Olentangy bands adjust to marching at a distance

JIM FISCHER
editorial@thisweeknews.com
Members of the Olentangy Orange High School marching band practice in formation Aug. 26 at the school.

A lost or limited senior season isn't just affecting local student-athletes.

Health guidelines in place to help combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus have had a dramatic impact on high school marching bands. Large gatherings, social distancing, deep breathing -- these topics, among others, strike at the heart of how bands do what they do.

Two of the band directors in Olentangy Schools talked about how they have had to be creative in their approach to marching ensembles in 2020. (ThisWeek was unable to reach directors at Olentangy and Olentangy Berlin high schools prior to deadline.)

"I missed the pandemic class when I got my music-education degree," Olentangy Orange's Ishbah Cox joked.

With uncertainty the only constant this summer, Cox and other directors have been forced to react to changing conditions and to the decisions made by state and local leaders and district administrators intended to keep students safe.

"Parents, staff, administration and, of course, the kids are all working hard to figure this out. Everyone wants to try and make it go," Cox said.

For Orange's summer marching rehearsals, Cox and his staff divided the approximately 200-member ensemble into four groups of 50 or so, each a fully functional, potentially standalone band.

"We don't know how many we'll ultimately be able to have on the field or in the stadium at one time," he said. "We're operating in a mode where we can march one 50-member band or use two of four (groups) or all four."

Olentangy Liberty High School's Travis Hicks divided his band into sections by instrument type -- woodwinds, brass, percussion, etc. -- for rehearsals. He said his staff has had to rethink how it provides instruction in marching fundamentals and in music performance, right alongside making sure students understand the health protocols that were put in place.

"We started meeting (via online video) weekly with our seniors and leaders early in the summer to let them know that as we find new approaches, we would try our best to keep as much normalcy as possible," Hicks said. "We never had a sense from our kids of 'what is the point?' "

Cox agreed, saying his students made peace early on with the fact this season was going to be different.

"They've been extremely cooperative. But it's because they want it. They need it," he said.

Covering the bells of instruments, wearing masks when not playing, maintaining distances and holding all rehearsals outdoors have been staples of band practices this summer.

Liberty was affected by the Ohio Music Education Association's summer decision to cancel all marching competitions this season.

"We decided we still wanted to do our competition show," Hicks said. "We felt it was vital for us to give our freshmen, especially, a sense of what our band is about and also to give the seniors a chance to do what was intended to be 'their' show.

"As it stands right now, I don't think the plan is to travel," Hicks said.

The show, likely to be performed only at home games, is titled "One" and boasts a theme of unity. The formations have had to be reworked to station band members farther apart than normal, but otherwise, the show is the one Hicks and his staff had planned for this season.

"We have 116 kids. There are times we're stretching pretty much the whole field," he said.

Cox opted to lean into the unique season in his musical selections, which include "Boogie Fever," "Level of Concern," a Twenty One Pilots song recorded in quarantine, and "Mr. Roboto."

"It's not meant to be disrespectful. We just decided it was one of those things," Cox said.

Both Cox and Hicks said the changes have allowed them to focus more on elements that have always been part of the band experience anyway, among them teamwork, leadership and community.

"Our kids, even though they're not physically close to one another, are building connections socially," Cox said.

"We have been repeating the idea that all we know we have is three hours together right now and to not take even a rehearsal for granted but instead to be appreciative of the opportunities we do have," Hicks said.

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Olentangy Orange High School marching-band members Tristen Hatfield (right), 17, and Neha Gattineni, 14, perform during a practice session Aug. 26 at the school.