WOHS marching band tells COVID, ‘Don’t Stop Us Now!’

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange High School marching band’s 2020 show is titled “Don’t Stop Us Now.” It’s appropriate, because the band has not been stopped despite the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve pressed on, albeit it with restrictions to help stop the spread of the virus.

“The kids have done a phenomenal job,” director Lewis Kelly said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Oct. 30. “I think most kids are pretty resilient. They sometimes handle things better than adults. Their thinking is, ‘Let’s do this and think about the next thing when we get there.’”

It’s obviously not a normal season for the Mountaineers. They’re not traveling to the football team’s away games, they’re not competing and their annual band camp was canceled. The wind instrument players wear masks that allow them to play at the same time. Brass players have bell covers on their instruments, and woodwind players are using bags, both to limit the amount of breath being circulated into the air. But even with all the changes, Kelly said it’s a win that they can take the field at all.

“Some schools haven’t let them do anything,” he said about other band programs.

The show that was planned for the 2020 season was scrapped in favor of the music of Queen, opening with “Don’t Stop Us Now” and including “We Will Rock You,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions.” With limited rehearsal time because of the lack of access to the high school building, Kelly said a plan B was needed.

“They’ve been rock stars, and I don’t say that because we’re doing Queen,” he said about the students’ reaction to the change. “The kids don’t have access to the building. So that’s been the biggest challenge, the lack of rehearsals. We planned a show that was more attainable. We wanted to give them something to achieve.”

Sheldon Senek, the band’s senior drum major, said the season has been a challenge but fun nonetheless.

“I’m just grateful for the opportunity that we can perform,” he said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 30. “A lot is canceled until 2021, and even 2022. I’m glad we can do it.”

While the school district has been in virtual learning, Kelly has been splitting band directing duties with Erin Lagatic and Joshua Zimmer. They’re both on the marching band staff, Lagatic as associate director and Zimmer as a marching instructor, in addition to teaching music at WOHS. Lagatic has been teaching virtual lessons to the woodwind players, Zimmer is working with the brass players and Kelly has the percussionists under his wing. Together, the three of them are making the rehearsal time when they’re not on the field work.

“If it rains, normally we just rehearse inside and say it’s a playing day,” Senek said. “This year we can’t do that. So we’ve had to cancel a couple times, but I give a lot of credit to the teachers to still find a way to keep us engaged.”

Kelly is already tentatively planning for next year, though he won’t know exactly what it will look like until it’s happening.

“No one has dealt with a pandemic during marching band season before,” he said. “There’s no playbook. If we’re dealing with a similar situation next year, we’re thinking about what we can do. I have a talented and dedicated staff, and they’re a huge help to me.”

Until then, the Mountaineers are looking toward their last performance of the season, at Suriano Stadium on Nov. 6.

“It’s definitely a challenge with all of the COVID protocol,” Senek said. “But regardless, the show goes on.”

Photos Courtesy of Cynthia Cumming