After the final notes echoed throughout the rafters, Alexander Heraty cast a second glance around the stands, looking out at the faces in the crowd.
It was the evening of March 11, 2020 — the first day of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament in Indianapolis. The Nebraska Cornhuskers had just lost to the Indiana Hoosiers 89-64 in the first round to end the season. Heraty, a mellophone player in the Big Red Express, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s pep band, knew something big was coming. After the game, he made sure to soak up everything before he left the arena.
“It was a very weird feeling,” Heraty, a senior, said of that night.
Prior to tip-off, both the Huskers and Hoosiers knew neither team would play another game that weekend. The coronavirus had begun spreading to the United States, and conference officials elected to pull the plug on the tournament.
After leaving the arena, Heraty stopped for food with his fellow bandmates before hopping on the bus back to Lincoln.
“I’ll always remember sitting in the Steak ’n Shake in downtown Indianapolis after the game knowing we were going to go home but not knowing what else was going on,” he said.
This spring, collegiate athletics have returned to action after the NCAA shuttered its spring sports seasons a year ago. However, the pandemic’s presence is still felt, most notably in the lack of in-person attendance.
Rather than establishing a policy for fan attendance, the NCAA delegated such decisions to conferences and the universities themselves. As a result, attendance policies for fans vary across the country at the discretion of each conference, or when conferences don’t adopt an attendance policy, the university makes the decisions. Sometimes, fans are allowed in, though usually not at full capacity. Other stadiums remain mostly silent as teams play in front of empty stands.
One casualty of this uncertainty is university athletic bands and the students in them. Athletic bands include ensembles that play at athletic events like pep bands or marching bands. They provide a soundtrack to game days at schools across the country and are embroidered into the fabric of the fan experience.
“We make a great student section because we provide entertainment, but we also do a great job of cheering on our team,” UNL senior flute and piccolo player Megan Roucka said. “It’s honestly great, but it’s also devastating when we lose.”
Of the four-year universities in Nebraska, 12 have some sort of athletic band — UNL, the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the University of Nebraska Omaha, Chadron State College, Peru State College, Creighton University, Midland University, Nebraska Wesleyan University, Wayne State College, Concordia University, Doane University and Hastings College.
University enrollment usually determines the size of these ensembles. Schools with smaller enrollments typically have smaller ensembles than schools with larger enrollments. At UNK, the size is about 30 students while the ensemble at UNO is generally around 75 students, and UNL’s group has 120 spots. Often, students earn scholarships or stipends for their participation in the ensemble. Students in the Maverick Machine, UNO’s pep band, receive a $500 stipend at the end of the season.
Doug Bush, assistant director of bands at UNL and director of the Big Red Express, said the school provides pep band students with a scholarship that pays for a one-hour credit class. Ensemble members also receive a little extra to help offset the cost of things like not being able to work a part-time job in order to meet the group’s performance requirements.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t make money being in pep band, but hopefully you’re not losing money,” Bush said.
Much like the rest of the country, fan attendance in Nebraska varies at sporting events — and by extension, athletic bands.
Midland and UNK allow fans to attend events, so the athletic bands at these schools still get to play. UNK’s pep band played its first performance on Feb. 4 in an 87-79 loss against Central Oklahoma in men’s basketball from a back corner away from other spectators, and students followed the same safety protocols required for playing music amid the pandemic. All performers wear masks with slits cut into the mouth. These measures stem from an aerosol study commissioned by the National Federation of High Schools and the College Band Directors National Association, according to UNO director of athletic bands, Joshua Kearney.
“While people are playing their instruments, a significant number of aerosols are released by the nose,” he said. “If people have a mask with a slit on, even though they’re still expelling aerosol through their instruments, it’s keeping the aerosols from the nose from escaping into the room.”
Each instrument includes a bell cover on the opening of the instrument. These covers serve as a sort of mask for the instrument, preventing aerosols from escaping through an instrument bell. Additionally, students cannot touch equipment that isn’t their own, UNK director of bands, Duane Bierman said.
“Usually, certain people would grab a whole rack of music stands and wheel them over, but now everybody has to take their own stand and touch their own stand only,” he said. “Nobody can help the drummers move their stuff. All those same precautions we do for any indoor playing are still in place, and it works out pretty well.”
At Midland, athletic bands played one fewer football and volleyball game this season than it usually does. It’s difficult for the group to work around any events that might be rescheduled in the face of coronavirus concerns, said Rex Barker, the university’s director of performing arts and instrumental activities.
“We have schedules. We have plans, and then a team needs to reschedule for a week or two down the road,” Barker said. “It makes a difference for us.”
While the athletic bands at schools like Midland and UNK are back in action this spring, others remained silenced. UNO’s Maverick Machine typically plays around 45 events from mid-September through early March. This year, they’re not playing because of a university decision, according to UNO’s Kearney.
Kearney said the group is considering a virtual pep band as an alternative to live performances. The ensemble would write a special halftime show recorded in the school’s concert hall rather than live during a sporting event and be shared on social media as “a gift to our athletic department,” Kearney said.
The Maverick Machine has done similar shows for basketball games. In February 2020, the ensemble performed Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” featuring a guest soloist on the electric violin. Kearney said such plans are tentative. Additionally, the students in the ensemble would need to sign off on the idea.
“There may or may not be students interested right now because things are so different with their classes,” he said. “I want to be respectful of everyone’s time.”
At UNL, students in the Big Red Express typically play about 30 events a year. However, the ensemble as a whole plays more events since not every student plays each event. Bush said he usually splits the 120 members into four groups of 30. The goal is to split the groups evenly enough that each can function as a separate band for volleyball matches; for basketball, Bush combines two groups for two 60-member ensembles.
Because of Big Ten attendance policy, the Big Red Express is not playing this spring. For non-music majors like Heraty and Roucka — marketing and biological science majors, respectively — it’s a missed social opportunity. Often, pep band is their only chance to see friends within the ensemble.
“It’s a lot more exciting to play with a large group of people and playing fun, upbeat music,” Heraty said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do that, so I do miss that a lot.”
The lack of a pep band season could have a ripple effect for the program, according to Bush. As the upperclassmen graduate and inexperienced underclassmen fill their roles, the ensemble must relearn some things. One way the lack of experience could impact the program is through what Bush called “add water” tunes.
“We’ve played them long enough that everybody knows them, so you just rehearse them a couple times and then you can play them at a game,” he said. “We won’t have that luxury next fall. If we have to start right out the gate with volleyball the first week of classes, we might be able to play the fight songs and maybe that’ll be it because we’ll be starting from basically zero.”
For seniors like Heraty and Roucka, the loss of an entire year of marching band and pep band is a big blow.
“I just feel like my senior year sort of got taken away from me,” Roucka said. “I understand last year’s seniors didn’t get a proper graduation or anything like that, but they got a real marching band season, and they got real pep band seasons. That’s what I was expecting for this year, but I didn’t get those, so it’s kind of depressing honestly. It made me really sad, but a lot of people have to deal with that, too.”