Brandon Rice came to Western Carolina University last winter from Irmo, South Carolina, to audition for the School of Music. During his audition, he noticed there was an informational meeting about the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band.
Rice approached Jon Henson, assistant director of athletic bands, and informed him he played the electric violin and that he would love to be a part of the Pride of the Mountains. Henson relayed the information to the other band directors, then told Rice to send some videos of him playing the electric violin.
They noticed Rice had the technical ability to perform in the band, and he played in tune. But what stood out most was Rice’s swag, Henson said.
“He just had a cool kind of swagger about him when he played,” Henson said. “You could tell he’s very confident when he plays the instrument. All of those things gave us confidence in writing him a part.”
Rice isn’t the first electric violinist to play with the Pride of the Mountains, but it is a rare instrument to be used in a marching band. As a member of the front ensemble, Rice has had several parts written for him.
Being in a marching band is not new to Rice, but playing an instrument is. At Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, Rice helped set up props for two years before being selected as a drum major during his senior year.
He has played the violin since the fifth grade. In the 10th grade, Rice began playing the electric violin. His biggest adjustment has been going from an orchestral setting to that of a marching band.
“The band is a lot about hype and a lot about showing your emotion,” Rice said. “This is probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing a violin in my career. Now I can show so much more emotion than just sitting in a classical setting. Since it’s all about hype, I can be really cool with it. When it comes to performance, it’s really cool and really dynamic to see now because I have so much expression that I can do.
“I sway around instead of just sitting down. Sometimes I move a little bit to the beat. And then when I’m done, I show my violin up in the air, telling everyone, ‘This is what it is. This is who I am.’ ”
During the band’s first performance of the season, Rice wasn’t sure how fans would react to an electric violin. But once he started performing his solo part, he quickly noticed their response.
“I saw a lot of people just pointing and smiling,” he said. “A lot of people were saying, ‘That’s so cool.’ After I got done, everyone was clapping and I saw some people shouting. It was really cool for me to see. I couldn’t stop smiling as I was playing. I felt that positive energy coming to me. There was just all positive vibes.”
Henson has enjoyed writing parts for a new instrument into the show, which gives the band a different sound.
“It’s a unique sound,” Henson said. “It’s a sound that you don’t particularly relate to a marching band. When we have an opportunity to have some variety in the show, having that electric violin is a great option. Plus, it gives you the ability to turn it into a different instrument. Because it’s an electronic instrument, we can put sound effects and things like that on it and really make it unique.”
"...And then when I’m done, I show my violin up in the air, telling everyone, ‘This is what it is. This is who I am.’ ”
Rice went into the season knowing he had one solo written for him. Since then, Henson added another. Rice said he hopes his experience this year will show others that there’s a place for other nontraditional marching band instruments, as well.
“It is possible, especially in the Pride of the Mountains,” Rice said.
When the Pride of the Mountains performs at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Rice will play the cymbals, which he has some experience with from high school. The band is making its second trip to the Macy’s parade in the past five years.
This year, Pride of the Mountains will become one of the only bands in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade history to preform twice in 5 years. Over 500 Catamounts will make the trip from Cullowhee to New York City to lead the parade. The journey to this incredible day begins now, follow along on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.