Sep. 15—Ian Heath doesn't mince words when he talks about the last year and a half of high school band at Mankato West.
"It was really hard," he said. "I thought I was going to drop out of band entirely because I missed it so much. I didn't want to go back and then be disappointed."
Sometimes the band sessions were in person. Sometimes they were prohibited from the building. Sometimes it was a hybrid approach. Sometimes band members didn't know from one day to the next what was going on.
It was nothing like regular band, where students sit shoulder to shoulder working every day on difficult music, where each student can hear everything happening around them, and where they understand, sonically, where they fit into a music composition and how every player matters.
But that was then.
This year, so far anyway, the band is back together. And Heath couldn't be happier. On that first day in the band room, it didn't take long for that familiar feeling to return.
"That was a rush of happiness for, I think, everyone," he said.
While the pandemic was challenging for everyone, students involved in music had a unique challenge. Sure, they can practice at home. And many did. But the point of it all isn't just to become proficient at flute or trumpet. The point is to do those things collectively, as a group. And for many of them, like Heath — who plans on attending Minnesota State University to become a high school band teacher — music is their passion, not just another class.
Senior Maren Kenward, a trombonist, said the uncertainties of last year had the band struggling to find its rhythm. And because social distancing prevented the band from gathering in the band room, it just didn't feel the same.
"There were times when half the band wasn't there, we couldn't play with everybody, and it was just off the whole time," she said. "We were in the auditorium if we were at school for band, and the sound was different and we had to have bell covers. It was like band was closed off somehow."
Now that things are back to normal, she's expecting a much better year.
"We get that closeness within our sections back which is really cool," she said, "because you get to meet your classmates and get to know them again and not be 6 feet away from them."
Kenward said being surrounded by the rest of the band is critical to improving. Hearing the other players around you provides a richer understanding of how all the pieces of the musical puzzle fit together and what the finished product is supposed to sound like.
"It's a lot better for creating music, too," she said. "You can hear what each other sounds like and you can bounce off each other your ideas for making music better, and making the whole band sound better."
For senior clarinetist Grace Banse, being involved in band gives her a chance to make connections with people beyond her own grade level.
"Band is more than just your grade. It's everyone in band. Basically, it's a family," she said. "I definitely have my band friends, and they're some of my closest friends. We have class together and we're all working toward a common goal of being better and sounding our best throughout the classes."
Also, being back in their regular band room, Banse said, made a big difference. The band room is their room. It felt good, she said, to come home to it.
"It was awesome to come back. I think we only played in the band room once last year. And that was really sad. The band room is a fun room because we get to make music together, we get to have something that we can all look forward to during our school day. When we have tests, we always know we can come to band and just play music and not have to worry about school."
Band teacher Brady Krusemark agreed with the students that last year was brutal.
"It was hard on everyone. I try to block it from memory, honestly," he said. "Trying to plan a performance was really hard. We did get a concert in the spring, which was wonderful. But it was sort of a yearlong preparation for that event."
This year's schedule won't be as singular.
"We've got a concert scheduled in four weeks now," he said, and many others in the coming months. "It feels more like normal. I didn't realize how much I sort of missed that hectic pace."
Like Banse, Krusemark said getting back into their regular rehearsal space was critical to bringing normalcy back for the students.
"One thing I've been surprised about this week is just how good it feels to be back in our space," he said.
Last year, out of an abundance of caution, all band classes were in the auditorium where students could spread out. At first they were 15-20 feet apart, a guideline that relaxed somewhat as the year went on.
"To be able to be back in our space, it just feels like it should. And it feels like the students take more ownership in that space. It's theirs. It's ours. And we've just made so many musical memories in that space that it just feels like home. It feels good to be back."
The Mankato West Concert Band is working on Halloween-themed songs for an Oct. 18 concert.