The pinnacle of the high school band season in South Dakota was supposed to take place in Mitchell this weekend.
Instead, it’s another victim of coronavirus.
The Mitchell High School Performing Arts Center was set to host the South Dakota High School Activities Association’s all-state band festival for the first time, and the city was set to welcome the event for the first time in 21 years. But after having these days circled on the calendar for the last few years, Mitchell High School Band Director Ryan Stahle is riding out the COVID-19 pandemic like everyone else, rather than preparing to welcome more than 170 musicians and their families to town.
The event remains on the calendar, although it’s hard to know whether it will take place. The SDHSAA has made plans to hold it June 11-13 in Mitchell, but that’s tentative based on the virus and what Gov. Kristi Noem does regarding reopening schools for the year.
The events were to include numerous rehearsal sessions throughout Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning, along with the state’s intercollegiate band performing in conjunction with the event on Friday. The grand concert was slated to start at 4 p.m. Saturday.
“To say I was looking forward to it would be an understatement,” Stahle said. “For Mitchell, it was a long time coming. But right now, there is so much up in the air. … I don’t know if that has really sunk in, if we don’t get to do it.”
It was set to be the 70th edition of the all-state band festival, and has been held every year since the South Dakota Bandmasters Association organized the first event in 1951 in Sioux Falls. Mitchell has hosted seven times previously (1954, 1959, 1971, 1980, 1985, 1992 and 1999).
Stahle, who has been directing band in Mitchell for 17 years, noted that in 1999, all-state band was held at the Corn Palace and because of the size of the two bands, musicians were rehearsing in the Corn Palace Armory and on the main stage.
The SDHSAA has sponsored the all-state band event since 1966, but has been the sole sponsor since 2013. Since then, hosting requirements mandate that the event takes place in an auditorium setting of 1,000 seats or more. The MHS’ Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2017, seats 1,200.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a big dent in what was an exciting stretch for those musically inclined in Mitchell.
While Mitchell did host the South Dakota Music Education Association’s middle school all-state band and jazz band events, including all-state band on March 6 and 7, the rest of the schedule has not been as lucky. Among the canceled events are MHS’ spring choir and band concert on March 17, the SDHSAA’s Region 5 large group music contest on March 18, the Friend de Coup Show Choir Classic on March 21 and a regional elementary school band festival that was planned for March 31.
“We would have had all of that in about seven weeks,” Stahle said.
But as long as there’s a ban on the number of people that can gather in one location, the event can’t realistically take place. Each of the bands — the Clark Band and the Lewis Band — has nearly 90 musicians each, and Stahle said that a restriction on gatherings of 100 people or less would make it impossible, let alone bring in an audience of hundreds more.
“We’d have 180 students in relatively close quarters,” he said. “I don’t see that happening, under those circumstances.”
Mitchell High School Activities Director Cory Aadland said the biggest challenge surrounding high school activities is how much remains unknown about the virus’ impact. He said he favors having some sort of all-state band event over not having anything, but understands that the situation is still cloudy.
“When we last saw these kids two weeks ago, we weren’t able to give much direction on what was happening,” Aadland said. “We still don’t know. … If we can give them some version of the experience we intended, that would be better than nothing at all.”