Sussex County high schools are limiting spectators at football games this fall, and the season looks shorter and different thanks to COVID-19. One thing schools aren’t going to have to miss — at least at home games — are their bands.
Marching bands, color guards, and cheerleaders bring the energy and spirit most people can use about now. Some schools have had to go through hurdles to get their bands approved, but most area marching bands are ready to perform.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations released guidelines for safety returning to marching band, said Max Taylor, director of the Vernon Township High School Marching Band. “The guidelines were synthesized by directors and administrators and utilized in the band’s phased return to practices/rehearsals,” he said.
Practices started on July 21, and protocols have included social distancing, masks (when not playing instruments), sanitizing equipment, temperature checks and daily COVID form submission. The Viking Marching Band will be performing on the field at all home games this fall.
“Marching band prerequisites for brass, woodwind and percussion members include prior instruction on those instruments,” Taylor said. “Color Guard auditions occur annually.”
The band’s first football game performance will be a halftime show on Friday night, Oct. 16, at the football team’s first home game.
‘Awesome so far’
Kittatinny Regional High School has just a short time to get ready for its season, after just getting its green light. The marching band will hold a mix of outdoor, socially distanced rehearsals, following similar screening and safety guidelines as its sports teams, as well as virtual rehearsals, said band director Jarred Matthes. “Our hope is to perform at-home football games in a safe, distanced manner,” he said. “But we are also prepared to create an all-virtual presentation if the need arises.”
Celine Hansen, a junior at Kittatinny, is participating in marching band as a color guard for the first time. “We did not get to have band camp this year where you really get to learn everything,” she said. “I’ve had to very quickly learn how to do flag moves that I’ve never done before on top of rapidly memorizing the routine. But everyone is so nice, and they help me a lot. I’ve had an awesome time so far.”
‘Adjusting our sails’
Andy Lopez, director of the Sparta High School Marching Band said the school is following guidelines set by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA): Students must fill out health questionnaires every day before practice and get their temperatures taken upon arrival each day. Any student showing symptoms is sent home. All rehearsals take place outside, grouped into 10-student pods. Within those pods, students maintain a distance of six feet, and each pod is 12 feet away from the next. Students are masked unless they are playing their instruments or engaged in intense cardiovascular workouts. “The protocol that really changed our summer schedule was the fact that we could only rehearse 90 minutes to start off, and 120 minutes at the end of the summer,” Lopez said. “Our average summer rehearsals are four hours long, and band camp is normally five days at a sleep-away camp with 10 hours of rehearsal.”
While the students were upset to learn they would lose band camp this year, they remained grateful to have the chance to have some kind of season, he said. “You can tell that they really miss each other as they show up with the biggest smiles at every rehearsal. They also work very hard. They know that if things go south with Covid numbers, this can all be taken away at a moment’s notice. They aren’t taking anything for granted. As a staff, we feel that just being here at practice each day is a win. If we get any performances out of this season, it will just be the icing on the cake.”
The plan is for the band to perform at pre-game (approximately 6:50 p.m.) at all three home games.
“The band will have to be socially distanced in the stands, so we will actually be taking up the entire visitors’ section,” Lopez said.
Lopez said Sparta’s marching band staff has always loved being a part of game days. “We have such a talented football team and cheer squad, and our fans are so passionate,” he said. “It really feels like we are all working together out there. I enjoy the role that our band plays during these games as we are usually the loudest thing happening at any given point. If our team is making a huge defensive stand, our drum majors know to get the band playing as loud as we can. When our team scores, we always celebrate with the fight song. It is such a fun atmosphere to be in.”
Jeff Colarusso, director of the Wallkill Valley Regional High School Marching Band, said his district has been making many adjustments. “I am determined to make this marching season the best it can possibly be for my students, he said. “I think they desperately need some sense of normalcy after all the craziness we have been going through for the past six months, so we are ‘adjusting our sails’ to respond to the situation, and moving forward.”
Summer practices at Wallkill were limited to 90 minutes, as opposed to the usual six hours, Colarusso said. Students were in cohorts of 10 or fewer. “Marching band has an advantage, in that we are almost always socially distanced during our practices and performances,” he said. “When they are on the field in their drill positions, the students are at least four marching steps apart, which is 7.5 feet. Also, we are not traveling to any away games this season.”
The Marching Rangers will be performing a modified show at halftime, as well as playing during the game.
“We won’t be set up in the bleachers, since we want to leave room for as many spectators as possible to be at the game and socially distanced,” Colarusso said. “We’ll probably be set up in chairs alongside the track around the football field.”
He calls the atmosphere at a football game “awesome.”
“I love to contribute to the fun by looking for ways to use music to get people pumped up,” Colarusso said. “For example, when the Wallkill Rangers get a first down, we play a quick tune and at the end of it, we all shout, ‘First down!’ It’s become a regular part of the game for us, so the cheerleaders and spectators will shout it with us. In addition, we have developed a great relationship with our cheer team, so there are cheers that they have where we cheer along with them. They also have dances that go with some of the specific songs we play, so I’ll let the cheer captain know when we’re going to play one of the songs, and the cheerleaders will do their dance or tumbling routine while we play”
The band also gets a lot of crowd participation when it plays familiar tunes like “Sweet Caroline” or “The Time Warp”.
“It really helps the atmosphere, whether the football team is winning or losing,” Colarusso said. “It’s a blast.”
“Marching Band (and Music, in general) is all about family, and being part of a tribe,” Colarusso said. “It’s all about teaching the students to be a vital part of something bigger than themselves. They learn that the actions they take have an impact on the group as a whole. From the beginning of the season during the summer, the students are building relationships. For the upcoming 9th graders, it’s a chance to hang out with upperclassmen, so that they have instant connections on the first day of school in September. For the older students, it’s a chance to be mentors to the younger ones, and to put leadership skills into practice. Beyond our own band, the sense of family goes between bands, as well. If there is a visiting band at a football game, the home band will usually host some kind of hospitality session for the visiting band after the halftime show, and into the 3rd quarter. Students from both bands hang out together, compare uniforms, compare shows, encourage each other, and share their love of music. The band directors usually know each other, and we really look forward to the hospitality time as well. For the most part, the entire Marching Band community is incredibly supportive of each other, and we love to watch each other succeed”
Lopez agrees. “They spend all summer sweating it out on the field and then they freeze in the bleacher in early December for playoffs,” he said. “Many years we have found great success in competition having won several championships over the past seven seasons. This is a result of students holding each other accountable and being role models for each other.”
Justine Mahon’s daughter is a member of the band and a junior at the high school. “At Kittatinny, the marching band and color guard are a tight knit family,” she said. “This year is very different, but at least they will be out there.”
“You can tell that they really miss each other as they show up with the biggest smiles at every rehearsal. If we get any performances out of this season, it will just be the icing on the cake.” --Andy Lopez, director of the Sparta High School Marching Band