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Spread across the field outside Yellowstone Hall, drum majors called out directions to Spirit of the West band members Friday. With instruments strewn off to the side and the temperature creeping toward 70 degrees, Montana State’s band practiced marching in unison.

It would have been a typical mid-August day, with the Bobcats’ football home opener a few weeks away and both band members and football players practicing for the season.

Except the football team is no longer practicing and this year’s band camp is quite different. Band members wore masks when not playing their instruments. They spaced 5 yards apart. They prepared for virtual performances at Bobcat Stadium instead of ones in front of packed crowds and cheering fans.

“Yeah it’s a bummer,” said junior drum major Eliana Wagner, “but we’re also going to totally make the best of it.”

A week ago, Bobcat football postponed its season until the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. The way the band typically structures its fall, practices are designed to gear up for game day. Without those crisp, fall Saturdays to look forward to, the Spirit of the West is experiencing new territory.

But the band has also cherished the chance to keep playing, regardless of not having games and is using the time to plan new routines.

“It makes the whole journey worth it,” band director and associate professor Nathan Stark said of football games. “To not have that moment, it is a big blow, and it is something that we have to figure out how to replace with the band over the season.”

Instead of a week of band camp, the Spirit of the West trimmed it down to three days. Group practices are only allowed outdoors since indoor spaces add risk of spreading the virus.

Stark is keeping an eye on research about how playing wind and brass instruments also affect the spread.

Marching band counts as a two-credit class and has about 185 students. Once MSU postponed its football season, it was too late to change students’ schedules, Stark said.

So regardless of the adjustments, the band is marching on.

“Band is a big part of a lot of our lives,” junior drum major Kendall Larson said. “We all have different reasons why we’re here or why band is special to us, why we march in 100 degrees or 10 degrees. Being able to be here even though we don’t have football just gives us that hope.”

When the football season was postponed, Wagner and Larson were disappointed. Stark said he sensed a feeling of loss among members because “that’s kind of what we do — perform at football games.”

Knowing the football season was in doubt earlier in the summer, Stark asked section leaders to think of what essential experiences make the band memorable beyond the games. Their ideas included performances they could still record and post online.

Since game weeks are usually spent prioritizing what they’ll perform that weekend, there’s rarely a chance to hone more specific skills. The extra time this year could let the band improve marching and playing and learn more difficult formations and songs.

“I know it’s not as much fun as being at Bobcat Stadium. I get that,” Stark said. “But in terms of our educational goals, there’s still things we could do that would be meaningful and important.”

Despite the precautions in place and the unknown future, members are grateful for the chance to at least be together this fall. It was evident Friday, when drum majors counted out beats, others marched and everyone clapped after completing the drill.

“No matter what goes on, the Spirit of the West, we’re always going to be here,” Larson said. “We’re always going to be loud and we’re always going to be proud to be Bobcats.”

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.