In Bands

Director Fred McInnis led the group in continuing its beloved traditions, despite the pandemic

Directing a college marching band under normal circumstances is no easy feat; during a global pandemic, it seems all but impossible. 

Yet the Cougar Marching Band, under the direction of Athletic Bands Director Fred McInnis, managed an impressive offering of live and recorded performances for a Fall 2020 football season like none other.

Using a program called Pyware, created by software company Pygraphics, McInnis was able to design complex formations for the band. Pygraphics featured McInnis and the Cougar Marching Band on its website in October 2020 as a shining example of success amidst struggle.

“Band directors around the world use Pyware to write drills for marching band,” said McInnis, who has been using the software since he first started his teaching career in 1988. “Pyware is by far the leading program. The primary function of the software is to let directors map out how individual students make a formation on the field, and to get them from one point to another.”

While many football programs — and their marching bands — were sidelined due to COVID, the Cougar Marching Band was able to move forward in large part due to stringent safety precautions. “We set up a committee that did a fabulous job keeping us all true to the protocols, which were actually stricter than the ones set up by the university,” McInnis said. “We scrapped plans carefully made over several months to put together three new shows.”

Distancing between the students was a critical factor, though certainly not easy to achieve. Sound travels at around 300 feet per second across a field that is 160 feet wide and 300 feet long, creating a slight delay between the musicians and the audience. 

“Under normal circumstances we keep students at a two-step or three-step interval to create a balance of sound on the field and help musicians stay together,” McInnis said. “This year we had to keep them at a six-step interval.” It took careful planning and multiple directors on the field to overcome this unexpected obstacle.

After recording a virtual rendition of the Cougar fight song for the first game, the band put together a memorable show based around music from the popular Star Wars spinoff, “The Mandalorian.” They commissioned a special arrangement, filmed the show at the stadium, and posted it as a virtual performance.

For the third game the band got the go-ahead to perform live. McInnis secured permission to perform “My Shot” from the Broadway play “Hamilton,” and arranged for singer Alex Boyé to perform with them at half-time. At the end of the show they spelled out “My Shot” (with a little help from Pyware).

The band did one more live show, the last of the season, and during the performance were able to honor Director of Bands Don Peterson, who has been with BYU for 34 years and will be retiring at the end of winter semester. As a tribute, the band spelled out “Thanks” and played “Thanks for the Memories.”

As for 2021, McInnis is pressing forward with plans for the upcoming fall 2021 season. He has already begun to choose music and write future shows. Auditions begin in March, and the final band roster is decided by May.

McInnis praised his students for their grace under pressure. “They did an amazing job adapting to the challenges,” he said. “I knew they were smart and talented, but I didn’t realize they were so adaptable.”

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