Relearning to march: Big Red Marching Band learns how to social distance on the field

The Big Red Marching Band rehearses for an upcoming football game at the Houchens Industries L.T. Stadium on Friday, September 25th 2020. “They’ve been doing a good job, I’m proud of all their hard work despite these new conditions.” says McCurry

Maggie Thornton

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said a student’s name was Taylor Hennings. It is actually Taylor Henning. The story has been corrected. The Herald regrets the error.

With strict calls for social distancing, WKU’s Big Red Marching Band members were unsure if they would be able to meet safely, or at all.

With more than 250 members, social distancing with this many students presents obvious challenges. But Matthew McCurry, director of the Big Red Marching Band, said that with careful planning and the help of his colleagues, he is confident they are doing everything they can to keep everyone involved safe.

“This year has been full of learning curves, but I’ve found support from everywhere I’ve turned,” McCurry said. “We knew from the beginning how important the [Big Red Marching Band] was to WKU and to the band members who need that outlet, so we were ready to do whatever it took to make it happen.”

The marching band meets three days a week, with one of those days being in the football stadium and the other two on South Lawn. Band members are required to wear masks at all times they are moving and not playing in place. They are spaced apart in a four-step-block, which keeps them 7 feet apart. McCurry said that while the new spacing looks and sounds a little different, it actually works to the advantage of the instrumentalists.

Elise McCoy, a freshman band member from Breckinridge County, plays the clarinet and said the new spacing helps to improve her playing.

“It helps you as an individual instrumentalist because you can hear yourself clearer,” McCoy said. “You can hear when you missed this scale or skipped that note, and you can critique yourself and play better.”

McCurry is a part of the College Band Directors National Association, which gives him updates once a week on studies being performed and new methods of keeping bands around the country safe.

One of the studies the College Band Directors National Association commissioned out of the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland involved testing the aerosol emissions released from instruments. The study found that almost every instrument released a low level of aerosols and the best way to significantly reduce the range of emission is to use masks and apply bell covers to musical instruments.

McCurry decided to use bell covers after reading this study to add an extra layer of protection for band members. McCurry said the bell covers slightly affect the sound, but that is something he is willing to look past for the safety of his band.

McCurry advises students who think they have been exposed to COVID-19 or who are experiencing symptoms to call the WKU hotline and notify their section leader. If students have to quarantine or take time off from the Big Red Marching Band for COVID-19 related purposes, their scholarship is in no way affected and they just have to fill out an absentee form for missed events.

Taylor Henning, a junior from Breckenridge County, plays the clarinet in the Big Red Marching Band and contracted COVID-19 in early September. Henning does not know how she was exposed to COVID-19, but as soon as she began to feel symptoms she took responsibility and messaged her section leader.

When Henning received her test results, she notified the band and called the WKU hotline. She followed the guidelines given by the hotline and returned to the band when it was safe. While she is not sure how she contracted the virus, she trusts that the band is taking all of the necessary precautions in keeping its members safe and was happy to be back and healthy in time for the first home game.

McCurry said that the marching band makes enforcing these guidelines easy because the students take so much accountability for themselves and their band members.

Kelsey Dunn, a graduate teaching assistant from Todd County and the captain head of percussion/drumline, agreed with McCurry’s sentiment and said that the Big Red Marching Band has a family mindset.

“Band is a very social experience, but everyone is a team player and every week we talk about how what you do outside rehearsal might affect what happens in- side of rehearsal,” Dunn said. “We have awesome student leadership that takes personal responsibility, which trickles down to the whole band, which is why I see the whole band from freshmen to seniors approaching this the same way.”

Joshua Pace, a senior drum major who has been in the Big Red Marching Band for five years, said he thinks it’s because of the family mindset many members have that they want to keep each other and their community safe by following the guidelines given to them.

“Our main goal is to keep being able to do this, so we just abide by these rules so we can keep coming together,” Pace said. “From what I can gather the band’s mindset is that they don’t want to spread the virus to someone else and potentially hurt them or their family, so we’re gonna do everything we can to not spread it. It’s less of a ‘me’ mindset and more of a ‘we’ mindset.”

The Big Red Marching Band calls itself the “Pride of the Hilltoppers,” and many of its members take that sentiment very seriously. They feel the band can set a positive example for their fellow WKU students to follow social distancing guidelines.

“We’re a big group, and we practice three days a week, so students all over campus can see and hear this huge band wearing masks, staying distant and following the rules, which I think speaks volumes,” Pace said. “If we can do it, so can everyone else, and hopefully when people hear this it can spark a nice change on the hill.”

Emma Grace Tuggle, a sophomore from Bowling Green, plays the piccolo and said she thinks the band offers hope to WKU students that things will eventually get better.

“There’s nothing like hearing the fight song after a touchdown or walking around campus and hearing the band — It’s heartwarming,” Tuggle said. “I’ve had quite a few people tell me it lifts their spirits to hear us play.”

The band has had to make many adjustments this year, and game day is one of those. On a typical game day the Big Red Marching Band would occupy one section in the stadium and march on the field for the halftime show. This year, they are no longer allowed on the field, and they now occupy three stands for a total of 1,200 seats.

Megan Withers, a junior flute player from Bowling Green, said that while the new game day guidelines are definitely an adjustment, she thinks it’s really important that the band still gets to cheer on the football team during games.

“We bring an element to athletic events because we are always there to cheer and support the team, which is especially important now with the reduced number of fans in the stadium,” Withers said. “We brought our A-game during the first football game of this season, and we had fun, which is what we do in the flute section. We scream and holler and support the Tops.”

McCoy offered similar insight into game day and said her first ever college football game exceeded her expectations, despite it looking different than she expected.

“The game atmosphere was electric, and we were playing with so much energy, just being silly and letting our personalities show, and it felt like I had regained some sense of normalcy,” McCoy said. “They call us the Pride of the Hilltoppers for a reason.”

Big Red Marching Band is preparing a pre-recorded halftime show for the WKU Homecoming game to broadcast while they play in the stands.

Many of the band members agreed that while the adjustments have been difficult, they are just happy to be able to be there and find some sort of normal in a time when everything is changing.

Erin McCurdy, a junior drum major from Louisville, said that while it’s disappointing to not be able to do little things like the band’s traditional handshake or hug your friends, she is just thankful to be on campus and is willing to do whatever it takes to stay together.

“Doing band makes it feel like some things are a little back to normal,” McCurdy said. “Band is an outlet for people to feel included and welcome and to express themselves. So to have this organization to come to and feel welcome is a big blessing, especially since many other schools didn’t.”

Maggie Thornton can be reached at [email protected].