Marching Six Feet Apart: How High School Marching Bands Are Coping With The Pandemic
A few months ago, the band hall at Loveland High School would be packed at lunchtime. After hauling their meals from the cafeteria or bringing their bagged lunch, students would plop down on the floor, leaning against the walls of instrument lockers. It was a break from the day to just talk, eat, play games and listen to music. Simpler times.
Lunch period may seem like a distant memory now that families have been isolating in their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic. Schools across the U.S. have resorted to online learning for their students. But don’t worry, Loveland’s band students have found another place to hang out.
Twice a week, 30 to 40 kids log into Mr. Freesen’s "office hours" on Google Meet to chat, play trivia, share a digital crossword puzzle—one kid even showed off their pet duck. Kyle Freesen heads up the band program at Loveland. And lately, there have been a lot of questions.
"One of the big questions is, 'Is there going to be marching band?'" Freesen says. He doesn’t have an answer for that.
The Loveland clarinets practicing in 2019
As school districts ponder if and when students can return safely, for marching bands, practice for next season was scheduled to start as early as June. Without official word from state governments, summer rehearsal time is at stake. It could mean huge changes for their September shows. As time ticks on, band directors wonder if they should shelve their entire show and just wait until 2021. But what would that mean for students?
"She's going to be incredibly disappointed," says Janis Gregoire, whose 15-year-old daughter Emma found her identity with the marching band at Loveland High School.
"She’s generally quiet and shy, and I was a little concerned that she'd get lost in high school," Gregoire says, explaining how Emma had gotten a head start as a freshman by participating in summer band camp. "She started her first day of high school with 200 best friends of all different grades that she knew from band."
At the risk of disappointing everyone in the class, the predicament has put band directors in a pickle. Stay home or start practicing to keep up with their competition?
"You want these kids to have this experience because they love it, but at the same time, you don’t want to get any kids sick," James Shuman, band director at Rocky Hill High School in Connecticut, says. Connecticut is nearing 40,000 COVID-19 cases, as of this writing.
With the marching band community at risk, what can schools do to make sure kids stay safe but don’t miss out?
Marching Six Feet Apart
Social distancing measures are likely whenever school returns, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but getting a band together to expel air doesn't exactly sound like the safest thing to do. Certainly, schools don’t want a repeat of March's infamous choir practice in Mount Vernon, Washington, where 87 percent of the group contracted COVID-19 from one person. The choir quickly became one of the first examples for social distancing.
However, could it be easier for marching bands to social distance, given they practice outdoors where kids can space out and air isn't so stagnant?
Sure, formations can adjust for the CDC’s six-feet-apart recommendation, but that’s about it, says Shuman.
Rocky Hill High School's marching band at a championship competition in 2019
"If anyone’s seen any kids in marching band, as soon as you stop rehearsing, they’ll clump together and they’re all over each other," Shuman says. "They’re gonna be kids. They're gonna be holding hands and pushing each other and playing."
Of course, there's travel, too, which would be pretty costly. "It would take five, maybe six buses to actually have six feet of social distancing," says Carl Wylie, who leads the Travelers Rest High School band in South Carolina. Wylie reports that one day-long outing could set them back nearly a thousand dollars per bus.
Masks aren't an option for students while playing, but there has been some non-scientific talk of devices that could minimize the spread of droplets. One company in Maryland has started to market their bell coverings for brass instruments—usually used for decorative purposes—as "Corona Virus Bell Covers" with the tagline "It’s a face mask for your bell." Scientific tests on these products are either ongoing or haven't started.
So far, only Texas schools are projected to start practice on June 8.
Teaching Music From Afar
Since you can't really conduct band from a laptop, teachers are getting creative. We're talking practice journals, music theory worksheets, listening assignments and music history readings. Shuman even created a bracket for students to battle out which song from Star Wars is the best. Anything to keep the kids stimulated. But it's a struggle. Band has lost the essence of collaboration; instead, it’s mutated into individual study.
"It can feel that even our music classes are becoming more and more a class to sit and observe instead of participate in," says Sarah Wake, an 11th grader who was actively involved in band at Delaware Academy in New York before lockdown.
The collaboration problem can be patched up, but not fixed. Wylie instructs his students to write music for their friends to play. Shuman's seniors even edited together a performance of "Pomp and Circumstance" to play at their own virtual graduation. But those assignments don't fill the void of band practice.
"I miss the chaos that we all complain about, the corny jokes told by our band director that we all roll our eyes at," Wake says. "I miss complaining about playing a scale other than concert Bb, quietly laughing with my section when we should be listening."
And not every kid thrives with distance learning—there are too many outside forces at play.
"I don’t know what’s happening in their homes," Wylie says. "I don’t know what their internet is. I don’t know what their family lives are. I don’t know what their other struggles are… It’s hard to teach like this."
From a kid’s perspective, it’s just as bleak.
"It is really easy to fall into the dark place of this doesn’t matter, grades don’t matter, my teacher won’t notice or care if I don't turn something in, which can quickly become my teachers don’t notice me, I don’t matter," Wake says.
Online Marching Band
Teaching marching band, specifically, is something completely different. It’s like holding football practice online. It just doesn’t work.
First, there’s recruiting and auditions—both nearly impossible if students accidentally left their equipment at school.
"A lot of the percussionists are like, 'I'm tired of playing on the floor. I can't. I'm not getting any better,'" Freesen says.
Freesen linked up with a "band dad" to hitch up a trailer and distribute instruments—because even though percussionists can practice with pots and pans (some students even drew cardboard keyboards of their marimbas), it’s clearly not the same.
Incoming Loveland High School freshman, Konnor S. doesn't have a marimba at home so he built a practice keyboard
Even getting the word out about color guard has been difficult for Freesen.
"There’s no kid that's picked up a flag before," Freesen says, adding that he’s depending on band members to recruit their friends. "'Hey, we’ll drop a flag off at your house and send you videos on how to do color guard.' It’s just so weird.'"
After online auditions comes online rehearsal, or "marching band prep," as Freesen calls it. The visual staff makes choreography videos for students, and when the kids learn each phrase, they send back a video for scrutiny.
"The staff go on and say, 'Great job, Hannah, make sure you watch your left hand,'" Freesen says.
One such staff member is Kelci Hartz, a recent music education graduate from Colorado State University, who works part-time at Loveland High School teaching choreography. Hartz believes there's actually a positive to this way of learning.
"It definitely isn't the same as teaching in person, but I do think there's benefit in the students having a video that they can slow down and replay as many times as they need to," Hartz says. "This helps them to self-differentiate based on the way they learn best."
Kelci Hartz breaks down choreography for marching band students at Loveland High School
As deadlines near, band directors are sketching out "plan A through E," Freesen says. Will they have enough time to learn their show? Will their routines be cut? Will competition hosts be friendly to them considering the circumstances?
The answer to the latter is, well, yes. A representative at Bands of America, an organization that runs major regional marching band competitions in the midwest, told the Recording Academy that they are loosening up their guidelines for shows, like time requirements. BOA is also considering alternatives to live competitions. Perhaps they will delve into the virtual world as well.
Needless to say, when bands are finally able to reunite, they’ve got work to do.
"When we get back together to make music, I expect it to be pretty wonderful no matter how it sounds," Wylie says. "'Cause we’ll be back doing what we do."
The Money Problem
While Bands of America is making it easier for bands to march on, there’s still one big question mark lingering over schools across the nation: money.
"I assume most districts are going to be slashed quite a bit," Shuman says. "You have so many people out of work. Tax money drives what we do. So without that money there, can you fund a season? Will we be allowed to?"
Marching band isn’t a cheap extracurricular, as budgets of top division bands rival those of athletic programs. There's uniforms, uniform cleaning, music copyright, staff (arrangers, drum line coaches, show designers, etc.), meals and travel—not only for the kids, but for their massive amount of equipment. Fees for a single BOA competition range from $300 to $975. One blogger proclaimed marching band “The Most Expensive Sport In America."
One of Loveland High School's impression formations
Some bands require individual fees to join, and those could run quite high. At Loveland High School, it costs $585 (which is on the high end in Colorado, low end for marching band-obsessed states like Indiana and Texas, Freesen says).
"What if we have kids who say, ‘I want to be in marching band but my parents can’t afford $600'?" Freesen says. "We have to figure out how to make that work. We still have to pay our staff."
Sponsors are crucial, but getting a local business to contribute in the middle of an economic crisis—the latest unemployment report shows 36.5 million Americans out of work—doesn’t seem like an easy task.
Essential fundraisers have already been canceled as well. Freesen hopes that they can carry on with contact-less fundraisers, like the fireworks sales they do every summer. But performance-based fundraisers are less likely. At the end of the May, Rocky Hill lost out on the usual $2,000 they normally would make at their jazz band dinner. For Travelers Rest High School, fundraisers account for 70 percent of their revenue, Wylie says. But without fundraisers, bands will have to pare down drastically.
A Rocky Hill High School fundraiser in 2017
Photo credit: Annie Cerpa
"We're going to have to do this low budget," Wylie says. "We’re going to have to keep the cost of bussing down. We’re going to have to not do as many props as I want. I’m buying inexpensive stock productions. I’m not paying thousands of dollars to an arranger or a drill writer. We do a lot of stuff in-house. We keep our staff down. I've known bands to walk onto the field with $150,000 they've spent on their shows."
But cutting down a show poses a problem too. With arrangers, drill, drum teachers and choreographers all depending on part-time work across multiple schools, they could be out of a job. Drum Corps. International, which hosts a tour and competition over the summer, has already canceled their events until 2021, resulting in layoffs. BOA's parent organization Music For All also had to furlough 38 percent of their full-time staff.
With money in question for music programs, bands will have to rely on school budget—a.k.a. the money they get from taxpayers. When it comes down to it, Freesen hopes taxpayers realize how much the music program means to students. School is so much more than the classroom, and he hopes future voting reflects that.
"We’re giving them a place to be that's warm and safe, with adults that are safe and care about them," Freesen says. "Not every kid has that."
School also provides kids with meals, which Freesen sees firsthand when his students gather in his band room—and he worries for the student who told him that they hate breaks because there's no food at home.
"I can’t fully understand what it’s like to go, 'I'm bummed to have spring break' when the kid who sits next to you is going to Hawaii for spring break and you’re worried you’re not going to have enough food," Freesen says.
Until school opens up again, Freesen’s office hours remain hoppin' with kids aching to get back on the field… or at least back into the band room for a lunchtime hang.