Pandemic hasn’t kept some HBCU bands off the field

Florida A&M Marching 100 is preparing for virtual performances this month

The pageantry of bands at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — the fifth-quarter band battles, the dancers and the halftime shows — are on hold for now with the cancellation of fall sports.

HBCUs were affected on all levels by COVID-19, so now these institutions’ bands are operating in ways they never had to before the cancellation, which includes the homecoming performances. Here is what’s happened with several bands since the summer.


Florida A&M University’s renowned band, the Marching 100, has been practicing since the summer. Approximately 175 student musicians first participated in virtual camps. Now that students are back on campus, they’re practicing outdoors twice weekly.

Drum major Jadon Roberts, a biology pre-med student from Atlanta, says it’s been challenging adjusting to band practice under the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

“It was definitely a challenge trying to figure out how to have effective rehearsals while maintaining social distancing and operating within the guidelines set out by the CDC, but we were committed to finding a way forward and making the best of our circumstances,” Roberts said.

Band members are implementing protocols recommended to them by health experts. All band members are given their own music stands to discourage the sharing of materials. The brass instruments use bell covers to keep respiratory droplets from being projected out of instruments. The band also requires temperature checks for each band member before every rehearsal; those with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher are sent home.

With these protocols in place, the Marching 100 is practicing for several upcoming virtual performances.

The band practices for two hours on Monday and Wednesday afternoons where social distancing is maintained. The rehearsals are largely focused on getting freshmen to learn the routines since they couldn’t learn them in person during the summer. Freshmen learn the basic fundamentals of marching up and down the field and the proper turns to take.

Due to the pandemic, the Marching 100 had to conduct its first virtual band camp over the summer. It focused on giving middle school, high school and band directors chances to expand their musical knowledge and abilities. Upper-class band members normally mentor freshmen in person, but that wasn’t possible this year.

Though their virtual experiences will be different from past performances, Roberts says he’s excited about the upcoming experience, even without the thousands of fans awaiting their choreography and music.

“I am very excited about the upcoming virtual experience. This is a great opportunity to expand our social media outreach. It will also show our supporters that even in the midst of a pandemic, the Marching 100 is still working hard to bring them high-quality performances and entertainment,” Roberts said.

The first virtual performance will be Oct. 21 and will be called “The Farewell Tour.” The tour was originally supposed to be a farewell to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools because FAMU is leaving the conference after this season to join the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).

Although there was no football this fall, the band decided to stick with the concept. “The Farewell Tour” will be followed with another virtual performance on Nov. 13. They will be held in Bragg Memorial Stadium.

Band director Shelby Chipman says the virtual performances will continue as the university follows CDC guidelines. More information on the virtual performance will be communicated by social media.


Bethune-Cookman, winner of more than 10 Honda Battle of the Bands, is also facing concerns it has never experienced.

And the Marching Wildcats were among the top bands in the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings over the last three seasons. It finished the 2019 season as the No. 3 Division I band.

Band director Donovan V. Wells says the COVID-19 shutdown has not only had an impact on incoming students, but returning students as well.

“I’m operating in a position of not knowing, but hoping. Normally, I know what I have returning as far as upperclassmen. I know how our recruitment went and could closely estimate 95% to 96% of what we are going to have returning for the fall,” said Wells. ”But now I don’t know what we’re going to have return, because I’ve had six or seven kids so far that have chosen not to attend school during this fall semester.”

Wells and his students are adjusting as they participate in a hybrid learning system to new band practice times while days are being cut short and moved around. This season is a first for everyone in the program.

Wells said that with restrictions, students only practice three days a week for two hours a day. On Thursdays, they have full band practice outside for two hours. Students must wear a mask at all times unless they are playing. “As soon as we hit our last note,” said Wells, “they have to pull their mask back up.

“We’ve had to adjust to a new normal without a football season. We are still planning to do some virtual things online to keep the students playing and to keep their skills up, and to make sure that our freshmen are acclimated to our style and our commands and all of those things,” said Wells.


The Texas Southern University Ocean of Soul in Houston had big plans before the pandemic, which has caused struggles for some students.

The band was scheduled to perform in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in September, but once the pandemic struck, those plans were canceled.

“We were in rehearsal to perform with Lizzo. It was the same week of the show because we had already started our advanced prep with her team. Some of my students were meeting with her dancers and we worked out the choreography and all those types of things. We were already working on the arrangements in rehearsal. I think it happened for us on a Tuesday or Wednesday when they sent us home. We were supposed to perform with her that Friday,” Texas Southern band director Darryl Singleton said.

Not only were they not able to perform with Lizzo, the SWAC basketball tournament was the following week, which is on a smaller scale and is a second season for the band.

Singleton worries about what academic issues band students might have moving to online learning.

“I’m most concerned about online academic challenges. The student at a predominantly white institution is likely to have their own laptop, or tablet. We have a lot of students that ended up having to finish the semester on their cellphone, and that is not a great recipe for success. Also, a lot of our students just weren’t ready to go to an online format.”

Jeffery Yon, a senior music education major from Dallas, says he’s had to take on a job while in school, too.

“I would say it affected my senior year, because when I’m at school, I don’t work, when I’m out of school, I do work. I basically have a full-time job being in the band, so I won’t be able to work. Since a few people in my family have been working from home and a few people have lost their jobs, I have to help provide in a way,” said Yon.


Southern University’s Human Jukebox has also seen a difference in recruiting. The program had been able to get more than 100 commitments, but some students and parents are reluctant and are electing to stay home.

“Recruiting has been very different. We were able to get over 100 freshmen to commit to the program,” said Kedric Taylor, associate director of bands at Southern University. “The parents don’t trust them coming here. So even our upperclassmen, some of them are saying, ‘Mr. Taylor, will this affect me? I’m not coming back on campus.’ I told the students we can’t penalize you for thinking about your safety.”

The pandemic has affected education on every level, and on the collegiate level, athletic programs aren’t the only ones being affected.


The band at Benedict College, led by director Henry Wade Johnson, was finishing up a Jazz Ensemble tour when the pandemic first affected the world in March.

Johnson says this had a major impact on the summer preparation time, which is crucial for most bands preparing for the fall. He said they had to cancel band camp in the summer because the students were not able to come back to the campus.

“This past summer differed in preparation. We had to actually restructure our entire rehearsal program in terms of band camp, and with the cancellation of fall sports we also had to make a reassessment of how we’re going to move forward with band,” said Johnson.

“Now, we are going into a virtual system with some face-to-face meetings. The best thing, the great thing to know is we are moving forward and are going to have rehearsals in some shape, form or fashion using all of the PPE and all of the CDC standards that have been put in place for us to rehearse.”

The school has a limited number of students on campus due to COVID-19 restrictions. Because of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) cancellation of fall sports, the band will not have a season, either.

“Once we got the information from our conference, the SIAC, we were shut down totally. On average, we’ll go two days a week. We have split up our band into sections, smaller groups, and that way we will be able to follow through with the CDC and all of the protocols set forth to make sure that our kids are safe with social distancing and the washing of hands,” said Johnson.

“We clean the instruments after every session and it’s going pretty good. The negative part of it is we should not perform as an entire entity, the entire group. The students who are living off campus are not allowed to come on campus, which I believe it’s a monkey in the wrench.”

Drum major Grady Bonds III from Macon, Georgia, is not getting to experience the senior season he imagined.

“I’m actually the first drum major in Benedict College history to be drum major for three years. So that is probably what killed me more than just it being my senior year. I really wanted to make this a really unforgettable year over any of the others that we’ve had,” said Bonds.

Not only will his senior season be put on hold, but for the first time, he’s had to pick up a job while attending classes.

“I’ve never worked during school time, like during the actual fall or spring semester, because I’ve always been in band,” said Bonds. “This is just time management, which is one of the things that I’ve learned from the band anyway, one of the biggest life lessons.”