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Wyoming high school marching bands reunite amid COVID-19

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic has local high school musicians marching to a different drummer.

That was evident during the morning hours of week-long of band camps for Campbell County and Thunder Basin high schools as band members practiced the fundamentals without their instruments. Whether shaking off rust for the seniors or introducing freshmen to high school marching band for the first time, the young musicians began the new band year marking time to a far-from-familiar cadence.

The bands are the first high school activity returning to a semblance of normalcy for the upcoming school year this week. Fall sports practices began Monday.

This fact registered with Thunder Basin band director Steve Schofield, and it was not something he takes lightly, the Gillette News Record reported.

“I wouldn’t say it’s nervousness, but it’s a pretty heavy responsibility,” Schofield said. “We could really screw this up for everybody.

“If my band was to end up with half of them sick or whatever, then that could make people question whether schools should be opening up. So what I told the kids when we started was we have to be extremely serious about this.”

Schofield and his staff, which includes Karia Schofield, Paul Jensen Zeleski and Tim Guernsey, were putting students through their paces Wednesday in one of the parking lots on the Thunder Basin campus where the yellow parking space lines had been overlaid with white lines to simulate a football field.

The band’s numbers are slightly down this year at 72 students. When instruments are in their hands, the students will be playing songs from the “Avatar” soundtrack which accompanied James Cameron’s visually stunning 2009 film. The score was nominated for a Grammy for Best Original Score.

Schofield said he was drawn to the “Avatar” show because of the possibilities for the drumline and pit instruments.

“The big symphonic sound the music allows for Mrs. Schofield, our color guard instructor, to do some interesting things with the flags,” said Steve Schofield

Thunder Basin’s color guard will top out at eight or nine students, they said.

“The third movement is very tribal, so we’re going to do the tribal war paint in between the second and third movements of the show,” he said. “It just gives us a lot of theatrical things we can do with it.”

Hope Schroeder, a junior drum major, is happy with this year’s show.

“I really like the music,” she said. “It’s pretty upbeat … but it’s still very lyrical.”

Kes Stalcup, a senior drum major, summed up the general sentiment of the band members: “It’s going to be different, but at least it’s happening.”

“I think these guys are just ready for normalcy,” Schofield said. “And I think they want to do business as usual as much as possible.

“Not one of them raised their hand and told me they enjoyed what happened March through May. And so I told them, ‘Well, we’ve got to be responsible and let’s do our best to make sure that doesn’t happen again.’”

Across town, the CCHS band practiced its marching on the school’s soccer field. The Camels also are dealing with a somewhat smaller turnout, which is just shy of 60 this year.

Steve Oakley, the CCHS band director, said the closures from COVID-19 in the spring contributed to the smaller incoming class.

“I planned on doing recruiting stuff during March, April, May,” Oakley said. “I didn’t have time to go out and meet all these future students.”

He also said that pulling small groups of high school students to play for the junior high students would have been a great way to excite them about the type of music they’d play in high school.

COVID-19 affected more than just the end of last school year. On the first day of band camp, Oakley and the students threw out the show they had planned, titled “Crusade for Redemption.”

“The show that we had planned, you need a big band for this huge wall of sound,” Oakley said. “When our band got smaller, we had to kind of switch the route we’re going with the music.”

The new show, which is untitled at this point, is a compilation of popular songs from across different decades, including Panic! at the Disco’s “Victorious,” The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones’ “Impression That I Get” and The Turtles’ “Happy Together.”

The show is personal to this band because they helped shape it, the director said.

“We picked these out together, listened to a bunch of different songs together with the band, and we voted and gave ideas,” Oakley said. “It’s something we can all buy into.”

Oakley described the show as “more rhythmic and not so much power and sound.”

“It’s going to be a lot of drumline,” Oakley said. “My favorite part of it comes from the low brass, the low voices, so the tubas, trombones and baritones. They have all the cool lines.”

Emily Alvarado, a senior drum major, said it’s definitely noticeable for the students that things are different now because of COVID-19.

“Whenever we march, we try to focus on accuracy, so we try and get close to each person and give them tips on how they’re marching or what they need to fix,” she said. “But now we can’t really get as close to that singular person because then they’d have to put their mask on, we’d have to put our masks on, the person around them would. It’s a lot more difficult to help individuals.”

Estela Torres Guernsey and Ashley Burns, both assistant directors working with Oakley, looked for the positives resulting from COVID-19.

“Band kids are always fired up, but the band kids are even more fired up because we’ve been missing music for a long time,” Guernsey said. “These kids are here because they love marching band.

“Music and the arts are having a critical moment to just lighten the mood and bring back happiness. I feel like right now, with our show, they’re fired up because we have a chance to do that again, a chance to bring to our audience something of normalcy again.”

Burns, who’s also the instructor for CCHS’s four color guard members, said this year’s show is all about making sure the students enjoy their experience.

“We wanted to pick songs they would enjoy,” Burns said, “because, I think, a lot of the joy has been taken away from their school and their friends for the last five months and we don’t know how long this is going to last. We wanted something that they were going to have fun with.”

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