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From snow to show: band warms up

High school band members from the snow belt revel in the sunshine and brightness of St. Petersburg. For many it's their first trip this far south.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


Jessica Dufner couldn't wait until she got to the St. Pete Beach hotel to shed her northern Minnesota cold-weather gear after her plane touched down at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday.

Before leaving TIA, she slipped into the shorts and T-shirt she had stashed in her carry-on bag. She settled into her seat on the charter bus and prepared for the last leg of her trip.

It had been a long one.

The 16-year-old sophomore was one of 168 band members from Grand Rapids (Minn.) High School who arrived Tuesday for the Festival of States. The students, their 15 chaperones and a handful of friends and family members -- called "tagalongs" or "band groupies" -- left Grand Rapids by bus at midnight. They arrived at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport about 4 a.m., boarded two planes at 6 a.m. and touched down in Tampa shortly before noon.

It was 28 degrees when they left Grand Rapids. Newly fallen snow covered the ground. The weather in St. Petersburg was about 50 degrees warmer.

Jessica's friend, Ally Muhar, slept about two hours on the charter bus, but was too excited to sleep on the plane. The 16-year-old sophomore has never been farther south than Missouri. Coming across the "really long bridge" to the beach, she marveled at how much brighter -- and warmer -- it is in Florida than it is in Grand Rapids, an hour south of the Canadian border.

"I'm seeing the light at the end of a 36-hour adventure," band co-director Dale Gunderson said after arriving at the airport. "I am so exhilarated I can hardly contain myself."

Gunderson wasn't able to follow the instructions he had given his students about getting some rest on the plane. He said he didn't sleep a wink.

The students arrived with several additional instructions. They were reminded during the past week that while they are here, they will be representing their school and their town. They were told to use plenty of sunscreen and to drink a lot of water.

Band co-director Mark Saiger also issued a word of caution: He told them to check the Gulf of Mexico for saltiness when they greet it for the first time, a bit of advice he had received many years ago.

Saiger arrived in St. Petersburg on Saturday. He came early to take care of last-minute details, which he said were numerous. He spent most of the weekend working out meal schedules and arranging rehearsal space with staff at the Tradewinds Sandpiper Hotel. He visited the Palladium Theater, where the students will compete in the out-of-state bands concert and jazz evaluation Thursday, and he went to the Coliseum, where they will perform for the Sungoddess and Mr. Sun coronation and pageant Friday night.

He had hoped to take a ride on a water scooter Sunday, but he put those plans on hold while he waited for the band's instruments to arrive. They left Grand Rapids Friday night in a 24-foot Ryder truck driven by one of the school's track coaches. The coach -- and the instruments -- arrived safely Sunday night.

But his biggest concern, he said, was how the band members would feel after their long trip. He scheduled a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal, but didn't know whether they would be up to it.

He didn't need to worry. When they saw the beach -- most of them for the first time in their lives -- the band members got a second wind.

Olivia Latimer, 16, was much more excited than tired. She was one of the first students off the first charter bus that arrived at the hotel.

"It was awesome," she said, after glimpsing the beach from the pool. "I have never seen anything so cool in my life."

She wanted to put her bathing suit on right away and get a closer look, but she followed her band directors' instructions and sat by the pool to wait for the others to arrive. An hour later, after sitting through a short meeting led by Saiger and Gunderson, she checked into her room, changed into a bikini top, shorts and sandals, and retrieved her trombone from the Ryder truck.

By that time, Saiger and Gunderson had abandoned the idea of a marching band rehearsal. They settled for a short jazz band rehearsal -- after their students returned from a trip to the gulf to taste its saltiness.

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