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'Best sound in the world': Drum lines and cheer squads return to Kern High campuses

Last March was right in the middle of the season when many high school students show off what they've been practicing all year. Marching bands were in festival season. Frontier High School's color guard had its bags packed and ready for a regional championship in Las Vegas.

But even before schools shut down, concerts and competitions were the first to be silenced as the spread of the pandemic became very real.

"This has been the roughest stretch of my 30 years," Frontier High band director Doug Kelley said.

But eight months after the music died, the sounds of drum lines, cheer squads and color guards have begun to return to campuses in the Kern High School District. Kelley said even if the sounds are a little out of rhythm and the players are a little rusty, it's the "best sound in the world."

"It's my heartbeat," he said at a drum line practice held in the student parking lot this week.

He wasn't the only one who missed the sound. The sound of snares and xylophones and bass drums at the first practice last month drew students who lived nearby who drove over to listen. Kelley had to remind them, of course, that to keep them safe from coronavirus they weren't allowed to return and cluster on campus.

Lanette Cornford, the cheer adviser and activities director for Frontier High, missed the music, too. Cheer squads were approved to return to campus for conditioning, along with the other athletes. Before practice, she tested out the sound system and cranked Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

She told herself, "Dang, I missed this."

The majority of the nearly 42,000 students in the Kern High School District remain in distance learning and have not returned to campuses for in-person instruction. But the district has begun to welcome back small cohorts of students for activities after school. 

On Nov. 9, cheerleaders returned to the campus amphitheater in two cohorts.

"There was a good vibe about them walking through the gates," Cornford said. "The masks are on, but there are smiles underneath."

Like other athletes on campus for are conditioning, the squads are able to limber up and get in shape. They practice jumps, kicks and do some light running. They practice their sideline material. And they do it all in socially distanced rows. Cornford laughs, saying that cheerleaders have always been pros at standing in neat, distanced rows.

A lot of traditional cheerleading is off-limits. Squads can't practice vocalization, because yelling could spread coronavirus. But she says when the squad does its kicks, the members spell out "Frontier Titans," and, because they're in an amphitheater, their voices echo across the campus.

There are no stunts, either, but Cornford said her squads are just happy to be together, even if they can't get close or hug.

"There's no tumbling or anything but it’s been uplifting and good for them to see each other — and not through a screen," she said.

That's what the students in drum line missed the most, too. Students in band are taking classes through distance learning to practice a few times a week, but until the last few weeks, they weren't able to play their instruments in unison.

Drum captain Chris Paylaga misses playing at football and basketball games, and he looked forward to competing and maybe winning medals at festivals. But he was grateful to be back on campus playing at all.

"It gave me motivation to practice again," Paylaga said. "The social aspect is what makes me love it so much."

At this week's practice, Paylaga and other students helped some of the new drummers, like freshman Noah Shinn, learn the ropes. 

It's November, but so far playing drums in the student parking lot represented the bulk of the time Shinn has spent on campus. Everything was so much bigger than he imagined, he said: The campus seemed huge and the drum line was larger than groups in middle school. He was still getting used to everything.

"It's hard to keep up, but it's still fun," he said.

There are no plans to have the marching band march any time soon, but everything about practice, for both athletes and musicians, is well choreographed from the moment they arrive on campus. 

Students have their temperatures taken. There are plans for exactly where students are allowed to stand, not only during practice but when they take a break. There are designated restrooms for each cohort and only one person is allowed in at a time. Lingering isn't allowed. 

For the drum line, only one student at a time is allowed to retrieve band equipment. During practice, everyone is masked and 10 feet apart. Wind instruments, deemed too risky for an airborne virus, aren't back yet.

So far families seem to be taking it very seriously. During Wednesday's drum practice, the majority of the cohort members weren't there. Kelley said that either the students or their family members indicated they were home quarantining because of an exposure to the virus.

The leaders of activity groups are a little unsure what the timelines will look like in the future. Kelley was hoping to do a 75th anniversary tribute performance to the end of World War II and the Tuskegee Pilots in October, but the dates when it would feel appropriate to perform keep passing. For now, he's happy to have kids back on campus and making noise again.

"A musician without music is like a fish without water," he said. "It's good to have the familiar sounds happening."