The members of the Nogales High School band took their positions on the sunsplashed field at Apache Stadium last Thursday for the start of practice, maintaining a six-foot distance between them and their nearest bandmate.
All wore face masks, and as they began to warm up, those playing wind instruments peeled back a flap on the mask that allowed them to blow into the mouthpiece of their trumpet, trombone, saxophone or clarinet while still keeping their nostrils covered. In addition, all had black fabric stretched over their instruments’ bell horns to trap or slow exiting droplets of respiratory liquid.
The flute and piccolo players, who blow across the top of a mouthpiece rather than directly into it, inserted the mouth end into their masks through an opening at the side, allowing the fabric to remain in place and diminish the projection of exhaled aerosols. Nearby, the members of the band’s color guard practiced twirling and tossing their flags in the air, all of them wearing face masks.
“This is 2020!” NHS director of bands Donald Heaton repeatedly reminded his musicians during the practice session, as he instructed them not only on the fundamentals of marching band, but also on the adaptations to the activity meant to minimize the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Coming in, I knew that it would not be a regular season,” said Heaton, who is in his first year at the helm of the band after relocating from his home state of Missouri.
At just about the same time that Heaton was making his move to Nogales last summer, the Arizona Marching Band Association and Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors Association both cancelled their fall competition seasons out of public health concerns.
“I knew students were upset a little, because a lot of these kids really, really care about the marching season – especially the seniors,” he said. “This is something they really enjoy.”
Parades were also cancelled amid the pandemic, and so the Pride of Nogales, as the NHS marching band is known, lost its chance to perform in the 2020 Veterans Day or Christmas Light parades – two of the most popular public events of the year in their hometown.
That left them with one performance option: NHS football games.
“We knew that if there was a football game, we’d be expected to perform,” Heaton said. “So that’s what we’ve been preparing for, since Aug. 5, the first day of school.”
However, it took a while for the band – as well as the football team – to get on the field.
Initially, instruction was online only. Then in September, the school announced that football, band and color guard would start practice on Monday, Sept. 28.
Like the NHS athletic teams and others engaged in on-campus activities, band members have to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and adhere to quarantine protocols in case of a positive test. In addition, all of the school’s groups and teams had to put measures in place specific to their activities to protect against the coronavirus.
For an activity like band, in which wind instrument-playing members engage in what University of Iowa doctors described as “deep breathing, sometimes forceful exhalation, and possible aerosolization of the mucus in the mouth and nose, along with secretions from deeper airway structures,” there were special concerns about a disease that’s believed to be spread primarily through respiratory droplets.
“Every band director in the country has been paying close attention, pretty much since we got out of school in March. They’ve been paying attention to what we can do and what we can’t do, because this is an airborne illness, and band requires air,” Heaton said.
As people began to test the capacity of band instruments to spread infections, they decided that it was fairly minimal.
“Woodwind and brass instruments send air through a maze of twists and turns, and buttons create turbulent airflow patterns that don’t simply shoot everything out in a piercing plume,” Dr. James Hamblin, a lecturer at Yale School of Public Health and staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote in a column summarizing research on that matter. “Breathing into a convoluted contraption such as a saxophone or a tuba, then, actually serves as a sort of filter that collects the larger droplets you might be spewing out.”
(Hamblin added that two prominent studies showing minimal droplet spread from instruments were not peer-reviewed and didn’t measure actual coronavirus particles, concerns that were also raised by the University of Iowa doctors who examined the issue.)
To reduce the risks even further, companies developed horn filters and specialized masks like the ones now used by the NHS marching band.
“Are all these things great? Absolutely not. They affect tone, they don’t sound as good. But what it does is, it minimizes the spread of aerosols,” Heaton said.
Bands were also encouraged to rehearse outside, and Heaton said the NHS band has yet to practice indoors.
Even with the protective measures in place, some parents decided that they preferred that their children sit this band season out. But those who remained – a little more than two dozen musicians took part in last Thursday’s practice, plus another dozen or so color guard members – geared up to play at a football game.
But then on the eve of the planned home opener on Oct. 30 against Sahuarita, NHS announced that the game had been cancelled after two student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19. The team’s next home game, scheduled for Nov. 20 against Rio Rico, ended up being cancelled as well, and Nogales is now the only high school football team in Southern Arizona that hasn’t played a game yet this season, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
“I have kids who are disappointed because they’ve cancelled two games that we would have performed at,” Heaton said. “My seniors, they haven’t gotten their senior night. And that’s really important to them. We have everything ready – we had everything ready for that first game and then, bam, we had to stop. Those kids were upset, and they have every right to to be.”
Now they’re holding out hope that the home football game set for Dec. 10 against Douglas will go on as planned. (It was the last home game of the year on the schedule as of Monday, though the school officials have said they’re still seeking to add a contest on Dec. 18.)
Even with the disappointment of all the cancelled events and the limitations that the safeguards have placed on their playing, the NHS band members have benefited greatly from being able to get together and rehearse, Heaton said.
“One of the most important things for these kids is that they actually get to come together at least twice a week and see each other and talk to each other – even if it’s with six feet in between them,” he said. “They get to see each other’s faces and share what’s going on and talk. And that’s one of the most important things that’s been going on.“
“The musicianship and the playing is important to them,” he said. “But those social connections that they get to have are far superior.”