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Amy Passaretti / The Outlook

Benjamin Russell's marching band practices during band camp Tuesday morning.

It felt like 100 degrees outside but the Benjamin Russell marching band was ecstatic for some cloud covering Tuesday morning as members took the field for a full day of music, marching and instruction.

The more than 100 students that comprise the full marching band and color guard are committed to weeklong band camp in the sweltering sun with coronavirus restrictions but most say they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“I just enjoy us being together and getting better growing as musicians — that beats out the heat for me any day,” drum major and BRHS senior Jaion Kelly said. “We’re very grateful for this opportunity even with the uncertainty. This is an integral part of our summers and so many people are still willing to contribute and participate.”

While numbers are slightly lower this year due to coronavirus fear and students having to pick up jobs to help out with family income, band director Dale Bloodworth said students, band directors and parents have all adapted to new protocols and been extremely flexible with the program.

“Everyone has a different way of handling things but we’ve done our research and put together a plan that works for us,” Bloodworth said. “Normally in the heat of the day we would go inside for a break but we can’t do that this year.”

Instead, dozens of tents were set up on the BRHS field perimeter to provide some shade and solace during breaks, which have been a little longer this year due to the extensive heat and added restrictions.

“If we were able to be inside we’d probably be doing 12-hour days but we’re working about 8 to 5 each day,” Bloodworth said. “We have some kids stagger in at different times and do some activities with the youngest ones. We’ve done some practices in smaller groups more this year as well.”

Student leadership and parental volunteers are crucial for band camp to operate as seamlessly as it does, Bloodworth said.

“This is a good group of kids and we have some wonderful leadership,” he said. “ We also have one nurse on staff each day and parents helping out with touchless water and other things.”

Leadership is one of many life lessons Bloodworth hopes to instill in the band students along with community pride and a sense of tradition.

“We want to build culture and tradition with these kids,” he said. “We want to keep the chaos away from the kids so they can focus on themselves and create a sense of community. Kids learn so much from face-to-face interaction both socially and understanding compassion, cooperation and teamwork.”

Band is certainly one of those activities that would be near impossible to perform virtually.

“We’re trying to create some sort of normal and also teaching them responsibility,” Bloodworth said. “Whether in school or not, virtually kids don’t have the same chance to experience social aspects as they do face to face.”

Learning to work cohesively is another factor that requires in-person instruction. A typical marching band performance is about eight minutes long and keeps the crowd energized with pop music and happy vibes.

“These kids start off each day getting stretched out and awake and work on physical conditioning,” Bloodworth said. “Kids are carrying large instruments and we are just as prone to injury as others.”

Alex City Middle School band director Greg Coggin is in charge of keeping the band in line and also lifting the spirits of students and praising them to keep them motivated.

“Greg was teacher of the year and shows so much love and appreciation to the students,” Bloodworth said. “He has great experience and he’s very sharp. I’m OK with putting other folks in charge.”

With a less complex performance this year, Coggin is focusing on fundamentals and technique to ensure band members still grasp the important concepts.

“This year afforded us the time to do some different things,” Coggin said. “The show is more simplified.”

Most seniors have been involved all four years of high school including field captain and backup drum major Dria McKinney who helps maintain the field and directs the brass captain and drum major Skyler Oliver who keeps the band on beat and in sync.

“It’s mostly about seeing how well people can progress and get better as both musicians and as people,” Oliver said. “That’s what drives me.”

And the students love the time they have together making music and are proud of what they accomplish despite the sometimes harsh conditions.

“I’m just thankful this hasn’t been canceled yet,” Oliver said. “I’m happy we get to be here and perform and have this experience.”

This enthusiasm radiates throughout the field during band camp even though there is still the possibility of limited marching band performances for the fall.

“Everyone has different responses for their facilities so we may not get to perform away or may not travel with the entire band,” Bloodworth said. “We just have to be flexible. Stadium arrangement details are still being worked out so we’ll have to see what happens.”

At least for the first few shows and possible the entire season, the band will not be wearing uniforms as it’s too dangerous to keep them laundered and properly sanitized —not to mention the heat.

“Kids will be wearing school-colored T-shirts so they still look uniform,” Bloodworth said.

Although students work hard and days are long, they also learn life skills and respect along the way.

About 18 years ago when the marching band began rehearsing at Benjamin Russell, Bloodworth recognized traffic is more likely to see and hear the band while located along Cherokee Road. One such cultural instance that quickly became apparent was funeral processionals, as it’s customary in the South to pull over if driving and to stop as a sign of respect if a processional is going by. As a result, the BRHS marching band has acquired this tradition regardless of what it may be doing at any given moment.

“We felt it was wrong to go about our business when a funeral went by so we decided to stop, stand tall and it would be the dignified response,” Bloodworth said. “The kids bought into it 100% and we stop no matter how intense we are at the moment. It gives a real sense of community. My family is not from here but I can tell you now that would move me significantly if they did that for me.”

The marching band puts in an immense amount of labor and preparation and this year, students may not get the full experience. But it won’t stop them from staying energized and keeping their spirits high, even if it is in the blazing heat.

Amy Passaretti is a staff writer with the Alexander City Outlook.