Not even a global pandemic can halt the Trojan Marching Band.
There will be no Trojan football this fall. No halftime shows. No noisy marches to the Coliseum. No grueling practices on Cromwell Field. But there will be a Trojan Marching Band.
Undeterred by COVID-19, the Spirit of Troy convened its 51st and final – and most unusual – band camp in Dr. Arthur C. Bartner’s tenure in mid-August. Call it the first air-conditioned band camp, with the summer heat of Cromwell Field replaced by the climate-controlled comfort of home.
While Bartner and the band staff had worked throughout the summer to develop a number of contingency plans, a cancelled football season was not at the top of the list. Those plans were thrown for a loss when the Pac-12 sacked the season on Aug. 11. With quarantine restrictions still in place, Bartner and band leaders scrambled to create a virtual band camp with just two weeks’ notice.
The answer: Let’s go digital, with Zoom.
Early fears of a lack of interest, particularly among new members, were unrealized. About 300 students and staff participated, including some 100 incoming freshmen.
“I’m pleasantly surprised that it went so well,” Bartner said. “The attitude of these kids is really terrific. They’ve embraced this virtual approach. Wherever they are – houses, apartments, in China and South Africa – everybody’s bought into this.”
Not that there weren’t challenges to overcome when trying to engage students who were socially distanced by far more than six feet.
“How do you do a SoCal spellout with no sound?” Bartner wondered. “How do you play “Conquest” using an audio file?”
Video conferencing solved the problem.
“We’re taking Zoom to the limit, learning as we go,” said K.C. Busby, who wears two hats as a trumpet teaching assistant and TMB alumni coordinator. At band camp, he’s the maestro who coordinates up to 11 concurrent Zoom calls as the full band breaks up into sectionals, using expertise he learned arranging TMBAA board meetings. “We were trying to have as normal a band camp as possible. It was a tall order.”
First of all, there’s the logistics of wrangling rehearsals, marching drills and even Rick Aerobics (led by Assistant Director Rick Cox from his back yard) on Zoom. With band camp sessions starting at 5 p.m. on the West Coast, you’ve got members watching from home, backyards, even their cars as they commute home from work. And with members scattered across the country and spanning three continents, there’s the need to deal with time zones.
“The sun never sets on the Trojan Marching Band,” said Bartner.
Finally, there’s the challenge of condensing the typical 9 1/2-hour band camp regimen into just three hours.
Although there will be no on-field performances this year, drilling on marching skills continues to be a priority, especially for incoming members. “If we lose a year of marching and not knowing how to march, we’re sunk,” said Busby. “With virtual marching, we’re losing only half a year if things open up and we host spring training band camp down the road.”
Simulating on-field conditions has also gone digital. Using funds donated by the Trojan Marching Band Alumni Association, the band has purchased an app called the Ultimate Drill Book. Replacing paper handouts, the app shows members where they’re supposed to be and what they’ll be playing at any moment in time during a performance.
“I’m amazed at the technology and how this has flowed,” Bartner said. “The kids can mess with it and hear where the music comes in. Your cues are in the music.”
More difficult to replace is the camaraderie and esprit de corps that’s forged at a traditional band camp during meal breaks and down time. To help make those connections, band camp includes structured ice breakers, such as “two truths and a lie,” where members get a chance to get up close and personal.
New band members are introduced to rock charts and learn Spirit of Troy legacy by watching videos of past events and performances, such as appearances on the “Tonight Show” or playing “Carpool Karaoke.” An early favorite was “Tusk,” recorded to a click track on Zoom and shared during the recent TMBAA Cantina.
Old traditions remain, including the annual Battle of the Classes, with band members being admonished to maintain a PG rating for this year’s routine. Meanwhile, new activities are being created. All band members are being asked to record and share themselves singing “Fight On!” from wherever they’re located.
“We’re starting easy. Everybody should be able to sing ‘Fight On!’ and know the words,” Bartner said. “We want to see everyone in their own environment. It shows how diverse and inclusive the band is.”
It also gives Bartner a chance to get to know the newest members. “I haven’t met any of the freshman,” he said.
Even without fall football, the band marches on.
“We’re used to planning for that first game, that first show, and now we’ve got all this time,” Bartner said. “But we’re doing what the football team is doing. They’re training, and so are we.
“We have to be prepared. When they decide it’s safe to play, we have to be ready to go out and march a pregame and a show. We’ll be ready.”