Resurrecting the Music: EHS Band Finds Safe Way to Move Into Uncertain Fall Season

Just a few short weeks ago, signs of activity and excitement returned to the Everett High School campus as the Crimson Tide Marching Band became the first district-approved organization to reassemble amidst the nationwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Although their undertakings are going on inside a well-protected “Band Bubble,” the word is out and the enthusiasm behind this project is something the entire community can appreciate during such trying times. What began on July 1 as a multi-week online launch process, has now become a refreshing new reality for many of Everett’s students. Several weeks into the process, the Staff boasts nothing but smooth sailing and encouraging results. We reached out to Band Director Gene O’Brien and Assistant Band Director Mark Sachetta regarding the details of this remarkable new development, hoping they could share a bit more about the Kick-Off, the process of returning to a “new normal,” and the unparalleled challenges they face in taking this risk in a time of great apprehension across the country.

With Band Director Gene O’Brien’s hat in the forefront, the Everett High School Band drumline takes its place at rehearsal this week. The EHS Band is the first student activity approved to return for the upcoming school year and it was done with the strictest standards in place and very careful thought that started in April. Directors O’Brien and Mark Sachetta said they are one of the few high school marching bands to be approved to return to playing. Attendance and interest has been at an all-time high after three weeks of rehearsals.

According to Assistant Band Director Mark Sachetta, it’s been an exhilarating three weeks and it’s creating an extraordinary amount of buzz, not only in Everett, but amongst the entire New England Marching Band community. Just this past week, Sachetta offered his perspective on the nature of their return thus far.

“It’s honestly been such a blast to be back in front of our students,” he said. “The process is extremely different for all of us and everyone’s a bit rusty, Staff included, but it’s something we’re all exceedingly grateful for. I don’t think any of us knew what to expect, and it’s very comforting to have three weeks with zero issues. It’s been so emotionally charged from day one because we’re all so thrilled to be back at our craft, continuing along with what we’re all most passionate about, let alone the overwhelming nature of finally having meaningful human interaction. It’s even been uplifting for us to see into each kid’s eyes as we check them in for rehearsal. There’s no replacement for seeing someone face-to-face, especially given the amount of time we usually spend working with them. It’s an immediate reassurance knowing that they’re just as eager to be there as you are. Many of these kids don’t say much at all from behind their masks, but their eyes and their presence tell a much louder story.”

Keeping the Beat Going in Everett

In light of what’s going on in the world with the Coronavirus Crisis, one might think it very easy for Everett’s musicians to opt out of such a substantial undertaking while school isn’t even in session yet. Even in a perfect world, Marching Band is not for the faint of heart. Having a rigorous schedule year-round, being subjected to greater demand than most varsity sports, and being exposed to the brutal elements of Autumn in New England, it takes a truly resilient type of young person to brave the Band. But the culture of excellence that’s been upheld in the Crimson Tide Band Program for more than 20 years now, is key to what has kept this machine running, even now under the most dire and unprecedented issues the world has faced in a Century. For this team from Everett, keeping the Band alive and thriving was not a question, it was an imperative. Suddenly the prospect of 41 degrees on a school night in October, at Glendale Park, with 75 kids freezing their limbs off, is not the greatest hurdle that ours and other bands across New England are struggling to face. Yet what’s going on in Everett with the Marching Band rumbling back to life after five months of school closures, is the exception and not the rule.

Just as is often said over the last five months, there is no playbook for living life or running an organization in these times. As a result, the Asst. Director went on to say, “We have folks contacting us from all over the country because they’ve heard about us getting back to rehearsals. Whether it’s phone calls, emails, or via social media, the question we’ve been getting every day is, ‘How are you able to get back up and running?!’ There’s a whole lot of shock value going around. My first response is always, ‘We had the initiative to make it happen, and the Superintendent was right there to support us every step of the way!’ Obviously a lot more went into our return to action,

but without those two key factors, we would honestly be doing nothing right now.”

Most Bands Cancelled Programming, No Fall Competitions

Unfortunately, as Sachetta went on to explain, the vast majority of bands in the extended New England Scholastic Band community are facing enormous Administrative resistance. In Southern New Hampshire, and in a few places well outside Greater Boston’s Hub, there are a select few groups quietly getting back to work in communities where cases of COVID-19 have been comparatively negligible since the virus reached the US. Still, some of the longest running programs, with extensive traditions of excellence and very influential names in the activity, have been told to wait indefinitely for one reason or another. Coming from O’Brien and Sachetta, countless bands have been met with proverbial brick walls because nobody seems to have the answers. Just last week it was announced that the Fall competitive season has already been cancelled, another tough blow to thousands of young musicians who’ve waited patiently for months. The decision was reached in part because of this organizational gridlock facing the roughly 100 bands that compete here in New England. Everett’s therefore been an anomaly when it comes to the kind of cooperation that seems to be taking place here. This City is a place that’s been hit hard during this pandemic, but a place where resilience and perseverance define the City itself.

Thinking about ‘What If’ Last Spring Turned to Play in July

It was certainly not an overnight decision to get the Band back together, but that perseverance has paid off now several months into this undertaking for the Crimson Tide. Back in April, the core education team was only tossing around several contingency plans. With the remnants of the school year winding down, key players in the Music Department were throwing around ideas for sharing music online, providing virtual lessons, and thinking up ways to offer programming all summer long online. In addition to the annual Summer Enrichment Band, the Marching Band season typically “kicks-off” in the Spring to service all of the Municipal and Scholastic celebrations in our community:  Memorial Day, Flag Day, EHS Graduation, and the Spring parade season which takes the Band all over Massachusetts. With those events taken off the calendar due to COVID-19, there was a massive concern amongst the Staff that a lack of direction would make it very difficult to have a Band Program on the other side of this pandemic.

With May no longer a busy month for the Band, that time was better spent discussing the hundreds of “What If?” scenarios. Through an incredibly careful and tedious process, each week of conversation eventually turned into a mounting plan of action for the Band’s return. The stage was set, but there was no telling when the players themselves would make a triumphant return.

Then in June, when distance learning had ended for EPS students and Gov. Charlie Baker announced that summer programs and outdoor camps were cleared for a return to activity, there was the huge green light the Band Staff had been waiting for.

What began as a pet project eventually snowballed into an unofficial “comeback” for the members waiting patiently at home for months on end. In the words of Sachetta, who also happens to be the General Music Teacher at the Keverian School, the strategy was all about positivity.

“With such a huge mountain of bad news burying us deeper and deeper each day, and everything routinely being cancelled on these kids, we really sat down with the intention of having something in hand to provide, yet something that would be refreshing since they’d had nothing but school via screen-time for months. Mental health is something that I’m sure every teacher is sitting at home worrying about for their students, so that was a huge driving force. It may not apply to everybody out there, but similar to our own personal life experiences, the activities we belong to in high school tend to be the foundation of our identity. Whether it’s Band, Football, Robotics, Drama, Culinary Arts, those activities inform some of the most important decisions, relationships, and eventual memories these kids will have in their entire lives. Having that identity stripped away from you with no advanced notice at all, on top of the same struggles that we as grown adults are all facing while stuck inside, left us laser focused on our true motivation. It didn’t hurt that we as adults were also itching to have a passion project to work on, so we very quickly realized we could use our collective hive-mind to return some part of that identity to our students in due time. We just had no idea how much of that we’d eventually be able to bring back. We didn’t approach it as, ‘Well, boo hoo, I guess we can’t do this anymore!’ We simply took the opposite approach of scrutinizing all of the things we really wanted to do for the kids, and then went about changing every step of that inner process to fit the State and Federal rules accordingly. It was adaptation at its finest, survival of the fittest. I’ve been using that analogy a lot lately because it’s so relevant, but we’re very lucky to have such talented people working with the band. Working in other places for more than a decade, a lot of the time adapting is not even an option for a whole host of reasons.”

Three Weeks of Rehearsals, No Issues

With three weeks of rehearsal now in the books, the plan to survive has begun to prove its merits. The Band has been thoroughly nurtured by a team of 14 professionals who come from a wide array of disciplines in both Music Education and Music Performance. In fact, one of the Music Department’s best kept secrets is that much of the team has slowly become “home grown.” As of this summer, half of the Marching Band Staff is made up of Everett High School alumni who’ve gone on to make substantial contributions to the musical community here in New England.

Sachetta went on to explain that this team has brought a new meaning to “paying it forward” or in some cases, “paying it back.” He explained, “All of us who work full-time in the District as music teachers had already agreed we would volunteer our time, whether we still had our jobs or not. But it’s a huge operation to run a successful Marching Band program. Every year there are people on our team with completely different careers, who give up huge amounts of their time to work with the Band on school nights and weekends. For a small stipend, they serve as part-time educators going beyond the call of duty. So over the course of just a few days in June, emails went out to those people, along with messages to several prominent EHS alumni from our close-knit family of educators. We were absolutely floored to hear back from all of these brilliant, exceptionally talented individuals, not only because they too were interested in keeping the Band alive, but because they didn’t think twice about accepting the job on a 100 percent volunteer basis. Not a single person offered their regrets. In fact, we’ve gained five new fixtures to our fantastic Staff, and we now have more teaching power than we’ve had with the Band in more than a decade.”

In fact, O’Brien, who also happens to be the Coordinator of Music for the entire District, touts these new staff additions as one of his proudest moments in a long career with the Everett Public Schools. O’Brien confidently stepped back into the role of Band Director this past May to ensure that the well-oiled machine keeps running at high octane despite the setbacks being dealt.

“The Everett Crimson Tide Marching Band is one of the most recognizable faceplates for our City,” he said. “The Band symbolizes more than most people will ever notice, but that’s what we’re all about, our identity is special because we are a reliable force. This Band has represented our community for decades, all over the country. There is no mistaking, for one second, the importance of weathering this storm together. Our goal as a Staff, and as an organization, is to continue providing entertainment, pride, happiness, and a symbol of respect for what it means to be from Everett. I’ve been very emotional seeing this huge outpouring of support from the Staff, the Administration, and the outstanding Student Leadership Team. I’m even more empowered knowing that the commitment level has wildly surpassed our expectations. We are so very lucky to be doing what we’re doing and I’m loving every minute of time spent with these wonderful people.”

Everyone on Board with the Decision

With that fuel to power their willingness to carry on, what started as a glimmer of hope has transformed into quite a lot of momentum for what was once just a hypothetical return to Band.

In hearing from the Crimson Tide’s Staff last week, it’s evident that Supt. Priya Tahiliani has been a huge player in making this happen. O’Brien notes that “her participation has been diligent, urgent, and fabulously welcoming.” Everett High School Principal Erick Naumann has also gone above and beyond to provide every possible resource and assurance for the overall well-being of Everett’s students.

O’Brien joked, “Mr. Naumann may be tired of seeing me in his office all summer, but he has shown nothing but a willingness to provide, support us, and encourage our enthusiasm on behalf of the members. He’s very excited. I think it’s phenomenal.”

But as eager as everyone is to provide beneficial outlets for Everett’s youth, it

has not been without serious caution and attention to detail. According to Sachetta, “Superintendent Tahiliani was right there with us, sharing ideas and physically offering her input as our Guidelines and Policies were being drafted online in the cloud. While our Band colleagues around the State are hearing a firm ‘No’ from their chief administrators, Priya was not only giving us the respect of hearing our detailed plans, she was proofreading it and offering her

thoughts hands-on. She was fully engaged in ensuring that our COVID-19 Policy was well-vetted by standards that are appropriate, safe, and healthy enough to earn the respect of Everett’s families and their musically-inclined children. At every step along the way, she and Mr. Naumann have really stepped up as staunch allies for The Arts at a time when very few things are certain. In my opinion, their dedication to having that open channel of communication and their flexibility to work with us in bringing something positive to the students, confirms what a fantastic place Everett is to work as an educator. That respect and reciprocity speaks volumes. As a Staff, we all hope that it will be a huge open door for the rest of Everett High School’s major extracurricular teams who might be able to use our example to adapt similar contingency plans of their own.”

Hope Spreads to Other Band Programs

In fact, in the past week this relatively small enterprise happening right here in Everett has already sparked a further opening of that door elsewhere. With news spreading about these details surrounding the Crimson Tide Band, their Kick-Off Plan and their meticulous COVID-19 Guidelines have now become a template for other bands rushing to get a taste of the action in their respective districts.

“This is really all that we could hope for,” said O’Brien, “Just today I heard from the Band Director in Salem (MA), who got approval from their Administration after presenting them with our document. Being able to share the incredible hard work of our Staff with our friends and allies in the Marching Arts community is awesome. It’s now a well-tested road map to salvage what most people have accepted as a cancelled season. If it can provide a concrete starting place for other bands who’ve been our longtime friends, that’s an added bonus to the wonderful gift of getting back to work with our talented students.”

More Participation than Ever During a Pandemic

By and large, the operation has been highly successful according to the reports of the staff personnel.

The Band itself has had a brand new influx of performers joining the ensemble for the first time. Along with this squad of incoming 8th and 9th graders, the entire 2019 roster has made an astounding return, making for an even larger Band this year in the face of the world’s momentary hardships. The commitment from the student body is at an all-time high with more than 95 percent attendance each night thus far. Although the instructors have insisted the season is not mandatory, excited kids showing up night after night is another sign of the powerful force that seems to be driving the entire program to new heights in the midst of a Global pandemic.

What is it that allows the Band to march along? Some of the strict Guidelines include mandatory temperature screenings, weekly health surveys, and intense supervision by Staff and parents alike. From day one, parents were welcomed to join in with the entirely outdoor rehearsal process in order to provide the maximum amount of transparency possible. Spearheading one

major component of the Member Check-In process has been Captain Will Hurley of the Everett Fire Department, whose daughter is a junior in high school and a member of the Band. The legitimacy he has provided with the screening process and his help with policing the “Band Bubble” at the EHS campus has certainly gone a very long way towards providing a further

sense of ease amongst Parents and others who want to see the depth of the Band’s organizational focus. Members and instructors participated in a lengthy COVID-19 Orientation weeks before meeting in person. All involved are subject to five pages of rules and regulations for operating responsibly. All of this is done within the confines of CDC Guidelines for social distancing, usage of face coverings, and widely used standards for sanitization. As O’Brien put it, “During these extraordinary times, extraordinary students and staff members have stepped up big time. There has not been a single complaint about conforming to these rules, if anything the kids have gone out of their way to be more flexible than ever before. Even something as simple as getting a sip of water is not a simple thing anymore. It’s actually very special to see the lengths that everyone has gone to just for a little bit of Band.”

Apparently that little bit of Band is going rather a long way, because the tenacity on display in the midst of the entire operation is infectious. It may just be the byproduct of months with nothing to do and nowhere to go, but the energy around the Band is electric during rehearsals and something quite profound to behold. Despite news regarding the cancellation of their 2020 season, the team persists, vowing to keep the Band active without a competitive circuit to aspire towards.

Band Will Produce Video Production in October

Marching Bands typically perform a seven minute production on the move, at football stadiums around the region. After months of careful planning, the entire group has pivoted to yet another new course of action, scoffing at the reality of another new hurdle to overcome. The Band Staff has organized the production of a standalone “music video” accompanied by a short documentary highlighting the overall journey this experience has been for the members. This digital undertaking will feature the Band in a whole new setting and a completely reimagined format, repurposing the music from their would-be field program by blending it with creative visuals, effective choreography, and close-up features for the soloists and 14 seniors from the Class of 2021. The Band is targeting Halloween as the release date for their “Masquerade”

inspired show, which is sure to be a fitting memento for these students who desperately deserve something meaningful for their well-invested time.

O’Brien, now entering his 25th year teaching in the Everett Public Schools, had a few final thanks to share in closing. “I have never been so moved by people who have reached out to lend their support in all ways, big and small. Along with the Staff, these people have resurrected the Band from complete shutdown. Thank you to Superintendent Tahiliani, not only for allowing us the opportunity, but for personally coming by to share her good will with the students last week at rehearsal. More thanks to the Everett School Committee represented by Marcony Almeida Barros who also came by to visit us last Tuesday in our ‘Band Bubble.’ We also cannot do what we do without the continued support from Senator Sal DiDomenico and Representative

Joe McGonagle, who work very hard to secure critical funding that keeps the Arts so vibrant in our community. From Mayor Carlo DeMaria, to the entire Parks Department, we thank you for the constant commitment to our cause. And most importantly a massive thank you to Principal Naumann and the custodial staff who are on the grounds at EHS every day keeping our operation alive and thriving despite the challenges we all face. It’s totally a team effort, all hands on deck, and it’s the kind of interaction and cooperation we can all be very proud of. We will stay the course, keep our protocols in place, and provide the community with something it desperately needs at this time. We look forward to sharing our pride with the entire City in the months to come.”

To keep up to speed with the Everett Crimson Tide Marching Band, they can be followed on Instagram @everettmusic. All students in Grade 7 and up are still welcome to join. Contact [email protected] or [email protected] for more information about registration through September 15.

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