COVID doesn't stop the Marching Huskies

101 OPRF students make music in whole new way

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Two evenings each week, screens are shut off and 101 teens make their way to the field at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Even with masks covering most of their faces, their expressions cannot be hidden. It is the joy of being a Marching Huskie. 

"I'll never forget our first day that we were together in person," said Anthony Svejda, the head marching band director at the school. "I got chills just standing there watching this evolve because they were doing what they wanted to do. And they were restricted, but only with a mask and distance, and still able to do what they love to do — that's be around each other while making music, being part of something greater than themselves."  

"The kids, you can see in their faces, you can see in their behavior, even though they're masked, you can still see joy in their eyes," he said.

Yes, the Marching Huskies performs at halftime shows at Friday Night Football. And they are a group that, in past years, puts in hours of practice at an away camp in August until their muscles hurt. They keep going nearly every weekday from then until late October to show what they can do at marching band competitions, something that happens in a normal season three to four times each fall. Most years they bring home some plaques and trophies along the way. 

But football is not slated to happen until possibly late winter. Competitions are canceled. For Svejda, who also teaches band and jazz at OPRF, it made him think, marching band "is its own activity; it does have a lot of things it does on its own."

"You don't know what marching band means to these kids," Svedja said in explaining what band parents and possibly teachers only understand. "And, in a sense, it's providing an opportunity to be involved in an organization where you can collaborate with every group, every type of person, every grade level, every gender for that matter. It's inclusive — everybody who wants to be part of it can do it." 

For such a large group of students to make music and perform drills — the many precision steps and movements that make up the visuals of a marching band show — during a pandemic, meant the group needed a safe way to practice and create a show together in person. 

Svejda used the guidelines provided by the Center for Disease Control, Oak Park's Department of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Public Health to create a plan to keep OPRF students safe while participating in marching band. It was submitted to school administration and approved.

The team working with Svejda includes Patrick Pearson who wrote the drill. He also coaches color guard with Melissa Majnarich. Joe Morecek coaches drumline and Yulia Block is the frontline coach. Drew Fredrickson, assistant director, also acts as sound engineer and what Svejda calls the "producer extraordinaire." He will be putting the show together through recording and editing of separate smaller sections of students.

"We have four breakout groups … but we can break it out even more than that, into eight groups or more, but it is student leaders that are running the show," Svejda said. "We are providing that direction, but they are the ones doing it because we can't be in all eight or 10 groups. It's been a really eye-opening experience for all of us in that the students are making this happen, they're leading." 

Meanwhile, other sections, no more than 10 at a time, spaced 10 feet apart, will record their music with Fredrickson on the field to capture the ambient sound.

Once these parts are recorded and combined in editing, the music will be played over the PA in the football stadium while about half of the Marching Huskies at a time perform to the music they've played. These videos will be recorded without sound and then edited together with the audio track to create the finished piece, which will look like a complete show of 101 Marching Huskies performing on the football field.

Rehearsals started Aug. 17 with protocols in place to wear masks at all times and keep social distancing at six to 10 feet or more. "They understand how important it is to continue this in that space, but what's unique is they also have to do that outside of the space because if someone was to go and do something that potentially would create a challenge for the ensemble, that could stop everything," Svejda said. 

Everyone needs to have their own instrument, cannot touch anyone else's, cannot bring it into the school building and sanitizes it between practices. Temperatures are checked, a questionnaire is filled out and hands are sanitized at check-in stations before entering the practice field. Meetings only take place outside; if it rains, practice is canceled. Anyone wanting to participate in this version of marching band also signed a COVID-19 waiver.

It was the students who chose the music, selected last spring to be performed at football games — "September" by Earth, Wind and Fire and "High Hopes" by Panic at the Disco. While the themes are still appropriate, the mode of performance is completely different from what was imagined. 

"This is ambitious," Svejda said. "Even if the end result is so-so, what was the process? What did these students learn along the way? They still were able to create a piece of art, this art form — marching band — and they had fun while doing it." 

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