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Show must go on despite pandemic

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Marching band contest

ON THE FIELD: The Ashland-Greenwood High School marching band performs at the homecoming football game in Ashland on Oct. 2. The band will host and compete in the Oxbow Marching Band Contest on Saturday at Ashland’s Memorial Stadium. (Staff Photo by Suzi Nelson)

ASHLAND – The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way students attend Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools this year. They wear masks every day. Some classes are held outdoors as long as the weather is good. And some events have been modified or cancelled all together.

And every event during the spring semester, including the spring concert, was cancelled because students were learning remotely, rather than in person, because of the pandemic.

But one annual event that has enjoyed a healthy amount of success since it debuted in 2008, the Oxbow Marching Band Contest, could not be stopped by the pandemic.

The contest will be held on Saturday, Oct. 17 at Memorial Stadium in Ashland.

The decision to hold the contest during a pandemic wasn’t a difficult one according to Jonathan Jaworski, director of bands for Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools.

“It boils down to providing students with opportunities to perform,” said Jaworski. “If it is OK to have football games and volleyball matches with some adjustments, then we can find a way to have marching band performances, as well. Students have lost so many things over the past seven months, if there was any way to keep this event we would.”

There are changes, however. The biggest, and most noticeable, will be the lack of spectators.

“With the number of different communities involved, that would seem to be a significant risk of spreading between communities,” Jaworski said.

Because of this decision, all band performances will be streamed on the school’s StrivTV channel (http://striv.tv/ashland-greenwood).

For the past 12 years, the contest concluded with an awards ceremony. To eliminate the need for all of the musicians and band directors to stay until the ceremony, each band’s ratings will be announced about 30 minutes after they perform, Jaworski explained.

Each school will still be able to view two other groups perform, because part of the educational value of marching contests is to see other performances, Jaworski said.

“So, after each group performs, they will be able to watch the next two groups on the field,” he said. “At the end of the second group, their rating will be announced before they leave the stadium to head home.”

Behind the scenes, more changes have been made to keep the AGPS staff safe.

“Each judge will use his own digital recorder through the day, rather than changing them between each band. The group in the press box will be spread out more than in previous years, as well,” Jaworski said.

So far, the number of bands attending the contest has not decreased dramatically because of COVID-19. Jaworski said only one band out of the schools that regularly attend could not be there, and that was because of a scheduling conflict, and not the virus.

However, Jaworski is prepared for some last-minute changes that could take place.

“Of course, COVID affects communities in different ways, and there may be more groups who are unable to come,” he said. “If that happens, then we will just have some extra breaks during the day.”

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The AGHS band has had to adjust the way they play their instruments using nylon bell covers to decrease the chance of spreading COVID-19 while playing. Because marching band is an outdoor activity, the AGHS band has not had to make any major changes in its practice schedule this season.

“Since we are outside most of the time, we are able to practice as normal,” Jaworski said. “For those days when weather keeps us inside, we play for a bit less of the period. After class, we have a scheduled air exchange through the HVAC system, and I use a disinfectant mist spray to kill anything that settles onto chairs or stands.”

The program that the AGHS band will perform has also been altered slightly because of the pandemic. During a normal year, Jaworski would group his band on the field by instruments. But because there was, and still is, the possibility that the school could switch to a hybrid schedule where students would be split into groups based on the first letter of their last names, the band director did some rearranging.

“That’s why, if you watch closely, our students aren’t generally grouped by instrument this year on the field – they are grouped by last name. Fortunately, that particular change hasn’t been needed – our kids have been pretty good about their safety protocols, and we haven’t needed to change away from full school attendance,” he said.

The band is slightly smaller than last year, but that has nothing to do with COVID-19, the band director said.

“We had a large group of seniors last year, and we are just in a bit of a down cycle as far as enrollment in other grades,” he said.

All of the pandemic-related changes have been met with optimism by the AGHS band students, Jaworski said. But he’s not surprised.

“High school band students are, generally, motivated people who want to succeed,” he said. “Part of succeeding is being in the building, and many of our band members have led the way as far as doing the things we need to do to stay in school – wearing masks, keeping apart, and avoiding large gatherings.”

Because the band hadn’t played together since March, it took them a while to get back in the groove.

“It took us a bit longer to get back to sounding like we should, but the kids have worked hard and shown a lot of improvement since we started in August,” Jaworski said.

  The pandemic has also altered the way the marching band performs at home football games. Jaworski said COVID-19 protocols prevented the band from playing in the stands to pep up the crowd during the game. As a result, scheduling changes were made.

“The administration and I decided to move band performances to pregame rather than halftime, which means only one song each week instead of performing a full show at halftime,” he said.

Each year, Jaworski picks a theme for the halftime show, which becomes the show the band performs at numerous marching band contests throughout the season. He was looking for high-energy music this year that mimic the pre-game pieces they would have played in the stands during a regular season.

The lineup includes “Galeon,” a Latin original piece; “Funkytown,” a No. 1 hit from the disco era and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

Also during a normal year, Jaworski would select a handful of performers to be featured soloists during the program. Because the possibility was there that a student would have to stay home for an extended period of time, the band director eliminated the soloists.

  “The focus is on the full group,” he said.

The Oxbow Marching Band Contest began in 2008, when Jaworski came up with a way to give bands from smaller schools a chance to compete against each other, rather than large Class A schools. The event has grown over the years and added bands.

For a schedule of the bands, go to www.news.agps.org.

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