UNR’s COVID-Era Drumline Is a Family Divided

Ian Cook reports on how UNR’s marching band is still holding out hope there might be a football season at some point, but that during the pandemic so much of the usual spirit and chaos of belonging and performing is being lost.

The Pride of the Sierra Drumline poses for a photo at the annual Sierra Band Crusade on Nov. 9, 2019 during pre COVID times. The event is intended to attract prospective freshmen to UNR’s marching band. Photo by Blair Williams with permission to use.

“I wish I were pushed. I want the chaos back”

Tommy DeSellems, drumline section leader of UNR’s Pride of the Sierra Marching Band, misses the frenzy of putting together half-time shows with his friends.

There’s no more marching. There’s barely a band. Yet DeSellems and his team of section leaders are pressing on with the marching band anyway.

“I’m playing for everyone else,” DeSellems said. “Because we are a family.”

Developing a sense of family among bandmates is key to the experience, DeSellems said. Fellow snare drum players Philip Kirchman and David Loosley share that sentiment — the three have lived under the same roof for over two years since the drumline brought them together as freshmen and sophomores.

The drumline’s snare drum section poses for a photo on Nov. 10, 2018. From left to right: David Loosley, Philip Kirchman, the autor of this story Ian Cook, Ben Ghusn, Nick Scanlan, Kyle Mitlyng, Bryce Brinkman, Tommy DeSellems. Photo by Tierra Carranza with permission to use.

A Wasted Semester

They think of previous years fondly in spite of the mayhem of marching band season. “It’s the struggle, and then doing all the fun shit with everyone that really brings everyone together,” Kirchman said.

I understand that sentiment. I spent two years in the drumline, too, struggling terribly before realizing I’d been accepted into a loving family. Today, these are some of my closest friends. I never want to relive those days again, but I still remember the chaos warmly.

This year’s pandemic is a different breed of chaos. The drumline’s struggle is a microcosm of the greater issues facing America right now. But band is an immersive culture, and for many students it’s their lives.

“When I first started marching band, it felt like a hobby and a passion,” Loosley said. “Right now, it feels like a college class.”

One of the worst elements of playing in a COVID-era marching band, the three agreed, is the freshman experience that new underclassmen will never have. “You come as a freshman,” DeSellems said, channeling his younger self. “You have English 101 homework, Microeconomics homework, MATH 126 homework, I don’t know how to do laundry, and I don’t know how to swipe into the DC. And then you get told you have to learn all this shit by Wednesday. We’re not at that level anymore.”

“That’s, like, the best part,” all three of them echoed. Today, there’s no more chaos. The drumline meets in subsections because the group of 30 is “just past the COVID threshold” of 25 people, Kirchman explained. The band just spent $25,000 on new equipment the drumline will scarcely have the opportunity to use.

But perhaps most importantly, the sense of family is severely diminished.

“If I’m being honest, I don’t know any of the other freshmen,” Bass drummer Edson Lemus said. “They could walk past me and I wouldn’t know who they are.”

Ian Sturtz plays the quads at a rehearsal on Oct. 2, 2019. Under social distancing guidelines this season, Sturtz is unlikely to ever play in person with Lemus, DeSellems, Kirchman, or Loosley.

Not Allowed Inside, Bad Air Outside

Lemus, a junior, misses the pre-COVID marching band too. But it’s not the end of the world. There might even be some positives to playing in a band that never performs, he believes. “Because we don’t really have a goal to lead to, it makes it super flexible for when we can have rehearsals and when we can’t,” Lemus said.

This flexibility is crucial in a volatile environment. There’s no more chaos in the band, but there’s plenty in Reno, Lemus explained.

The drumline can’t rehearse together inside due to COVID concerns. They can’t rehearse outside due to poor air quality. Even if they can find a safe middle ground, the drumline is still by far the loudest section in the band.

“We’re pretty disruptive, honestly,” Lemus said.

Typically, the band would rehearse at the John Sala Intramural Practice Field, far away from peaceful class instruction. Here, they would learn “drill,” or movement patterns that make up the band’s visual appeal. For many members of the drumline, marching is not the most exciting half of “marching band.”

“For me, it’s kinda like trimming the fat,” Kirchman said. “The drumming is the part of it I like the most.”

Trying to Be Ready Just in Case

If the football season is suddenly revived, though, as some in the Mountain West conference are working towards, UNR’s band intends to be ready.

However, if that happens, DeSellems believes managing priorities could be a concern. Game-time pressure weighed on previous drumlines to memorize their music, but there is no established timeline this season.

For lack of a better term, the band is playing by ear. Coronavirus concerns are a constant the drumline must work through, and Lemus is hesitant to believe football will make a return before Spring of next year.

“I don’t see it changing anytime soon,” he said.

For now, drumline is at least a way for its members to step away from the difficulties of college student life for a little while.

“It’s an outlet,” Lemus said. “I work 30 hour weekends. I have class every day. Having that two hour period during the week is nice… I can just focus on music and beating the crap out of my drum if I really need to relieve any stress.”

Reporting by Ian Cook for Reynolds Sandbox

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