Meet Nashville's Fireworks Maestro, Syncing 60,000 Explosions With A Live Symphony

Jun 30, 2017

Larry Trotter is a Knoxville pastor, and a former lead guitarist in a rock band. But on July 4th Trotter turns into the maestro of the downtown fireworks — the man who times the fireworks to the live music.

Standing on the symphony stage, beside the trombones, he fixes his eyes on the conductor.

“We fire our first shot of every song on his downbeat,” Trotter says. “And the conductor is very good to make sure that he makes big motions for us so that I see when that downbeat’s coming.”

Months of planning have gone into this night. Nashville consistently vies for having the largest Independence Day fireworks show in the country, and the city will kick it up a notch this year with more than 60,000 shells.

"We fire our first shot of every song on his downbeat. And the conductor is very good to make sure that he makes big motions for us so that I see when that downbeat’s coming."

But what makes the Nashville show truly spectacular is that it is carefully choreographed to patriotic medleys played live by the Nashville Symphony. While many shows use a computer to time fireworks to live music, this show won’t be one of them.

“We want the music to accentuate the fireworks and vice versa,” Trotter says. “We want them to really marry.”

Trotter and others have studied the musical scores and decided exactly where in the songs to use cascading sparkles, thunderous booms, strobes, hearts, stars, Saturn rings, and ribbons of color.

“Every second of the show is scripted in terms of fireworks. Every second… what’s going to work here, what’s going to work there,” he says.

Cue numbers are assigned to each launch, so, for example, cue number 20 will launch a specific group of fireworks. To figure out the cues, Trotter has to do a calculation. At the end of God Bless the USA, he wants to have big shells break on the last letter. He knows it takes six seconds from the time he yells ‘fire!’ until they actually explode in the sky, so he has to back-time six seconds to put the firing cue in. On the word God, Trotter gives the command to the guys in the bunker to fire.

“And then 6 seconds later, boom!” he says. “It works really well.”

"The 1812 Overture is probably the most fun because of all those cannons. We try to reproduce the sound of the howitzers that were actually written in the original song."

There are about 250 cues in the show, and he’s well into the 200s when the symphony plays the final song, The Stars and Stripes Forever.

“The cues are coming about one per second at the end of it because there are so many things going up. In some cases, one cue will launch 300 shells. I’m talking as fast as I can talk to try to get all the cues in. Sometimes there’ll be 4 or 5 numbers in one place to get all that stuff up,” he says.

While quieter segments are paired with windbells that flicker and hang in the air, heavier horn and percussion segments call for serious firepower.

“The 1812 Overture is probably the most fun because of all those cannons. We try to reproduce the sound of the howitzers that were actually written in the original song,” he says. They are supposed to sound like random cannon fire, here recreated with fireworks called salutes Trotter says are “insanely loud — even from across the river, you can feel them.”

Don't Look Up

Anticipating the distractions of fireworks booming and 150,000 people cheering, Trotter has been rehearsing non-stop.

“I have missed a couple cues and I learned a long time ago that the key to this is to be very prepared… listen to it and call the cues, and listen and call the cues,” he says.

On the night of the show, he constantly reminds himself not to watch the fireworks.

“I can’t look. The mistakes that I’ve made have been when I knew we were doing some killer effect in the sky and I just took a second to glance back, and then you turn and you go, ‘oh no, oh no, I think I’m two measures behind,’” he says.

A score may include parts for 40 different instruments, so it’s easy to get lost.

“It’s very embarrassing. And for me, my motivation is, 20 guys have been out in the sun for over a week loading, wiring, and making sure everything’s going to go, and I don’t want to have to face them at the end of the show and say, ‘guys, I ruined a cue because I wasn’t paying attention.’”

Proven At Karaoke

The show is produced by Lansden Hill’s Pyro Shows, based in Knoxville. Hill is an insurance agent who founded the fireworks production company on the side in 1976 after realizing that people would pay him to do what he loves to do – set off fireworks. He’s gained a national reputation, and produced the 4th of July show in Washington, D.C. for several years. During a fireworks buying trip in China, he heard Trotter perform karaoke and immediately realized Trotter had the talent to time the fireworks to the music.

“He understands what I’m trying to accomplish, what the visual is that I’m trying to paint with our fireworks, and how the beat of the music and how a conductor will conduct a particular arrangement will affect us,” Hill says.

"There's just no part of the sky that we won't dress up a little bit."

Pyro Shows is in high demand, but they particularly like coming to Nashville for the 4th because the sponsor, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., drives them to make the show bigger and better every year. Hill says this year’s show will extend almost 1500 feet from north to south along the waterfront, from 0 feet in elevation up to over 1,000 feet.

“There’s just no part of the sky that we won’t dress up a little bit,” Hill says.

The intricacies of directing the show to live symphony music is a rare skill set, and Trotter will have an understudy on Tuesday night so another employee can learn how to do it. But the work put in before the show is really where the talent shows up.

He understands what I’m trying to accomplish, what the visual is that I’m trying to paint with our fireworks, and how the beat of the music and how a conductor will conduct a particular arrangement will affect us.

The symphony will play for 28 minutes from Ascend Amphitheater, and if all goes as planned, the expertly choreographed fireworks will be shooting from sandboxes on the East Bank, from the top of Nissan Stadium, from the sidewalk beside Ascend Amphitheater, and the Cumberland River will light up with floating flares. In the 29th minute, a thunderous grand finale will light up the sky and rock the waterfront. It’s a spectacle befitting Music City, and the fireworks show that is reputedly the country’s best.

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