'Everything that we do, we can't do.' As Big Ten football takes the field, how are the sidelined marching bands coping?

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The Northwestern University Marching Band performs before a game against Illinois at Ryan Field Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Evanston, Illinois. - John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — If this were a “normal” year, the Northwestern Wildcat Marching Band – which bills itself as “The Finest Band in the Land” – would be revving up for Saturday’s big game against the Maryland Terrapins.

And the Marching Illini at the University of Illinois – which calls itself “The Nation’s Premier College Marching Band” – would be gearing up for Friday’s confrontation with the Wisconsin Badgers.

But the contests on the field will go on without the musicians, at least so far as their physical presence is concerned. For though the bands’ videos may play on the big screen during home games, the musicians will be banished from the field and the stands due to the pandemic.

“The Big 10 conference has ruled that there are no bands, no dance teams, no cheerleading allowed at any games across the conference,” says Barry L. Houser, U. of I. director of athletic bands.

“They will not be present at these initial football games,” he adds in an email. “We are disappointed by this decision, as we feel we have one of the safest sets of COVID protocols anywhere in the country.”

Nevertheless, the marching bands have fallen silent this season, robbing not only the games of their spectacular choreography and rousing music but the young musicians of a ritual they treasure.

“Everything that we do, we can’t do,” says University of Illinois senior Melissa Horton, 22, a molecular and cellular biology major (and psychology minor) who plays trumpet for the Marching Illini.

“Our purpose is to play and perform for a crowd for football games, events on campus, parades, and we can’t do any of that!”

Says Northwestern senior Ethan Reiss, 21, who holds the position of drum major in the band: “What do I miss about marching band? What don’t I miss? I miss everything.

“Well, I don’t miss waking up at 4:30 a.m. for morning kickoff. But I miss rehearsals. I miss getting to march pregame shows,” adds Reiss, a double major in political science and history. “There’s no feeling like running out of the tunnel and seeing 40,000 people.”

But the big show on game day is just part – and perhaps not even the most important part – of what the young musicians love about being in marching band. For the instrumentalists normally spend uncounted hours each week in rehearsal. Those practice sessions (as well as band camp preceding the schools’ start in fall) also have been canceled during the pandemic.

Which means students have lost a rite that not only enhances their musicianship but transforms their college experience, they say.

“Probably one of the biggest things I’m missing is the preseason camp, or band camp,” says U. of I. senior Andrew Christensen, 21, an engineering major who plays alto saxophone.

At band camp, “We’re outside a lot, doing work every day. It’s so much fun because everyone there is focusing on band; classes haven’t started yet. We make friends, and we build relationships.”

That’s the crux of the marching band experience – its unique ability to help young people bond with peers from across the country and various demographics.

“What marching bands I think do best is establish some sort of sense of community with students,” says Daniel J. Farris, Northwestern’s director of athletic bands. “We provide an outlet for them outside of their regular academic schedule. We try to maintain that connection, which develops into lifelong friendships and connections, which many times continue into the professional world.”

The students concur.

“If there is one thing I miss most, it’s probably just the energy that comes from being together,” says Northwestern senior Katie Daehler, 21, an economics and sociology major who plays cymbals on the drum line. “I miss that sense of collective energy.”

Or as Northwestern student Reiss puts it, “People join NU marching band for a lot of reasons, whether for marching or the music. But one of the things that keeps people in the organization is the sense of community and friendship that we all have together. Whether it’s having sectional time, where people can hang out with people who play the same instrument. Or breakouts for people with the same majors, to give academic advice.”

Then, too, playing in marching band offers a welcome contrast to poring over books.

“In band, I can get to use a totally different part of my brain, and I miss that,” says U. of I. alto saxophonist Christensen, who’s studying to be a nuclear engineer. “Going to band is kind of a de-stressor.”

But though many band directors are “pretty much resigned to the fact that we won’t do any in-person meeting until, fingers crossed, 2021,” as Northwestern’s Farris puts it, that doesn’t mean the ensembles have ceased to exist.

Like just about everyone else, the musicians have been convening on Zoom. Unfortunately, the students can’t make music together online, partly due to the time lag on the Internet, which makes it impossible to play in synchronicity.

So band directors and students have found other ways to stay connected online. They share information, do health checks, work on stretching exercises. Sometimes one musician will play solo, and the others will try to play along, with their microphones muted. Or they’ll give each other assignments to practice particular songs at home.

What they do online “kind of changes every week, every session,” says Northwestern student Daehler. “The biggest focus is trying to keep the traditions and the community going on. That’s taken a few different forms.

“A lot of time it means spending time in breakout rooms (online) with our section, going through our traditions that make NUMB (Northwestern University Marching Band) special, the quirks that have developed over time that you just pick up on game day or in band camp: This is what we do and how we do it.

“We also focus on the logistics of this: This is how you read a drill chart, if we actually were marching drill.”

But how do you practice marching when you’re in a little box on a Zoom call?

You can’t, of course, though band veterans have been giving incoming musicians some pointers.

“I try to ask them to put the camera on their feet,” says U. of I. student Christensen. “I’m a section leader, and I’ve been leading visual sections, teaching fundamentals to the whole band. It’s really tough to teach over Zoom.

“We mainly tell stories, relay to people how we feel, and how we’ve felt for the last three years about this band.”

The band directors share videos online to give everyone – and especially new band members – “an idea of our history and who we are,” says U. of I. student Horton. “We show them videos of our shows, so they can understand what we do in context.”

Though everyone agrees that the online experience is about as far from the real thing as imaginable, it has been a balm to those who love marching band.

“It feels like a little bit of normal,” says U. of I. student Christensen.

“At first it took some adjusting to get used to it,” says Northwestern student Daehler. “Now that we’re kind of in the groove, it’s the best Zoom that I have all day. To see people who I really know – it’s the quickest hour that I spend.”

All are looking forward to getting off the screen and onto the field, whenever that may be. Until then, they’re making the best of what band directors Houser and Farris both term a “challenge.”

“It would be easy to give up and say we’d shut this down,” says U. of I. band director Houser.

“It’s something you have to reimagine.”

Along those lines, he plans to record a video with the band outdoors next Wednesday (with special protocols in place). That will mark the first time the Marching Illini have gathered in person this season.

“I think that’s going to be a lot more magical than what we even anticipate now,” says Houser. “The fact that we’ll get to see each other, we hope it will be a magical moment.

“Our students are going to get to see each other in person, as opposed to as a dream.

“For myself, that will be an amazing time.”

Says U. of I. student Christensen, “The situation may not be great now. But we will be back.”

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©2020 Chicago Tribune

Northwestern University band director Daniel Farris with senior marching band members (and roommates, which is why they are not socially distancing) Ethan Reiss and Katie Daehler. - E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS