Columbia High School marching band is back in red and black

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MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The members of the Columbia High School marching band didn’t even wear their uniforms last year.

The fall 2020 season was different from usual, the COVID-19 pandemic still upending what a normal school year looked like even six months after lockdown began in March. So the planned marching band show was shelved and the Cougars performed only three times at CHS home football games, wearing T-shirts and hats instead of their regular red and black regalia.

“This is the show we would have done last year,” Director Peter Bauer said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Sept. 8 about the 2021 time-themed show, “Chronos.” “We had limited rehearsal time and we didn’t have a normal camp last year, so we shelved it. We played some classic rock that was less sophisticated and that people would recognize.”

There was no traveling to away games, no traveling to band competitions and no regularity to the traditions that stood for so long. Sophomores who are technically in their second year as members of the band haven’t experienced a lot of what it’s normally like. But this year things are looking a little more similar to pre-pandemic times.

“They’re not rookies, but they haven’t experienced everything,” Bauer said of the sophomores. “I’m relying on the juniors and seniors to retain that institutional memory and also make new ones.”

Two of those seniors are drum majors Kate Kampner and Seth Peiris, who are leading the band from the podium this year. Even during a week when every day the temperature was higher than 90 degrees, the band accomplished more than it ever had at band camp before.

“Everyone was working so hard,” Peiris, the assistant drum major and a clarinet player, said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Sept. 9. “We would have seven hours of practice outside and four inside. It’s never been that hot, but we’ve never gotten that much done.”

The Cougars started the football season with a win over Morristown and will be home again tomorrow night against neighbor East Orange. The band is getting ready for its own competition schedule and will be playing in West Orange, Verona, West Essex, Randolph and Madison, and at The College of New Jersey. They’re grateful to have an audience again.

“We always have a sense of pride, but last year it was mainly the football team who was in the audience,” drum major and trumpet player Kampner said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Sept. 9. “The crowd is so excited to be back there, too.”

Football-game and competition performances are both exciting for the players, but they’re different experiences.

“Everyone at the competition is there to watch the marching band,” Peiris said. “At games, it’s at night and everyone is hyped up.”

The hype is something that Bauer said is sorely needed this season, as students return to school for in-person classes full time after a traumatic year and a half.

“Everyone is happy to be back,” Bauer said. “Younger students can go to competitions and they get to experience these things that the juniors and seniors have been talking about. It brings a level of enthusiasm that we really needed this year.”

It’s also a chance to begin a new era, according to Peiris.

“It’s kind of like pressing a reboot button,” he said. “We have some new traditions and new staff, who are great. We remember all of the traditions and cheers, so we’re making sure that gets passed on. But we also have an opportunity to make some changes.”

Both Peiris and Kampner were the heads of their respective sections last year, but as conducting drum majors they are now taking on a new leadership role. They both spend time on the podium and on the field, and are now in charge of the whole band instead of just the clarinet players or just the trumpet players. It’s more work, but after the limited scope of last season, they’re both welcoming it.

“I used to complain about long hours,” Kampner said. “But it’s definitely worth it in the end. I felt so bad for the seniors last year. We’re really lucky to be back.”

Photos Courtesy of Sean McCourt