The Westbrook High School marching band performs during Senior Night last month. The theme of this year’s show was an art museum theme that comes to life in the imagination of the protagonist. Contributed / Westbrook High School

The Westbrook High School Marching Band has had a relatively good year so far, only missing out on first place at a New England regional championship last month by two-tenths of a point, for example, and receiving other honors as well.

But the pandemic has taken a toll on the high school’s band program and it faces an uphill battle as it tries to rebuild, according to director Kyle Smith.

Band classes, which include students not necessarily in the marching, jazz and ensemble bands, haven’t met regularly since the pandemic started, a hiatus that was prolonged because a July fire at the high school closed it to students this fall.

“I do have some seniors who have not played in person with me since starting sophomore year,” Smith said.

During the pandemic, the number of band students at the high school has dropped about 38%, from in the 80s to now in the 50s, Smith said, stunting the program he and his wife, middle school band director Krystle Smith, have worked so hard to build.

“We came in 2006 and we built the band program over 15 years now, put our heart and soul into that, and then to have it wiped away is really hard to swallow,” he said. 

He estimates it will take at least five years to bring the program back to its former strength.

The band smaller now, and incoming high school students aren’t likely to take band classes if they haven’t been exposed to band in middle or elementary school, he said. Schools throughout the areas are feeling the same pains, he said.

“From 11th to 7th grade, we have a quarter of the students we had, the number of students has dropped quite a bit,” Smith said.

While Smith did not have data on the overall decline in band program participation, a preliminary results of a survey done by Ryan D. Shaw, an assistant professor of music education at Michigan State University, “suggest that high school music class enrollment has suffered during the pandemic,”  according to an article published by The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit news organization.

“This may be as a result of students exiting the public school system or of safety concerns regarding singing and performing in large groups,” Shaw wrote.

Drum Major Angelina DiBiase, a senior who recently received a perfect rating at a competition, said she hopes the trend doesn’t continue.

“If they don’t have that foundation they won’t do it. I’m definitely concerned about numbers for future years, and not just in marching band,  but that includes ensemble and jazz,” she said. 

DiBiase said she and her peers are proud of the work they’ve done despite the challenges of the pandemic to make sure they were in top competitive shape.

“I’d put up with anything because I was glad to have the season, and I took each moment like it’d be the last, which was cliché but that rang true,” euphonium player Ryan Ball said.

“I didn’t know if there’d be the uptick in cases, competitions canceled, we wouldn’t have a full band,” he said. “So each moment we could do it was special, especially as it is my senior year.”

On Oct. 31, the marching band took second place at the New England Scholastic Band Associations Fall championship, just 0.2 points behind the winning band from Reading, Massachusetts. Westbrook scored a 96.2 competing against more than 30 other school marching bands, mostly from Massachusetts.

“For the students to perform so well without sitting down and working on it with band for a year and a half, it’s ridiculous what they were able to do,” Smith said.

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