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CHAMPAIGN — Edison Middle School band director Kim Branch did her best to build cohesive sixth-, seventh-, and eight-grade bands as students learned remotely, weaving together recordings to put on a virtual winter concert.

Branch admits it simply wasn’t the same, though.

So when students returned to school in person in February, wearing special masks with slits that allowed them to play and covers on the bells of their instruments so that no saliva could escape, it opened up a whole new experience.

“It was super exciting to see each other coming in during school, because they hadn’t seen each other in like a year,” Branch said. “Having it live is a different experience. There’s nothing that can replace that in-person experience.”

At 2 p.m. Saturday, live music will again fill the air at Hessel Park when the Edison’s sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade bands host their annual “Day in the Park” concert. The bands will play an assortment of tunes, including superhero songs to honor front-line and essential workers.

“I really wanted to have something to really uplift our community,” Branch said, “especially our front-line workers, who have had to really brace for this pandemic and weather the storm.”

Of course, the band’s first performance in more than a year will have a few twists.

Attendees will be invited to attend live at the park or virtually via a Zoom link. Some band members will also be attending virtually. Recordings of those members playing will play as a backing track to the live performers. Instrumentalists will also perform live solos via Zoom. Around 60 students will perform live, Branch said.

This year has been an especially difficult one to put a cohesive band together, but Branch has done her best. While playing together live over Zoom is nearly impossible because of latency, she and her students put together a virtual winter concert, where they each recorded themselves playing. When they returned to in-person class in February, Branch had to introduce some of the students to each other because some of them don’t turn on their cameras during virtual classes.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Branch said of the unconventional setup. “Of course, because of the guidelines, we haven’t been able to rehearse as a full band, but we’re going to be able to do that Saturday morning. So it’s definitely been difficult, but as soon as we came back to in person, it’s been getting better as far as engagement. Playing live is so different from playing together virtually.”

Branch hopes that the band’s live music emanating from the park Saturday will help community members keep a positive outlook as life inches toward normalcy.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to perform, because we haven’t had this in a long time,” she said. “Really, having something to look forward to gives us hope and inspiration considering the year that we’ve had. And that’s really the goal, to inspire everyone and keep everyone’s spirits up.

“Nothing, in my opinion, can lift up your spirits quite like music. “

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