Cornhusker Marching Band plays on during pandemic

The Cornhusker Marching Band takes the field at Memorial Stadium to record their pregame and halftime performances for the virtual gameday broadcasts. Photo by Craig Chandler, University Communication.
The Cornhusker Marching Band takes the field at Memorial Stadium to record their pregame and halftime performances for the virtual gameday broadcasts. Photo by Craig Chandler, University Communication.

Cornhusker Marching Band plays on during pandemic

calendar icon23 Nov 2020    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Lincoln, Neb.--The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s 297-member Cornhusker Marching Band—The Pride of All Nebraska—adjusted to a unique season through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s certainly been like no other season I’ve been a part of,” said Associate Director of Bands Tony Falcone, the director of the Cornhusker Marching Band.

Drum major Sarah Ernst, a senior music education major from Columbus, Nebraska, described the season as “challenging.”

“But the members of the Cornhusker Marching Band have proven that they are resilient and will continue to make music with friends, no matter the circumstances,” Ernst said. “The band responded with resilience and pressed on in a season unlike any other. The dedicated members gave their all.”

Despite not being able to perform in person at the football games this fall, the band continued to rehearse daily and recorded a pregame show that is available online at and

“Many people may not realize that planning for each year of Band begins pretty much at the end of the previous season. It’s a year round process,” Falcone said. “So, the effects were felt from the very beginning with the lock-down in mid-March.”

Falcone said they were in the middle of the student leadership selection process (a series of interviews with auditions for Drum Majors), which had to move to video submission. First-round auditions for the band were also moved to video submissions.

“Once all of that was in place in June, there was still a great deal of uncertainty around how the football season would play out, and thus our schedule, including our pre-school band camp,” Falcone said. “With the possibility of a drastically reduced or nonexistent band camp, I mobilized the student leadership and posted as many materials as possible on Canvas.”

Two weeks before classes began, Falcone learned that the band would not have use of Memorial Stadium during the entire fall semester.

“With the protocols that had been developed, Westbrook Music Building was not viable for us, so we began the year with no dedicated rehearsal space, no in-person band camp, and no idea of the nature of our participation in the football season,” Falcone said. “Fortunately, Dean O’Connor came to our rescue and negotiated with Campus Rec for us to use Cook Pavilion as a rehearsal space. We were also able to park our semi-trailer adjacent to the Avery Avenue parking structure to use as a storage facility for our percussion instruments, which are ordinarily stored in the stadium. Thus, we had a working situation to deliver instruction.”

Katie Pace, a regional and community forestry major and third-year trumpet player in the band, said she would sum up the season as “creative.”

“There were a lot of restrictions put in place, and a lot of things were taken away from us last minute (like band camp—I still have a band camp-sized hole in my heart),” Pace said. “But everyone was able to adapt and be professional. Everyone knew that it was out of our control. And we were all so grateful to be able to see each other, that it almost felt normal.”

Pace said many protocols were in place to help make it as safe as possible.

“We left the garage doors open to help ventilate air through, as well as put bell covers on all the brass instruments to minimize spit flying everywhere,” she said. “Anytime we weren’t playing, we were required to wear a mask. We were spaced out in a way that we weren’t within six feet of the people beside us, and never directly behind someone. Our directors put in a lot of work to find the best way for us to practice. They were looking out for us.”

Alyssa Soppe, senior music education and Spanish double major from Omaha, Nebraska, and a member of the front ensemble, said she was proud of what the band was able to accomplish this year.

“Coming into this school year, I really had no idea how we were going to do anything,” Soppe said. “For a while, I wondered if we’d get to do anything at all. The directors and band staff did an excellent job of providing us with a unique and workable opportunity that made the best of a really challenging situation. Like many others, this wasn’t the ‘senior season’ I was expecting. Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to have the scholarship funding to take a fifth year, so I will be taking advantage of this opportunity to have my actual final year of college be (hopefully) a bit more normal.”

Many students depend on the course credit for marching band, so Falcone wanted to continue to offer it this fall, despite the challenges.

“First and foremost, it was important to me to maintain the culture and community of the band,” Falcone said. “Our students are struggling with the impacts of the pandemic to their physical and mental health, academic progress and financial situations. The band is a family, and we all rely on each other and support each other. There are also baseline skills and materials that continue from year to year (musical, marching, pregame music and other physical skills), and we didn’t want to have an interruption in this. Along with the above-mentioned skills, this would inhibit the passing of traditions and institutional memory. Among the fog of Covid and all the stresses mentioned above, I wanted band to be a place our students could go and do something they love with people they care about and who care about them.”

At the beginning of fall, the football schedule was still in flux, so they created a season with materials that would further the ensemble and continue the year-to-year aspects.

“We learned the musical selections of the Pregame show bringing them to performance level, and even though we didn’t learn the drill (much of it doesn’t meet distancing standards), we also worked on the visual aspects that are unique to that show (double time, strut, rear-back, etc.),” Falcone said. “We also created a ‘show’ consisting of four selections so the students could have the experience of learning and performing new material. We took the opportunity to have our Percussion Section and Color Guard prepare presentations on their own as well. All of this has been video-recorded, and pending editing and licensing, will be released via our web and social media outlets.”

Soppe said in a normal year, percussionists would rehearse every weekday from 6:30-8:20 a.m. and Wednesday evenings from 7-9 p.m. They would also be busy all day for each home game.

“This season things were not like this,” she said. “We rehearsed each weekday from 7-8:20 a.m., did not rehearse on Wednesday evenings and had no home games to attend. Overall, the season was much lighter and much smaller commitment-wise than the typical season.”

The Athletic Department also approached the band to create video materials for them to broadcast as part of their virtual game days.

“Fortunately, this fell right in line with what we’d been preparing,” Falcone said. “They wanted their versions to be recorded in Memorial Stadium to come as close as they could to the look of the in-person experience, so we arranged a recording session. We recorded a stand-still version of our Pregame, and three of the four show segments we’d been preparing. It was a major thrill for the students to spend even a couple hours in Memorial Stadium. I felt especially for our seniors, who otherwise would have unknowingly already made their last appearance there. Our freshman, denied the experience of their first Pregame in front of 90,000, at least got in there once in 2020. It was an emotional day for everybody.”

Pace said recording for the virtual gameday experience was bittersweet for the band.

“I was so excited to be back in Memorial Stadium and loved seeing all the newcomers’ faces as they walked into the stadium,” she said. “But realizing that it was the last time for the seniors to be there kind of stung. But life moves on, and I am thankful for the memories I have with them.”

Ernst said it felt good to perform as an ensemble again, even if it wasn’t for an audience.

“It was so nice to be able to record a couple of times and keep trying to be better than the last rep,” she said. “Performing in an empty stadium reminded me of morning gameday rehearsals: cold, but grateful to be playing together for Nebraska.”

Soppe said she missed the atmosphere in Lincoln on game days.

“The city really does just become a different place altogether,” Soppe said. “There’s so much adrenaline, excitement, pride and positive energy radiating throughout the city on game day, and I really miss being surrounded by that energy. Watching a recording of our performance from my bedroom was very different, and honestly, a little sad. That sinking feeling I felt in my stomach is comparable, I think, to what alumni must feel when they watch the Cornhusker Marching Band perform after they’ve graduated.”

Pace said what she missed the most this season was March Down.

“I love marching from Westbrook to the stadium, and all the shenanigans that ensue,” she said. “Plus, the challenge of learning a whole new show every week helps me grow as a musician since I don’t do band year-round like in high school.”

Ernst said the season proves that marching bands, and any art form, can still be produced in a pandemic.

“Although the feeling of it won’t be the same, we still know that we were able to create music in a sense of normalcy for all the band fans,” she said.

Pace plans to audition for the band next year.

“I hope we can have a regular band season by next fall, but even if we can’t, I will still be there,” she said. “Band helped me through this weird time—some days it was literally the only time I left my apartment. It kept me sane, and I’m sure that’s what a lot of others would say, too. I’m looking forward to another great season with some of the most talented, funniest and sweetest people on campus.”

Soppe plans to be part of the band next year, too.

“No matter what it looks like, I’m most looking forward to getting to come together with my peers one final time to create something amazing,” Soppe said.

Falcone said he is proud of the way the Cornhusker Marching Band has responded to this unique season.

“I believe they truly appreciated that they were able to be together as a band and do what they love. The Student Leaders in particular have gone way above and beyond the call, being called to service way back in late June with the Virtual Band Camp,” Falcone said. “It has been a lesson in gratitude, as well, as we all learned how fortunate we are to get to do what we do, and to not take anything for granted. While we’d all naturally rather be spending game days in Memorial Stadium all together and with the fans, we’re happy to be able to contribute to them as they are.”

Soppe said the band remained positive through a challenging season.

“We really embraced the opportunities we had, and I’ve seen lots of my fellow bandsmen express their Husker and CMB pride all over social media,” she said. “We’re enormously grateful for the Cornhusker Marching Band and being able to continue on, even if that looked a little different this season. From what I saw, momentum carried throughout the entire season and allowed us all to have a fun, productive experience this season that will push us forward into next season.”

Falcone hopes the band provides hope for Husker fans.

“It’s our wish that our performances will provide a spark of hope for Husker Nation as we all do what is necessary to get through this,” he said. “We will make it to the other side, and the familiar strains of our school songs will ring out in Memorial Stadium once again.”

“NOTHING can stop the Pride of All Nebraska,” Pace said.