Marching bands have been struggling with extreme heat. Here's how they're adjusting
It's a Thursday evening in late September. The marching band at Mountain Ridge High School in the Phoenix metro area is an hour into rehearsal, and the students are all warmed up — musically, and physically.
The 170 high schoolers aren't in usual marching band gear like constructed jackets, bibs and shakos with plumes. Instead, they're dressed in matching white T-shirts and athletic shorts — what they've been practicing in all season due to the warmer, 100-degree weather.
All around the U.S. this fall, students and educators have been struggling with extreme heat. Schools have responded on many levels, from taking "indoor recess" to changing hours to even sending kids home. And for marching bands, this new climate is no longer just a question of comfort.
"Right now, it being only 95 degrees, it feels actually really good for the kids, because we're so used to it being so much warmer," says Aaron Vogel, who directs the marching band at Mountain Ridge High.
He says marching band rehearsals at 6 p.m. and even 6 a.m., rather than right after school at 3 p.m., are pretty standard in the Phoenix metro area. Otherwise "the instrument would be too hot to touch for a brass instrument, and the woodwind instruments ... the pads that make those instruments seal would just melt" due to strong sunlight.
Vogel and his students are no strangers to performing in the heat, but even for them, he says, there hasn't been a season as gross and grueling as this one.
"This is my 10th year of teaching in Phoenix," he says, "and I never recall there being a moment over 110 [degrees] at 6 p.m., but that has happened multiple times this year."
Heat exhaustion and sunburn are serious threats
"We've seen it almost every day in our health offices — kids coming out with heat exhaustion — and last year, it wasn't this common," says Rachel Howard, a school nurse and a board member of the School Nurses Organization of Arizona.
She says headache, dizziness and nausea are the three common signs in mild cases. "If it gets extreme, you'll actually stop sweating, very dry, and that can lead to heatstrokes."
Another concern for Howard: High schoolers don't always take precautions seriously. She says they tend to brush off light symptoms, as happened to trombone player Max Gonzalez.
"Last year when I wasn't hydrating, there was a heat warning," the Mountain Ridge sophomore says. "And I didn't drink enough water, so I ended up passing out after our run-through."
It's not just a concern for high schools. It's colleges too
"I always joke that when it comes time for marching band season, band directors become weather people," says Adam Dalton, the director of athletic bands at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
"We check the weather every day, multiple times a day, to see what the expectation is in terms of temperature, in terms of severe weather, because that's becoming a lot more prevalent for us."
With rehearsals in warmer-than-usual 90-degree weather, Dalton has gotten into the habit of running a timer so he can call water breaks every 15 minutes. He says it's also important to give students enough time to sit and cool down.
"They're on their feet the whole day. They're still exerting a lot of energy, so we try to be mindful of that," he says.
For collegiate and high school marching bands, lighter, nontraditional uniforms have been on the rise, Dalton says. Georgia State's uniform has half-sleeves that can be pushed up; the band members also take off their hats whenever they can. Dalton says directors are "mindful of that which makes a hot game or a hot performance a little more bearable."
Marching band directors are making adjustments
Back in Arizona, Rick McEnaney is the marching band director at Flagstaff High School, a couple of hours north of Phoenix. Because of the higher altitude in Flagstaff, McEnaney says, the band practices in "significantly cooler" temperatures than in Phoenix — meaning in the 90s rather than the 110s.
But even this comparatively bearable weather comes with a price: "The sun is very intense, and the kids burn so fast," he says. "We have to put our brass instruments in the shade because you can't put them down for more than 10 minutes and pick them up. And you would literally burn yourself."
To prevent heat-related injuries, McEnaney's students wear white cotton gloves that also help keep sunscreen and sweat off the instruments.
Aaron Vogel in Phoenix says his priority is keeping students hydrated. His new trick is running through marching drills with his students holding water bottles instead of their instruments. "Then their water breaks are continuous. They can drink water as often as they'd like," he says.
But the toughest rule that marching band directors have had to enforce: making high schoolers put on sunscreen. "We didn't have anyone who had to skip a day [of rehearsal] this year, because they know I'm dead serious about it," McEnaney says. "If they get a bad sunburn, you can't come out the next day."
One silver lining for these educators in already warmer regions is that they've got some of this figured out. Vogel says this year for the first time, band directors in other states have reached out and asked for advice on weathering the heat.
"We do have a few mantras that we say," he says. "On days that it's really hot, we'll ask the students, 'Hey, how hot is it outside?' And the kids all respond in unison: 'It's 72 degrees with a cool breeze.'"
Vogel says there's always a way of having mind over matter. But in this warming world, a positive mindset alone is no longer enough to keep the band kids safe and spirited.
KJZZ's Bridget Dowd contributed reporting.
Audio production by Janet Woojeong Lee
Visual design and development by Bridget Dowd and LA Johnson
Edited by Steve Drummond, Andrea Kissack, Lauren Migaki and Arielle Retting
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