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High school marching bands adapt as coronavirus disrupts their season

Shows are canceled and football nights are not the same, but student-musicians keep the beat. “We’ll still be heard.”
Toby Lam, center, plays trombone while joining the St. Pete High Green Devil Marching Band while performing during the game on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, between Wiregrass Ranch High School and St. Petersburg High School at St. Petersburg.
Toby Lam, center, plays trombone while joining the St. Pete High Green Devil Marching Band while performing during the game on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, between Wiregrass Ranch High School and St. Petersburg High School at St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 12, 2020
Updated Sep. 12, 2020

From electronic ticketing to mandatory masks, much about high school football will be different as teams across the Tampa Bay area take the field this fall.

That includes the role of the marching band.

The sideline staples and halftime entertainers have felt the squeeze of coronavirus restrictions in ways that the teams they support have not. While the athletes trained on the gridiron, districts limited the bands' summertime rehearsals — traditionally grueling, weeks-long camps — to online activities.

To reduce time spent in stadiums, the high school athletics governing board slashed the length of halftime. Districts limited game seating capacity, forcing all but the smallest bands out of the stands. And social distancing guidelines mean the musicians must stand farther apart while watching football players tackle each other.

“It’s like literally everything else in education right now,” said Keith Griffis, director of the 200-member Sickles High Wall of Sound in northern Hillsborough County. “We’re going to have to adapt to make it happen.”

And despite all the hurdles, that’s the plan for some of the area’s most prominent bands. After months without performing or even gathering together, the students and their teachers intend to do whatever it takes to play.

That resolve has student-musicians enthused.

Members of the Mitchell High School color guard practice indoors after school on Thursday in New Port Richey.
Members of the Mitchell High School color guard practice indoors after school on Thursday in New Port Richey. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Mitchell High senior An Le, her school’s band co-captain and a clarinet player. “I’m just excited to see how the first football game will turn out.”

Mitchell’s opening night contest against Land O’Lakes High was canceled, as the Land O’Lakes team went into quarantine after a coronavirus exposure. The coach put out feelers to see if any other teams might be in the same boat and looking for a game.

Mitchell band director Joel Quina said his group stood ready for the home games. Visiting teams aren’t allowed to bring their bands this year.

They’ve worked through their music — Welcome to the Jungle and Africa — and figured out how to space themselves out on the field.

At 225 members, the band won’t be allowed in the stands. They’ll sit, spaced apart, about 10 rows deep in the end zone area.

“We’ll still be heard,” Quina said.

That’s even with the instruments having on bell covers, to cut the chances for spraying students' spit as they play, and with the musicians wearing masks. Band co-captain Matthew Benjamin’s mom designed special two-layer face coverings with flaps that allow the mouthpiece to go through without exposing the students' mouths and noses.

“It’s not even that uncomfortable,” said Benjamin, a senior French horn player. “It still allows us to breathe, and it allows us to play without any restrictions.”

Sickles has implemented many of the same protocols related to spacing, masks, marching and other issues, Griffis said. The musicians and their teachers feel a sense of gratitude that they’re able to establish rules that allow them to play, he said.

“It certainly will not look like it does in a normal year,” Griffis said. “But for so long we had nothing.”

Like Mitchell, the Sickles Wall of Sound lost very few members, as band remained a highlight of their school days. Even without competitions and performance assessments, a critical component in most seasons, they came back for the camaraderie and pride that band provides.

The band will perform stand tunes. And, though it won’t be marching much, it still intends to take the field for a truncated show, the Music of Journey — Any Way You Want It and Don’t Stop Believing.

“Our sole mission right now is to be in attendance at football games and support the school,” Griffis said.

The virus-related rules dramatically changed the year for the Tarpon Springs High Outdoor Performance Ensemble in northwest Pinellas County. The band began in-person practices only a week ago, having been conducted in the virtual realm to that point.

Drummer Jonus Goldstein listens to instruction along with other members of the Mitchell High marching band during practice Thursday.
Drummer Jonus Goldstein listens to instruction along with other members of the Mitchell High marching band during practice Thursday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Once face-to-face, the rehearsals still had to take place in smaller groups, so they divided into sections in four different parts of the campus, director Kevin Ford said. As home football games begin, just 15 musicians will be allowed inside to start.

That’s just the drum line in this band of about 180 members.

Making matters worse for this troupe, all its usual competitions and indoor performances have been canceled, including the Grand Nationals it had aimed to attend.

Rather than look at the scenario as negative, Ford said the group decided to take advantage of the situation so it won’t be another devastating year for the dedicated students.

“We wanted to regain some of the control in the process, so we didn’t have to stand in front of the group and say, ‘We know you worked hard for this, but we can’t do it,'” he said

In this image from a Zoom call, Mitchell High marching band director Joel Quina demonstrates how musicians fit their instrument mouthpiece into specially designed face masks for performances during the coronavirus pandemic. Band captains An Le and Matthew Benjamin, in the background, said the masks are not as restrictive as they expected. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK  |  Times]
In this image from a Zoom call, Mitchell High marching band director Joel Quina demonstrates how musicians fit their instrument mouthpiece into specially designed face masks for performances during the coronavirus pandemic. Band captains An Le and Matthew Benjamin, in the background, said the masks are not as restrictive as they expected. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times]

So they developed what they’re calling the Hamilton Project, a two-part show based on the music of the Broadway hit. They’ve been building the performance in small groups, section by section, working toward the time when they can play in front of the football crowds and other audiences.

The effort, which also will be video recorded for presentation at a virtual national show, allows the musicians to work at a high caliber, Ford said, and even incorporate chorus, orchestra and other musical components that usually aren’t part of the fall season.

“We felt this was the best case scenario for us,” he said. “We want to be sure we provide opportunities to the students, and we don’t fall victim again ... to this disease.”

Benjamin, the Mitchell band co-captain, said he, too, appreciated his school’s effort to make sure band is a positive experience regardless of the circumstances. Students there have been able to focus on ensembles and solos, and learn more about music fundamentals, in place of some of the reduced marching activities.

“Band is always an experience, to be around people and express yourself through music,” Benjamin said. “We can still make the bad ones into good ones.”

Sickles director Griffis said he hoped the student-musicians, their families and the fans will keep all that in mind as the bands return to local fields and stages.

“Just sit back,” he said, “and enjoy.”