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Chronicling the Marching 97's London Experience

The Marching 97 performs in London’s 2018 New Year’s Day Parade. Photo by Robert Haines ’79.

My name is Jean-Pierre Villamar ’19, and I am a Lehigh University international relations major with a minor in marketing. I play snare drum for the marching band, and I am extremely honored to be a member of the 2017-2018 Lehigh University Marching 97 group that traveled to London, England, and did what no other band in our school’s history has done. I am sharing the journey that fulfilled the official invitation for the band to perform in London’s 2018 New Year’s Day Parade.

Departure and Arrival in London

On the eve of December 27, I could feel a sense of anxiousness because the next day I was heading off to London for the New Year’s Day Parade. Going to sleep early was a struggle, but I managed to hold all my adrenaline in for the following day’s departure.

As we boarded our coach bus at Zoellner Arts Center, the bus was full of chatter and excitement. The trip we prepared for for months in advance was finally within our vision! Upon our arrival at Newark Airport, we met up with other Marching 97 band members who were local to the New Jersey area, and we boarded our plane to the London Heathrow Airport later that night.

In the morning, the plane flew over the greater London area, and the city the 97 would be invading for a week was in sights, and it was a sight like no other. We landed in London, and the British accents that filled the air made the arrival feel all the more genuine. We waited in the airport until a woman who held a sign that read “Lehigh University” directed us towards our bus and took us en route to our hotel in the North Greenwich section of the city.

After about an hour’s drive, we were dropped off at an impressive structure known as the O2 which served as a performance and entertainment venue. The hotel we were staying in was the Intercontinental, which peered over the River Thames onto the new financial district in North London. We met our local group leader, Mark, and were given our itineraries for the rest of the trip. We had officially arrived!

Cadogan Hall and First Few Days

Following our first day in London and the acclimation to the time change, we embarked over to our performance venue for the evening — the historic Cadogan Hall in prestigious Chelsea, London. Band members were given the opportunity to freely explore the area around the hall. It was there that I discovered my preferred eatery for the rest of the trip called Pret a Manger. The franchised eatery was an affordable date with many different sandwich selections at a very reasonable price. Following my sandwich run, I ventured off to Sloane Square in Chelsea and entered the shops. I stopped in and bought gifts for my friends and family back home.

After our free time, the designated hour of rehearsal began in Cadogan Hall. Playing the music we had rehearsed many times felt so differently in this breathtaking hall. The night of the performance, the stage was set, and we joined two high schools, showcasing the hard work we put in to prepare for the event. The fantastic venue was filled with history, and it was truly an honor to participate in a formal setting along with my other bandmates. For fellow bandmate Larissa Miller ’20, playing in Cadogan Hall was the defining moment of, “wow, we are here—we are actually in London.” Larissa said it was humbling to play in a historic hall thanks to the generosity of people that many of the band had never met. Of all the feelings running through her mind, the most prevalent one was a mixture of pure gratitude and wonder.

One of my favorite tours of the trip was when we visited the world-renowned Oxford University. Our tour guide, Pepe, talked us through our day on the morning coach ride over and told us incredible stories of the alumni who have attended the prestigious institution. He even let us know how we could apply to be graduate students! Walking down the streets of Oxford was truly special. Bandmates entered the surrounding stores and picked up their Oxford sweatshirts to wear around our campus next semester. After our morning at Oxford, we continued to my favorite historic landmark of the trip, Windsor Castle. When we arrived at the check-in for the castle, there were pictures of the Queen as this is one of her many homes in the country. The rooms were magnificently filled with gold and silver items. It was fascinating to see each of the intricacies that were put into the castle.

The New Year’s Day Parade

The morning of the parade, we were all required to wake up early, eat our breakfast, and head out towards Berkeley Square where we gathered for our group photo and waited in our launching area for the parade. Although the wait was long, it was incredible to be in full uniform with my fellow bandmates preparing for the big event. As the other bands surrounding us loitered around chatting it up, the 97, filled with psyche, started playing our fight songs. This was the definitive moment of the day.

We filled the streets with our music and energy as people started to take notice and take videos on their phones. Other bands joined in, and the sense of community was unreal! The moment we waited for finally arrived as we stepped off to march in the London New Year’s Day Parade. Walking down the streets seemed surreal as the crowd smiled and cheered us on. The moment itself feels like a blur, but the moment I remember the most was President Simon and university alumni walking with us down the avenue and feeling united and proud as representatives of Lehigh.

Alumni member Dwight Stein ’84 was a member of the band during his undergraduate career and he attended the parade. Stein enjoyed the parade very much and was very pleased to see that the 97’s banner hailed, “The finest band east of all points west.” It was a proud moment for an alumnus who has given so much support to the current members of the band. Current band member Brian Yeung ’20 felt like the whole experience was unreal especially considering the event was highly televised. For him, it only became apparent that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity after the experience.

The trip culminated with a reception where we were able to mingle with some alumni who supported the band’s trip to London. I am very appreciative of all they have done for us and will remember this experience for the rest of my life. Being able to leave a good impression of our great university will always hold dear to my heart, and I hope this opens more opportunities for the university on an international level!

Jean-Pierre Villamar ’19

Photos by Robert Haines ’79 and Lehigh University staff. As a Lehigh student, Robert Haines was a Marching 97 member and drum major and also was the band photographer. As the field photographer for the band's 2018 London trip, we appreciate his volunteerism and excellent photos.