The week before classes start each fall, around 250 students dot the football field at Yager Stadium, each on a specific mark. Practicing morning to night, they create a wall of sound that fills campus. Once school starts, they are the life of football games and beacons of school spirit.
This year, the stadium is silent.
Along with most other on-campus activities, the Miami University Marching Band’s (MUMB) season came to a halt due to COVID-19.
Over the summer, the band was waiting to see what would happen with the football season. Once it was postponed, a lot of decisions had to be made in terms of what this year held for the MUMB.
Dr. Brooke Johnson, director of athletic bands and assistant professor of music, says the first step was canceling band camp — the week before classes when they learn their pregame and halftime shows and have that formative social experience.
With the new challenge of creating a virtual curriculum for a class of more than 200, Johnson consulted with the band’s leadership team to figure out where their priorities would lie this semester.
“They overwhelmingly said we have to have social experiences and get to know our peers, and we have to create an experience for our new members to welcome them into this band family,” Johnson said.
And of course, the band would still need a musical component.
The MUMB still meets three days a week but with a twist.
“I knew that meeting three days a week, six hours total … on Zoom for marching band was not going to be the best move,” Johnson said.
Each class day has its own purpose. Mondays are discovery sessions, where students can dive into something like show design, drill writing, music arranging and more.
Wednesdays are dedicated to actual rehearsal time. Getting every member to play their instrument together on a Zoom call is unrealistic, so they have sectionals instead: meetings where individuals of the same instrument meet in breakout rooms. One person unmutes and plays, and the others play along with them. They even go through their normal stretch routine like they would if they were in person.
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Lastly, Fridays are optional and primarily social. Whether it’s getting together and playing Jackbox Games online, having a talent show or doing a pet show-and-tell, the band is doing it all.
“We just keep coming up with new ideas … [to] try to continue giving these students a social outlet that I know they come to marching band for,” Johnson said.
When the rest of the university returned to campus, Johnson wrestled with her choices. She wanted to be back on the field, but ultimately decided it was too dangerous.
“Especially with wind instruments and the risks that are involved with the way that aerosols are spreading as they play … we decided to keep all the winds virtual,” she said.
While only members of the color guard and percussion sections are able to meet in-person, wind players are still working toward a few virtual recording projects. This includes their halftime songs, “Danger Zone” and “Don’t Stop Me Now,” as well as a project to honor the seniors.
Libbie Milks, a senior music, biology and premedical studies triple major, is heavily involved in the MUMB. As a flute player, drum major and the president of the band board, Milks is used to being stretched thin. Now, her jobs are limited.
She spends most of her time popping into Zoom sectionals to give feedback, and finding activities and fundraisers for the band.
“I definitely do miss being at rehearsal and having the traditional, on-the-field, nit-picky atmosphere,” Milks said. “I miss being able to go through music and teach stuff and make things better.”
Milks is still grateful for the community they’ve been able to create over video calls and says that staying remote is the band’s best option.
Morgan Loveday, a first-year integrated science education major, is an alto saxophone player in the MUMB. While being a new member during a virtual semester may seem intimidating, Loveday says that everyone has been welcoming and there is always something to keep them engaged.
“I do plan to do [marching band again] next year, definitely,” she said. “This situation has not affected that decision”
Now that Miami’s football team is set to resume its season, Johnson isn’t sure what she’ll do yet in terms of having the marching band play.
“It’s something I would consider,” she said. “There would be a lot of protocols we’d have to put in place.”
Most of all, Johnson wants to keep her students safe, and for them to be able to enjoy marching band from wherever they might be.
“Equity is important to me,” she said. “And I don’t want anyone to feel punished for choosing an online option.”