VALLEY CENTER, Kansas — On its face, band camp at Valley Center High School looks pretty normal: Lines of students with instruments march up and down a football field while the color guard practices throwing flags into the air.
Band director Jan Verboom drills the horn section on technique.
“Keep the eighth notes together, guys,” he said. “Vertical alignment.”
Other things are very different. You don’t see the whole band together, just small groups. Trumpets, saxophones and clarinets cover their horns with nylons. And for the most part, when the instruments go down, the masks come up.
They’re changes that not only band directors, but also football coaches and choir directors are being asked to make as they prepare for the beginning of a school year under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. They say they’re doing the best they can, but many have unanswered questions about whether they’ll be able to continue — and if they do, what’s the best way to keep students and staff safe.
Already, at least one school district, in Kansas City, Kansas, canceled all fall activities, including marching band.
Verboom is doing what he can. At camp, at the end of a morning session with brass players, he shouted, “Band meeting around me. Take a seat and have your mask on.”
After going over a few issues discovered during practice, he gives the group a pep talk — one with a very coronavirus-centric message.
“I don’t want you to ask yourselves, ‘What’s the point, we don’t really have a season coming up,’” he said. “We don’t know that yet.”
Drumming up motivation among his students is a top priority this year. That’s because this school, which is about 20 minutes north of Wichita, already has lost a lot. The band was supposed to perform at the National Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C., in May, but that was canceled. Annual state marching band competitions are also canceled. And while football is still on, there’s no guarantee that won’t change or that the band will be allowed to play at halftime.
Verboom said it’s hard to make a plan when there’s still so much uncertainty. His district moved the start date for school back to Sept. 9. It’s also left open the possibility that not every student will be able to come to campus daily if the spread of the coronavirus becomes a problem. A block schedule would make coordinating rehearsal even more challenging, he said.
Faced with similar uncertainty and safety concerns, Wichita’s East High School Band Director Maranda Wilson moved band camp online.
“I know that my students overwhelmingly wanted to do band camp,” she said. “But when I thought about what that would look like at a time of such high risk in our community, it just wouldn’t be a traditional band camp.”
Knowing that remote band camp likely wouldn’t sound as exciting, Wilson tried to make it more attractive by inviting guest performers to offer training and encouragement. She also tried to find online team-building exercises.
But even with the workarounds, she’s worried about what she’ll do once school starts. Wilson wonders how many students can safely gather at one time or whether rehearsals will have to be held outside.
Whatever the fall ends up looking like though, she said she’ll do everything she can to make sure band students get some experience performing music together — even if that’s in groups of 10-15 on the front lawn of the school.
“It’s such an important part of their high school experience,” Wilson said. “For a lot of our kids, that’s the one really great thing about school.”
Back at Valley Center for another morning of small group practice, student drum majors take the temperature of each arriving student.
“We’re definitely more of enforcers now,” said Timothy McHatten, who’s a drum major and a senior. “We have to make sure everyone is doing everything right.”
He said being split up into smaller groups isn’t nearly as fun as getting together as a full band. It lacks the one-big-family energy that’s usually there. But Teagan Horning, another senior drum major, said with all of the craziness of the past several months, everyone is mostly just happy to be here.
“I’ve been trying not to dwell on (canceled events) and just look forward to what new opportunities we can have and what new experiences we can have,” she said.
Because of concerns about the coronavirus, band camp wasn’t mandatory. In the past, Verboom said, camp is generally a way to see who’s really committed, but that mentality just didn’t make sense this year.
He even considered canceling it on several occasions, knowing how dicey it could be to gather a bunch of teenagers to blow into instruments when an infectious and dangerous respiratory illness is spreading out of control.
“There’s days I walk in here and you wonder as a teacher if you’re doing the right thing because we want to keep the kids safe,” he said.
Ultimately, he felt following the guidelines given by the Kansas State High School Activities Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations were enough to keep the kids safe. He also felt that if Valley Center’s athletes were doing conditioning work, his band students deserved something, too.
Preliminary research from NFHS and the University of Colorado shows playing instruments is akin to coughing or sneezing when it comes to spreading respiratory droplets. The study suggested students wear masks (even while playing, by creating a small slit for their mouthpiece) and put one on their instruments. It also suggests any indoor rehearsal should be limited to 30 minutes.
Band camp is different in other ways, too. Instead of a full marching program, Verboom is having small ensemble groups prepare for winter performances, potentially at basketball games. One morning at camp, the drumline and pit-instrument players were even practicing Christmas music.
“We want the kids to enjoy playing music just for the sake of playing music,” Verboom said. “Whether we’re trying to go for a big halftime show at a football game or playing in a competition representing Valley Center, it still goes back to the bare thing of appreciating playing music.”
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Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.