A member of the University of Georgia redcoat band plays before during the 85th edition of the Allstate Sugarbowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. The Longhorns led over the Bulldogs at the half 20-7. (Photo/Rebecca Wright)

Georgia football has winning and losing seasons. Star players leave. Championships lie few and far between. The one constant every year? The band plays on. 

But the challenges COVID-19 has presented college football extend to Georgia’s Redcoat Band as well, and they make practicing and playing much more difficult.

According to the UGA athletic association, which oversees the athletic band’s activities, discussions between the university, the UGAAA and the SEC have not yielded a concrete outlook for in-stadium accompaniment this fall.

That leaves Redcoat Band director Brett Bawcum and band leadership on uncertain footing as their planned Aug. 10 return date approaches with protocols still up in the air.

“It's just been a lot of waiting, and it’s still a lot of waiting to see what's going to happen,” UGA senior and Redcoat drum major Shannon O’Donnell said. “As far as communication, there hasn't been a ton, honestly.”

Breaking up the band

Usually, the end of summer is when new members receive their classic red and black uniforms and get the lay of the land before returning members join them for band camp. In an email, Bawcum said the delayed football season — which the SEC pushed back from Sept. 7 to Sept. 26 — will allow the band to minimize its pre-semester operations from two weeks before classes start to “about three days.”

The logistics of rehearsals will change as well. All indoor activities, which O’Donnell said are a necessity in Georgia’s August heat, will move outside. Bawcum also plans to rehearse in smaller groups and for shorter periods of time.

With less time to practice and fewer instruments to get the right sound, the band’s shows will undoubtedly look different this fall. And that’s only if the SEC and UGAAA allow the Redcoats in stadiums during Georgia’s 10-game season.

How might their performances change? O’Donnell said the focus is on simplification.  

“Normally the shows and music we do are kind of complicated, a little bit harder,” O’Donnell said. “They take some time to learn, but we just don’t have time for it.”

O’Donnell said one idea is for the Redcoats to divide into four groups, with sections split up to create more viable, albeit quieter, mini-shows. She said that in a document circulated among band members, Bawcum floated scenarios ranging from no performances at all to the elimination of halftime and pregame shows to a completely virtual option.

“I don’t know what that means for us,” O’Donnell said. “We can’t really play on a Zoom call.”

New rules, same passion

Both O’Donnell and Myles Jones, a senior trumpeter, expressed some safety concerns alongside their desire to get back with their friends and back in the stands. Jones said Bawcum sent out a form for members to list the people in the band with whom they’ll have the most contact, presumably to keep band subdivisions relatively isolated while promoting normalcy in members’ daily lives. 

“I’m a little concerned about safety because realistically, just Redcoats being Redcoats and who are, always together, it’s going to be really hard to try to social distance and keep everyone apart,” Jones said.

As with Redcoat culture, the physical reality of “blowing spit and air through an instrument,” as O’Donnell bluntly put it, makes rehearsing and performing safely a serious challenge. In his email, Bawcum said social distancing, masks and instrument bell covers will accompany the logistical changes at rehearsals. 

Shelly Miller of the University of Colorado Boulder and Jelena Srebric of the University of Maryland published a “Performing Arts Aerosol Study,” which measured particle concentrations around musicians in different situations and with different safety measures. 

The study, supported by nearly three-dozen groups of band directors and music educators, suggested wearing masks at all times before playing, refraining from talking when not masked and, if possible, wearing masks with “a small slit for mouthpiece access” that would stay on at all times.

Likening bell covers to masks for the instrument itself, the study found that the customizable covers reduced particle concentrations while playing.

Although the Redcoats are still riding blind with less than two months until Georgia kicks off its season, O’Donnell and Jones remain optimistic. 

“It’s been over five months since things have been normal,” Jones said. “So, to be able to come back and try to make the best of the year we’re having — I’m really excited for it."

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