Ginny Bruno is ready for home football games at Albemarle High School.
“Even though there aren’t going to be fans, it’s a good time to have school spirit, which hasn’t happened in a super long time,” said Bruno, a junior at AHS and drum major of the school’s marching band. “It was always such a fun time to come together for football games during regular school, so it’s going to be a really good opportunity to get a taste of normalcy.”
Bruno and the other students in the marching band will take to the football field — or track, rather — for their first live performance in a year on Friday when Albemarle takes on Goochland High School. They started practicing earlier this month, facing new challenges in the pandemic-delayed season, including cold weather and snowed-out practices.
“It’s really odd, but it’s been good,” Bruno said of the spring marching band season.
Just being together with other bandmates means a lot, she said. She and other band members were worried that seniors in the band wouldn’t have a final season.
“Even though it’s a really different take on what marching band is, we’re still family,” Bruno said. “It’s a lot of the same energy.”
The first few in-person rehearsals were jubilant as students relished being together, band director Andrew LaPrade said, and then the focus turned to putting together a show.
“These guys are super pumped to do that,” he said. “That’s what they wanted to do. They’re just super excited to be together.”
Albemarle High is one of a several area schools that has decided to field a marching band this season.
The list of ways that this season of marching band is different from past years is long. In fact, it would be easier to look at what isn’t different: the students, the fight song, the familiar toll of the metronome at practice and LaPrade himself.
But pretty much everything else has changed as the marching band gears up for a spring football season.
“We would normally be working on a 10-minute theatrical production, and would have logged over 100 hours of practice before our first performance,” LaPrade said. “Now, we are working on putting together one song, standing 10 feet apart with masks and bell covers and not marching.”
The distance between marchers, masks and bell covers are some of the mitigation measures in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. Students are grouped into pods of 10 or less for contact tracing purposes, and the pods don’t mix.
“I feel like we’re as safe as we possibly can be — and we’re outside,” LaPrade said.
At practice Wednesday, each pod was working on its own choreography for the performance of “Think” by Aretha Franklin.
Students have an assigned spot to stand for the entire performance. At practice, they kept their water bottles and instrument cases next to their spots.
“While it’s far from what we would normally be doing, you can’t help but see the excitement and energy that the kids bring when they are together,” LaPrade said. “They don’t care that it isn’t the same thing.”
LaPrade said that working through the different COVID precautions is like a doing a puzzle and has been a big challenge.
“We’re figuring out how can we do the things we love to do and fit it within the restrictions?” he said.
Their halftime performance will be videotaped to play for those watching games online. At the game, they’ll perform from the track, as they are not allowed on the field, LaPrade said.
The band will make a tunnel for the football team to run out of it and will perform the national anthem in addition to the halftime show.
The state currently caps the number of spectators at two per player, up to a maximum total of 250 people. Because band members and cheerleaders are considered spectators, they count toward the 250 limit. The players and coaches on the field do not.
“So that’s been kind of a big thing; we take up tickets that could be going to parents — us and the cheerleaders,” LaPrade said. “But our county’s made a priority to give the kids the experience, which I’m 100% behind. We figured out a way to get the kids in there. They’re the ones that have been missing this thing, so I’m excited they’re going to get the chance to perform.”
Last week, Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham, called on Gov. Ralph Northam to include cheerleaders and band members as participants rather spectators of high school football games.
“It is unfortunately too easy to see that our children are at risk of losing out on team-building skills, socialization and friendships associated with these activities,” he wrote in a letter.
Other lawmakers have made similar requests, according to the Bristol Herald-Courier. The Bristol school division has said that it considers band members and cheerleaders participants, and the board is going to discuss potential litigation regarding Northam’s executive order on capacity restrictions for outdoor games.
The Virginia High School League said on Facebook last week that it is advocating for a higher capacity limit and for cheerleaders and band members to not count as spectators.
“Though, as things stand, we must abide by [Executive Order] 72 and we are still classified as ‘recreational sports,’” league officials said.
The AHS band held its fourth in-person practice Wednesday, which was the first day of warm weather for the group. About 50 students are participating this season, a drop from the usual 80 or so.
In-person practices are Monday and Wednesdays while the band meets remotely Tuesdays and Thursdays to learn the music, similar to how virtual music classes have worked.
“… I’ll play a recording on Zoom and then they play along with that, so I’m not actually hearing anything they’re playing,” LaPrade said. “They’ll turn in recordings for me to hear but it’s totally different playing in your room versus out here with 50 other people.”
And, playing together as a band is a skill that can’t be learned over Zoom.
“It’s been a lot more helpful to have in-person practice to keep everything going and to see how everything fits in together because it’s harder to learn your music when you’re so isolated,” Bruno said.
LaPrade said he was a little bit rusty for the first live rehearsal, as were the students. After a year of playing instruments in their bedrooms, they had to adjust their posture and volume.
“You’re not in your bedroom; you have to project further,” he reminded students at Wednesday’s practice.
Bruno said it has been hard for her to find motivation during the online classes.
“It’s so easy to turn off your camera kind of check out,” she said. “It’s also hard to do band because band is such a cohesive thing. You listen to other people playing and everything comes together.”
Playing together with other students already has made a huge difference for her, boosting her emotional and mental wellbeing and giving her motivation.
For his part, LaPrade’s happy to not be in front of a computer screen and to see his students.
“When I talk to them on Zoom, sometimes I get a response, sometimes I don’t, and I rarely see the cameras on,” he said. “Even just seeing visual cues that they understand what I’m saying, like them nodding, is big. … Seeing their faces is so awesome, and then being able to make music together — all that is really exciting.”