The Tahlequah High School Orange Express band is back to work, although with numerous safety precautions and no marching competitions to look forward to.

Josh Allen, Tahlequah Public Schools band director, said his students are excited to be playing music together again. The coronavirus pandemic shut down the band’s spring break trip and the students didn’t return to school before summer.

“Our No. 1 priority is keeping the kids safe, and hopefully we’ll get through this together,” said Allen. “When I saw the look in their eyes when we started making music, I knew we could make it through it.”

The THS band leadership group and the incoming freshmen members met last Friday, and the whole band began practicing Monday. Allen said 120 students went to practice that day, but he is not sure how many he will have this year.

“At least 40 kids are up in the air right now. After spring break is when we make connections with rural schools and find out who is joining band,” he said. “It’s a different world for us.”

The students are adjusting to this new world, which has many new guidelines – including masks and social distancing. The band meets from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. most days. If the weather is bad, they will let out at noon. Students have their temperatures checked multiple times during the day and are required to wear masks when not eating, drinking, or playing a wind instrument. Adults are constantly having to remind them to stay 6 feet from one another, and Allen said they had to practice walking farther apart when there are no marks on the floor.

“The kids have done a fantastic job. It’s going to take a while to change everything these kids want to do – they want to hug and give high fives,” said Allen. “Everything we do has to be reimagined. How do we change uniforms? How do we get fitted for uniforms?”

Most mornings are spent outside on the practice field, but the students head inside for lunch and if there is bad weather.

“Medical researchers say rehearsing band outside is the best,” said Allen.

He said the district is fortunate to have large spaces such as the Performing Arts Center. He has been able to find rooms and spaces to separate the groups by their instruments, and students have to keep their masks on when not playing.

“When outside and social distancing and in the heat, we don’t mask up,” he said. “We don’t have to get close in band. We’re 7-1/2 feet apart on the field.”

The students eat in their groups. They are required to bring their own lunches, water, and sheet music. Nothing can be shared.

Plexiglass panels have been installed in a couple of classrooms, so teachers can demonstrate instruments. Allen said he has been poring over medical information and he said he is following the findings of one aerosol study that focused on performing arts.

“We only play so much and then we stop so the AC can pull in new air,” he said. “If we have to shut down because of COVID, we have a plan; they’re ready. We can make music at home if it’s too dangerous here.”

Normally, in the fall semester, the THS band will develop the show for competitions and football halftime. Allen said football is still not guaranteed this season, and competitions have been canceled.

Allen is also president of the Oklahoma Bandmasters Association, which sets up four competitions each year. Those events draw thousands of participants and spectators from all over the state and region, and bring money into the sites through concessions. They also cost OBA $12,000-$18,000 for each contest.

Due to the expense of crafting an award-winning marching program, Allen said directors needed to know if the contests were going to happen.

“It costs thousands and thousands of dollars in design fees – visual designs, music designs – and royalties; it’s extremely costly,” he said.

The sites canceled the contests, so OBA had an easy decision to cancel the season.

“You can’t have a pool party without a pool,” said Allen.

Although they won’t have an elaborate show, and may not even have halftime shows if football is canceled or postponed, the Orange Express will produce “Come Together,” a show featuring uplifting and relevant songs by the Beatles. The band T-shirts this year are orange tie-dye with a peace symbol and the words "come together" on them.

“We’re going to learn our music and our show and come together,” said Allen. “I’d love for us to march down Main Street and play for the community, or set up in a big parking lot.”

With all the uncertainties in the world, Allen hopes the positivity of the music will be good for the students and the community.

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