College marching bands ponder pandemic performances: ‘Didn’t cover this in … how to be a band director classes’

At the barest of bare minimums, the Michigan Marching Band could play “The Victors” with 32 people. If necessary, a song that would typically showcase more than 200 students lined up almost shoulder-to-shoulder to form a block "M" could be whittled down to the basics and still play that tune every college football fan would recognize. 

“We aren’t going to do that,” said John Pasquale, the director of Michigan Marching and Athletic Bands. “But that would cover all the parts necessary.”

It’s a question I felt compelled to ask Pasquale, whose industry sits here 11 weeks from the start of college football season in just as much flux as the sport itself. No matter what form the season takes as the country grapples with COVID-19, most athletic departments are counting on bands to provide a sense of normalcy and help create an atmosphere that may be lacking in many stadiums where attendance is limited. 

But just like the football teams they share the stage with every Saturday, there’s a big question that will hang over college marching bands this fall: How do you do it safely? 

“If you want to disseminate an aerosol,” said Dr. Henry Hoffman, otolaryngologist and professor at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, “blowing something out around people is probably a pretty good way to disseminate it.”

Hoffman, along with his Iowa colleague Dr. Adam Schwalje, published a paper last week discussing the COVID-19 risks that might be associated with playing wind instruments, which have blow holes, spit valves and sometimes require deep breathing in order to play. Schwalje, a world-class bassoonist who once toured with the Macao Orchestra, said he’s been fielding calls from all over the country about the safety of musical performances in the wake of multiple stories that have linked outbreaks to singing and church choirs. 

"We just don’t know really from the science at this point how safe or risky it might be to play wind instruments together,” Schwalje said. “There are some things that are in favor of marching bands — playing outdoors where the winds might disperse any aerosols … but I think there’s a lot of other types of question marks about behaviors that go along with playing instruments, like swabbing instruments, blowing them out, getting rid of the condensation that accumulates in a safe way. Those are things we don’t really know how to do yet, and a lot of those things are being actively researched and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to have some answers.”

In band world, getting those answers is serious business. In fact, a report published May 21 by the College Band Directors National Association led with the following message: “The next few months are going to be critical for our profession.” So critical, in fact, that the CBDNA has commissioned a scientific study that will test how far aerosols will spread from musical instruments and help guide some very basic things, like how far apart marching band members need to stay. 

Shelly Miller, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado and expert on indoor environmental quality, is leading the study but said it is still in the early stages. 

Meanwhile, band directors who are planning pregame and halftime shows for this season eagerly await the results. 

Pregame, halftime shows will look very different

“We didn’t cover this in any of our undergraduate ‘How to be a band director’ classes,” said Brian Britt, the director of the Pride of Oklahoma Marching Band. “We’re trying to think through, how do we rehearse safely? What are the protocols in that going to look like? What is game day going to look like at home? Are we going to be traveling? It's about being patient and realizing we’re going to come up with a lot of plans we aren’t going to use.”

So far, only one FBS program — UConn — has announced that its band will be shut down this fall. It’s certainly possible others will follow. 

But whether you’re talking about the most tradition-rich programs in the country or HBCU marching bands like Jackson State’s famous "Sonic Boom of the South," they are a huge part of the show and one that schools could not easily shed this season without risking massive fan blowback. 

It will look different, however. 

Penn State has had the same pregame show for 50 years, but Blue Band director Gregory Drane said it will almost certainly have to be redesigned once the musicians get back to campus this fall to accommodate for social distancing. 

“It’s going to be an extreme challenge,” he said. “Just trying to think about incorporating those traditional aspects of what our audiences have become accustomed to, spelling out the logos and those things. It might not be possible with a reduced number, or won’t be as effective as it was in the past.” 

Michigan’s band typically brings 276 people onto the field for a halftime show, and most of us think nothing of the logistics required to make that happen. But everything that goes into it — from restrooms to providing food to entering and exiting the field, where the bands are typically crowded together in a tunnel — needs to be re-thought. And, of course, the shows themselves will have to adapt because band directors anticipate utilizing fewer musicians spaced farther apart.

“Our pregame show in its current form isn’t going to work in the social distancing scenario we’re anticipating,” Pasquale said. “Halftime shows will look different because it will limit the creativity that can be executed.”

Pasquale emphasized that he’s not complaining about the daunting task ahead. His problems are small compared to the rest of the world. 

But the musical and visual element bands provide are part and parcel of the college football sensory experience, whether it’s "Rocky Top" being played after every touchdown at Tennessee or the horns of "Tribute to Troy" blaring after a big play at USC. And the idea of flutes and clarinets and horns being vectors for COVID-19 because they’re launching someone’s spit out into the air will cause some major adjustments, some of which are already taking place.

Ohio State marching band director Chris Hoch said his staff is running its development plan virtually and is planning on 10 feet of space between musicians during rehearsal, which means they’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors. Drain is worried that smaller numbers being allowed to perform at games will hurt development at Penn State for future years. 

“Just like a football team, if you only bring in one offensive lineman in your recruiting class this year, it’s going to hurt you the very next year,” he said. “Not being able to engage everyone is going to have future implications and challenges that may be crippling moving forward.”

Meanwhile, if schools have to cap attendance at 25 or 50 percent and spread fans out within the stadium, there’s uncertainty about how many band members would have seats. Britt said Oklahoma is vetting lots of ideas that would revolve around keeping the music the same quality that fans expect while modifying the marching and in-game aspects, which could include something as radical as rotating band members every quarter. 

“For programs like Oklahoma and many others that are tradition-rich, the pregame show itself is a lot like a secular church service in that everyone knows when to stand up, when to sing, when to clap,” Britt said. “When you start to change that, it creates a lot of cognitive dissonance, to put it mildly. We’re just ready to adapt to whatever we need to do to provide an engaging experience for our fans and keep them hopeful and excited about Sooner football until we’re past this pandemic.”

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