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TV crew films B-CU band

(By Deborah Circelli, Staff Writer)

DAYTONA BEACH -- With their hands waving in the air, hundreds of Bethune-Cookman University Marching Wildcats shake their hips in unison and repeatedly chant "How low can you go?" as they shimmy closer and closer to the ground.

In just two weeks, about 320 band students, including dancers and flag corps, have learned routines and dozens of songs leading up to their first performance Saturday at Municipal Stadium, where the football team plays Edward Waters College.

"We move at a fast pace," said Donovan Wells, director of bands at Bethune-Cookman University.

For about 80 freshmen who play instruments, they first had to pass an audition.

Once accepted earlier this year, they received 26 songs to learn before practice started Aug. 16. In all, the band members learn about 55 songs they perform throughout the season.

For freshman Ashley Cannady, 18, who plays the piccolo, she went against family members who attended rival FAMU. She was drawn to the sound and style of the Marching Wildcats, nationally known for performing at the Super Bowl in 2009 and being featured in the movie "Drumline" in 2002.

Wells said the band's popularity "is kind of amazing" and has "snuck up on us really."

The band is currently being filmed by ESPNU, the network that features college sports. An ESPN spokesman said plans for the program have not been finalized and they will not discuss participants, but that it is a "potential series to air in the fall that will showcase the great traditions" of marching bands from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Wells said a production company for ESPN is following Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M University (FAMU) to document the bands leading up to and including the Florida Classic game in Orlando in November.

He said they've been told five 30-minute episodes will start toward the end of October.

Cannady, who attended high school in Orlando and grew up in Miami, said the way the band's instruments blend together is what attracted her to the Marching Wildcats.

"You can hear the brass and it's a warm, comforting sound to me," she said.

Freshman Adam Simpson, 18, of Miami, who plays tenor saxophone, said he "fell in love" with the band after seeing them perform when he was in the ninth grade and started practicing an hour or two every day in hopes of making it into the band.

James Barreca, 18, of Fort Lauderdale, who transferred into the university this year as a sophomore and plays tenor saxophone, said "the energy everybody has -- it's nothing like any high school marching band ever could be."

Wells, 48, director since 1997 and a Bethune-Cookman alumni who played the trumpet in the marching band, said making the band is "very competitive, like athletics." About two-thirds will pass the auditions, but not all will accept, depending on what offers the students have from other colleges.

Students must maintain a C average during an academic year. Practice began a week before fall session and band members practiced eight hours a day. Since classes have begun, they practice from 7 to 9 p.m. during the week.

As far as designing the show, Wells and his two assistant directors, James Poitier and Pedro Orey, monitor what is popular on the hip hop charts. He said his "mind is always working" and he prefers not to plan the entire season in advance. A committee of band students helps develop the dance moves.

"Any band can do a halftime show, but will it be entertaining is the big question," Wells said. "When our fans leave the game, we want them to talk about the game and the halftime show."

Wells did his teaching internship in 1984 at Spruce Creek High School under band director Tom Novotny, who said Wells had "all the right stuff as an intern." Novotny, now an assistant principal at Mainland High School, said Wells has carried on Bethune-Cookman's tradition and "brought it to an even bigger and better level over the years."

Senior Jared Brown, 22, a music education major from Decatur, Ga., said Wells has been his mentor and the band has kept him on the right track. As a tuba section leader, he positions an upper classman next to a freshman to show them, "If I can do it, you can do it too."

Wells said his goal is to develop the students into young professionals and "teach them how to compete and compete with class."

Kayla Redmond, 22, a senior from Miami in the band's Sophisticats Flag Corps, enjoys the camaraderie and performing.

"It's just amazing to be a part of something bigger than yourself and to see how you can put a smile on someone's face doing what you love," Redmond said.

Head drum major Jermaine Culbreath, 21, a senior majoring in music technology also from Decatur, said the band "is a big family." Sometimes he still gets a "little nervous" on the field, but he said his hat blocks his vision of the audience so he can stay "focused on drills and commands."

Senior Allen Willis, 21, of Orlando, one of the tuba section leaders, said when the band puts on a show "the crowd never lets us down.

"When we come on the field, they just go crazy. They just raise up," Willis said. "Just to see it at a distance, brings energy out of you."

Reprinted with permission of the Daytona Beach News-Journal © 2010

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About Bethune Cookman University:

Founded in 1904 by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) today sustains her legacy of faith, scholarship and service through its relationship with the United Methodist Church and its commitment to academic excellence and civic engagement.  B-CU offers 38 degrees on its main campus and online college. Located in Daytona Beach, B-CU is one of three private, historically black colleges in the state of Florida. The institution boasts a diverse and international faculty and student body of nearly 4,000.  For more information, visit

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