MSU band plays on: Spartans high step through pandemic at a distance

Mark Johnson
Lansing State Journal

Lansing – Samantha Barringer was in eighth grade when she first dreamed of leading the Spartan Marching Band up and down the field in front of thousands of fans.

That dream was supposed to come true this fall. Barringer, a sophomore who high-stepped with the Big Ten Flags Corps during pregame shows last season, was selected to be the band’s second drum major.

But she won’t be joining her co-drum major and mentor Lisa Lachowski on the field this football season thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. None of the 300 marching band members will don uniforms and pick up instruments to play fight songs and halftime shows.

In February the Spartan Marching Band announced that new drum major, Samantha Barringer, right, would lead the band alongside Lisa Lachowski for the 2020 season.

COVID-19 has forced the band online.

“It’s definitely confusing and a little hard,” Barringer told the Lansing State Journal. “I want to do everything in my power to help the band, but there’s really nothing I can do virtually besides talk to people.”

The band marches on with virtual seminars on the band’s history and leadership, one-on-one music lessons between band leaders and members and some in-person or small group lessons while practicing social distancing.

Some of Barringer’s training must be done in person, said Lachowski, a fifth-year senior. They started finding outdoor places to practice as soon as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted a COVID-19 stay-at-home order in June.

The two drum majors live fairly close together — Lachowski in Rochester Hills and Barringer in Wixom — so they met at the Lawrence Technological University football stadium in Southfield or any empty football field they could find.

People walking by would find the pair practicing the running and marching pregame routine or the march into the stadium. They’ll be practicing the parade route to the stadium soon.

“She’s not going to have me there for any of that,” Lachowski said. “So I have to make sure she knows the series and when to blow the whistle. Making sure she knows the role.”

All of the student leaders face the same challenge: assuring that younger band members know the music, the steps, the routines and the traditions.

“They’re having to be very professional and think about the band long after they’re gone,” said Spartan Marching Band Director David Thornton. “As a squad leader, section leader or officer, you’re preparing someone to take your place.

“We just had our 150th anniversary (last year) and now we need to prepare for 150 more.”

About 100 new marching band members are learning their roles from section or band leaders mostly online.

The different sections meet on Zoom, like the baritone section led by Spartan Marching Band Vice President Ryan Malburg, a fifth-year senior.

He works with other musicians on marching fundamentals, does lessons with single musicians or small groups and conducts various marching band exercises.

“My goal with that is to keep people working on their skills and trying to get better on areas they want to improve on … with the ultimate goal of 2021,” Malburg said. “We’re still trying to make forward momentum and get better for 2021.”

Complete marching band practices aren’t possible through Zoom, so the musicians do a lot of solo practice. Even that can be difficult.

Malburg’s apartment lease prohibits musical instruments, so when he wants to practice, he has to find another space where the loud sound of his baritone horn won’t bother anyone.

Other band members have been forced to get creative, he said, finding well-lit parking garages where the music bounces around the walls and parked cars. Others drive to good practice spaces and set up music stands in the trunks of their cars.

Specialized equipment helps some, said Spartan Marching Band President Drew Barnhart, who is also a trumpet section leader.

When they can’t get time to practice under strict health safety measures in the College of Music building, Barnhart and his roommate, a fellow music major and trumpet section leader, use practice mutes to quiet the sound.

Marching band members and other music majors can reserve private rooms in the College of Music to practice if they follow protocols such as wearing eye protection, using coverings for the bells of the instruments, hand sanitizer and custom masks that close around the instrument’s mouthpiece.

“It’s not ideal and it makes music a little less fun, but it’s a blessing to be able to practice at all,” Barnhart said.

With everyone practicing remotely, the band has focused on the social aspects of what they do, Barnhart said.

“For a lot of kids … band isn’t just a class, it’s a social opportunity,” he said.

Barnhart and his squad of five trumpeters use Zoom to watch movies or play games together and he gives the freshmen opportunities to ask about life on campus.

During normal times, the marching band would practice on Monday nights. They had their first virtual meeting this past Monday when new football Coach MelTucker spoke to the band and had a meet-and-greet with the freshmen.

Students met MSU Alumni Band members during another Zoom meeting Friday. Other Zoom meetings could come in the form of trivia nights or remote game nights, Thornton said.

Seniors have begun realizing they’ll be missing the social aspects of being in the Spartan Marching Band this year. They won’t get to march onto the field for their pregame performances or halftime shows.

“There’s just not that closure, the finality of it,” Barnhart said. “I think really what we are focused on now though … is trying to prepare the leaders for the next marching band.”

Lachowski and the roughly 80 to 100 seniors have struggled with that reality.

When she runs on campus and past the football field, she sees the Spartan Stadium tunnel she’s walked through so many times to take the field. Rather than feeling sad, Lachowski remembers all the great things she’s experienced during her time with the marching band.

“There are so many cherished things that happen every single year,” she said. “Even one year is chock-full of so many good things that happened.

“I want to make sure everyone is set to go next year. I’ve had my time. This is Sam’s time and the time for all of our new freshmen. It’s time for their moments.”

Lachowski is already devising different ways to keep helping Barringer once she takes over, like writing her “corny” notes with messages like, “This is your first game and you’ve probably forgotten how to put your uniform on. Here’s how to do that.”

Leading the band with so many unknowns ahead frightens Barringer, but it helps to know the rest of the 400-member band will be going through it with her.

She stays excited listening to the band’s music. Some of Barringer’s favorites include the band’s pregame show that she watches on YouTube while running through her pregame routine in her head.

“It’s definitely scary because of all the changes going on, but I’m definitely up for the challenge,” she said. “I’m not going to let the band down.”