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Unable to take the field, UD band members remain engaged, connected
marching band on the football field

​UDMB on the field in a previous year

Article by Megan M.F. Everhart

Restrictions imposed by the pandemic this year created a unique challenge for music programs at schools across the country: What to do about a marching band that's unable to march.

While many athletic band programs simply chose not to operate during the pandemic, the University of Delaware Marching Band (UDMB) never considered that option, says Heidi Sarver, professor of music and director of athletic bands, and Jim Ancona, assistant professor of music and assistant director of marching band.

For one thing, Sarver and Ancona knew that if they didn’t capture high school musicians in their first year of college, they would never get them.

“Once they put down that instrument, they’ll never pick it up again,” Sarver says. “If we shut things down, we’d be looking at 50 people on the field next year,” as opposed to the average 300-member band.

More than that, though, Sarver and Ancona felt compelled to honor the traditions of UDMB and the role it plays in students’ lives. Fall marching band is a one-credit class for students in any major, and a program requirement for many instrumental music education majors, but being part of the Fightin’ Blue Hen family goes deeper than academics. For many students, it defines their college experience.

“It got me through this semester,” says Drew Hunt, a junior computer science major and a drum captain. “Without marching band, I wouldn’t feel that I belong at Delaware.”

Senior drum major and music education major Keith Blake agrees: “This program has given me so much. It made me who I am. I don’t know why everyone didn’t do it.”

For Sarver and Ancona, directing the band is “a labor of love,” Sarver says.

“In some ways it would have been a lot less headache to say, ‘No marching band,’ but this was about providing something for the students,” she says. “I don’t know if they know how important they are to us, and we didn’t want to lose touch with them.”

During the summer, Sarver and Ancona mapped out different configurations for a marching band – from fully in person, to an all-virtual experience. In August, when UD announced the hybrid structure for fall, they finalized a syllabus that included five areas of study: creating the pageantry arts; educational goals/topics for education majors; video projects; instructional sessions; and heath and wellbeing.

“We asked ourselves: How can we create an experience for our students that they will enjoy, without being as taxing as a regular marching band season?” Sarver says. “We threw every idea that we possibly could against the wall to see what would stick, and finally we decided to give them insight into what happens before they arrive for band camp.”

Pageantry Arts
color guard members in marching formation

​The UD Color Guard

The field of pageantry arts includes musical performances that are part of a spectacle, or pageant, such as drum corps, color guard and marching band, and it was the most obvious track to include in this year’s syllabus. Planning a half-time show involves writing the drill – who moves where and when on the field, music selection and costume design. Learning how to design a show takes years, and directors usually attend summer workshops or a drum major academy to develop the necessary skills.

The 2021 show design was already underway when the fall 2020 semester began, with two of three songs selected. After a few detailed Zoom sessions, this year’s UDMB members were invited to help finish the design with song suggestions, ideas for conveying the theme visually in the drill and even the color-guard uniform design.

Junior drum major and pre-veterinary sciences major Kasey Hobart thinks next year’s show will be even better because students were more involved. “Involving us in the creation of the 2021 show is so cool,” she says. “It’s going to be incredible. I think it will improve our performance because we’ve had so much invested in creating it.”

It’s tradition to announce each year’s theme the previous spring, so even though students were invited to help create the show, fans will have to wait a few more months for the reveal.


Educational Track

Marching band is a program requirement for many instrumental music education majors—those likely to teach high school band—and Sarver and Ancona saw an opportunity to give these students, as well as any other interested UDMB member, a deeper look into the experience of educators.

They scheduled a slate of guest speakers, including veteran teachers who discussed the importance of work/life balance and challenges of raising a family while giving 100% to a music program, as well as first-year teachers who frankly shared the experience of beginning their teaching career in a virtual setting. Hearing their stories reassured current students about their own future teaching careers.

“I think everyone has a fear when they graduate: Will I really be able to do what I’ve put my mind to?” says Racquel Hackman, a third-year German education and music education major. “Hearing these stories, I know that even if I make mistakes, I’ll get the hang of it, and I’ll improve. It gave me the confidence [to realize that] I know I’m going to be okay.”

Even non-education majors said they found value in the sessions in terms of connecting with people who are out of school and part of the work force. The educational sessions were so successful that Sarver and Ancona would like to keep having them even when the band returns to the field.

“It’s beneficial for students to hear from other professionals in the field, so even though we’re all zoomed out at this point, we need to find a way to incorporate it into the schedule,” Sarver says.

marching band members playing drums

​The UD Drumline

UD permitted in-person learning for music classes this fall, including marching band sectional rehearsals, so students in Newark were able to meet once a week to practice music and technique, following socially distancing protocols whether meeting inside or outdoors. Even without a field show to perform, there was plenty for marching band rookies to learn.

“Traditions are really important for the tuba section,” Hackman says. “All of the sections have them, but the tubas play certain songs that are just us.”

The rehearsals were also good training in UDMB fundamentals, adds senior color guard captain Natasha Gurevich, a major in quantitative biology.

“It’s great for the freshmen to have a foundation about how we do our basics,” she says. Things like precisely how you hold your instrument, or what the command “to the ready” means vary with different organizations, so what a student learned in high school might not be the way the UDMB does it.

Hackman believes the chance to meet in person brought out the best in her section. “There was this unspoken fear that we could shut down at any time,” she says, “so everyone had the attitude of, ‘We’re really going to work hard, and we’re going to have a great time, and we’re going to make the best memories that we can.’”  

Sectionals are often where much of the bonding that makes UDMB feel like a family occurs, and even with smaller groups that was true this year as well. For many, it was their only opportunity this fall to connect in person.

“It gave people a chance to leave their apartments, leave their dorm rooms and get outside,” Blake says. “Even with social distancing, it was the chance to be with people instead of alone in a room staring at a computer.”

Video Project

Students who opted for the virtual marching band experience did not attend sectional rehearsals in person, but they still benefited from the work done.

Each section was asked to create a video showing their response to stationary commands like “to the ready” and “detail ten-hut” for those participating virtually. These video projects will part of the UDMB experience for years to come as training tools for rookies.

In addition to the training videos, sections contributed segments to two large video projects that Sarver is compiling from – and for – all participants. Students studying virtually also submitted video or audio tracks. Combined with some still photography, the various clips came together as a music video, allowing students to see the work that they, and everyone else, did this semester.

Students contributed to the creative process here as well, as every section was tasked with creating a theme for their video segments. For example, trombone players who were local filmed themselves on the steps of Memorial Hall. A virtual trombonist could film themselves on the steps of their own building, allowing them to have that small connection even from a distance.

Health and Wellbeing

Despite the enormous amount of work involved in a regular marching band season, for directors and students alike, Sarver and Ancona recognize that the social and emotional elements provide a valuable break from strenuous academics. Normally, the long-standing “rookie buddy” program contributes to this by pairing new members with veterans to help them navigate not just the newness of marching band, but all of campus life, and the directors check in with students throughout the season.

“We’re constantly reminding the students to go to the gym, grab some coffee with friends, take a hayride at Milburn Orchards,” Sarver says. To fill this need when many activities were not longer available, the health and wellbeing track included sessions on meditation, stretch and yoga.

Students themselves also thought about the rookie experience and what that means for each student individually, as well as the band as a whole. Hackman says her biggest motivation for participating this year was to give rookies as good an experience as possible, despite the challenges. And the rookies stepped up. “They really put in the work to learn the music and do the marching and were putting forth their best effort to be involved,” she says.

Even without the formal program, veterans took care of rookies. “My section took me in and took care of me,” says freshman Stephen Goulet, a music education major. “Even before the semester started, section leaders were texting me and getting me excited to start UDMB. Marching band is the reason I decided to come to campus.”

A Building Year
marching band in uniform facing away from the camera

As much as students recognize the benefits of having even a truncated marching band experience, they all miss what it would have been. “Nothing beats a normal season where we can be together as a whole band on the field doing drill,” Hobart says. “Being able to perform – nothing beats that.”

Blake agrees. “It’s not the same. We miss football games, and we even miss band camp,” he says. But the new program accomplished a lot.

“I knew it would be different,” says Gurevich, “but it was so much more than I thought we’d be able to do.”

Overall participation in marching band was down this year, from an average of about 300 to just over 225 members, and the rookie class was about 30% smaller than usual, but those who came are part of the family now.

“No doubt I’ll be back next year,” Goulet says. “I think everyone is enthused about next year’s show and excited to see how it goes.”

Sarver and Ancona completely reimagined what marching band could be, and in providing this experience to students, they ensured that the Fightin’ Blue Hen tradition lives on.

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