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High school marching bands still thriving despite pandemic limitations

by Kate Evans

While COVID-19 has dampened student participation in band, the marching bands at Morgan County’s two high schools are still flourishing and performing.

The Paw Paw Pirates Marching Band saw participation drop off with the pandemic but it’s slowly starting to come back, said Paw Paw Schools band director and music teacher Robert Wallace.

He just had a couple of students that were interested in joining band and a few that had dropped out and returned to band.

A total of 39 students make up the Paw Paw Marching Band and Color Guard. The marching band and concert band is one and the same, he said. Some students carry banners or flags in marching band and a few students that play instruments like piano or guitar don’t march.

Paw Paw band members were disappointed not to be able to march in the Apple Butter Festival Parade this year, Wallace said.

“That is always a very fun event for them that they look forward to each year,” he said.

Wallace said he and students are still being cautious in the band room and using personal protective equipment like face masks and bell/instrument covers on the brass instruments and social distancing for woodwinds, strings and percussion.

This is the first year that fourth graders could join the band, Wallace said.  Third graders are playing recorders and ukuleles.

In the past few years, the band has worked on mastering “Celtic Air and Dance” by Michael Sweeney, “Tempest” by Robert E. Smith and “Jungle Dance” by Brian Balmages.

They also played “America the Beautiful” at the Memorial Day Parade and “Jig 2” at the Halloween Parade, he said.

This year musicians are working on “Winter Whispers” by Chris M. Bernotas for the Winter Holiday Concert and they’ll be working on “Mars” from The Planets by Gustav Holst for the 2022 Region IX Adjudication, at which they hope to perform.  Last year’s Region IX Adjudication was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Grants

Wallace said Paw Paw’s bands were awarded a large grant by the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation for Orff Instruments for Paw Paw Elementary in late 2019.  Because of shipping problems due to the pandemic they weren’t able to get all of the instruments and put them all to use until the 2020-2021 school year.

They received xylophones, metallophones and glockenspiels.

“They have proven to be invaluable during these times that we are not able to sing in music class because of COVID-19,” Wallace said.

The band also purchased an outdoor playable Flower metallophone for the Paw Paw playground with leftover money from the grant, which was the initial installation for a “Sound Garden,” he said.  They hope to add more outdoor musical instruments to the “Sound Garden” for kids to enjoy during recess.

Events

The Paw Paw Marching Band and the Band Boosters running the concession stand at the Asleep at the Wheel anniversary concert in Cumberland was a big event for them, Wallace said. Their Band Boosters are currently reorganizing.

On October 27, the Paw Paw Marching Band performed in the South Cumberland Business and Civic Association, Inc.’s 2021 Halloween Parade and played the theme from “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr.  Wallace said the band will also be participating in the Paw Paw Christmas Parade and will hold their Winter Concert Band in December.

The benefits of band

Being in band helps kids in math, with counting and playing in time, Wallace said.  It also lets them be part of a community.  The whole group suffers if one part is missing — it’s part of the whole music-making process.

Plus it’s fun, Wallace noted.

Band members get to take field trips, perform in a group and everyone is there to support each other.  The older band students take on a leadership role. Some have videotaped their instrumental parts so others can play along and learn their parts.  Kids can learn the songs in sections and even slow the piece down so they’re easier to learn.

BSHS Band

Berkeley Springs High School band director Ian Helmick said participation in band at his school had really dropped with the pandemic  as well as statewide and district-wide.

Some students had been in band for the live performances and when parades and football games couldn’t happen, it hurt all the area band programs.

Helmick currently has 25 students enrolled in the high school band.  He said that it will take around two to three years  to get the band back to pre-COVID standards.  Helmick has the same kids in the marching band and concert band.  Their jazz band ensemble got moved to the regular band.

None of the freshman band members have done marching before. It’ll be fun to get back into things, but it w

ill take time, Helmick noted.

His 6th grade band and 7th and 8th grade band from Warm Springs Middle School both sound really good, Helmick said.  His goal is to keep a good retention rate until senior year and build the band program back.

Back into it

The Berkeley Springs High School Marching Band performed in the October 27 Hancock Halloween Parade and hopefully will perform at the Winterfest Parade in Berkeley Springs. Slowly but surely they’re getting back into the swing of things, Helmick said.

Kids are having more fun with band this year.  Last year because of the pandemic they couldn’t move around and just stood and played, he said.

Helmick said he’d like to do more exhibitions and performances with the band.  He wants to start a drum ensemble with xylophone, vibraphone and regular drums but didn’t have enough students sign up for it this year.  Helmick will try again next year.

Keeping kids in band and interested with the pandemic has been challenging. Last year they met in class when they could and were in the auditorium in the beginning, spaced for social distancing. Then they went back into the classroom and then remote.  They recorded some pieces on YouTube for virtual performances.

Band music

Music that the high school band learned over the past couple of years included  “The Grinch Christmas Celebration” for Christmas.  Last spring they did “You’ll Be Back” from the musical Hamilton, “Take On Me” by A-ha and “Celebration for Winds and Percussion” by James Swearingen.

This year the marching band performed the Rolling Stones “Paint it Black” in the Hancock Halloween Parade and was performing “The Blues Brothers” for their field show. This spring they’ll be doing “Skywalk,” a piece they worked on in 2019, Helmick said.

Berkeley Springs High School marching band in the Hancock Halloween parade.

It is marching band season now.  In November Helmick will pass out holiday music for band members to work on.

Helmick said that his new plug to kids about band is that employers and colleges  like band because it shows that band members are dedicated and can stick with something. The military likes band because it shows teamwork and better adult responsibility.  Band also indicates that students learned something hard and can make people happy by entertaining them.

Band kids always have higher SAT exam scores and grade point averages (GPAs), said Helmick.  They know how to focus and study and get things done.

Helmick hasn’t held a Band Booster meeting yet but the group has been very active the past two years.  Parents came in and  sewed and hemmed uniforms. They haven’t acquired any grants but will look at future fundraisers.

Helmick and Wallace both hope to instill a love of music and performing in their band students along with the teamwork that makes it all come together.

Berkeley Springs High School marching band practicing on their home field.

Berkeley Springs High School band room.

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