It's the soundtrack of fall Saturdays. It's the pregame show, the halftime entertainment and the sound of a big play for the Bulldogs.
It's Mississippi State's Famous Maroon Band and like pretty much everything and everyone else these days, it's a group that's having to adjust on the fly because of the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Nevertheless, the group is, well...marching on. And they're dedicated to being there for the Bulldogs when this season kicks off.
"If they allow us performance opportunities of any type on the field or in the stands, we will be ready to go with something for the first game," Associate Director of Bands Craig Aarhus told Cowbell Corner. "We absolutely will because that’s what we do. We want to support the team. We want to be there to help be a part of the football environment even though it’s going to be different obviously. But we want to be a part of that game day experience just like we usually are."
The pathway for the band to do its thing has been and will be quite an unusual one. The group's usual band camp held around this time every single year? Cancelled. Even when classes resume, the band still won't gather all together with its approximately 400 members.
"It just didn’t make sense," Aarhus said of trying to cram together the entire band to rehearse. "We couldn’t do it safely inside or outside. So we decided to go ahead and split our group into two different bands and within those two different bands, really break it down to even smaller groups of approximately 100 apiece. So two groups of 200 and four groups of 100. And the the rehearsal schedule is going to be an every-other-day type of thing once classes begin."
The smaller numbers obviously provide better opportunity for social distancing and less of a chance of a coronavirus infection or breakout. The decision to do things this way was based, in part, on recent studies conducted at the University of Colorado and Colorado State. Aarhus said those schools conducted experiments that have given preliminary observations as to safer methods of doing things for bands.
"Generally speaking, there has to be a lot of attention paid to anything that goes on inside," Aarhus said. "That was one of the reasons we decided that with our group as large as it is, we could never meet inside this year.
"The preliminary studies indicate that for small groups, the risk is minimized. It’s not eliminated, but minimized, when it’s small groups in large spaces for short periods of time at an appropriate social distance. So it’s just a little bit more of an exaggerated viewpoint of our general guidelines for everyday living. The short periods of time is to allow the circulation of air through the HVAC system. So you do a short period of time and then you vacate the premises for 20 to 30 minutes to allow air to recirculate and again, these are all just very preliminary findings. So we’re looking at this for all of our ensembles, not just the marching band. But there are a lot of other ensembles in the band area and in the department of music – both instrumental and choral – that are having to deal with all of these types of things."
The band will also take further steps to try and reduce risk.
"Normally before rehearsal, the building would be a place kids would hang out," Aarhus said. "They’ve got their lockers in there. That’s just kind of a hub. But we’re not going to be able to do that this year. We’re going to insist that students keep their horns with them unless they are large instruments that they just can’t really, like a tuba or the bass drums or something like that."
Even with all the steps the Famous Maroon Band is taking, there are no guarantees this season will go off without a hitch. CollegeMarching.com reported on Friday that the ACC will not allow its bands to perform on fields this season. It's unclear if the conference will allow bands in the stadium.
As for the SEC, no announcements have been made in regards to the bands. The league just announced this past Thursday it is pushing back the start of the football season to September 26 and will play only 10 games with all being conference contests. As for the bands though, no one really knows anything at this point.
"Those decisions have not been made," Aarhus said. "And I don’t think it’s because they’re not wanting to tell us anything. I just think there are so many major decisions that they’re having to make about the environment, about the game day and about everything. We’re part of that, but you know they have a lot more important decisions they have to make before they can really address us. We’re not sure if that’s going to come from the the SEC office and it’s going to be a uniform policy throughout the conference, or if that’s going to be something that individual schools are going to be allowed to manage a little bit more depending on their situation."
One thing is certain through all the uncertainty. The Famous Maroon Band is undeterred. It's unusual times and the current circumstances are not really ideal for anyone. But when the time comes the Mississippi State Bulldogs hit the gridiron again, its band will be prepared to be right there with them.
"Our kids are very dedicated," Aarhus said. "They love playing in the band. They love Mississippi State and they love football. That’s the type of experience we hope we’re able to offer to them. But if we have to look at different ways of being creative and generating some unique performance opportunities that we haven’t done in the past, we’ll do that too. We’re not going to just shut down. If for some reason we’re not allowed to perform on the field, we will still be involved in the best way we possibly can because the band is important to our kids. It’s important to our school and it’s important to the game day and the team environment. We want to keep trying to be a part of that as best we can, even if it looks a little bit different."