Belleville HS marching band resurrects itself and famous composer after challenging year

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BELLEVILLE, NJ — Johann Sebastian Bach rose from the dead in Belleville this year, as the Belleville High School marching band returned a sense of normalcy to the 2021 season after the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the 2020 fall season, six months after lockdowns started and sent students home for virtual classes. “Decomposers: Bach from the Grave,” which debuted at Doc Ellis Field in September, is a zombie-themed journey through the baroque composer’s music. After a season sans competition with only a few home-football-game performances last year, the BHS band members got back into uniform this fall to perform for crowds again.

“It’s good to come back,” band Director Ray Sentina said in a phone interview with the Belleville Post on Oct. 18. “It’s been a readjustment for me and the kids. We have to be wary of protocols, but we’re having fun.”

Sentina announced the show in April, after it became clear that it would be safe enough for a somewhat normal season to happen. Football games have fans in the stands again and competitions are back on the calendar, so the Buccaneers have an audience to play for this season.

“When I announced the show in April, they came hungry,” Sentina said about the band and color guard members at BHS, saying all the necessary pandemic precautions are taken if rehearsals have to be moved inside because of weather. “If they have to wear masks and use bell covers because that’s what it takes to play music, they’ll do it.”

Because 2020 was such a departure from what a normal marching band season looks like, a majority of this year’s band members are new to marching. Sophomores who normally have a year of experience under their belt at this point are basically rookies. Even the juniors and seniors, who are the only ones who remember what a regular season is like, have had to adjust.

“A lot of us are captains and leaders,” senior drum major Ysabelle Lladoc said in a phone interview with the Belleville Post on Oct. 20. “We have new roles while also learning the ropes, which has been interesting. There are things I’m still getting used to.”

A flute player, Lladoc is on the field marching for one song in this year’s show and is on the podium conducting the other two. Seeing the show from higher up is a new perspective she hasn’t experienced before this year.

“You see everything and are responsible for the whole band,” she said.

She and the other student leaders have done a good job of teaching the rookies, according to Sentina. Teaching marching basics to more novices than normal has been a big undertaking.

“Younger members don’t have a concept of what this was like,” he said. “The older ones do remember. They’ve taken them under their wings, and run right into it enthusiastically.”

Lladoc said the new members, who have had to learn a lot of lessons in not a lot of time, have caught on quickly. The band members jelled again quickly after not being able to spend a lot of time with one another in the last year and a half.

“It was surprisingly easy to get back into,” Lladoc said. “It’s a totally new bag for a lot of people, so it’s actually their rookie year even if they’re sophomores. It’s been awesome to watch them improve.”

BHS has done well in competition this year; they won first place, best music, best marching and best percussion in Class B at Midland Park High School’s competition a few weeks ago. Their final competition of the season was at Wayne Hills High School on Oct. 23. But the trophies haven’t been the best part of 2021.

“I missed being able to hang out with everyone,” Lladoc said of the 2020 season. “The magic of it is that there’s this group of people who you might not have anything else in common with except that you play an instrument. We’re all really good friends. Last year I would be at home and looking at the clock and thinking, I would normally still be at school now, or at band practice or theater rehearsal. I missed having those things.”

The staff was as excited to be back on the field as the performers.

“It’s reminding me of what this activity is supposed to bring,” Sentina said. “We’ve been thinking, ‘Oh, this is what performing feels like!’”

Photos Courtesy of Belleville High School