By: Staff Reports | Gwinnett Citizen

Contenders and champs...GWA Band
By Beth Volpert Johansen

A small, but mighty band has achieved a total knockout in the US Bands Open Class National Competition held at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on November 15th. 

Marching just 68 members, the George Walton Academy Marching Band qualified to compete against the best of high school marching bands with a show that featured the story of an underdog boxer taking on the champ. The story includes challenges, stops, and starts along the way. The sheer willpower of the contender was enough to bring him to the final match...which, of course, he wins. 

Not unlike the contender in their show, the GWA Marching Bulldogs had what appeared to be nearly impossible odds for being able to afford the trip to compete at all. It wouldn’t be a story if they had not overcome those odds like the champs that they are. “We had won the 2010 Southern States Competition in addition to last year and this year, so we had an open invitation to return to the National Championships,” says Drum Major, Mackenzie Britt. “We needed to budget at least $25,000 and our band directors had told us we just didn’t have it.” 

With an outstanding show, countless hours of work and dedication, plus the will to win, the little band scored extremely well within the southern region of competition. It was Mackenzie’s senior year. She should have been elated, but the idea of competing at the national level continued to surface in her thoughts. “I didn’t know what to do,” says Mackenzie. “So I went to my dad to see if he could help.” Her dad pledged $1000. “I didn’t think anything else about it,” says Don Britt. “Before we knew it, the pledges started to come in.” 

 Those initial pledges were the result of three young women, friends for life, who sat down with the band member directory and began making calls on a weekend in early October. “Grace Pullium and Kelsi Holland and I called and called until we had pledges for about half of what we thought we needed,” says Mackenzie.

The next step involved informing their Band Mom, Julie Cohen. After receiving a call from Grace, Julie realized the band leadership was determined to go to National Championships at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey-a little over four weeks away. “I told her that while I was impressed with their determination and sympathetic to their cause, too much time, money, and effort would be needed to pull together a trip at such a late date,” says Cohen. “Then she told me that the band leadership members had been secretly asking parents, friends, and neighbors to financially support their dream which amounted to commitments for $11,000.” Cohen was stunned. “At that moment, I realized that the students would allow nothing to keep them from competing at National Championships. My next words to her were,  “It's time to talk to the directors . . .”

The girls assembled the Top Four in leadership and approached Mr. Smith’s office. “I told Mr. Smith he might want to sit down, but he chose to stand,” says Mackenzie. “After we told him how much we raised, we asked him if we could please talk about Nationals.” The only stipulation that Mr. Smith put on the trip was that there had to be 100% participation. With the blessing of the band director, the student leadership planned a parent meeting with Julie. “That night, after the meeting, I kept getting texts every few minutes updating me on the amount raised,” says Mackenzie. “It went from seventeen thousand to thirty and then to thirty-seven thousand!” The band raised enough funds to pay for two charter buses, a two night hotel stay, dinner, Empire State Building tour and the show.

The first night was spent exploring Times Square. Band members had dinner and then met at The Empire State Building. “The view from there at night was so pretty,” says Mackenzie. “The city was so huge and sparkled.” Saturday was competition day. Bands began early in the morning with GWA performing second to last in the open class against bands far larger than their numbers. “We would normally be a class 1 or 2, but we like to compete up.”

The sheer size of the stadium was nearly overwhelming. Mackenzie remembers being very moved by the sights and sounds of the crowd, the venue and the entire experience. “As I walked onto the field, I got the most electric feeling,” recalls Mackenzie. “The energy of our performance came together and we gave the best performance we have ever given; it was crazy to think that I was taking it all in at that moment.” The band scored very well and placed 3rd in Class VI nationally. 

As if the magic of raising the funding with her friends, competing well all season and an unforgetable trip to New York to compete at the national level was not enough, Mackenzie was in for one final timely surprise. “On Friday night, as we were on our way to Times Square, I opened my email and found out that I had been accepted to UGA,” says Mackenzie. “It was surreal...of course I will play trombone my freshman year, but after that, I will try out for drum major!” 

The little band with the heart and will of a champ managed to power their way, one deterrent at a time, to get to the main event. Throughout the entire process, student leadership made clear their goals and set forth plans to achieve them. And like the main character of their competition show, they transformed themselves from contenders to champs.