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A Prankster A-'Foote' Among the Marching Royal Dukes on Thanksgiving?

JMU’s Marching Royal Dukes are in New York City for their fourth appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Will it provide an ultimate stage for the band’s biggest tuba prankster? WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports.

[Fade in: metronome pinging; sleet crunching underneath marching feet]

It’s 29 degrees and sleeting at Bridgeforth Stadium. Ice crunches beneath the feet of hundreds of Marching Royal Dukes during the final rehearsal of the routine they’ll perform Thanksgiving morning in New York City, as part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That clanging noise you hear is a metronome hooked to a sound system, helping the band keep time.

[Nat sound: Instructions barking over loudspeaker]

That’s Dr. Scott Rikkers, the band director, calling shots on the loudspeaker. ‘This is how cold it’s gonna be on Thanksgiving morning,’ he tells the freezing band, seething around him. The sleet has ruled out instruments, making this an a cappella practice.

[Nat sound: the instrument-less band shouts the song instead of playing]

Rikkers has more to worry about than weather as the Marching Royal Dukes prepare for their fourth appearance at the Macy’s parade since 2001. There’s the military-grade logistics of loading a 535-member band into 11 buses and an instrument truck for the trip to New York where they’ll occupy 155 hotel rooms near Times Square. There’s the performance itself: one minute and 15 seconds of fame in front of 55 million people who will watch the NBC broadcast on Thanksgiving morning. The Marching Royal Dukes will play I’ve Got Rhythm by George Gershwin.

RIKKERS: The band does well with big band, kind of jazzy tunes. It’s just got a good energy to it, a good pulse.

And then, there’s Andrew Foote to consider.

RIKKERS: Andrew the tuba player. Andrew is a really big personality.

A self-described “goofy, lighten-things-up” kind of guy, Foote is a senior who’s distinguished himself with a recurring, un-choreographed gag during the band’s encore song, Get It On.

FOOTE: I will run around the outside of the band up to the front, so that right as we’re about to play the last sort of big note, I’ll pick one of the members on the staff – usually it’s Mr. Rikkers, the band director – and put the tuba bell over his head and play on his head.

It’s slapstick at its finest.

FOOTE: That’s a joke that is marketable to like age two up to like age 90. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, that’s funny. He’s got a tuba on his head.’

RIKKERS: So when we were charting the Macy’s routine, we immediately thought, ‘Andrew’s going to have a hard time staying in his charted position.’

In other words, are 55 million people about to see Dr. Scott Rikkers’ head disappear into one of his own tuba players’ tubas?

COLLETTE HOLLAND: Andrew Foote, let’s see. Oh my goodness.

Collette Holland is a senior drum major in the Marching Royal Dukes.

HOLLAND: He’s always there to cheer people up and put a smile on people’s face.

FOOTE: All of us were kids once, and it’s good, I think, to tap into that childlike energy and enthusiasm and fun. So I try to cut through some of the oooh, uuuh, stress about midterms and uuu stress about finals and ‘oh man, I got this huge paper.’

This is a guy on a mission to turn frowns upside down.

FOOTE: I think sometimes what all of us need is a little bit of the comic relief – or just the, you know, goofy positivity. Because it can kind of cut through some of that negativity that we all experience when we’re busy.

Eric Fenske, another senior, plays baritone:

ERIC FENSKE: Andrew’s like super energetic, always has a really fun attitude. I mean, things are pretty serious and he knows when to keep it serious but, you know, like keeps things fun, and I think that’s where we excel as a program and as a band overall.

You know that quote about first-rate intelligence being the ability to comfortably hold two opposing ideas in your head? Maybe a first-rate marching band – as the Marching Royal Dukes are generally regarded – is one that can simultaneously go about things with the usual exacting rigor at the same time it channels its inner child.

RIKKERS: I think our band is very disciplined, and we’re clean, but we do want to enjoy it. And I think that some bands are a little too serious. I’m willing to ignore some things if that means the students can truly enjoy what they’re doing.

Foote’s on that same page, seeing more to his role in all of this than tuba antics.

FOOTE: In high school, I saw the MRDs and I thought, ‘Wow, that looks like such a fun band to be in. I wanna be in a band like that, a band that has fun,’ because I had also seen the previous 20 minutes of really high-quality music making.’ So you gotta earn the fun by doing a good job with the music, but I think if you do a good job with the music, you’ve earned a little bit of that fun.

The Marching Royal Dukes will set off early from Central Park; one hour and 2.5 miles later, sometime between 10 and 11am, they’ll come strutting onto the carpet in Herald Square with the cameras rolling, blaring Gershwin and spewing school spirit on national television, and then we’ll all find out if Andrew Foote decides to cap off his career in the JMU marching band with a bang.

RIKKERS: He will not. And I’m saying this publicly so everyone can hear. He won’t do it.

Rikkers sounds pretty confident, until suddenly he doesn’t.

RIKKERS: And if he does, we’ll talk about that later. Maybe you can interview him from jail.

FOOTE: I’m not going to do anything that I think could cause any serious damage to anybody there and nothing that would do anything bad to JMU’s reputation.

Foote also sounds pretty confident, until suddenly he doesn’t.

FOOTE: But there’s some room there.

[Fade in I’ve Got Rhythm]

On Thanksgiving Day, we’ll find out just what that means.

Andrew Jenner is a freelance reporter based in Harrisonburg. After working as a journalist in the Shenandoah Valley for a decade, he spent three years living and reporting in Brazil, returning to Harrisonburg in the summer of 2018. Andrew has reported for TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Modern Farmer, and many others. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, has a MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College, and almost made it onto Jeopardy! a few years ago.