Fridays without football: Yorktown’s marching band plays on over video chat

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The co-captain of the Yorktown marching band’s color guard misses filing out of the stands at the eight-minute mark of the second quarter, eventually taking the field knowing she has practiced this routine hundreds of times and is ready to show it off to family and friends.

There’s nothing like moving in perfect coordination with her band mates, everyone ending up in the right place at the right time. There’s nothing like nailing a live performance.

Of course, with no football games this fall, there will be no halftime and, therefore, no halftime shows. The band still practices, though the reward is unclear.

When the novel coronavirus pandemic wiped out the prospect of fall activities in Northern Virginia, it did not just take players and coaches off the football field. It also established an ongoing conundrum: How do you take part in a marching band from home?

In the months since her schooling went virtual, Kozlowski has often taken her flag, her rifle or her saber out to the backyard; tossing and twirling inside would surely cause damage. Fellow senior Jack Evans plays his trumpet in the house, typically waiting until his sister is outside. Like Kozlowski, Evans was set to have a leadership role this year: co-drum major. He’s still learning to conduct, filming videos of himself and sending them to his band director for feedback.

It isn’t the same as being at a football game, a competition or a community concert with 100 of his best friends producing a unified sound.

“My number one concern right now is ‘How are the kids going to make friends this year?’ ” band director Brian Bersh said. “If you think about the different Zoom calls you’ve been on, what opportunity was there for you to meet someone that you’ve never met before and become a lifelong best friend with them? Because that’s what usually happens when these kids are a part of [marching band] activities.”

In a normal year, late August would provide Bersh and his students long hours and happy memories. The group would have just returned from a week-long band camp in Pennsylvania and would be practicing hard for its first football game. Those Friday nights are so fun — a chance to perform without the pressure of a competition.

The first football game, especially, can be a transformative experience for those who have just joined the group. Bersh said it is often the moment they realized they have come to the right place, they have found their purpose and their people amid the vast expanse of high school.

“It hooks them,” he said. “We’re going to miss that, for sure.”

Game day

On the Friday of a home football game at Yorktown, the marching band gets started early. They line the halls in the morning, playing pep tunes as their classmates arrive at school.

“Usually it’s pretty loud,” senior drum captain Sam Celestino said. “But it’s really fun, and I think people like it. Fridays are definitely the highlights of our season.”

They meet for a quick rehearsal, take a couple of hours to themselves, then arrive back at Yorktown long before kickoff to get dressed and take out props and instruments. They play the fight song as the football team takes the field. At halftime, they perform their show, complete with backdrops, choreography and props.

“That’s one of the things I’ll miss the most: the thrill of performing at football games and competitions in front of a live audience,” Kozlowski said. “That’s something you can never re-create.”

They get the third quarter off to hang with friends or stop by the concession stand. Having spent so much time around the football team, many of them are deeply invested in the Patriots’ success.

“Contrary to what a lot of people believe, most of us in the band are pretty into the football game and trying to follow what’s going on,” Evans said. “We love it when they do well. And the better they do, the more football games we get to go to.”

After the game, they play the school’s alma mater, “Irish Blessing.” Once the players and fans have left, they are often the last ones out of the stadium. They form a “parade block” and march back to the school together, leaving just as they arrived.

New day

The best part of band camp isn’t necessarily learning the music or the drills, staff and students say. And it certainly isn’t the daily morning runs. It’s the time spent goofing off with friends, talking in the cafeteria, singing songs around the campfire and looking forward to a new year.

So on Tuesday night, Bersh tried to reconstruct that experience with a “virtual campfire.” Roughly 90 students and staff logged into a Microsoft Teams call, played songs, met the freshmen and generally had a good time. They broke off into their sections later in the night, discussing their summers and what this semester might look like.

It was a promising start to a semester in which all band activities must be virtual. That doesn’t mean the group can’t play together, necessarily. In June, the school’s bands put together a virtual concert. It took a lot of editing and a lot of patience, but the sound prevailed.

Bersh realizes his marching band cannot be virtually contained. This fall he will teach students about other aspects of marching bands, such as arranging music, choreographing and developing show design. They will break down film of old performances. They will dive deeper into their craft than they might otherwise.

“These are all parts of the activity, but they’re not the parts that the kids got to engage in in the past,” Bersh said. “What I really didn’t try and do was re-create the marching band experience online.”

Evans, a four-year member, probably will spend this Friday night like he has spent the past several Friday nights, working on his craft far away from the perfect turf of Greenbrier Stadium.

His conducting assignments are due Saturday mornings, so he can usually be found with Photo Booth open on his laptop and music streaming out his phone. He sits in front of his mirror recording take after take, conducting a marching band from the quiet of his bedroom.

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