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East Coast Tour 2006

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I had the honor of joining Jim Kusserow and the Porterville Panther Band on their East Coast Tour as a member of the press. I would email stories home daily so that parents, friends and other loved ones could follow along by reading about the trip.

Congratulations to Jim Kusserow and the Panther Band

 for winning top honors at the Fairfax, VA Independence Celebration Parade.


Scroll to the bottom of the page for first story - all photos by Esther Avila

Panthers win top honors at parade

Porterville High band plays in East Coast locations; students tour historical sites.

By Esther Avila / Special to The Fresno Bee / Friday, July 14, 2006

Porterville High School band director Jim  Kusserow walks by as drum major Miguel Soto conducts the band in front of the Fairfax, Va., Independence Day parade judges.

PORTERVILLE — Nine days and nine states later, Porterville High School Panther Band members returned July 6 from their East Coast tour with several thousand dollars in awards under their caps.

The band won top honors at the Fairfax, Va., Independence Celebration parade — an honor that came with a $5,000 award. It received an additional $2,000 for participation and also won the Mayor and City Council Choice Award third-place trophy.

"They were an outstanding group. They are truly an impressive band," said Warren Carmichael, 2006 parade grand marshal. "They are very precisionlike in their marching and in their overall presentation. They sounded great."

The Fairfax mayor, Robert Lederman, agreed, calling their performance "fantastic."

The band met on June 27, leaving at midnight and traveling to Los Angeles International Airport, where they divided up and boarded four separate jets toward New York City.

While in New York, band members experienced a 360-degree night view of the city from the observatory floor of the Empire State Building.

"It's crazy. You look at this and wonder how man made all this," said band member Jaclyn McClung from the 86th floor of the building. "It is amazing — absolutely mind-boggling. I have never seen anything like it before. This is spectacular."

But it was the next day, during a New York City sightseeing tour, that many of the band members admitted to having been emotionally touched while visiting ground zero – the spot where the Twin Towers once stood.

"I stood there and I couldn't stop thinking of the people that died that day and of the people watching that day," Wesley Hawkins said. "I thought of how it would feel if I were there when it happened. It was definitely different."

Since 1994, Panther band director Jim Kusserow has taken the band on tour every four years.

"The opportunity to travel to the historic cities of New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore with the members of the Porterville Panther Band is one of immerse importance. These students have a chance to see history, and to be a part of history, through their performances. Playing at Lincoln Center, Arlington National Cemetery, Fairfax, Va. —– and the World War II Memorial – are memories which will be indelibly stamped on these students memories," Kusserow said. "I am so proud of their accomplishments and I'm proud to be associated with them. They represented the city of Porterville and Porterville High School with maturity and honor. You can't ask for more than that as an instructor. I must say for all involved that it was a job well done."

Day 7 - Fairfax, VA - Independence Day Celebration

PHS Band Brings Home Top Honors
By Esther Avila for The Porterville
Recorder / July 8, 2006

FAIRFAX, VA -- Porterville Panther Band members cheered and screamed Tuesday night when they heard their name announced as the overall best high school marching band at the 40th annual City of Fairfax Independence Celebration parade.

The honor earned the band $5,000.

The band also won the third place Mayor and City Council trophy award.

"I heard them announce the [Mayor's] award first and I was so dissapointed. I thought, 'How did we get third-place? We were better than that," said Leslie Keele. "Then I realized that was not the big award and I got so excited. I yelled to everyone, 'It's not over' and I kept saying 'We have to get first, we have to get first' over and over. When we heard our band's name, I started screaming and I couldn't stop."

Band members sat on the bleachers in a packed stadium at Fairfax High School. They appeared as a giant orange wave as they jumped up and down with the announcement.

"They were fantastic," said Fairfax mayor Robert Lederman. "This is our 40th celebration anniversary so we have made everything extra special -- including giving out some cash prizes this year. The [Panther] band ended our parade by playing a special number for one of our city employees who is retiring after 22 years. They made the occasion quite special for us. They did such an excellent job. We are happy that they were able to be with us and we hope that this money helps them in some way."

The City of Fairfax also gave the band $2,000 for their participation in the parade. The $7,000 total cash award will go towards the band's fundraising for their January 2007 Rose Bowl Parade

"This feels great. It will certainly give us a head start on our fundraising," said band director Jim Kusserow.

In the stands, band members were still celebrating -- most of them wearing huge smiles and calling family members and loved ones on their cell phones to pass on the good news.

"This is the fourth trip Jim and I have done together and everyone gets better and better," said Sara Guinn, travel agent who arranged the trip. "The kids, besides being talented and great ambassadors of Porterville, have been polite and kind and very punctual. They have been a pleasure to have on the trip."

And even though the weather was hot, with temperatures in the 90s and humidity at 42-percent -- it did not keep the Panther band from looking sharp and sounding fantastic as they marched down the streets of Fairfax.

"They were an outstanding group. We have always enjoyed having them here and always enjoy their performance," said Warren Carmichael, 2006 Fairfax Parade Grand Marshall. "They are truly an impressive band. They are very precision-like in their marching and in their overall presentation. They sounded great."

By the sounds of the cheering crowd, the entire town appeared to love the band.

"My heart started racing. I could hear the band before I could see them," said Guinn. "They sounded wonderful and the crowd around us went wild."

It was the crowd's cheering that kept Leslie Keele going during the parade route.

"It was so hot and it was hilly [terrain] but each time I heard the crowd screaming -- that got me to the next 100 yards. That's how I had to do it - 100 yards at a time," Keele said. "I have been in a lot of parades, from Hollywood to Knotts Berry Farm, and I have never in my life seen people as excited about a marching band as the people of Fairfax."

Kusserow said he was happy that there were no problems with dehydration and heat.

"We've been here before so the experience helped. We really stressed hydration and rest, and as a result, all of the kids finished the parade. There were no problems," Kusserow said. "They were awesome. I can't remember being more proud of a group marching down the street. When they played 'Patriots' in front of the grand stand, it sounded like a recording."

As Greg Nichols, father to band member, Katie, got on the bus, he said: "Isn't this great? This was the perfect ending to a perfect day."

All of the band members agreed -- their hard work and long hours had paid off.


Day 6 - Washington D.C.

By Esther Avila for The Porterville Recorder / July 4, 2006

They Don't Care if They Ever Get Back

WASHINGTON DC -- There was one main goal on Monday's agenda for the Porterville Panther Band -- to enjoy the day. And that is exactly what they did.

The Panther Band started their day with a bus sightseeing trip through Washington DC -- stopping along the way at the Lincoln, Jefferson, Korean War Veterans, Vietnam, and Iwo Jima Memorials. The band also stopped at the Ford Theater, where President Abraham Lincoln was shot, and they spent time visiting the Ford Theater Museum.

"I am really into American history and am fascinated with World War II," said band member Clark Keele. "I especially enjoyed the Iwo Jima and Korean Memorials and the Vietnam Wall. I don't feel it is right to be at war but I do feel it is right to honor the soldiers who fought. I was very impressed by all of the Memorials and really enjoyed the day."

The afternoon was dedicated to visiting the Smithsonian, a network of several museums around the Washington DC Mall -- a 146 acre stretch of lawn extending from the Potomac River to the U.S. Capitol Building.

Band members Olivia Walters, Kelsey Procter and Holly Harlin headed for the National Museum of American History.

"I had a blast today. I had fun with everything I saw and I really liked seeing the old cars -- and Dorothy's red slippers from the Wizard of Oz," said Walters. "We also got to see several of the President's wives' gowns -- inaugural gowns and wedding gowns."

For chaperone Teresa Procter, the most interesting item she saw there was the hat that President Abraham Lincoln was wearing the day he was shot.

There were many impressive things to view in the museums but she was quick to point out that she has been equally impressed with the students.

"We have not had any problems. They go where they are supposed to and show up at the busses when we tell them. The kids have all been super," Teresa Procter said. "We have not heard any of them complaining about anything."

Marti Phipps and Paulla Stephens, of Porterville, echoed the sentiments. The two ladies are part of a tag-along tour following the band from site to site. Both mentioned that they have been impressed with the band and have heard nothing but excellent remarks about the band everywhere they go.

"I think what we love the best is hearing such positive comments from people everywhere -- from the concert at the Lincoln Center to the World War II concert," said Stephens.

The tag-along tour consists of 23 people, two from Illinois and the rest from Porterville.

"We have been having a great time. The tag-along group has been super. They get so excited when they see the band kids perform," said Marti Phipps of Porterville. "Washington DC on the fourth of July is the most awesome place to be and being here, with the band, has been great."

Though band members said they enjoyed the sightseeing and the museums, many of them said that the best part of the day was attending a professional major league baseball game at RFK Stadium in Washington DC

The crowd cheered as they watched the Washington Nationals play the Florida Marlins. It was the first major league game for many of the band members. It was especially exciting for many of them to see three National homeruns, including one in the first inning, before the game ended with a final score of Nationals 9, Marlins, 1.

"I think this was the best part of the whole day. I loved it," said Walters. "I had never been to a major league game before and I had so much fun."

Walters sat next to Kevin Tuttle, who explained the game to her.

"I've been playing baseball for 12 years and have gone to many professional games but it was fun being here and explaining the game to her," Tuttle said. "She picked it up quick too and was cheering and everything."

Walters and Tuttle were not the only ones who indicated that it was the best part of the day -- many first-timers, as well as seasoned fans, had similar sentiments. Panther Band director, Jim Kusserow said he enjoyed watching the game with Frank "Buck" Shaffer's nephew -- Earl Shaffer -- who showed up to enjoy the game with him.


Day 4 and 5 - NYC, Arlington National Cemetery and Washington D.C.


PHS shines at Arlington
By Esther Avila, For The Porterville Recorder / July 3, 2006

ARLINGTON, Va. - It was all about patriotism and honor Sunday as the Porterville Panther Band continued to shine on its East Coast Tour as it performed at some of the countries' most historical sites. A morning performance at Arlington National Cemetery was followed by a patriotic concert on the lawn of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

As the band prepared to parade onto the grounds, the Orange Blossoms - the band's frontline of marching girls - became an instant photographic attraction with many of the tourists rushing to take their photograph with the girls.




“It was flattering. It made me feel as if I were a movie star. I never smiled so much in my life before,” said Orange Blossom Lacey Balangue. “When we came here, we figured nobody would know us here. Back home, everyone takes our pictures but we certainly didn't expect that here.”

As the band paraded to the WWII Memorial, a crowd quickly developed.

The band proceeded with a patriotic concert, playing everything from “God Bless America” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to music from all branches of the U.S. armed forces. And, in traditional concert fashion, flag girls marched down the side of the band holding U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine flags as the appropriate music played. The concert ended with the band playing John Phillip Sousa's “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” complete with flute, piccolo and brass sections moving to the frontline, and with flag girl Sophie Dieterle marching forward with the U.S. flag - all to the apparent delight of American and foreign tourists watching the concert.

“Today has been an amazing experience,” said Panther drum major Miguel Soto after the concert. “I feel we did great and it was quite an honor, especially for me as drum major, to be able to perform in these places today.”

The Porterville Panther Band is on day five of its East Coast Tour.

On Saturday, the band spent the day sailing past the Statue of Liberty and learning about history and the immigration process at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum at the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York.

Though it is no longer permitted to climb the stairs to the top of the statue, the students did sail approximately 400 feet from the 151-feet tall statue on a ferry.

“When I first saw it up close, I was amazed by it, but at the same time, it was a lot smaller than I expected it to be,” Ernie Vega said. “The movies always make it look larger than it is - maybe because they always shoot [the scenes] from the bottom looking up. I am not disappointed, I just find it definitely strange - odd.”

Still, Vega indicated it was impressive and he felt honored to see something he learned about in school. Kelsey Procter agreed.

“I can't believe this is real - that we are really here,” Procter said. “I can't believe that we are looking at it and getting this close to it. We read about it and school and all but now, we are here. It is amazing.”

Procter also spent some time looking up ancestor names on the Immigration Wall of Honor on Ellis Island where more than 60,000 names of immigrants were inscribed.

But the Statue of Liberty was only the start of their day. They ended the day with a visit to Philadelphia where they saw Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell before returning to Washington, D.C.

And even though the band does not linger long in any one spot, Panther band director Jim Kusserow said it was important for the students to see as much as they could.

“We want them to be curious about American history and to use this as a springboard for further study down the road. This place in Washington is always the focal point for the historical significance of the tour,” Kusserow said. “New York is a center of excitement but this is the center of history. And when we get to play at a monument or Memorial, we are playing for people all over the world but we are playing American music. I feel we are providing a valid service to all the people who hear us and to our country.”


Day 3 - Panther Band East Coast Tour - NYC - Lincoln Center

After leaving Alice Tully Hall from a morning practice session, Britany Bethurum, left, and Bryce Beatty strike a pose when they spot a Panther Band poster outside the Lincoln Center announcing their concert. The band performed Friday night.

NEW YORK CITY - It was a concert worthy of a New York audience as the Porterville Panther band brought the house down at the Big Apple when they performed at Lincoln Center on Friday night.

With Martin Kroupa serving as master of ceremonies, Panther band director Jim Kusserow led the band into a “Salute to New York” -- a program including music from some of the the world's greatest composers as well as music in honor of New York City.

Performing in the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the band did not disappoint its audience as it opened the concert with “American's We” by Henry Fillmore and continued with “Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral” by Richard Wagner.

But it was four marching bass drums, used for cannon effects and strategically placed in two opposite balconies, that had the audience looking up and back during Tchaikovsky's "Overture.”

The audience responded with hearty applause and a standing ovation.

“It sounded just like canons. I loved everything about the concert - everything,” said Westside New Yorker Luz Solano after the show.

Bea Rogers was also in the audience.

“I've lived in New York for more than 50 years,” Rogers said. “I've seen several shows but this one was fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. I can't get over how all those kids did such a wonderful job.”

The program continued with a New York theme as the band played tribute to the city by playing one of Leonard Bernstein's most successful musicals of all times - “West Side Story.” The number featured several band vocalists -- Sarah Rector, Andrew Eggleston, Jaclyn McClung, Jared Pugh and Sara Marcus. The “West Side Story” medley included musical hits such as “I'm So Pretty,” “Maria,” and “Tonight.”

Soloist Brittany Bethurum followed as she belted out “New York, New York” before more Panther band vocalists were once again featured during the playing of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

After intermission, it appeared the band continued to delight the audience with the “Star Spangled Banner Spectacular,” music from “The Incredibles” and their “Grand Finale” -- a number featuring music and flags from all branches of the United States armed services.

Several elderly veterans stood each time music from their branch of the service was played.

“That was my favorite part,” said Aida Grant, another New Yorker from Westside who was in the audience. “I enjoyed everything I heard tonight but that finale - that was something else. We're celebrating a long Fourth of July weekend and I must say this was a special treat. I wish I could come again and listen to them once more - they were terrific.”

It was evident that the crowd felt the same way - the band received several standing ovations during their program.

“What a thrill to be here tonight,” Kusserow said to the crowd after the show finale. “We started planning for this about a year and a half ago.”

Kusserow then explained who Frank Buck Shaffer was.

“I followed a fellow who started this program in 1953. He brought the band to Carnegie Hall and I was a student of Buck Shaffer. I was here 30 years ago,” Kusserow said. “Buck is still educating and still teaching kids after 60 years of public education.”

The audience exploded into applause and Kusserow started choking on his words.

“If he hadn't started this and if he hadn't opened my eyes, it may seem like an impossible situation to be here today,” said Kusserow. “Instead it's been simple to play for people like you and bringing great American music to people across the country.”

After the concert, band members were treated to dinner at Planet Hollywood before heading back to their hotel to rest.

Day 1 and 2 - Panther Band East Coast Tour - New York City

PHS band members explore Times Square in New York City

Panther Band members explore the Big Apple
By Esther Avila, for The Porterville Recorder / June 30, 2006

NEW YORK CITY -- The Porterville Panther Band members' first day of their East Coast tour came to a fun and successful ending with dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe and a night time tour of the Empire State Building Wednesday night.

“It's crazy. You look at this and wonder how man made all this,” said band member Jaclyn McClung from the 86th Floor Observatory of the Empire State Building. “It is amazing - absolutely mind-boggling.”

Most of the students agreed that the hour-plus wait to take one of the 73 elevators up to the observatory floor to see a 360-degree view of New York City was well worth the wait.

“This is astonishing. I have never seen anything like it before,” Heather Hawkins said. “I'm just taking it all in because I'll probably never do this again.”

Natashia Lopez agreed.

“It's spectacular. It is as if I am in a state of awe,” Natashia Lopez said. “There are no other words for this.”

The nighttime tour came after more than 14 hours of travel, including airplane transfers through Denver or Chicago. Several of the students admitted to having been awake for more than 36 hours straight.

“I've been awake since 7 a.m. Tuesday morning,” Regina Chavez said on Wednesday night. “I only slept one hour on the flight between Denver and New York. I'm tired and drained but excited about New York.”

The whirlwind of activities continued Thursday with the Panther band rehearsing their “Salute to New York” show in the morning and then separating into four groups for an afternoon city sightseeing tour that lasted through the evening.

While on the tour, New York City tour guide Joanne Kleidon took one of the four busses to several well known city landmarks, all the while explaining the background, history and other interesting information about the sites.

“New Yorkers are great walkers,” Kleidon said. “The best way to see the city is to walk it.”

And with that, the students walked around the Greenwich Village area as she continually explained the sites visited.

“This would be a nice place to live but there's no privacy in yard space,” said Clark Keele.

But it was the stop at St. Paul's Chapel, Manhatten's oldest church that brought somberness to the group. The church is known as the place where 14,000 volunteers worked together on 12-hour shifts serving meals and providing a place of rest for fire fighters, construction workers, police officers and others.

At Ground Zero, where the former Twin Towers once stood, Panther Band students stood quietly as they remembered the day that the Twin Towers came down.

Steven Hulse and Keele agreed that standing there was especially moving.

“Seeing something like that - that had such an impact as a whole on the United States - was different,” said Keele.

Wesley Hawkins, who traveled on the fourth sight-seeing bus, agreed and said he was thankful for the opportunity to see the site in person.

“I stood there and I couldn't stop thinking of the people that died that day and of the people watching that day,” Hawkins said. “I thought of how it would feel if I were there when it happened. It was definitely different.”

After more sight-seeing, the groups joined for a pizza dinner before separating and continuing their tours.

The tour continued as Kleidon guided the group through SoHo, Broadway, a section of Chinatown, Harlem, at several historical churches. A walk in the park was called off as the group made a dash back to the bus when a sudden thunderstorm erupted. They all appeared to be laughing and joking when they were caught in another downpour as they left Grand Central Station. As the rain calmed down Kleidon led the group back to Central Park to pay tribute to the late Beatle John Lennon at Strawberry Fields.

Off we go - Porterville Panthers head for the Big Apple

Jaclyn McClung checks off a name Thursday as Thomas Eugene picks up his bright orange band shirt. To facilitate spotting band students, they will all be required to wear the shirt at the airports to and from New York.

Panther band set for East Coast tour
By Esther Avila, for the Porterville Recorder / June 24, 2006

Students and parents crowded the Porterville Panther band room Thursday evening for some last minute instructions and details about their upcoming East Coast tour.

The band departs Tuesday at 11:30 p.m. for eight days packed with activities, including performances in New York City, Arlington National Cemetery, Washington D.C., and Fairfax, Virginia.

In all, 183 people - 35 chaperones and 148 band and auxiliary members - will leave in four school buses and fly out of Los Angeles International Airport on four separate jets.

Since 1994, Panther Band director, Jim Kusserow, has taken the band on tour every four years.

“Visiting the historic sites in New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. is something that each member of the Panther Band gets once in their four years at Porterville High,” Kusserow said. “I think it is important that they see the monuments and places that they read about in their books so they can acquire a sense of the importance of our country's great history.”

Kusserow can still remember visiting and performing in the Ford Theater in 1976 as a member of Frank “Buck” Shaffer's Panther Band, he said.

“I saw the gun that John Wilkes Booth used to murder President Lincoln, and the clothes the President wore on that fateful night,” Kusserow said. “Seeing those articles had a profound impact on me as a young person. I am happy to be able to help share that opportunity with our young people at Porterville High School today.”

Kusserow decided on the Lincoln Center performance because the band did not visit New York on their 2002 trip.

“I thought that the Lincoln Center would be a perfect place for the Panther Band,” Kusserow said. “When we give a concert in a place like Lincoln Center, we are not only giving our students a great experience, we are spreading good will to people across the country through the joy of music. I am proud to be able to help give our musicians a chance to share the great things that are happening in music in Porterville.”

Sophomore Katelyn Ogas couldn't agree more and said she is thankful for the opportunity that Kusserow is giving her.

“I have never even been on a plane before,” said Katelyn. “I'm very excited. I've never been out of the state, so going to New York is a big thing.”

Her mother, Georgia Ogas, appeared to be just as excited.

“This is a lifetime experience,” said Ogas. “I'm so happy she's in the band and is going. It's such a wonderful opportunity.”

In the back of the band room Alberto Duron, Jade Perry and Thomas Kroupa talked excitedly about the tour.

The three trumpet players will be roommates during the trip and all said they looked forward to the Empire State Building tour and agreed that the most exciting part of the excursion will be their performance “A Tribute to New York” Friday night, June 30, at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

“If there are people in the Porterville or San Joaquin Valley area who have family or friends in the New York City area, we would be happy to send them complimentary tickets for the concert if they contact me at the band room,” said Kusserow. “They just need to send us the number of tickets and an address and we will see that they get the tickets.”

Tickets are also available by contacting Kusserow on the band Web site, .

“I believe that performing in great concert halls around the country gives the kids an experience which will last a lifetime,” Kusserow said.

“Performing at Kennedy Center and Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. and the Lincoln Center in New York City is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Day 4 photos

PHS students turn for away from the Statue of Liberty for a quick photo
On the return trip from Ellis Island, several students take advantage of taking a short nap.

 I can be reached at avila93291@aol.com

 This site was last updated 07/02/07