After last year's COVID-19 outbreak, the North Carolina marching band was not going to let a central part of their college experience be ruined for a second straight year.
To prevent any COVID-19 catastrophes, the Marching Tar Heels had to do some navigating, adding a mix of welcome and challenging changes to their normal operations. But everyone in the band has the same goal: to give everyone the best possible marching band experience.
“That's what I've been trying to preach to the students,” said Jeffrey Fuchs, director of University Bands. “You have no right to change the experience someone else has just because you don't want to wear a mask or you don’t want to do whatever.”
Fuchs has told his students he has people in his circle who are at high risk for serious COVID-19 complications. These protocols are not just rules for him, but essential steps to protect people around him.
His students feel the same, with some sharing his struggle. Honesty is key in leadership meetings about COVID-19 protocols, and so is listening to those in vulnerable populations, as senior mellophone section captain Sean Raycroft notes.
“We are trying to cater to the most risk-averse among us, rather than kind of the average,” Raycroft said. “Our philosophy as a group is that we don't want anybody to be turned away.”
Following that philosophy doesn’t always mean the strictest regulations. Similar to the University, the Marching Tar Heels’ members disclosed their vaccination status anonymously, understanding that a lack of anonymity would create unnecessary friction in the band. Still, the band boasts around an 80 percent vaccination rate among reported members.
Several of the band’s protocols are stricter than what the school requires of them. For example, students must wear a mask at all times when together. That includes when they are outdoors and while performing, a step up from the University's mask requirement that only requires them indoors.
It is a learning curve for the band. Something as basic as bringing a brass or woodwind instrument to one's mouth is now a matter of lifting the flap of a mask and hoping the mask doesn’t get stuck. And if it does, the conductor will not wait for that member.
Bell covers on brass and woodwind instruments — which studies conclude prevent aerosols from escaping into the air — bring down pitch and make some notes harder to play. And many band members have not performed together for a year and a half, so confidence is hard to build in such a short time.
“It’s just a hassle, but it’s a precaution that we have to take, because I will do anything,” Madi Marks, a sophomore clarinet player and special events coordinator, said. “I will do cartwheels to be able to play with other people.”
Marks and her bandmates will have to make a few more adjustments traveling on the road. Members are not required to travel if they are not comfortable, but if they do travel, they will be masked and socially distanced on the bus. The bus will not stop until it gets to the venue, not even for a bathroom break.
But along the way, as the Marching Tar Heels were forced down detour after detour, they found some new roads to be better than their old paths.
Some of the most notable changes include using an app to immediately get to the right song rather than a folder of sheet music, individual sections of the band rehearsing together rather than all members at once and not entering from the away tunnel at the start of games.
The changes are the easy part. The harder part is getting everyone up to speed. First-years and sophomores outnumber juniors and seniors in the band.
Still, it’s up to the underclassmen to set the example for what an in-person marching band looks like and to keep the Marching Tar Heels’ trademark culture.
“It's little things, like making it down to campus so that I can sit in the bottom of Lenoir and eat lunch with the section,” Raycroft said. “And it's a lot of stuff that people really miss. So people really do appreciate the little things, especially now.”