Photos of pandemic life rarely come as instantly iconic as these: a group of high school band students practicing together in a rehearsal room, each playing in an individual green tent, their faces and instruments visible only through a narrow plastic window. The pictures were taken by Don Seabrook, photo editor at local newspaper the Wenatchee World, for a report published Wednesday on how students at local high schools were adjusting to in-person learning during the pandemic.
The Wenatchee High School bands’ performance space has gained wide attention not only within the city of Wenatchee, Washington, but nationwide, reaching outlets from the BBC to Jimmy Kimmel Live! The photos—including one of a student crammed inside his small tent with a sousaphone, which couldn’t be comfortable—have led some observers to speculate that these kids were forced into this situation and that this is surely a sign of the apocalypse.
As a former high school sousaphone and tuba player, I wanted to hear from the band kids themselves. So I reached out to the high school’s band conductor, who put me in touch with two of his students: Lars Sorom, a 16-year-old junior, and Henry Bergey, a 15-year-old sophomore (who also told me it “would be epic” if I linked to his YouTube channel). Both are trumpet players in classical and jazz ensembles at the school, and they were apparently slightly involved themselves with making this green arrangement happen. I spoke with Sorom and Bergey over Zoom on Friday, in the middle of the school day, about how the tent situation came to be (they call them “pods”), what it’s like to rehearse in such strange circumstances, and how they’ve managed to pursue their passions for music in the middle of a pandemic. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nitish Pahwa: How do the pods work with rehearsing? When you all are in the pods, are you all able to listen to one another? Is your conductor also in a pod?
Lars Sorom: No, he stands out in the middle and we all turn and face him. And the rehearsing works really, really well. It’s pretty exciting because obviously earlier in this semester, when we weren’t in person, we all tried to rehearse over Zoom. But that just doesn’t work at all. So now that we’re set up in these pods, it’s so exciting to be able to play together. Any interaction is welcome, especially because the pods work so well.
Henry Bergey: Yeah, I think the pods are amazing. We spent half of our year being online. Being able to play with other people and make music is phenomenal and I love it. But the biggest, hardest hurdle to overcome in rehearsals is actually our a.m. and p.m. time slots because our day is cut in half [because of hybrid schedules during the pandemic]. So we have so little time to learn music.
So rehearsal time is cut sharply? You don’t get a full hour or more than that?
Bergey: We get 35 minutes.
That’s not very much at all.
Sorom: We usually have 85-minute classes in a normal year. And I know some groups practice together outside of things, but there aren’t really organized extracurricular groups, especially this year because they don’t want to promote people gathering.
Bergey: Like in the marching band, I’m one of the trumpet section leaders and I hold sectionals. Those are outside of school, though—we can’t mandate that because COVID. I supply a Zoom link for those wanting to go. It’s strongly advised that you attend those.
I saw in some photos that the choirs use the pods too?
Bergey: Yeah. I’m actually president of the bel canto choir, which is our sophomore audition choir. We do exactly what the band does. We have our music, and our pods are 6 feet apart. Recently in Washington state, our county has moved into phase 2, so we can actually sing outside of pods with masks. But prior to that, it was no singing permitted.
How does it feel actually playing in the pod, as trumpet players?
Bergey: I know for sure I was so excited to be able to play together. And all of this is voluntary. There’ve been things online about how we’re forced into the pods, but if you don’t want to be in there, there’s no pressure to be in the pods. It’s super, super exciting to be able to play with the rest of the group and also be able to hear the other people in the group. There’s just something so rich about being able to hear harmonies with other people.
Do you know how it’s been working out for the bigger instruments? One of the big photos that went around was your schoolmate carrying the sousaphone, and the bell barely fitting in the tent. Another one of my colleagues was wondering how it’s working with percussionists: Do the xylophones have to stay in some weird fenced-off area? How’s that working for people who need larger equipment?
Sorom: So, because the percussionists aren’t wind instruments and aren’t blowing their particles out, they’re just in masks playing their instruments. Obviously this sanitized, or they’re bringing their own sticks, but that seems to be pretty normal, other than wearing a mask. Then the bigger instruments like the sousaphone—obviously you saw the picture, it doesn’t really work to be in the pod. Mostly they’re still practicing at home or sitting and listening to the other people playing so they can hear where they have to come in, in hopes that once this is all over, they can join the band again. But the sousaphone doesn’t actually play in the pod. That was just taken for the picture.
Bergey: We do have a couple of tuba players, and I think we’re short of tubas. So if someone reading this article would like to donate, like, $10,000 to buy us some more tubas, that would be awesome. But I think tubas fit, and on some of the horns, they can remove the bells. Our band director is going to start having people do that.
Is there a system of disinfecting each pod after use?
Sorom: I don’t know if you saw, but on the front of the pod there are big numbers. Everyone is assigned a number to their pod and they’re obviously in different classes. More people would use the same pod, but after every use, you unzip the door and flip it up to kind of promote air movement, and then we have a disinfectant. We spray the whole thing down after every use. That has to sit for 20 minutes so that it’s fully disinfected. And then the next group can go in and play in their pods.
Bergey: If you’re wondering whose idea the numbers were, that was Lars’ idea. So if someone gets sick and we find out about it, we’ll say No. 43. And then whoever’s in that pod will probably go get a COVID test and we’ll say, “OK, no one use Pod 43 for a little bit,” even though that would be precautionary because it’s disinfected every time. You don’t just let the particles sit in the pod for the next person to breathe in.
Are there any other places within the school that are using these pods, besides the band and choir?
Bergey: Well, the whole music department. So also mariachi will use them.
Oh, you have a mariachi ensemble? That’s cool.
Bergey: Oh yeah. We have a big mariachi program. But that’s it. No one else is using the pods. Sports just do stuff with masks. [To Lars] You tell him about cross country. You guys have to pull your masks down when you start, right?
Sorom: Yeah, the pods stay in the music department. The sports are all masked. Obviously you can’t run in a pod.
One of my colleagues had an interesting question: Obviously, the culture is full of weird band stereotypes, like the whole “band geeks” thing, which really wasn’t much of a thing even when I was in high school. But I’m curious, how has this moment affected perception of the band among the larger student body?
Sorom: Dude, I have got to say, there’s a lot of people that are like, “Oh my gosh, that’s my school.” But I’m like, “Can you really say that? I mean, you dropped band in third grade.” It’s so cool, but what I’m hoping is that we’ll get a whole bunch of freshmen next year who’ll be like, “I want to go play in the pod band, that’s so cool.” And I mean, it is really cool! I walk around the school with my head up high because I’m like, “I was on Jimmy Kimmel last night. I mean, I was in one of the green pods. That was pretty cool.”
The band is not like totally nerdy at Wenatchee High School. We play pep music and people really enjoy the pep music, and we win awards in marching band and in competition. So it’s not just the small band that all the nerds that are in—it’s definitely a pretty big thing at this high school. There are the kids that are like, “Oh wow, the band has such nerds.” But suddenly when Wenatchee High School was being talked about on BBC and CNN, then they’re like, “Oh wow, that’s my school.” I feel like public opinion of band will be a little raised after this, which is definitely a good thing.