One of Helias Catholic High School’s band directors will be marching in this year’s Pasadena Tournament of Roses Rose Parade on New Year’s Day.
So will his dad.
“We hope to march side-by-side,” said T.J. Higgins, one of two band directors for Helias Catholic, who also teaches music at St. Martin School in St. Martins.
His father, Tom Higgins, was the band director at Linn High School in Linn for 31 years and now directs the band at St. George School in Linn in retirement.
T.J. and Tom have been chosen to march in a group of band directors from all over the United States.
The 300-member band of high school marching band directors will accompany a custom-designed, animated float with the theme, “We teach music. We teach life.”
Also marching in the parade will be T.J.’s brother, Chris Higgins, as a member of the Combined Air Force Band.
Dianne Higgins — Tom’s wife and T.J.’s and Chris’s mom — will be in Pasadena, cheering them on.
T.J.’s and Chris’s brother, Alex Higgins, is band director at North Callaway High School. He’ll be watching the event on TV, his wife and he having recently welcomed a new baby into the world.
Tom taught T.J. and his brothers when they were students at Linn High School.
One day in middle school, T.J. told his dad he wanted to be a band director.
His dad said, “No, you don’t.”
But a few weeks later, he reconsidered, saying, “If that’s what you really want to do, I will help you prepare to be a band director.”
“So that’s what I decided to do for my career,” said T.J. “I really enjoy making a difference and teaching students about music and also helping them develop life skills.”
He emphasized that music builds competencies that pay lifelong dividends.
“We do a lot of teamwork in band,” he noted. “We’re around each other so much, doing early morning practices and giving performances on the weekends, we consider ourselves kind of a family.”
Band members work hard together and develop close friendships and lasting bonds.
“Even now, we have some alumni who are off at different colleges, and when they’re back home on break, they want to get together with their old friends from band,” he noted.
Tom pointed out that band members also learn good decision-making skills and responsibility.
“I think it’s important for everyone to incorporate values into teaching,” said Tom. “As band directors, we have some more latitude with that. We have a good rapport with the kids. We’re able to help build that camaraderie with them.”
It often boils down to asking students outright: “What’s the right thing to do?” he said.
Come blow your horn
This is T.J.’s seventh year co-directing the Helias Catholic band with Tom Smyth while teaching at St. Martin School.
Tom has been retired from Linn High School and directing band at St. George School since 2012.
Avid football fans, they were having a discussion when the Rose Parade tangentially came up.
“T.J. made an offhanded comment like, ‘Will Michigan make the Rose Bowl? By the way, there’s going to be a band director band marching in the Rose Bowl Parade,’” Tom recalled.
Tom said, “Stop everything! I want to sign up for that!”
T.J. said, “Great! I’m going with you! That will be fun.”
The band-director band is named in honor of the late Michael D. Sewell of Pickerington, Ohio, who led high school bands that performed in the parade several times during his 38-year career.
The group was supposed to march in the 2021 year’s parade, which got cancelled due to COVID-19.
The organizers opened the nominations back up this year, hoping to get 300 participants and representation from every state in the country.
Tom and T.J. Higgins will play marching baritone horns in the parade.
“There’s a funny story about that,” said Tom. “I can play several instruments well, but I’m primarily a percussionist. So I said, ‘I want to march and play a snare drum.’”
His sons said, “No, you’re not going to do that.”
The parade is five-and-a-half miles long, plus the half-mile going into it and the half-mile going out.
“And you have to play the whole time,” Tom acknowledged. “And the percussion gives cadence during breaks, so you don’t get one.”
“My kids are smart,” he said. “They have a smart mother who taught them.”
The band members received their music in August and have been rehearsing on their own since then.
They’ll rehearse together as a group for the first time on Dec. 29.
They’ll give their first public performance the following afternoon during an event called Bandfest at Pasadena City College.
“I’ve got some friends who performed there in the past and said it was really fun,” said T.J., whose brother Chris once got to play at Bandfest as a member of the U.S. Air Force Band.
The band will rehearse some more on Dec. 30, then will perform during the judging of floats on Dec. 31.
They will play a custom arrangement of “76 Trombones” from “Music Man” as they approach the famous TV corner during the parade.
They’ll also play John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” official march of the United States, and “Strike Up the Band” by George and Ira Gershwin.
They’ll perform a swinging rendition of “Sing, Sing, Sing” by the Benny Goodman Orchestra at Bandfest.
Both men know they’re up for the challenge.
T.J. ran a half-marathon at the end of October and runs “a few miles” two times per week to stay in shape.
“Also, my passion for teaching the kids keeps me going,” he said.
“It’s rewarding,” Tom added. “You know you’re making a difference. That gives you a lot of energy.”
Both asked for prayers for safety and stamina as they prepare to head out to California.
“And for everyone to be able to say healthy so we can have a good trip,” T.J. added.