Desert Ridge High School senior Brock Schmeltz had never been to Europe before this last summer.
In June, he traveled to Normandy, France for a “once in a lifetime experience” as he performed alongside the rest of his high school marching band in front of people lining the streets of the historic city.
The Desert Ridge band was the only band in Arizona invited to participate in the Historic Programs’ 75th D-Day Anniversary commemoration ceremonies.
Historic Programs is a Mesa-based nonprofit oganization providing concerts, festivals and parades as part of official historic commemorations and celebrations.
It invited Desert Ridge’s ensemble and 11 other high school bands from across the country to perform in the city where Allied forces began liberating France and the rest of Europe from German occupation during World War II.
“It was great to experience a different culture and see how the invasion on Normandy impacted the world and how we, as Americans, impacted that invasion,” said Schmeltz, 17, the band’s drum major.
“We were also performing with bands three or four times our size,” he continued. “It was intimidating going into.”
Desert Ridge had the chance to march in the D-Day Memorial Parade in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, as well as perform in musical salutes at Normandy American Cemetery and Brittany American Cemetery.
Band Director Stephanie Campbell said she was overwhelmed by the experience.
“I have never been involved in a parade situation where the whole community comes out and comes into the streets,” she said. “They were almost on top of us because they were so excited.”
“People were hanging out of windows from second and third story buildings, cheering with flags,” she added. “it was unbelievable.”
The band played everything from “Hymn to the Fallen” by John Williams to Don Raye’s “This Is My Country.”
Schmeltz told the East Valley Tribune he felt “awe-inspired” to have the opportunity to play the patriotic songs in front of actual WWII veterans.
“Everyone was energetic and we had people pilling over into the band,” he said. “They were wearing American flags and were so friendly toward us – it was wonderful.”
Historic Programs invited the band because students were unable to raise enough money to perform in the nonprofit’s annual Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade last year.
“We had gone to the Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade in the past, so the organization knew about us,” Campbell said. “Due to our dedication to our veterans and knowing how we feel about them, they invited us to France.”
Aside from rehearsing sheet music and marching formations, the students raised around $4,000 each to make the international trip possible.
Some fundraisers included silent auctions and cookbook sales, explained the band director.
“The retirement communities got behind us because they have a lot of veterans living there.”
In total, 40 students from the 70-something marching band packed up their bags for France.
Historic Programs have held a D-Day Memorial Parade since the invasion’s 70th anniversary.
Campbell said it’s important for her students to learn about these historic events through their musical opportunities.
“Something I personally feel is very important is to honor our veterans,” she said. “When situations come up, we try our best to find opportunities to do memorial services or parades.”
“I feel it is part of my job as a teacher to educate these students about the past, what was given to us, and give back through our musical performances,” she added.
The Desert Ridge High School band has participated in numerous ceremonies at veteran cemeteries as well as the Pearl Harbor Parade.