Gratitude. That’s the prevailing emotion among members of the University of Kentucky’s Wildcat Marching Band; gratitude that they get to play, perform and gather in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m just glad to be out there doing it. I’m still in marching band,” said Cessna Langford, a UK senior and squad leader in the marching band. “I’m still getting the opportunity to see my friends and play my clarinet which I know some people aren’t even getting that opportunity.”
Many colleges and high schools chose not to have marching bands this year. Early on in the season, even members of the UK band were unsure about how much they would be allowed to do.
“Every single day was like we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know if we’re going to be canceled or not,” said Rebecca Rieck, a sophomore mechanical engineering major who is also a part of the band’s color guard.
Band camp began a week before classes started, but the band didn’t know until a couple weeks into the semester if they would be allowed at football games at all, according to drum major Madi Rabe.
Rabe, a senior, mentally prepared herself to have a diminished experience.
“When COVID started this past semester, I kind of knew that all of this was going to happen, so I was going into it knowing that we probably wouldn’t be doing all the performances that we normally,” Rabe said. And indeed, the SEC ruled that bands would be sidelined – limited to the stands for football games, and unable to march on the field.
Even the size of the band had to change to accommodate social distancing in the stadium.
“We are only allowed the same section we are normally allowed every year, so we are splitting the band into four,” Rabe said.
Only 80 members and two drum majors are allowed on game days out of the band’s roughly 215 people.
“It’s still enough to create a good energetic performance for the fans, so that’s all that matters,” said Jessie Pennington, a junior clarinet player.
Each band member is assigned one home game to attend and there is a lottery system to fill leftover spots. Rabe said the smaller number makes performing more stressful because every-one has to be on and paying attention all the time; and, as a drum major, she only has one other person to rely on to watch the field for song cues.
Pennington already had her turn playing at a football game this year; she was assigned the home opener against Ole Miss. She said the experience was fun and different.
“It kind of reminded me of why we’re all here,” Pennington said of the game. Getting to see the band’s performance on the Jumbotron was a highlight for her.
Because the marching could not march their halftime show during the actual game, UK Athletics recorded their show – an 8-minute Beatles medley – to play on screens around the stadium instead.
“We were all excited to see us on the big screen. We’ve never really been able to see us per-form as the audience sees us before,” Pennington said.
Rabe said recording the show gave everyone in band a goal to work towards.
“People seemed to be a little unmotivated just cause like what were we working towards? If we’re not going to be playing on the field at these games what’s the point?” Rabe said. “But then when we got closer to the recording last week, people started to step it up and you could tell that people were more mentally in the game and they were excited. Especially now that we know we’re having football games, everyone’s a lot more into it.”
Not getting the same number of performances and not being able to travel has dampened the spirits of the marching band some.
“Keeping morale up is a lot harder, I think, just seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Lang-ford said. But band members are, now more than ever, grateful for the social aspects of band.
“If I lost marching band, I wouldn’t see anybody,” Rieck said. Because she has online classes, marching band is the only time she gets to leave her apartment and interact with friends.
“COVID made it difficult and a little scary, but I couldn’t abandon it,” Rieck said of band, which has been a part of her life for years.
Other members said band was a similar social lifeline, especially for freshmen who are still getting adjusted to campus.
“I feel like it’s harder for freshmen because you haven’t gotten to gather in your sections, you haven’t gotten to really know people,” Langford said, adding that this limited version is all they’ve gotten as a college marching band experience.
Rabe said that the band has encouraged Zoom sessions for sections to get to know each other; connection is easier in sections, Rieck said, than across different groups.
“I think we’ve done pretty well with that,” Rabe said. “Freshmen have been able to make new friends like they always do and they’re able to find a home in band.”
Dalys Bishop, a senior trumpet player and animal science major, said band members are find-ing ways to adapt their behavior and still socialize.
“Typically we wouldn’t worry about it, we’d all be joking around with each other, people would be throwing a football or frisbee or something like that,” Bishop said; they still do, only now they sanitize equipment and social distance.
“The reason we do get to keep playing and performing is because we are taking the precautions,” Bishop said, so they want to make sure to follow the rules.
Among the precautions the band has taken are bell covers to limit the spread of air specially designed masks with slits for instruments.
Bishop said the masks are very difficult to breathe in because of flaps on the inside.
“Those tend to go up my nose and blocks basically my only airway, and it creates a lot more moisture in there,” Bishop said. “Our mouthpieces slide of our faces a lot under the thing and it takes more time to get your horn up to play.”
But that’s the price to be paid for a chance to play. Rabe said the drill – or physical marching arrangement - is more spread out as well to allow for distancing. Positioning does not change much for color guard.
“For color guard we spin six-foot flags. So unless we’re spinning poms in the stands, we’re six feet apart anyway,” Rieck said.
Unlike previous years, the band has not practiced indoors, Langford said, and there is no practice when it rains. They used to go under the overhang when it rained, Rieck said, but there’s not space to distance under there and they cannot play with wet masks.
Still, there are some silver linings to the altered band season. Because they only get to perform at one home game, band members are finding that they can attend games as a fan for the first time.
“I think it’s going to be strange, but I do get the opportunity to go not as a band member,” said Langford, who plans to attend at least one game with her parents, season ticket holders who are always seated next to the band.
“I have literally never been to a football game other than with band,” Bishop said. She got the chance to do so for the Ole Miss game, seeing herself on the Jumbotron instead of on the field where was supposed to be.
Bishop couldn’t escape the band completely; she showed up to the gates at the same time as the band, which she said was strange.
“They’re all waving at me, and I feel like when our alumni would come to games and we’d see them and wave at them and talk to them. It made it a little more real that I’m a senior and I’ll be leaving soon,” Bishop said.
For seniors, the altered band season is a bittersweet opportunity. Rabe said it was sad to wait her whole college career for her senior season, which is supposed to be the best season, only to be limited in performances.
“Knowing that I can’t do that is definitely sad, but the fact that we still get to get together and play when a lot of bands across the country aren’t even doing that is awesome,” Rabe said.
Bishop said COVID-19 ruined her senior experience a bit, stating that they can’t do senior night the way they usually do.
“I’m perfectly happy that I’ll probably be here for another year because it gives me another chance to basically redo my senior year,” Bishop said.
“Yes I still get to be in band and we still get to perform and everything, but it’s not the same as it would be,” Bishop explained.
Younger band members can hope that things are back to normal by the time they graduate so they can have a regular season again; or for the first time, for current freshmen who have not known anything different.
“I look at it as, I’m a junior right now, and next year everyone is going to be making up for the past year so my senior year is going to be really really good because everyone will be real ex-cited to get back into it, so I’m willing to sacrifice this year for a good senior year,” Langford said.
Even though game days this year are restricted, the altered circumstances of the pandemic have also given the band a new opportunity: pop-up performances.
Essentially miniature pep rallies, the pop-up performances have been a way for the band to showcase themselves on campus. So far they’ve performed three times, including an Oct. 2 performance outside of William T. Young Library that was attended by over a hundred students, community members and families.
Bishop said the performances have gotten larger each time. The Oct. 2 performance was in conjunction with both the dance and cheer teams, a partnership that Pennington said was really nice. The cheer team came to practice with the band on Shivley Field, something she couldn’t recall being done before.
“It was really cool having them rehearse with us because we got to see their part of the performance which we never really get to pay attention to,” Pennington said, adding that she thinks having to cope with such difficult circumstances together has helped the two groups feel more connected.
The cheer team and dance team also are allowed to perform on game days, though in a differ-ent capacity and format than previous years. Langford acknowledged that all of the performers are lucky to get a chance to perform while still wishing things could be the same as previous years.
“Football is football, that’s the moneymaker, the marching band isn’t bringing in a lot of revenue. I get it, it is what it is. Do I wish I could be out there for every game? Yes. Do I understand? Yes,” Langford said.
The pop-up performances also give the families of band members an opportunity to see a live performance; since entry to Kroger Field is limited, not many parents are able to attend games and watch in-person, especially since band members only get one game.
Rieck’s grandmother, parents and boyfriend’s family were able to attend the pep rally on oct. 2 even with short notice.
“That’s probably the only time my grandmother could see me perform this year,” Rieck said. “My parents as well.”
Pennington said the pop-up performances are a reminder of “what you’re doing here and why we’re doing this” since it gives the band an opportunity to make people feel good.
“I think it’s actually given us more attention and more advertisement to the community. It kind of distracts them from all that’s going in, which is really cool,” Pennington said.
Bishop also noted the positive impact the band can have on the community. She described an interaction she witnessed at the Ole Miss game. A game attendee arrived at the same time as Bishop and the band, and when she saw the band said “there is a band, she’s going to be so happy!”
That same mindset, of being happy to have a band at all, is echoed by the marching band themselves.
“We’re here now, when so many people can’t be, and the fact that we do have that is some-thing to be grateful for,” Rabe said.