Ballard High School freshman Dakota Patterson-Footen marched in a circle in late September, carrying a bass drum strapped around his shoulders. His red tie-dye pants stood out against the other percussionists as they practiced marching formations on the school’s wet field.

“You can really feel it,” the 14-year-old said about the deep sound of the drum. “Not just mentally, but really you can feel the bass drum hitting beat by beat. It’s pretty cool.”

School music programs took a powerful hit during the coronavirus pandemic, as online practices and prerecorded, clipped-together performances took much of the fun out of playing in a group. Participation in school music plummeted. Now, with most area schools back in person, students and band leaders are returning to live performances and learning how to work together again.

For Patterson-Footen, not only is this his first time playing with a large group, it’s his first time being in a school building full time since he was in seventh grade. 

“It’s a big jump from middle school to high school,” he said. “I feel like music, not just the bass drum but piano, and hearing other people play has kind of calmed me through COVID. I’m not just thinking of my family members getting COVID, I’m just relaxing.”

Since school resumed in-person Sept. 1, Ballard’s marching band rehearsed for something many students in Seattle Public Schools won’t experience this year — a Friday night halftime performance on the field during a football homecoming game. Some schools have opted out of halftime performances, which require practicing in formations, and will only play from the stands, said Jay Gillespie, director of bands at Ballard High. 

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The “Guardians of the Galaxy”-themed performance, during the Ballard Beavers and Rainier Beach Vikings football game Oct. 1, was the first in-person Ballard marching band performance since schools were forced to shut down.  

Virtual music classes were far from ideal, but it’s a change music programs across the country had to make. Because of that, school music programs everywhere have lost students. This is a rebuilding year. 

Luca Rios, a junior, didn’t always enjoy playing at home alone. He said it was like “playing into the void,” with almost nobody listening. 

“When it got closer and closer to being in-person I forgot how much I enjoyed it,” said Rios, who plays the tenor saxophone and is a drum major — a leadership role — for the band. “I’m pretty pumped to be performing again. And, as drum major, it’s a little daunting to be in front of the whole crowd, but I’m getting excited for it.”

During rehearsal in the week before homecoming, students were laughing with their peers, congregating in small groups, and working together to nail down formations. Gillespie stood on a ladder to direct the marching band and used a microphone to guide students through their transitions and choreography. 

The marching band includes about 110 students, almost all of the students in the music program, Gillespie said. Because last school year was virtual, half of the students are “newbies,” he said — at least to marching band. 

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“Sophomores, I think they feel like they are the lost class,” Gillespie said. “All this stuff is happening for freshmen now that would’ve happened for them. For some of them (sophomores), the beginning of this year is their first time ever in the building.”

Trumpet player and sophomore Sadie Kibelstis said sometimes she feels like a freshman because she doesn’t know Ballard High well. Kibelstis and her twin sister, Rose, were in eighth grade when the pandemic started and didn’t learn how to march as freshmen.

“It was pretty difficult, but I managed,” said Rose Kibelstis, who plays the trombone. “I felt like I didn’t learn as much last year, mostly because the instructor wasn’t there and it was more responsibility for me. I had to practice more on my own to get better at my instrument.”

Director Jay Gillespie, Elliot Q Adamson and Anne Welman go over sheets with formations Gillespie has developed for the Ballard High marching band’s halftime performance. With 108 members at this practice, formations are complex and require precision. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Pivoting to technology 

Although prepping for the halftime performance has brought back the band tradition at long last, the pandemic has taken its toll. 

“Every band director I know and everybody I’ve heard of in the music education world is like, ‘Yeah, our numbers just fell off big time,’” Gillespie said. 

The Ballard music program is 15 students smaller this school year than last, Gillespie said. But the largest drop in enrollment happened when school went virtual. There were 135 music students in the 2020-21 school year, compared with 180 the previous year, he said.

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Enrollment dropped in part because classes had to be structured around technology, Gillespie said. Instead of practicing together, students had to practice alone at home, and they weren’t able to play together during online classes because of video delays. 

“It (music class) wasn’t really a lot of fun,” Gillespie said. “So much of band is you come in, you get to make music with friends, and it’s exciting. It’s something out of the day that isn’t a test. It’s a relief.”

Gillespie tried to keep the band together during virtual school. He reached out to his students, even called their parents. “It was just a really hard time for them,” he said. “Even some of my most precocious students just fell off the planet.”

Performing together was a tedious process. Each student had to record parts and turn in the video clip. Then Gillespie spent hours piecing together the clips. 

“It was just impersonal, the atmosphere and the nature of how performances went,” Gillespie said. “The kids hated it, they didn’t want to do it. It was a lot of work. Normally we spend all this time in class preparing music.”

Ballard students said they are relieved music class is like it used to be, but with a few tweaks. 

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Students playing wind instruments have masks tucked under their chins while they are playing and pull them up during breaks. Those playing percussion or string instruments keep them on. When students are practicing inside, they use bell covers, which cover the holes of wind instruments to control the spread of aerosols. 

“Bell covers make our instruments sound pretty different, so that was hard,” Sadie Kibelstis said. 

Back in April, when school first opened up on a hybrid schedule, students had to stand nine feet apart, and wind instrumentalists had to play through masks with slits that they could open and close, Sadie Kibelstis said. 

“The masks would fall in front of your mouth and you would have to stop playing and adjust it,” the 15-year-old said. “We also haven’t played with anyone for a year and we didn’t know how to work together as a band. It was pretty uncomfortable at first but I think we adapted and did well after that.”

Students can now be closer together — about three feet apart.

Gillespie sees this school year as a “fresh start.” This is his second year as band director at Ballard High, filling the spot of Michael James, who was director for 14 years. During James’ time, Ballard High music was nationally recognized. 

The Ballard Wind Ensemble performed at Carnegie Hall in 2017 and received a gold rating in the New York International Music Festival. The Ballard Jazz Band 1 has gone to some of the nation’s most prestigious jazz festivals, including the Essentially Ellington Jazz Festival in New York City, the Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, California, and the Swing Central Jazz Festival in Savannah, Georgia. 

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‘I like it better than watching the game’

At Memorial Stadium two Friday nights ago, the crowd was so loud it could be heard from across the street during the halftime performance. Ballard High marching band students, wearing red, white and black uniforms, ran onto the field and formed the letters “BHS.”

“We haven’t done this in two years and I could tell they were having a great time,” Gillespie said. “It was awesome and it was a lot of fun.”

The marching band played songs from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack, including “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Cherry Bomb” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The students also formed into a cassette tape and into the shape of Groot — a main character in the Marvel film. 

“Everyone loved it and cheered the whole time,” said Juliette Klein, a junior at Ballard High. 

“I feel like band is always an important part of football games. Honestly, I like it better than watching the game.”

During previous football games, when the band didn’t attend, it felt “empty,” Klein said. 

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The Ballard High dance team also took to the field to accompany the band. Senior Luz Benitez-Rivera said it was her first performance since the pandemic began. She felt adrenaline while dancing on the field, she said. 

“I know the band supports us and it’s nice to have them on our side,” Benitez-Rivera said. “It made it special because it felt like the moment was on us and it was a welcome back.”

Benitez-Ramirez said she got emotional because she wished she’d had the chance to perform alongside the marching band last year. 

Drum-line Co-Leader Elliot Q Adamson said the band put in a lot of work preparing for the performance and he was proud to be part of it. When he was on the field, he said he “just kind of shut down and let it happen.”

“I really missed this,” the Ballard High junior said. “This is one of my favorite things to do and I’m really happy to be back. It feels normal, almost exactly the same of what we did before COVID. It’s kind of like an escape, being on the field. It makes me feel like everything is going to be OK.”

Rebuilding Ballard High’s band 

Like many other high school bands, Gillespie said, Ballard’s band is rebuilding. 

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“We’re in a pivotal moment where we could be losing a lot of musicians in the future,” he said. 

Near the end of the year, Gillespie plans to take the brass ensemble, which plays funk music, to every middle school in Seattle to play for students. He wants to show eighth-graders how much fun music can be, and that it’s not just all classical.

Ballard High marching band members get a brief break during a 90-minute practice after school. In the background, Jay Gillespie descends from his ladder. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

“We’ve got to make that connection between the music that they love and listen to and the music that they play, because there is a disconnect there,” Gillespie said. “They’re not listening to ensemble music at home. That’s why in marching band we play songs by Kanye West.”

Although the homecoming performance brought a sense of normalcy, Gillespie said bands, orchestra and choir usually perform indoors. Restrictions around indoor performances could change, he said. 

A music concert is scheduled for Nov. 1 and Gillespie said he hopes friends and family can attend. But if not, he said, they could still listen to a livestream.

“This year I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” Gillespie said. “It’s basically my first band. If I can continue to do this job it’s something I will remember forever, I’m sure.”