Madawaska musicians chosen to perform at inauguration
By Molly Lovell-Keely
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A former Courier reporter turned educator will lead the only school band in Maine selected to perform at the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump during festivities scheduled for Jan. 19-21.
Ben Meiklejohn left the Courier in September to pursue a career in Madawaska as band director and music teacher for children in grades pre-K to 12. On a whim, he applied for the Pride of Madawaska Band to perform at the inauguration.
“I thought it was a long shot,” he said. “I didn’t tell the students. I told the administration, but that was it.”
The Pride of Madawaska Band, which includes students in grades seven through 12, will perform Thursday, Jan. 19 in the Make America Great Again! Welcome Concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The performance will be held after Trump and vice president-elect Mike Pence lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States at the U.S. Capitol on Friday, Jan. 20.
Meiklejohn is working with the 2017 Presidential Inauguration Commission to coordinate the band’s five-minute performance during the program’s “Voice of America” segment. He has proposed the band play Maine’s official march, “Dirigo March,” which is also the state’s motto and means, “I lead.” He also proposed the band play “Main Street America,” what he said is a popular march and is in the spirit of bringing leadership to the streets of America.
In order for the 30-member band to participate in the event, band boosters will need to raise about $20,000.
“The school department can’t contribute anything to that,” Meiklejohn said. “The school budget has failed five times. We’re six months into the school year still trying to pass this year’s budget. The school board and superintendent are supportive, but they’ve been clear that they can’t put any money into this.”
Pride of Madawaska Band has existed since 1953 when it included hundreds of members. Over the years, as mills closed – there is one operational paper mill now – student enrollment declined and band was nearly eliminated from the programming in the town’s two schools.
“The community said, ‘No way are we getting rid of this band,’” Meiklejohn said, adding that band used to be part of the regular school day. “When enrollment declined and teachers had to be cut, it was harder to fit band into the schedule.”
“Band happens before school every day from 7:30 to 8:15 a.m.,” Meiklejohn said, adding that students must find their own transportation to the school that early in the morning.
“It’s amazing that they get there that early,” he said. “In southern Maine students now start school later because there have been studies that say kids can’t function early in the morning. These kids are going out of their way to get up early even though science says they should be sleeping.”
Meiklejohn said most of the band’s students are enrolled in after-school sports or hold offices in the student council.
“Studies show that students who study music are much more likely to be high achievers in other areas of their life,” he added.
Meiklejohn and administrators of the Madawaska School District found out two weeks ago the band was chosen to perform in Washington, D.C.
“I could see the excitement in their faces,” he said of announcing the news to students. “Some of them have never been out of Aroostook County.”
What may be the experience of a lifetime for the 30 members of the Pride of Madawaska who will travel to the nation’s capitol, is a twice in a lifetime experience for Meiklejohn.
“I marched for George H.W. Bush,” he said.
Meiklejohn started working for the Madawaska School Department Oct. 4 and still travels to Portland on some weekends to gather his things.
“I’ve barely had time to unpack – I’m still not unpacked,” he said. “I came across a poster of the Kennebunk High School band marching for George Bush in 1989 when I was a senior. I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s a presidential inauguration year, and a light bulb went off.”
Meiklejohn contacted the offices of Sens. Susan Collins, Angus King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
“Sen. Collins’ office replied back by email saying they were very interested and to let them know when we applied,” Meiklejohn said, adding that he believes support from those officials played a part in the band’s selection.
Meiklejohn said memories that stand out from his first inaugural performance included the tight security.
“When we first got there, security was really strict,” he said. “Secret Service came on the bus, searched everybody, went through our bags, opened all the instrument boxes and looked inside the instruments.”
“In one way it seemed a little intimidating, but it’s probably the safest place in the world,” he added.
Meiklejohn recalled that Kennebunk High School didn’t even have a marching band when the school was selected to march in the inaugural parade.
“It had to create one,” he added.
Meiklejohn also remembered marching past Bush on the parade route.
“I remember marching by him and he waved to us. That was special. He was waving to his hometown band.”
While Meiklejohn decided to keep whom he voted for in the presidential election private, he said Pride of Madawaska Band’s participation in the festivities isn’t political.
“Sure, there are probably students or parents who didn’t support Trump, but nobody’s getting hung up on that. It’s beyond the politics. It’s about participating in the tradition of democracy,” he said.
Meiklejohn said he thinks the Madawaska band may have been chosen because of its geography.
“We’re considered one of the four corners of the country,” he said. “ We’re the northernmost town in the New England and the northeastern point in the U.S. We’re a small band, in a small school, in a small town in a small state – we represent small town America.”
Maine divided its electoral votes in the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s one electoral vote from Maine came from the state’s Second District in the north. However, Meiklejohn didn’t speculate whether that was a reason the band was chosen.
Partisanship hasn’t come up at all, he said of the performance. Meanwhile, rumors circulate nationally about what groups are performing at the inauguration.
“It seems like everyone recognizes it for what it is,” Meiklejohn said. “Participation in a ceremony that has happened every four years since the founding of our country, like clockwork. Half the people don’t like the person who gets in. The controversy is nothing new.”
Besides, Meiklejohn said, what is there to criticize?
“There’s no reason to judge him before he’s even started.”
For more information or to contribute, visit www.madawaskaschools.org for information.