By STEVE AREL
U.S. Army Cadet Command
A year ago, Michael Thompson took to the Alamodome field in San Antonio, as the drum major for the All-American Bowl marching band and wowed the crowd with a performance that was ended with him in the stands, enveloped in a see of uniform-clad Soldiers.
Thompson, the first Junior ROTC cadet to hold the band’s most visible position, was back in San Antonio last week working with his successor and helping him dazzle the fans in his own right.
“It’s a completely different experience being on the other side,” said Thompson, now a senior ROTC cadet at Florida International University in Miami. “I miss it.”
Thompson was one of a half-dozen collegiate cadets and band veterans working with marching band members, providing mentorship and insight about what it takes to shine in the up-tempo halftime performance of Saturday’s nationally televised annual high school all-star football game in front of 30,000-plus fans in the stands.
Thompson was providing tutelage to Tommy Militello, of Thousand Oaks, Calif. The two formed a relationship last summer after Militello was picked to lead the band.
They have sent each other texts, emails and spoke face to face during a band competition in Indianapolis.
Last week, Thompson peppered Militello with all sorts of tips and advice for refining his movements and motivating the musicians on the field. Thompson describes Militello as having solid command presence and confidence.
“I’ve told him to enjoy everything that goes on, and don’t overthink it,” Thompson said. “Being the drum major is really a hard task. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. Though there are some discrepancies, we pull it together.”
Militello welcomed the coaching, saying it provides much-needed comfort. But his task of leading a 125-member band in front of thousands of people was still somewhat nerve-racking.
“It’s a phenomenal organization, and I don’t want to mess anything up,” Militello said.
Just a few days before the band was to perform last year, AAB Band Director Andre Feagin approached Thompson with an idea on how to end the show—an idea that rewrote the last act of the production they had been practicing.
At the waning moments, Thompson leaped from his stand and tore down the Alamodome sideline, disappearing among the cluster of people milling about the field. Meanwhile, Feagin assumed Thompson’s spot, directing the musicians.
Then, suddenly, a roar came from the seats where thousands of Soldiers sat, and Thompson emerged in the middle of them, his black and gold suit contrasting against their green uniforms. He and Feagin conducted the band simultaneously through its final crescendo.
When the music stopped, there stood Thompson with his white-gloved hands raised and surrounded by Soldiers offering high-fives.
Militello saw video of the performance and wanted to top it.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said.
In the year since, Thompson, who now plays trumpet in the FIU marching band and is majoring in music education, has received scores of applause, accolades and Facebook friend requests from people he has never met but who saw the routine. He said being part of the band taught him patience, how to work better with other people and how to be considerate of their ideas, some of the same lessons he’s being taught in ROTC.
“There’s always someone you can learn from,” Thompson said.
Zachary Helm played the trombone last year under Thompson’s direction. Now a cadet with Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., he said he and his fellow performers talked some about their experiences in ROTC and the opportunities available in the program.
Mostly, the veteran performers have spent their first few days helping with equipment and logistical tasks, as well as doing some coaching to calm nerves.
“We want them to have the best experience possible,” Helm said. “They’ll perform a good show, just like every year.”