Directing the UW Marching Band During the Coronavirus

I didn't go to college intending to become a band director, although the reason I went to the University of Alabama, in large part, was because I liked their marching band. I majored in music, but wanted to be a lawyer. That was the plan.

Photo by Bryce Richter | UW-Madison

Corey Pompey | Madison, WI

The shift happened somewhere during my freshman year when I realized, “Oh, you’re not going to law school. You are going to be a band director.”

 After seven years as a music teacher and band director for middle and high schools, I was hired as the assistant band director at Penn State, then the band director at the University of Nevada, Reno. Last year I was hired as the director of bands at UW-Madison. The Wisconsin Band was founded in 1885, at least nine years before football existed on the UW campus. Performing for the Badger Faithful in the greatest venue in all of college football is an honor and privilege that I do not take lightly.

To be a band director, you have to become familiar with all of the major instruments that you’re teaching. I played a lot of instruments when I was a kid. I started out playing violin with an enrichment program in fourth grade, then learned the cello and trumpet, and eventually landed on the saxophone. Now I tell people I was a saxophonist in a former life. My job keeps me busy, and unfortunately, I haven’t had time to play seriously in years. 

When we had to stop playing in March because of Covid, none of us imagined that we would not return to school for some time. That was a big shock to the system. It meant we could not do the Spring Concert, a UW marching band extravaganza. There is a possibility that some of the tunes we were planning on doing back in the spring will be part of the next Spring Concert. But that remains to be seen. There is a lot of uncertainty right now about what next spring will look like. But I do have my fingers crossed.

This summer, the question was: “What if we don’t have a normal fall? What will that look like?” In late September, we learned that the Big Ten Conference determined that bands will not participate in this year’s football season. The Big Ten Conference is playing football, but the only people in the stadium are essential personnel. We are not a part of the game-day experience. That’s been a little disappointing, but the students understand. But I don’t think that I’m off base in saying that we all hope that things will get better.

An athlete trains essentially, year-round, but for our particular “sport,” we’re not competing year-round. But we have to make sure people know how to march and maintain that institutional knowledge. It’s like a well-oiled machine that isn’t being oiled at the moment. That is something that concerns me. Not just from a creative standpoint, in terms of how we march and how we play, but also from a logistical standpoint. Because we have what we call equipment staff. These are students who get paid for things like making sure the uniforms are clean, fitting the band with the uniforms, and making sure that equipment gets to the stadium. We’re trying as best we can to organize all of that information so that we have it for future equipment staff members, but these are things that we’re really having to think about.

Being part of a band, and then a band director has given me a lot of insight into human nature. When you’re a member of a band, you are responsible for playing your instrument, understanding how it contributes to the larger band, and how that impacts everyone else. As the band director, I have to be worried about what everyone is doing and how that impacts the overall product. Right now, during Covid, we find ourselves in a situation where all of our students understand what’s happening as a result of the pandemic — its impact on the collective and well as on each of us as individuals.

Pompey’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s Covid-19 series. Through this series we are featuring shorter stories to offer a time capsule into life in Wisconsin during this extraordinary time. Hedi Lamar Rudd produced the story. 

Photo by Bryce Richter | UW-Madison

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