High school bands adjust to new season

It has been a truly different season for the high school marching bands of Crawford County during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Band practices are taking place increasingly outdoors, while the number of shows are down. Bands would normally follow their respective football teams wherever they went, now they only get to perform at home games.

Even heading into this school year, many bands were unsure if they would get a season at all, with the threat of in-person classes or extracurricular activities being canceled looming over their heads.

Still, while a disappointment to many, bands and their directors are trying their best to make the most out of a difficult circumstance and push forward, hoping that next school year will see a return to normalcy.

"I guess we've tried to make lemonade out of lemons in that case," said Jamie Gardner, director for the Maplewood Junior/Senior High School marching band.

Search for competition

The season got off to a disappointing start when the Lakeshore Marching Band Association (LMBA) canceled its lineup of events in July. Many area bands took part in the LMBA Championships held every year, and the loss left them without a major competition.

However, for one school, having the contest canceled just meant searching for competition elsewhere.

The Cochranton Junior/Senior High School marching band is competing in the University of Central Missouri Virtual Festival of Champions. The contest tasks bands to submit a video of one of their performances for consideration, rather than a live performance.

Cochranton band director Carl Miller said he found out about the contest from a friend who works as a band director in the Missouri area.

With around 100 competing schools from a dozen states, the festival is a very different experience from the LMBA one. Cochranton has won 30 of the last 35 LMBA championships, but the virtual contest has a much wider range of participating schools.

"We're not even sure how it will play out," Miller said. "We do very well out here. This is a whole new set of competitive bands."

Cochranton will also compete in a separate virtual contest — the Central State Judging Association Virtual National Marching Band Championships — later this year. The band is expected to learn the results of the Missouri contest this coming weekend, while the results of the Central State competition won't be known until the first week of November.

Festivals go on

However, even with the LMBA cancellation, there are still developments taking place in Crawford County. Maplewood hosted a band festival last Saturday that gave bands a chance to perform, and Meadville Area Senior High School will do the same this Saturday.

Gardner said he and MASH band director Armond Walter created strict safety plans when planning the festivals. Each band was given a set of tickets to give out to friends and family members of the musicians. When it came time for each band to perform, the fans of that band would fill in to the available stands and leave once that school's performance was over, allowing the event to stay under attendance limits put out by the state.

"It's been nice," Gardner said of the festivals. "We've had the support of our area superintendents both in PENNCREST and in Crawford Central (school districts)."

The two festivals are a blessing for the schools, who have seen their season and number of shows greatly reduced.

Jeff Beltz, band director for Cambridge Springs Junior/Senior High School, said the band has only done a single show so far this year, where normally they would do four or five. Combine that with only having three home games to play at and no parades to march in, and the number of chances for student musicians to show off their talents is greatly reduced.

Still, Beltz is feeling upbeat the school was able to have a season in the first place.

"I'm grateful we had a season at all this year," he said. "I feel like our superintendent put a lot of commonsense safeguards in place so that we could still make things happen."

Other band directors expressed similar upbeat sentiments in these difficult times. With so many more practices taking place outdoors for safety reasons, Conneaut Area Senior High School (CASH) band director Glenn Cameron is glad the weather has at least been nice.

"Thankfully, the weather has cooperated all but one day," he said.

Dealing with new rules

Even with the pleasant weather, there are special health rules for this year.

"Playing-wise, it's tough," said Jason Papinchak, band director for Saegertown Junior/Senior High School, when referring to practices. "Obviously, the mask issue is tough there."

Whenever the student musicians are not playing their instruments, they have to wear masks. Indoor practice is also more spread out than Papinchak is used to.

However, Saegertown has seen at least one benefit out of the year. Many of the band members are new this year, according to Papinchak, and didn't have expectations heading into the season. While things have been disappointing for upperclassmen, the newer ones are adapting well, he said, and the year has given him time to get them ready for future, more event-filled seasons.

Walter said that the the non-standard year has been a disappointment at MASH, especially for seniors. However, in some ways, not constantly having another competition or show coming up meant the season is a little more relaxing. Regardless, he's focusing on making the season the best he can for the students.

"That is our goal," he said. "For them to be happy and be enjoying themselves."

Walter is eager to get back to a normal season, but is happy his band is able to get together at all in the first place. He greatly enjoys getting together with his band students, whether it's for practice or for a show.

"I kind of call it my own music therapy session," he said.

Relaxed season

For CASH, Cameron said the kids went into the season knowing the whole thing could be canceled at any moment. Every day is a bonus, and at least some shows are better than nothing.

"Which is a sad perspective, but at the same time it makes it more valuable than last year when we did 15 performances," he said.

Beltz said the biggest challenge was the indecision and uncertainty going into it. Now that it's underway, the kids have adapted, even if they have to deal with inconveniences like keeping their uniforms and instruments at home.

"I would say that some of them are probably disappointed, but in general I think they're all handling it pretty well," he said. 

Gardner acknowledged the lack of competitions has put a damper on the season.

"As competitors, we thrive on that tension, pressure and anxiety," he said.

However, he said the kids have taken the different year well, with some enjoying the more relaxed atmosphere the year has brought.

While they're doing their best for their kids and are trying to make the season as enjoyable as possible, there was one universal thing all of the band directors agreed on: They're really looking forward to getting back to normal as quickly as possible.

"I think we're all ready to go back," Miller said.

Sean P. Ray can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at sray@meadvilletribune.com.

MASH Band Fall Classic

The Meadville Area Senior High School marching band will host the 29th Annual MASH Band Fall Classic on Saturday, starting at 6 p.m. Participating school bands include Saegertown, Maplewood, Conneaut Area, Cochranton, Titusville, McDowell, Corry and Meadville. Each band was given tickets to give out, and only ticket-holders will be permitted inside the stadium.

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