By Emily Williams and Caroline Rice
The impending school year is commonly portrayed as a rebirth of sorts, filled with promises of a new year, a new routine and perhaps even a new you.
At the center of all that opportunity is one of the most spirited American trademarks – football season.
The Friday night athletic productions draw the community together after school hours to the tune of drums and brass pounding amid spirited chants and cheers.
With about two weeks remaining until the date many schools systems are hoping to restart the 2020-21 school year, the idea of arriving on campus for the first day of school and attending the first football game of the season remains in limbo as administrators continue to grapple with pandemic planning.
Regardless, football teams, cheerleading squads and marching bands are preparing for the potential to perform.
Challenges for Band Practice
At Mountain Brook High School, band director Jason Smith and his crew began rehearsals in July, following the announcement by the Alabama High School Athletic Association that football practices could commence.
Though there are numerous aspects of band that are separate from sports, band director Jason Smith noted that both directors and students are “committed to supporting our Spartan athletes as much as possible.”
There are still many questions hanging in the air as far as football games and performances are concerned, as the landscape of the pandemic and its effects on gatherings of any kind is constantly evolving.
“Of course, we are not sure about travel to away games, social distancing protocols in stadiums – this is important when playing music with wind instruments – and being able to consistently rehearse in the middle of a pandemic,” Smith said.
Over the course of the pandemic closures of schools this past spring, band directors had to adapt to online learning.
“Virtual band was challenging and rewarding,” Smith said.
Via Google Meet, band students and directors were able to see each other virtually, share quarantine stories and continue to work toward some of their bigger goals, such as, celebrating the senior band members by organizing an online ‘banquet.’
“We were even able to feature our Beginning Band, junior high school and high school bands in a video concert,” Smith said. “This required each student to record their individual music, and we were able to mash it together to make a large video featuring their performances.”
In almost any band setting, Smith noted, there is a similarity in that each individual is responsible for practicing, playing and performing their music to the best of their ability.
The difference this fall lies in the visual responsibilities that performing as a marching band requires – the choreography.
“Students are relying on each other to be in the correct spot on the field at the exact time successfully playing the right notes and rhythms,” Smith said.
This year’s performances are being choreographed to accommodate a greater distance between musicians, and the crew is rehearsing their routines in the great outdoors almost exclusively.
No matter how much distance there is between students, there is still that aspect of marching that has them moving about the field rather than remaining stationary.
With that in mind, Smith said that the band will be using personal protective equipment. This includes items that will help mitigate the spread of respiratory droplets, especially for those playing wind instruments.
Despite the measures put into place for rehearsals, there is always a chance that practices and performances will be put on hold once more.
“Our discussions about delaying school and sports are still in play,” Smith said. “We would need to evaluate the safety of the decision to continue. We would look to our administration for guidance and move forward from there.
In the end, Smith recalled a quote he recently heard that perfectly emulates his outlook, “I am hoping for some precedented time. This unprecedented time is causing too many problems.”
Other schools are facing the same issues as they prepare for band season with fingers crossed.
After Hoover City Schools delayed the start of school, the Hoover High School marching band adjusted its calendar accordingly, delaying the start of band camps but continuing to have weekly sectionals.
Meanwhile, Spain Park’s marching band is continuing practices as scheduled.
“We are very fortunate to have a facility that allows for appropriate spacing both outdoors and indoors and an administration and nursing staff eager to help us make wise informed decisions about how to participate in this activity safely,” a statement on Spain Park’s band website reads.
During band camp, masks are required indoors unless a student is playing their instrument. Students will also have their temperatures taken before entering a building and be required to take a baseline screening test.
Spain Park students who select the full-time online schooling option still will be able to participate in band, choir, art and dance courses. They will be required to exit the building when that class ends.
The Homewood High School marching band planned to march in the 2021 Tournament of Roses Parade, but tournament officials recently announced that the parade will no longer be happening due to the coronavirus. However, the band was invited to perform in the 2022 Tournament of Roses Parade.
Homewood’s band has shifted its focus to preparing for football season and is moving forward as if football season will go on as usual.
Instead of sitting indoors to learn their music, as they usually do, members of the Homewood marching band are practicing outdoors, and they have been split into five practice groups.
Chris Cooper has been at Homewood High School for 21 years, and he took over the marching band last year.
“We are trying to keep this activity going because these kids love the arts. Many kids have said if it wasn’t for band and choir, they would have only virtual classes. That really is the power of music,” said Cooper.
The band staff at Homewood has taken several steps to ensure safety. Instruments will be covered with shields and bell covers to reduce particle spread in the band room. And the school has bought 500 masks to go with the band uniforms, as well as 300 bell covers and plenty of hand sanitizer.
Cooper said that local band directors have a group text with each other and that they are all doing a hybrid band camp schedule similar to his.
“The Over the Mountain schools are doing what we are doing and piecing it together as it goes along. At this point, having any kind of marching band is going to be exciting for us,” Cooper said.
Homewood students who select the virtual schooling option can still participate in band after school.
“Most teachers at Homewood are doing either all virtual or all face-to-face, but band directors are doing both. We are planning to have virtual private lessons once a week,” said Cooper.
A livestream of band class will be available to virtual students in the band.
Some of the other arts-related activities in schools have more time to adjust their curriculums than marching band officials do. For instance, show choir, a major student organization at Homewood High School, doesn’t have its season until spring semester.
“You can either be positive about this situation or believe that this is the worst scenario ever,” said Cooper. “We are going to be positive and keep going. My goal is to give these kids some sense of normalcy.”