Uw Marching band
Members of the UW-Madison marching band practice Thursday at an on-campus field. They are wearing Bucky Badger face masks, with holes for their instruments. (Photo by Eric Tadsen)

The sports they support are forced off the field, but marching bands keep practicing for when they return.

Some of the sounds this fall make it seem as if everything is just as it should be, such as geese honking as they fly by or leaves rustling through the trees.

It’s the missing sounds, though, that make this an autumn like no other: no fight songs, no “Seven Nation Army,” no “Chicken Dance.” In a year when the coronavirus has messed with everything else, it has silenced the marching bands, too.

Late last month, the UW-Madison announced that when the football team returns to Camp Randall Stadium later this fall, the UW Marching Band would not be there, a decision made at the Big Ten Conference level. That sends the Badger Band to the metaphorical sidelines instead of physically in between them, like many other high school and college bands this fall. 

While the Badger Band has no football halftime show looming, members are practicing, planning to be ready for whatever might come their way. 

“It has been tough, but they are resilient,” band director Corey Pompey said. “A lot of our students are grateful to be able to do something, even if it’s not what any of us would prefer to be doing.”

There is no mandate for the state’s high school marching bands, which are taking varied approaches to their seasons. Band decisions are made at the school district level. Hybrid instruction, band size, and local regulations for group gatherings create complications. 

Corey Pompey, the band director for UW-Madison, instructors the band members Thursday during a practice on campus. (Photo by Eric Tadsen)

The pandemic is the only thing that has been able to stop a 15-year championship streak by Greendale High School at the Wisconsin School Music Association’s annual state marching band competition. WSMA canceled the 2020 event and with Greendale’s football season pushed back to spring, the band has not marched together since it traveled to California for the Rose Bowl Parade in January. 

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that when August or September come, they hear us all hours of the day and night,” said Tom Reifenberg, the school’s director of bands. “They haven’t heard that this year.”

Band is big at Greendale. More than 200 of the school’s approximately 900 students are in the band. Classes are on a hybrid model now with half the student body each at school two days a week. Wind instruments aren’t allowed at school. 

“When they are at home, they are working musically on their instruments and have to submit video,” Reifenberg said. “When they are here, we take them outside and work on marching basics.”The closest the band has come to playing together is a video created at the end of last school year, with individual performances of the school fight song edited together. 

Another band regularly seen at the WSMA contests has found a way to perform and compete. Milton’s 100-member band rehearses two nights a week for a virtual national competition of performances downloaded to video and judged. The school’s football team is not playing this fall, and the school is on a two-day hybrid model.

Milton band members stand at least 6 feet apart, follow national guidelines for high school bands, and put a “bell cover” on the end of wind instruments. (Think of it as a face mask for the end of your trombones and tubas where the music comes out.) Percussion, color guard and staff wear masks. The show was designed to create more space between musicians than usual. 

“This is a nice substitute,” band director Nathan Pierce said of the virtual competition. “We’re in our own bubble, like the NBA.”

Band class is held outside during the school day, with half the band on hand to practice.

“I’m trying to keep it as normal as possible,” Pierce said. “We’re probably one of the few things that’s normal for them right now.”

Students practicing at the same time but on separate practice field to maintain social distancing, Face masks and bell covers are also being used. (Photo by Eric Tadsen)

The Badger Band also splits its practices, keeping its numbers within Dane County regulations for gatherings. The band usually has 300 members but is down to about 250 this year, a drop Pompey attributes to the pandemic. Parts of the band rehearse in two different locations, then there’s a break and two more groups practice. That scenario plays out three days a week.

“In a regular season we’d see everybody every day for almost two hours,” Pompey says. “In this situation we see everybody once a week for about 50 minutes.”

Wind instruments have bell covers. Musicians stand 7½ feet apart (the yard lines make it easy to know) and play with a specially designed facemask with a slit for the mouthpiece. When musicians don’t play, they wear a regular mask. 

Rehearsals are important, Pompey said, to work on marching and music. 

They will not be performing during Badger football games this season, but members of the UW-Wisconsin marching band still practice three times a week. (Photo by Eric Tadsen)

“It’s not unlike an athlete,” he said. “An athlete has a season where they actively compete, but they are training year-round. We felt it was important that if we could do it safely, we needed to continue to improve.”

Pompey doesn’t know the status of pep band for winter sports, nor the fate of the band’s popular spring concert. For now, the band marches with uncertainty as it works toward marching with precision.

“Nobody can predict the future,” he said. “But if there’s an opportunity to perform, we need to be ready.”