When Dr. Matthew McCutchen, director of the University of South Florida Herd of Thunder Marching Band, was approached about taking his program to Italy to perform in the 2017 Rome New Year’s Day Parade, he knew it would be a memorable opportunity for all involved.
But there was one small problem: The trip was scheduled to take place during bowl game season. So the band struck a deal with the university and agreed to split their loyalties; in the end, more than 100 band members traveled to Italy while another 250 cheered their team on to victory against the University of South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl in Alabama. “We got really lucky because we have a very supportive athletics department,” McCutchen says.
During the New Year’s parade itself, the Herd of Thunder marched through the cobbled streets of central Rome while the assembled crowd walked shoulder to shoulder alongside, snapping photos and getting up close and personal. “The streets are narrow, and the audience is right beside you,” McCutchen says. “It was much more interactive of a parade than we’re used to doing.”
The highlight of the trip was not the parade itself but another performance earlier that same day. As Pope Francis prepared to address the world for the first time in 2017, the band assembled in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City. Turning toward the window of the cathedral, behind which stood the Pope himself, the band played for the leader of the Catholic Church. Although the musicians never actually saw Pope Francis, McCutchen has been told that he would have been looking straight at them.
It was a powerful moment for everyone in the program. “Whether you’re Catholic or religious or not, you felt like you were a part of history and at a very important place,” McCutchen says. “It was very, very memorable.”