PULLMAN, Wash.- Cougar Marching Band members were present in Martin Stadium during the 2020 football season as cardboard cutouts, but athletic band staff are planning to return musicians to the field in 2021.
When Washington State University officials announced most classes would be held remotely during fall 2020, and the Pac-12 Conference decided to postpone all sports for the calendar year, director of athletic bands Troy Bennefield’s plans for an in-person experience for the CMB disappeared
“I had to revisit what marching band is all about,” Bennefield said.
To adapt to remote learning, the 2020 CMB rehearsed virtually over Zoom. The athletic band staff decided to prioritize the experience of the students while also providing the university with the service of music.
Maintaining a sense of identity as a band was a challenge due to not seeing and hearing each other in person, Bennefield said. The CMB started the season playing for themselves. However, when the Pac-12 announced that football and winter sports would resume, the CMB started making recordings for WSU Athletics to play in the Martin Stadium during football games.
To show their appreciation for the band’s efforts, WSU Athletics allowed band members to submit photos to be put on cardboard cutouts in the stands for free. Now, athletic band staff need to figure out how to put real band members in the stands for the 2021 season.
Athletic band staff also need to figure out how the CMB will rehearse on the turf of Grimes Way Playfield and do rehearsals prior to games in Martin Stadium, Bennefield said.
“We are now in the process of figuring out how many people we can safely rehearse outside using CDC guidelines,” Bennefield said.
During 2020, there was a 50-person limit for how many students could be at a rehearsal socially distanced, Bennefield said. Students would be split up and put into 50-person bands so everyone could go to a couple of games, but the rehearsal limit might be different next fall since the band didn’t meet during 2020. Restrictions are also constantly changing, Bennefield said.
“It might be 200, it might be 100, we just don’t really know yet,” Bennefield said.
One change that was planned for the 2020 football season was to move the band to the west end zone, also known as the Crimzone. While this might change for the 2021 football season, the athletic band staff need to figure out how to socially distance members in the stands regardless of where they are in the stadium, Bennefield said.
In addition, pregame performances and activities will also need to be adjusted, Bennefield said. During a normal year, the CMB splits into smaller bands and performs around campus before home football games, including in the senior ballroom of the Compton Union Building, Cougville on Rogers Field and at the food fair within the Hollingbery Fieldhouse.
While outdoor performances such as at Cougville will likely still occur, indoor performances are complicated due to how COVID-19 can be spread. According to the preliminary results of a performing arts aerosol study published by the National Federation of State High School Associations, brass and wind instruments create aerosols that may carry COVID-19.
Limiting aerosol spread is a risk factor that athletic band staff will mitigate through the use of specialty PPE, Bennefield said. Students will need to use bell covers and wear special musician masks with slits only big enough for a mouthpiece to fit through while playing, Bennefield said. Another solution for woodwind instruments is instrument bags. The University of Minnesota Marching Band worked together with a company called Torpedo Bags to create cloth bags that can cover woodwind instruments entirely, which prevents droplets and aerosols from escaping from keyholes.
After the fall 2019 season, CMB members kept their uniforms and were going to return them in late March, but couldn’t due to WSU going remote after spring break. Now, some students are struggling to return their uniforms, which might create issues for extreme sizes, uniform manager Gabby Berquist said.
“While most of the uniforms have been returned, students from out-of-state or other extenuating circumstances can’t return uniforms,” Berquist said. “Our jackets, pants and hats are made to order, and we often only have two or three of the really large or really small sizes, so if those uniforms pieces can’t be returned there will be problems.”
Berquist is also worried about the lack of experienced upperclassmen to help new marchers. Next year’s junior and senior members were freshmen and sophomores before the pandemic hit, so the band will overall be more inexperienced, Berquist said. The athletic band staff share these fears but are hopeful, Bennefield said.
“Roughly 65% of the band next year has never been on campus and marched with the CMB,” Bennefield said. “Well over half the band haven’t played our songs before.”
For freshman trumpet player Sam Taylor, not marching last fall makes him worried about next season, but he’s also excited.
“I’m worried about my marching since I haven’t done it in such a long time,” Taylor said.
Taylor has never stepped foot on the WSU Pullman campus, because COVID-19 caused his scheduled visit in March of 2020 to be cancelled. While he has never seen the campus in person, he already feels connected to the university through band.
“Band was my one college social outlet during the fall semester,” Taylor said.
Current freshmen like Taylor will go to band camp next August nervous but excited to fill the shoes of those before them, and the athletic band staff are ready to help them be the best musicians they can be.
While many questions still need to be answered before filling Martin Stadium with live music, students and staff are hopeful for the future of marching band at WSU.