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Marching on in a Pandemic

Published online: Mar 26, 2021 Articles, Lifestyle Erin Nazario
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In some ways it is hard to believe that we have been living in a COVID-19 world for a year already, and in other ways it feels as though this surreal torture has been going on forever. As we struggle with the reality of seeing so many of our passions and hobbies come to a blinding halt, it is hard to think that the arts will survive. If it does survive, what will it look like? 

Will theaters be able to sell tickets at full capacity? Will music students ever get to play their instruments with their classmates in person? Are virtual performances the way of the future? Will choirs get to sing together? Will the stage be home to live performances for theater nerds (like myself) again? 

There are just so many questions and so many uncertainties.

One thing is for certain, however: creativity is alive and well. While most live performances may be on hold right now, some groups are finding ways to rise to the challenges. One such group is the University of Idaho (Go Vandals!) Marching Band led by an Idaho Falls native (and my cousin), Spencer Martin. If you haven’t seen any of the videos they have posted, you need to. They are incredible and positively uplifting. 

When the country shut down last year, the music department of the University of Idaho faced the same questions all schools faced: What are we going to do for the students? What will next fall look like for classes? Will there even be a marching band? Spencer’s answer: 

“We adopted the mantra: “Don’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can do.” We knew the Vandal Marching Band was too important to cancel. The band has been an integral part of the University for a century. It’s also an academic class featuring students of over 55 different majors and fields of study. Most importantly, it provides a sense of camaraderie and a place to succeed.” 

So, there is, in essence, still a marching band. In a normal year, the Vandal marching band has about 250 members to it. This year, the faculty decided to cap it at 150 so that they could socially distance the students in the bleachers. As far as instrument sections go, you will not see woodwinds or brass this year. Instead, just about everyone is a percussionist with the drumline and a rock band incorporated into the mix; and it is really, really, wonderfully awesome. 

Every student has their own personal bin and music stand, along with face shields, masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes,  drumsticks etc. Everyone is separated by a minimum of six feet. 

Not only are the bins used for storage, they became de facto percussion instruments. They knew a live audience was not going to be in the cards, so they teamed up with U of I Creative Services to create video performances. Their plan was to be the safest class on campus, and it worked. 

For Homecoming and holiday videos, the students really stepped up. Creative Services had multiple microphones, multiple cameras, and even multiple drones flying overhead. Wanting to keep the entire marching band safe and limit the time spent all together, they rehearsed in groups and only came together for the Fridays leading up to the final video shoot. They did all of the filming within 45 minutes. Their video performances have even caught some attention nationally with ABC World News and various Idaho and Washington State news stations. 

In a normal year, the U of I Marching Band has some pretty intricate and impressive choreography and formations in their performances. This year, however, the choreography was all in the bleachers and band members remained stationary. Yet they accepted the new parameters and rose to the challenge. 

“It was extremely fun creating new choreography and sounds on a unique stage. One of our favorite discoveries was the sound of a plastic cup scraping against the bleachers,” said Spencer when asked about the choreography. 

Spencer’s official title is: Director of Athletic Bands, Associate Director of the Lionel Hampton School of Music and Clinical Associate Professor for Music. No matter what the title, his talent and skill level are just as impressive. He is a third generation Vandal following in his parents’ (Simon and Delores Martin), his aunt (Margie Martin Kennedy), and grandfather’s (Judge Henry S. Martin) footsteps. Born and raised in Idaho Falls, his love of music began in the 6th grade playing percussion. 

Spencer is half Basque from his beautiful mother’s side; and while living in Boise, became a founding member of the Basque/American Band, Amuma Says No. In addition to being the headlining band during the fun-filled Basque Festival in Boise, the band toured throughout the United States. They were featured at Ellis Island in New York, and the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Those performances led to a summer tour of the Basque Country in Northern Spain and Southern France. 

In 2012, Spencer became the Vandal Marching Band Director and the team teaches percussion and instrumental music education courses. Basically, my cousin, Spencer, is one amazing musician who is using his phenomenal talents to better the lives of college students.

Teaching through a pandemic has been less than ideal for most educators, but Spencer and his team have faced the challenges head on and have proven that creativity can happen—you just need to “not be afraid to look outside of the box and lean into limitations—embrace your current environment and uncover what can be created instead of mourning what cannot,” he said.

As the world waits in angst to see when we all might be able to fully come together again, the University of Idaho Vandal Marching Band will continue to march as a family in these strange times—even if the marching happens in place, on the bleachers, 6 feet away from each other, with red plastic cups as their instruments of choice.

“You always hope that you thank the students enough for all of their hard work, and for allowing themselves to be vulnerable,” Spencer notes.“It was an honor to work with them. Amidst all the positive feedback they received, the most common theme was that the videos simply made people happy. With all of the fear and negativity going on in the world today, how can you beat that?” 

You can find the Vandal Marching Bands Homecoming and Holiday performances on YouTube.


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