While fans might have mixed emotions about Iowa State University reversing its earlier decision to let 25,000 people into Jack Trice Stadium for its football home opener Saturday — keeping stands empty instead — the move has proved advantageous for the Cyclone Marching Band.
Although a crowd won’t be cheering when the Cyclones take the field for the start of an unprecedented and unforgettable season, ISU’s nearly 400-strong band will be playing — but from a safe distance.
By moving from behind the end zones to the east stands in the 61,500-capacity stadium, the Cyclone Marching Band will be able to separate its full membership by 7.5 feet — or by four marching band “steps” — according to the ISU News Service.
But rather than taking to the field, the band will perform before the game and at half time from the bleachers — among the many measures Cyclone Marching Band Director Christian Carichner imposed on his ensemble to keep them safe and keep them playing this fall, despite COVID-19.
“The (Cyclone Marching Band) is one of the absolute best parts of Iowa State University — and Cyclone Nation needs us,” Carichner told The Gazette. “Everyone wants to see us do this the right way — with student safety at the forefront of every decision we make.
“I can’t wait for fans, students and the community to hear ‘ISU Fights’ coming from the band again. I think it will do wonders to inspire our campus to rise to the occasion,” Carichner said.
ISU is the only one of Iowa’s three public universities going through with a fall football season. The University of Iowa’s Big Ten Conference in mid-August pulled the plug in hopes the pandemic threat will ease by spring. The University of Northern Iowa’s Missouri Valley Football Conference also last month canceled games for this fall, also hoping for spring.
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The Big 12 — which includes ISU — has not canceled games and instead set game-cancellation thresholds — like having at least 53 players capable of playing. The conference arranged a “9+1” 2020 schedule involving round-robin games among Big 12 members and a non-conference matchup.
ISU kicks off its non-conference home opener against the University of Louisiana at 11 a.m.
Band alumni ‘took care of their own’
Carichner has been prepping since April for the chance his students could participate.
He connected with a company pitching a product to help musicians cover their faces while playing their instruments.
In addition to custom-designed face coverings, the band bought covers to impede the spread of the virus through the bells of instruments like trumpets, saxophones and trombones. Band parents helped design an instrument bag to limit release through keyholes, ISU News said.
The band program, among other things, bought new filters for storage facilities to improve air circulation; moved rehearsals outdoors; assigned a “sanisquad” of band members to sanitize everything before and after practices and performances; and began temperature checks of members.
“The band will often split up around campus for rehearsals,” according to Carichner, “to take advantage of our beautiful campus and spread out for practice.”
An answer to the question of cost for all the extra safety steps came after only two days of fundraising that generating more than $20,000.
“The band alumni really stepped up,” Carichner said in a statement. “I put out a plea on Facebook and the band took care of their own.”
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Before students returned to campus this fall for a hybrid semester — prioritizing in-person learning but keeping many courses online — the Cyclone Marching Band addressed audition risks by conducting tryouts for returning members virtually.
Incoming freshmen could audition online or choose a one-on-one, in-person time with social distancing and face coverings.
Despite the unknowns and safety concerns, auditions reached a record this year with 525 students, according to Carichner. The increasing count, he said, “signifies that students are very interested in not only participating in our band, but they are craving a chance to get together and make music.”
‘Willing to do Whatever it Takes’
Before football seasons at UI and UNI were canceled for fall, marching band directors on the campuses had mapped out practice and performance precautions — including virtual auditions, social distancing and outdoor operations.
“Students will wear a mask even while playing instruments or performing by cutting a slit into a mask where the mouthpiece can be inserted,” UNI Director of Bands Danny Galyen told The Gazette in early August. “Many instruments will use covers on the bells, and some instruments will have other coverings on the instrument to reduce aerosol emissions as suggested by recent research.”
ISU’s Carichner stressed how fluid the game situation remains for his campus.
“We’ve made plans, changed plans and then made new plans in preparation for this fall,” he said. “Our safety protocols continue to evolve as we find better information. We try to be as nimble and responsive as possible.”
But band members seem to be all in, he said, as they want to ensure they’re allowed to continue playing.
“This is an awesome group of students, and I knew they were going to ace this,” he said. “They want this experience so badly and they’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
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