It’s a beautiful fall afternoon, shirtsleeve weather under blue skies at TCF Bank Stadium as the University of Minnesota Marching Band takes the field for the halftime show.
The horns are blaring, the woodwinds are tooting, the drums are banging, the color guard is waving its flags. They form a block M. They chant out “M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A!”
The high-stepping drum major tosses his baton high into the air and makes a behind-the-back, between-the-legs catch.
It’s a classic ritual of Big Ten football, except there are no fans in the stands and no football players on the field.
Band members wear masks, blowing through slits in the fabric. The saxophonists, clarinetists and flutists have white bags encasing their instruments, playing the keys by sticking their hands in holes cut into the cloth. The introduction by the show announcer provides the explanation: “Welcome to the University of Minnesota Marching Band’s first pandemic halftime show!”
It’s a socially distanced performance for an unseen online audience. But it’s what the 320-member band has had to do to defy COVID-19 and make music together.
In a normal year, the band makes about 120 appearances in one form or another, marching at the Minnesota State Fair, giving indoor concerts or performing at university ceremonies. That’s all been canceled this fall because of COVID-19, according to band director and assistant professor Betsy McCann.
“We don’t want to be gathering crowds. We don’t want to do that,” McCann said.
The solution was performances that could be seen only by an online audience on social media platforms.
Even before they knew there was going to be a football season (albeit one played in empty stadiums), the band leaders forged ahead. They held a virtual summer band camp and the first two weeks of band class were virtual, as well.
“We’re teaching how to march on Zoom,” said clarinet player Bethany Mestelle, a senior from Arbor Vitae, Wis.
“It was a challenge, but it worked,” McCann said. “They did learn.”
Playing in a bag
When the band started meeting in person on Sept. 21, they were divided into two bands, the Maroon and the Gold, because they couldn’t fit the entire band on the field and maintain proper social distance.
One group was assigned the halftime show, while the other rehearsed the pregame show. All in-person rehearsals have been held outside at the TCF Bank Stadium. To get into the stadium, band members have to pass a temperature check from a forehead thermometer set up on a music stand and use separate entrances and exits.
They got masks from Podiumwear, a St. Paul company that normally makes sports apparel, and PPE for their instruments from Torpedo Bags, a Minneapolis company that normally makes high-end leather instrument bags and cases for musicians ranging from Billy Joel’s band to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
When the pandemic hit, Torpedo Bags also made an abrupt pivot to making masks, supplying tens of thousands of masks to protect workers at Metro Transit and Boston Scientific.
When the U’s School of Music called, Torpedo developed a line of protective gear that includes the AxMask, a cotton or polyester bag designed to decrease emissions from woodwinds ranging from piccolos to bassoons. It also started making bell covers to go over the open end of brass instruments, including a model with an internal glove for French horn players. Their Chop Slot and Flute Chute musician masks feature zipper or leather flap openings for the player to blow through.
The designs were created with input from professional musicians, according to Torpedo Bags owner Steve Kriesel, a trumpet player and former school band director.
In addition to supplying the U, Kriesel has been sending the protective gear to music stores and school districts around the country. He estimates that he’s sold about 10,000 musician face masks and instrument covers.
“We’ve been making them nonstop for six weeks,” he said. “This has been a strange year.”
Band member Mestelle said she’s gotten used to playing her instrument in a bag, even though her clarinet’s reed sometimes gets snagged on her face mask.
“I think every precaution we can take is one we’re willing to take,” she said.
At the halftime performance videotaped earlier this month, the band played songs that reflected anxieties in the time of coronavirus: “Into the Unknown” from “Frozen II,” and the Beatles’ “Come Together.” They also played Imagine Dragons’ “I Bet My Life” as a tribute to essential workers.
“The fact that you’re doing this is so inspiring to so many people outside this stadium,” McCann told the band.
While the Maroon band played the halftime show, the Gold band watched, sitting apart from one another in the stands. The only other spectators were band alumni and recent U grads Wendy Osman and her husband, Devon Osman, who stood outside the stadium fence to watch and listen.
“They sound great,” Wendy said. “I’m so glad they can make it work.”
McCann said for many of the students, band may be their only in-person class right now.
“It’s really nice to see everybody, even though we can’t be as physically close to each other as in the past,” said mellophone player Erin Schwister.
“The energy has been incredible,” Mestelle said of the band program this year. “People have really been making the most of it.”
McCann said she likes the idea of Gopher fans at home re-creating their game day experiences by clicking onto the band’s YouTube channel and watching the band video when the televised season opener against Michigan on Saturday goes into halftime.
The videos will also be available on the band’s Facebook page (facebook.com/umnmarch) and shared with the athletic department. McCann said she also hopes the video — a performance that you normally would see only by going to a football game — will find a new online audience among people who aren’t necessarily football fans.
After the Maroon band played the halftime show, the Gold band took the field to march and record the pregame show that features songs familiar to any U grad: the “Minnesota Rouser” fight song, “Go Gopher Victory” and Sousa’s “Minnesota March.”
“And that’s a take. Everybody at ease,” McCann said after the echoes of the last song faded away.
But there was just one more thing that needed to be done.
It’s a band tradition after every rehearsal and performance to sing “Hail! Minnesota.”
“Minnesota, hail to thee, hail to thee our college dear,” they sang, half of the students on the field and the other half singing back from the stands.
They traditionally stand arm in arm when they sing the school anthem as student band members conduct their classmates.
“It can be quite emotional,” said McCann, a U alum.
But, of course, they couldn’t get that close this year.