Maroon stripes, gold sashes, white plumes. Crowds roaring. These are the hallmarks of a crisp autumn evening under the lights at a marching band competition. Not this year. There were no competitions for the Verona High School Marching Maroon and White, but the show still went on, thanks to Zoom and a socially distanced marching drill. What’s more, the band pulled together its show, “A Roman Expedition,” in less time than it ever would have thought possible.
Normally, Erik Lynch, VHS’ band director for the last 19 years, begins planning the show in February. There are rehearsals throughout the summer, and a week-long band camp in late August. But the pandemic forced VHS students into remote learning in March and summer rehearsals began on Zoom. The calls had to accommodate the entire band and breakout “rooms” for individual groups of instruments like brass, woodwinds and percussion. During Zoom rehearsals, Lynch expressed how hard it was to get to know the incoming freshmen and help the seniors and band leadership integrate into their roles.
It was hard for Kara Johansen, too. “When band first started on Zoom, it was not the same,” says the senior piccolo player, who also holds the rank of lieutenant in the band leadership. “The first rehearsal of the year that all of us, especially leaders, look forward to was totally different. It was hard to make a good impression on our freshmen and make them feel welcome because we couldn’t directly speak to them or see how they were adjusting. Anyone who has been a part of the Verona marching band knows that it runs on energy and enthusiasm, but that is hard to feel over a computer screen. While this was challenging, it forced us to be creative when we broke down into sections in Zoom rooms and magnify that passion in bigger Zoom rooms with the entire band.” (Full disclosure: This reporter’s brother is the drum major this year.)
In July, marching band groups began canceling the fall shows in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that Verona usually competes in. “Initially, I was not very optimistic that we would have a typical season,” Lynch says. “Once marching band organizations canceled their competitions, I thought the football season would also be canceled. While the music was in a good spot in terms of preparation for the season, the drill [the marching routine that the students perform] was not set. Once we heard that the football season would still occur but be modified, we had to plan a show in less than a month’s time when that process normally takes around seven months.”
COVID-19 had delayed summer construction work at VHS, which meant that when the band finally began practicing in person on the upper field, they couldn’t go into the high school building, even for bathroom breaks. They also had to bring their instruments home after rehearsal every day.
The pandemic left its mark in a wide variety of other ways. “Our drill is written socially distanced, so the students are not only marching outside but also each six feet apart while doing so,” says Lynch. “We have a plethora of donations, including sanitation wipes and Purell. Our band parents have been great, donating everything from instrument masks that have openings for the students’ lips and bell masks that cover the end of instruments to prevent spit from traveling. We even have custom Verona masks to boost camaraderie.”
This year’s show features music from 20th century composers Ottorino Respighi and Aram Khachaturian. While Marching Maroon and White shows usually have four parts, this year there are only three: an opening, a ballad inspired by Khachaturian’s “Spartacus” ballet and a finale interweaving themes from the previous two parts and composers. “Something we pride ourselves on is working on challenging pieces and bringing the music alive each marching band season,” Lynch says. “With all of the changes, we did not want to change this.” But the lost time together made even a three-part show hard. “There are still rehearsals when we are simply learning new marching steps due to the time we lost,” he adds.
Though the band could not compete, it was given permission to perform at three Verona football games and Lynch decided to use the three performances to mimic a condensed marching band season, with the football game on Friday, October 30, as the band’s championship. Lynch also devised a socially distant plan to accommodate the other elements of a final performance, which traditionally includes a potluck meal and a showing of the band’s previous three years of shows, centered around honoring the seniors.
Johansen appreciates the effort. “Personally, I am having a great last season,” she says. “While the circumstances are not what any of us envisioned, I am thankful we are creative enough to find a way to make this season happen. Playing at the football games is something I enjoy because I am still getting a taste of what being a senior and a leader of this organization is all about. The hard work, sacrifice, and love every person has brought is representative of what the Verona band stands for and is why it is such a special organization.”
Enjoy the show: