FARGO — On a warm and windy day, the sounds of “Another One Bites the Dust” can be heard on the west side of the North Dakota State University campus. Get closer to Newman Outdoor Field and there they are: members of the Gold Star Marching Band practicing a Queen medley. But something is different this year. The band that has been revving up the crowds at sporting events for decades is now practicing with masks, smartphones and even, once in awhile, paper plates. Making music with your mouth in the middle of a pandemic is no easy undertaking. Like bands all over the world, the Gold Star Marching Band is having to adjust to marching to the tune of COVID-19.

When practice began a couple of weeks ago, Director of Athletic Bands Dr. Sigurd Johnson insisted band members follow social distancing rules by standing six feet apart while in formation. But given the nature of brass and wind instruments, that wouldn’t be enough. Droplets of saliva can spread while blowing into the instruments.

“One of the biggest offenders, in terms of aerosols, is the flute or the piccolo because it's so direct. It's almost like speaking because you're blowing across an air hole,” Johnson said.

Dr. Sigurd Johnson, lower right, is the director of the Gold Star Athletic Bands at NDSU. He approached Emily Brooks of Fargo, about making a mask that could be worn by the students while they played their instruments. Brooks created the split mask design using similar sizing to another pattern she created for standard style masks. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Dr. Sigurd Johnson, lower right, is the director of the Gold Star Athletic Bands at NDSU. He approached Emily Brooks of Fargo, about making a mask that could be worn by the students while they played their instruments. Brooks created the split mask design using similar sizing to another pattern she created for standard style masks. Chris Flynn / The Forum

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No matter the instrument, Dr. Johnson knew he needed the students to wear masks. For the first few days of practice, the students wore their own masks, and he had to adjust how he directed them.

“We actually have a command when we're going to play. The kids bring their horns up, and then we go "mask down", they pull their mask down to play, and then as soon, as they're done playing, it’s "mask up", and then bring your horns down,” he said.

Dr. Johnson says that worked well enough, but it was a little cumbersome.

“We’re still committed to the distance thing, but we wanted to make it so it would look better, and it wouldn't be so much up and down with the mask,” he said.

Enter Emily Brooks, a Fargo mask maker who Dr. Johnson met with while she made decorative pillows out of old Gold Star Marching Band uniforms. She also made pillows out of old UND Marching Band uniforms.

Mask Maker Emily Brooks
Mask Maker Emily Brooks

She agreed to make around 160 specially-designed masks for the band and an additional 70 for the NDSU music department. Specially designed, not just because they’re made in Bison green and gold, but because there is a small, horizontal slit in the center of the mask for the instrument’s mouthpiece to be inserted. The flap of the mask then surrounds the mouthpiece to prevent droplets from escaping.

Brooks says pattern-making is one of her favorite aspects of mask-making.

"I love the opportunity to problem solve through my pattern designs. I created the split mask design using similar sizing to another pattern I created for standard style masks,” she said.

The students who had the opportunity to test out the new masks are giving it the thumbs up.

“I'm really glad that we have these because being able to use these in the band is helping us to do what we need to do,” said sophomore trombone player Kenzie Johnson.

Kenzie Johnson is a sophomore trombone player in the NDSU Gold Star Marching Band. She is one of the first students to try new masks made by Emily Brooks. The mask has a horizontal slit so the wearer can slide a mouthpiece between the opening, and then pull the flap back into place after playing. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Kenzie Johnson is a sophomore trombone player in the NDSU Gold Star Marching Band. She is one of the first students to try new masks made by Emily Brooks. The mask has a horizontal slit so the wearer can slide a mouthpiece between the opening, and then pull the flap back into place after playing. Chris Flynn / The Forum

“It’s going pretty good. There’s a learning curve, for sure,” said junior trumpet player Travis Elliason. “It's not something natural that we do having to stick a mouthpiece in a mask, so we're all definitely learning. It’s just nice to be playing again.”

Masks and distancing aren’t the only ways the band is dealing with COVID-19. Brass players have had to find new ways to empty saliva from their instrument.

“They can't just turn around and blow it onto the floor. They have to go on to a paper towel, which is placed on a paper plate, and then they throw it away after that,” Dr. Johnson said.

He says while most of the aerosol threat comes from blowing into the mouthpieces, some droplets could escape from where the sound comes out, the bells of the horns. So they’ll be looking at getting covers for trumpets, trombones and mellophones.

Also, for the first time, band members are attaching smartphones to their instruments to display music on an app controlled by the director. It replaces the standard music flip folders and should add to the ease of playing in these unusual circumstances.

An NDSU Gold Star Band player reads music off his phone at band practice on Sept. 2. He is one of the first students to try a new mask made by Emily Brooks. There is a horizontal slit allows the player to wear a mask while performing and practicing without having to remove the it. Chris Flynn / The Forum
An NDSU Gold Star Band player reads music off his phone at band practice on Sept. 2. He is one of the first students to try a new mask made by Emily Brooks. There is a horizontal slit allows the player to wear a mask while performing and practicing without having to remove the it. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Of course, you won’t be seeing the socially distancing Gold Star Marching Band play with their new masks, horn covers and smartphone music stands at Bison football games this fall, but Dr. Johnson says they have three concerts planned on September 19, October 17 and November 7.

He says with all of the changes, he appreciates the students for coming out and making the most of the marching season.

“It's just a crazy, new world, and if we want to keep it functioning and if we want to keep the kids engaged and involved in this, we just have to adapt to it,” he said.

For more information:

Gold Star Marching Band Performances for the Fall :

  • Saturday September 19th - 2:00 PM Dakotah Field

  • Saturday October 17th - 2:00 PM Dakotah Field

  • Saturday November 7th - 2:00 PM Fargodome (Family weekend - Sounds of the Gridiron Concert)

If you'd like more information about the masks, contact Emily Brooks at taeamade@hotmail.com or 701-353-5445.