Richard Fitz’s deployment to the Middle East with the Air National Guard Band of the Northeast as a percussionist and keyboardist was cut short by the pandemic, sending him home in April.

Fitz serves as the music teacher at his alma mater, Garden Spot High School. The last time he saw his students was in December – little did he know, seeing his students again would be different than anything he experienced in a career that has spanned nearly three decades.

With remote learning, he wouldn’t get the chance to see any of them again in person until the middle of summer for band camp. Or at least he thought.

Things are a lot different for marching bands this season -- including Garden Spot. Director Richard Fitz, who's been at the helm for 29 years, says that this year has been "overwhelmingly challenging."

As he enters his 29th season leading marching bands, Fitz says this year has posed the most challenges. He’ll still create marching band drills, decide musical selections and coach 120 students including musicians, color guard and drum majors. But this year, he’s had to work to figure out how to do all that safely in the midst of a pandemic.

“To be perfectly honest, I really don’t have the words to describe it,” Fitz said of this year’s marching band. “Never in my wildest dreams would I expect that we would have anything like this to try to deal with, and try to work around, and try to figure out what’s going to be safest for our students but also the staff … everyone that’s involved in the school district.”

In a normal season, the band always accompanied the Spartan football team on game nights, keeping up morale and performing for the crowd. But this season, as the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association tightened restrictions for fall sports, the marching band can only perform three times.

Those performances won’t be in a stadium packed with as many football fans, friends and parents. The big halftime performances will be to sparser bleachers.

Questions are still bubbling after Governor Tom Wolf's office updated its guidance on high school sporting events on Sept. 2. Wolf announced new guidance permitting a limited number of spectators to attend high school events – 25 or fewer for indoor events, 250 or fewer for outdoor events.

In a normal year, Fitz develops up to 45 different formations for the band to march in for their performance. This year, it’s much more rudimentary – band members march across the fields staying six-feet apart, stopping to play three renditions of well-known Led Zepplin songs and then march off the other sideline.

But despite the changes, the mandatory masks and the new routine, the band is ready to get back together, bonded by an overwhelming sense of optimism.

“They were ready to get back at it,” Fitz said. “I really give so much credit to the students.”

On Aug. 27, as the sun began to set behind the football field as the band members took part in a normal summertime rehearsal. They seemed cheerful and, in general, as if it were business as usual without the constraints of the pandemic.

“They’ve been really very inspiring for me, that they understand this is how things are and we just have to figure out a way to live with it and to continue to move on,” Fitz said.

Garden Spot Marching Band

Members in the Garden Spot marching band perform a Led Zepplin song during a rehearsal on Thursday, August 27, 2020. The marching band, which isn't doing any sort of drill this year because of social distancing, is playing three Led Zepplin songs this season for its performances, which will be at only three home football games.

Senior drum major Dustin Swanson added that the band has had an optimistic outlook despite the pandemic.

“It’s definitely exciting to just see how we do under the circumstances that we’re in right now,” Swanson said. “Considering we weren’t sure what was going to happen this year, it’s like – it's at least exciting to know we’ll have a few games to play at.”

Senior drum majors Angel Brenneman and Karynne Henry shared Swanson’s positive outlook.

Even without as many fans, Brenneman said she expects this year to be fun for the few games the band gets to play at.

Garden Spot Marching Band

Richard Fitz directs the Garden Spot marching band through a warm-up routine on Thursday, August 27, 2020. Fitz has been the marching band director at Garden Spot for 29 years, but says this season has presented the most challenges.

“We’re all really into football and we’re really supportive of our team, so I think it’s going to be fun … just being there for our team and having some sense of normalcy for them and us,” she said.

The Spartans’ football team is scheduled to have its first home game on Oct. 2, against Donegal. The final two home games will be played the last two weeks in October.

“That first game, it’s going to be different,” Fitz said. “It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens during the game without any spectators there. … We’ll just have to wait and see and hope for the best.”

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