Urbana High School Color Guard

Half of the members of the color guard stand in formation during practice Thursday, July 16, 2020, at Urbana High School.

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The bands will play on ... in some shape, form or fashion.

That’s the plan, according to area high school band directors. They have been working with health experts and their school districts to help make it happen during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m really excited about what we’re going to get to do here,” said Michael Allen, the Centennial High’s band director for more than a decade. “It’s an exciting opportunity to revisit everything and find cooler ways to make it go.”

During its performances, his band will split the football field into different quadrants, making sure the students will always be a minimum of 6 feet apart.

Imagine a T on the field. A portion of the students will be above the top of the T, and another set bottom right and bottom left of the T.

“We’ve got a really clever drill writer (Mark Tessereau), who found a way to make it work,” Allen said. “He sent us the video, and it’s extremely cool. It looks like one of my favorite shows I will have ever done.

“The audience will have a lot to look at.”

Even if there are limits in terms of numbers of participants, Allen wants to push forward.

“We’re in the fine arts,” Allen said. “If anybody can be creative, it’s us.”

Is it worth all the trouble?

“The thing about band that is so important in these times is these kids come to school because of these kinds of activities,” Allen said. “They’ll come and they’ll hang out in the band room before and after school and at lunch. It’s their identity. It’s what drives them, to see their friends and to be excited about going to school.”

Band draws the same kind of enthusiastic participation as sports and other extracurriculars.

“Every kid is a starter in band. Every kid is performing equally,” Allen said. “There is no hierarchy there. That’s what creates that bond and shared ownership that leads to so much success and so much leadership training at a younger age.”

Allen expects to have 135 band members this year. They’ll all will wear masks and adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

“They will follow the rules,” Allen said. “I’m not worried about it.”

The band setup at Centennial should help.

Plus, Allen said, “we’ve got large spaces and large rehearsal rooms. If you take the maximum number of students and spread them out in that large space, you end up with a very safe environment.”

Allen said he has been impressed with the level of communication from Unit 4.

“It really is nice to have them reach out to us, ask questions, really listen and take our recommendations,” he said. “It’s a good environment. I do believe the administration has the students’ best interest in mind. They are also watching out for their employees as well.”

The daily school schedules are a work in progress, with a combination of in-person and virtual learning under consideration.

Last spring, bands learned to embrace online lessons. Students were able to use the Google Classroom to share their progress. And the band instructors created videos.

“They can rewind that video and watch it as many times as it takes to get the concept,” Allen said. “If they don’t get it, they can ask again and I can record another video.”

Measuring stick

In the past, area marching bands participated in competitions across the state. One of the most prestigious has been at the University of Illinois.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s event has been called off, as have most of the others.

But there are alternative ways for bands to see how they stack up.

Champaign Central assistant band director Jennifer Currey and others are hoping to have virtual clinics.

“We’re kind of floating these ideas around. Nothing is set in stone,” Currey said.

The bands would pick a night each week to gather on their own field and have a virtual show. Then, they’d exchange the video with different schools.

“Part of the excitement of marching band competition is seeing the other schools, seeing their ideas, their creativity,” Currey said.

“The students, I think, will care more about what their peers think than what some judge thinks,” Allen said. “It will make it very real for the students to play for their friends and local towns. We can make exchanges with band directors anywhere. We all have friends around the country.”

It wouldn’t be a competition, but more of a cooperative effort. Currey wants to bring in experts to provide critiques.

She suggested Barry Houser, the University of Illinois band director.

Allen is all for it.

“We will create ways for students to have those family experiences that create the lifelong memories,” he said.

Allen wants to have have more performances for the school and the community.

Allen has the drumline and some brass and woodwind musicians play “fun, hype music that gets everybody dancing” when the students come back to school.

“Bands across America will be positive leaders for the schools that they’re in,” Allen said.

Going with the flow

Currey is entering her 13th year with the Central band. Typically, she would have a schedule done in the spring.

“Right now, I would say there is more that we don’t know than what we do know,” Currey said. “For example, we don’t know if football is going to happen or not. So we don’t know if we’d be involved in any Friday night festivities.”

Marching band is a class at Central and fulfills a physical-education requirement for graduation.

“From that standpoint, we are a go,” Currey said.

Central’s band had 150 members last year.

Currey and husband John, Central’s band director, have talked to the students about being mindful of the new normal.

They have reminded the musicians about the positive reputation of the Central band.

“The kids really take that seriously and they want it to be able to continue,” Currey said. “The message was: ‘These guidelines are not flexible. This is how we’re going to proceed.’”

Central’s band camp is Aug. 10-14. Students received their music July 10.

Currey understands the need to be flexible.

“When we got the go-ahead to do this, I said: ‘Since it’s not going to be the same, we just have to make it super-duper fun,’” she said.

‘Getting in their heads’

The Mahomet-Seymour marching band is regularly recognized as one of the best in the area.

Michael Stevens has been the director for 28 years.

“It is my life,” he said.

This year’s band is expected to have 206 performers.

Stevens plans a scaled-back version of band camp starting Aug. 4. It will run four days, down from six.

The band will be broken up into groups and arrive at different times during the day to keep the numbers low.

What happens after band camp remains up in the air.

“We’re going to try to put some semblance of a show on the field, whether we perform it anywhere off-campus or not,” Stevens said. “We may play at a football game or two. We may just play for our parents.

“I wanted to have the program, even if it was small steps, move forward.”

Normally, Mahomet-Seymour’s show runs eight minutes. This year, it will 21/2.

The change has been difficult for Stevens and the band members.

“I’ve had conversations with parents and kids,” he said. “The depression level, the anxiety level of people is so high right now, especially from teenagers. At first, that surprised me. I thought: ‘Oh, they’ll love not having to go to school all the time.’ But it’s really kind of getting in their heads.”

Since he posted the schedule and plan for the band, Stevens has been contacted by parents who said they don’t feel comfortable with small groups being together.

“I’m concerned with long term. I think everybody is,” Stevens said. “We don’t know what the new normal is going to be. Things are just weird. It’s kept me up nights too.”

The first concern, Stevens said, is for the safety of the students and staff.

There are protocols in place that need to followed: Temperature checks and screenings. Masks will be worn and social distancing mandated.

“We’re going to follow the rules,” Stevens said. “Safety is paramount.”

Eye on the Tigers

At Urbana High School, the percussionists and color guard have already started working — while wearing masks and practicing good social distancing, of course.

“They’ve been going for a couple weeks now,” said Christi Fernsberg, assistant marching band director.

The Urbana band will number 110.

“Our main focus is trying to figure out what we can do to provide a safe and meaningful experience for our students,” Fernsberg said. “We just know the music programs are so important in their lives and they’re really important in the life of our community as well.”

Urbana band leaders are looking at every piece of guidance and trying to figure out what they can do.

“We don’t know what the athletic season will bring us,” Fernsberg said. “We’re prepared to provide small groups for athletics as we normally do.”

Fernsberg looks forward to the chance to collaborate with other area bands.

Urbana might also introduce new music to the students later in the semester.

“We have a really great student leadership team that takes a lot of ownership in making the band feel like a family,” Fernsberg said.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).