinet and flute, and once in a while the French horn. There was one girl drummer in our band and maybe another in the brass, but for the most part we were as segregated by gender as our softball and baseball teams.

Which isn't all that surprising; when I entered the band, in 1977, it had only been five years since Title IX required that marching bands include girls at all, and I grew up in a rural area. Carolyn O'Keefe, the administrative assistant for the UCLA Bruin Marching Band, attended high school in California. She's a contemporary of mine, but she's also a professional trumpet player who picked up her instrument when she was 11. She was definitely a minority, she says, though not an "only."

Now, at UCLA, she says, there are nowhere near the gender distinctions that there were 20 years ago. Women play trumpet, trombone, percussion. "We have two beautiful blonds who play tuba," she says.

The flutes remain almost all women, but the clarinets have evened out. But it's still not 50-50 among the traditionally male instruments, and O'Keefe thinks this probably has more to do with size than sexism.

"You have to have pretty long arms to take a trombone to the seventh position," she says, "and some of the instruments are just big. I think parents still point children in certain directions just based on strength."

On New Year's, it was mostly males playing the trombones and the tenor saxes. But watching a slim young woman who could not have been taller than 5 feet, her jaw resolute, her step steady as she banged away on her snare, it was clear that although pre-parade jitters and those dang horses were still a problem, a lot of things had changed since the last time I hit a middle C.

Did someone say there were floats, too?

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