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Marching on

Band continues without football season, competitions

With their shadows cast long on the Byron Center High School parking lot blacktop, marching band members fell into formation in the early evening sunshine.

The musicians, though a tight-knit group, were spaced apart a bit more than usual and wore masks — the cloth and paper symbolizing the fact that they face a season like none before.

While jazzy melodies and big-band crowd pleasers will still rise from the medley of trumpets, flutes, trombones and tubas this fall, there will be no football games, no competitions, no packing onto buses, no festivals. Like so many cancellations and disappointments caused by the pandemic, Michigan high school marching bands aren’t competing and the Friday night lights on the football field will not shine this fall.

Junior Rosie Hudson holds her flute in anticipation of rehearsal

But despite the challenges and safety measures required, Byron Center Marching Band Directors Marc Townley and Megan Soukup plan to give students as much of a season as possible, continuing regular rehearsals and holding community performances following strict safety guidelines. 

“We are basically doing this to give the kids and the directors a sense of stability during these weird times,” Townley said. 

Despite the abnormality of the year, playing together –even while wearing masks when not playing instruments– feels natural, he said.  “We just need something that’s normal, and that’s what this is.”

The plan is to continue regular rehearsals and to host a number of community events, to be determined. The band will follow social distancing guidelines by rotating in by the half hour or hour the number of audience members allowed for outdoor events under state guidelines (100 in Phase 4).

Townley is also proceeding on a high note by keeping things jazzy for this year’s show, “Beyond Category: The Music of Duke Ellington.”

“I love working with the students. It’s such a joy to come back and have something normal after being completely shut down since March. To see the students and be able to work with them and just have that energy has been so, so special.”

Making the Most of It

For Emily Oegema, a senior and drum major, the alternative season means she will still get to climb on the podium and lead the band — just not as often as usual. She’s glad for that chance, but feels the loss regardless.

“Being a senior drum major involves so many cool experiences, so I’m super bummed I don’t get to have those, Emily said. “I’m just glad I get to do this with my friends. It’s such a fun time to hang out with them and make music. Being able to get on the podium and conduct just a little bit feels so good.”

The band is as much about the people as the music, explained senior Hayley VanZanten, a trumpet player. “No one wants to start off the senior year this way, because if this is going to happen what’s going to happen the rest of the year?” she said. “I’m just glad I still get the environment and get to be with my friends. Band people are just people you can always be yourself around.”

Byron Center High School musicians already missed out on two major opportunities to travel and compete last spring. The jazz orchestra, which includes 10 students in this year’s Marching Band, qualified to compete at the Swing Central Jazz at the Savannah Music Festival in Georgia, and at the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition in New York City.  

“Being able to get on the podium and conduct just a little bit feels so good.”

— Senior Emily Oegema, drum major

Townley said students still had a virtual experience for Essentially Ellington, including master classes, a Q&A session with Wynton Marsalis, a virtual jam session and a virtual festival. Several students received recognition as well.

Senior Abbie Townley, color guard captain and Townley’s daughter, knows first-hand how hard her dad is working to offer what he can. 

“I am so thankful to just be here with everyone. The color guard means so much to me and I’ve been part of this group all my life because of my dad. To have a senior year and a senior season just means the world to me.”

Senior Hayley VanZanten steps in formation
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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