Gone are the fears felt by Weston-McEwen High School music teacher and band director Rob McIntyre that the COVID pandemic had brought about an abrupt end to the school's unique bagpipe, drum and dance performances after 70 years.
Before COVID, the storied Weston-McEwen music and dance programs would put on a much-anticipated annual basketball halftime performance showcasing the Scottish heritage that exists in the community. All the athletic teams at the school are known as the TigerScots.
The halftime show had been a yearly tradition, much like the Caledonian Games held every summer in Athena, until the pandemic.
Ever since the initial COVID outbreak reached the Walla Walla Valley in early 2020, no halftime show has been held in the Weston-McEwen gym. Last year's scheduled performance was postponed by a virus scare during the winter. It took place instead at a school assembly after the TigerScots had already played their final games.
But now, more than two years since schools reopened and masks stopped being required at most social gatherings, the Weston-McEwen halftime show returns at long last Friday night, Feb. 3. It will take center stage during intermission of the varsity boys game, which is expected to tip off about 7:30 p.m.
McIntyre, who has been the band director for 22 years, has been left with only 30 participants — barely half as many as he had before the hiatus. But he is still elated by this opportunity to finally get his kids back on the court together with the community.
"We do seem to be on a path back now to a stable place, only with a smaller force," McIntyre said. "I am appreciative beyond my ability to describe that to the students who stayed and have helped put the program back together. They showed heart and leadership."
The tradition of a special Weston-McEwen halftime show dates back to 1950, a couple of decades before the merger of Athena and Weston school districts.
It started at what was then just McEwen High School in Athena with music of a Scottish theme played, though the first bands had not yet added bagpipes and dancers.
"The show always includes a traditional dance, a feature tune and 'Scotland the Brave' as an exit," McIntyre said. "Almost all of the arrangements have been written by program directors over the years."
The return of the halftime show this year comes in the aftermath of constant scares that the pandemic had spelled the end of a proud tradition for the Athena and Weston communities.
Teaching music, and then training further techniques, was especially difficult when the students only stayed home to take their classes through a computer.
"Piping nearly disappeared because there was no way to start kids on those instruments during the pandemic," McIntyre said. "I thought that I could get around the bad situation by being innovative, but the innovation did not solve the engagement problem that so many of us tangled with."
Weston-McEwen has always been a relatively small school, even after the merger. Only 121 students are enrolled there, according to the Oregon School Activities Association, qualifying for the second-smallest state classification.
Yet the Weston-McEwen band had always been big. McIntyre said most years, they usually included about 50 members — sometimes more than a third of the student body.
There is hope for a resurgence after the last three tumultuous years, and the halftime show Friday signals that it is an all-out team effort.
"The school district rose to the occasion on this issue, because piping is one facet of the school's identity," McIntyre said. "A group of kids stepped up this year and, by doing so, said that piping isn't done yet at Weston McEwen.
"We had a piping elective class at the high school every day first semester and, during that time, the kids have advanced enough to be able to do this show properly."
McIntyre and his band have been hard at work in preparation for their return show.
Despite the challenges, they have gone about it with a lot of enthusiasm.
"As recently as a week ago, I was still running the piper training in a separate class and also had a group of beginning band kids at the high school getting ready to play in the more advanced group," McIntyre said. "It is only now that we are all in the same room at the same time.
"There is a crazy, chaotic energy in the room when assembling one of these shows and a cacophony of sounds: Kids are in the commons area practicing the dance steps, we are practicing striking the drones on the bagpipes, the drummers are running over their cadences, the other band kids are practicing their parts.
"Then we slowly commence pulling it together. We will put it all together on our gymnasium floor, and then march back through the hall playing 'Scotland the Brave.'"
The return Friday promises to rank among the more memorable performances for McIntyre, right up there with their 2005 trip to Scotland.
Another was the 2009 tour of New York City and Washington., D.C. Though the band had flown east, their instruments were shipped over there via trucks. Once all the gear arrived at their hotel, about 5 a.m. at that, the kids lined up to move everything into their lobby like a conveyor belt.
"Our bus drivers on that trip were retired military officers, and they said that I had the enterprise set up in a way like a military operation," McIntyre said.
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