Marching to the beat of a different drum

Hart High senior Ainsely Demuth poses in her room with her horn in front of photos with her friends and family. PHOTO BY Shae Hammond / THE SIGNAL
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Last October, Canyon High School’s Gold Star Brigade marching band and color guard were one of dozens of schools competing in the Wildcat Classic in front of thousands at College of the Canyons.

The group’s rendition of “Crossroads” was cheered on by parents, school staff and onlookers who’ve come to appreciate the opportunity to perform in the competitions hosted by two local schools, which draw acclaimed band programs from all over to the Santa Clarita Valley each year. 

Then a little over a week later, Hart High hosted its 2019 Rampage event Nov. 2, 2019, which, in similar fashion, welcomed all comers, although, as fate would have it, West Ranch High, which organizes the Wildcat Classic each year, took home the top prize at Hart’s event.

What a difference a
year makes.

For 2020, there will be no screaming fans or crowds to fill the bleachers of Cougar Stadium. However, SCV high school marching bands and their color guard will go on, with their bandmates, virtual practices and memories of the crowds to keep them going as they practice during the pandemic.

Practice, practice, practice

The SCV’s high school marching bands are known for their spectacular halftime shows and annual competitions, which attract crowds of more than 6,000 every year. 

And the excitement associated with that type of event is impossible to duplicate in a virtual setting.

“The feeling you get at competitions, it’s not just if you win,” said Haleia Milburn, a junior drum major at Hart High. “Just the general feel around the entire day or the entire weekend when we go out (and compete) is amazing.”

While the students undoubtedly miss the adrenaline and emotion of live competition, the challenge of preparation and the thrill of a successful performance, the band, as they say, will play on — but practice is less of a team sport this year. And the students are learning to make do. 

“It’s been a huge adjustment, but it hasn’t been anything bizarre where we can’t manage it,” said Tristan Manalang, a senior in wind ensemble and marching band at West Ranch High who’s been playing drums and percussion since middle school. “It’s just a lot more screen time, a lot more listening time, trying to keep your head up — and stay focused and engaged while warming yourself up and being diligent about your practice time.” 

Virtual rehearsals

Without competitions and in-class or on-campus rehearsal, students acknowledged that building the camaraderie and bonding that come from months of preparation for events like the Hart Rampage or Wildcat Classic have been harder to build via Zoom, which is how band rehearsals — in addition to all other classes and school events — are taking place, for now.

“It’s definitely not the same at all,” said Hart High senior Ainsely Demuth, who’s looking to study biochemistry in college next year. “Of course, we could do as many zoom breakout rooms as we want, but small talk over Zoom doesn’t really exist, so that’s hard … we’ve made ways around it, like doing a freshman drive-thru welcome, but it’s just not the same.”

Educators like Anthony Bailey and Jason Marshall, who lead the programs for Hart and West Ranch high schools, respectively, recognize the challenges students are encountering and carry empathy toward the situation.

“It’s sad. I feel bad for the kids, especially my seniors, who have had a lot of success,” said Marshall, the band director at West Ranch High School. “They were champions last year, so they were excited to go out and try to repeat.”

Digital concert

Marshall and his fellow leaders of the local band programs have been using technology available to do their best to simulate an online marching band experience. Hart’s marching band, for example, has been using programs such as Soundtrap and Smartmusic, which allow  students to interact with each other musically in a virtual setting. 

At least through the music software, the students “can still create an ensemble experience,”  Bailey said. 

“What’s great about that is that the kids can collaborate in real time, they can video chat,” he added, “they can give each other comments just like they normally would if they were sitting in a section with one another.”

The marching bands for both West Ranch and Hart high schools are planning an online performance, according to their leaders, but no date has been set, yet.

Manalang explained the process as one that will have creative efforts from the student musicians, as well as technical assistance from the AV department. 

“(Students will be) working to play a piece together by Zoom after receiving different videos — we’ll edit it to culminate it into a virtual concert,” Manalang explained. 

“It’s just an important part of what they do, and to lose that has been hard on them — and they’ve handled it great,” Marshall said, praising his students’ fortitude, which Bailey echoed.

“I’m really just so proud of how my kids have really come together during this time and really have been supporting one another and really making the best of the situation,” Bailey said. “And it’s been really great seeing that, even though it’s been different, that they are still so willing to make music with each other.” 

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