The difference between this year and last year has been massive for the Odessa High School marching band.

For one thing, the band was able to have its marching camp this year.

Another difference is that the group will be able to advance this year at University Interscholastic League marching band competitions.

For marching band director John Mayo, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic this year.

“I think the excitement level is pretty high considering that we’re trying to get back to a little bit of normal which wasn’t what we were dealing with last year,” Mayo said. “I think kids are just happy to be back and to have some normalcy.”

Last year, things were made difficult due to the pandemic which forced many bands across the state to adapt to scaled-down halftime shows due to the limitations that were presented because of social distancing.

Odessa High marching band director John Mayo gives instructions during practice Monday at Odessa High School. Michael Bauer|Odessa American

Twelve months ago, there was much uncertainty surrounding the Odessa High marching band as Mayo and his students didn’t know what to expect when the school year started.

“We didn’t even have summer band last year,” Mayo said. “We didn’t even know what we were going to be allowed to do. School didn’t start for everybody for like a month. It took us a while to get going. We’re so far ahead of where we were at this point last year.”

COVID still hasn’t vanished, but Mayo says the Odessa High marching band is still being cautious.

“We’re keeping things clean and still watching our social distancing as much as we can,” Mayo said.

The Odessa High band is now three weeks into its marching season, practicing in the parking lot next to the Ector County ISD School Nutrition building on the corner of Whitaker and 10th Street.

The band started practicing in the late afternoons. This week, they moved their practice times to the morning with the school year resuming.

One of the major things that Mayo has noticed from the first three weeks of practice has been that the kids are not as far behind as he and his assistants thought they would be.

“A lot of our kids that were at home (last school year) were not getting that face-to-face instruction (from) band playing time that they would have gotten at school,” Mayo said. “We feared that we would be doing a lot more remediation this year and we haven’t had to do as much (remediation) as we thought we would.”

Odessa High marching band members stand at attention during practice Monday at Odessa High School. Michael Bauer|Odessa American

The theme for this year’s halftime show at Odessa High is “Believe” which will feature “Don’t Stop Believing” from Journey as well as The Beatles’ “Let it Be.”

“Basically, it explores one’s search for their belief and where they find themselves in life,” Mayo said.

Junior Aaron Ramirez is one of the three drum majors for the Odessa High marching band this year and plays the trumpet. He says the first couple of weeks of practice have been really good.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Ramirez said. “It may not look like it because we still have a lot to do, but we’ve made a lot of progress and I think we’re at a good part in the marching season.”

Ramirez was a drum major last year, but this will be his first year as head drum major.

“It’s exciting,” Ramirez said. “I’m ready to get back into the movement of marching band.”

Odessa High marching band drum major Aaron Ramirez directs during practice Monday at Odessa High School. Michael Bauer|Odessa American

However, being a drum major still comes with its tall tasks, but Ramirez says he feels up to it.

“It’s really hard to manage everything band comes with,” Ramirez said. “You have to teach all the freshmen and sophomores and get all the equipment out here. It’s a challenge.”

Senior Ethan Rodriguez, who is another drum major at Odessa High this year and plays clarinet, has been excited with how much progress everyone has made so far during practices this month and said that they’ve had to get everyone caught up due to the pandemic from last year.

“We have to teach two years of students because COVID hit us last year,” Rodriguez said. “Most of the freshmen who are now sophomores stayed home last year instead of marching. We have to teach two (grade levels) but it’s going surprisingly quickly. We are about where we were two years ago during marching season. It’s going impressively.”

So much work goes into preparation for a new marching band season.

For Mayo, preparations for this marching season began around the end of last football season.

“Typically for a marching show, we start trying to find what we’re going to do right around November and December,” Mayo said. “And then we narrow it down by the first of January and get it to where we decide what we’re going to do.

“I have a drill writer who puts together a concept and he starts on drill and starts sending me things and we start having phone conversations and then he sends me things and I decide where we want to go and he’ll make suggestions. It’s a collaboration and the staff gets involved. We’ll decide on what we need to go with the direction of the music and everything we want to go in. Then we start deciding on what colors we’re going to have and we decide on props and all the things that we’re going to do to enhance the show.”

Odessa High marching band member Zariah Molina marches during practice Monday at Odessa High School. Michael Bauer|Odessa American

As far as how many members the Odessa High marching band will have total this year, he’s expecting over 200 kids.

“I have no idea how many we’re going to have on the first day of school,” Mayo said. “It’ll be well over 200 but we haven’t seen that many yet. It’s been kind of difficult with the communication because of a lot of our kids, especially freshmen, we’re not at school last year as eighth graders. They were at home so it’s hard to communicate and get information from them. I imagine we’ll be doing a little bit of catch-up once school starts.”

6A schools usually do not advance to area and state competitions on odd-numbered years.

However, this year will be different due to most schools not being able to compete last year because of COVID.

This year, all classifications will be able to advance to area and state competition.

“Everyone is advancing this year,” Mayo said. “Last year, about half the classifications weren’t able to do it so they made arrangements this year to get everyone taken care of this year.”

Odessa High marching band member Greg Estrada plays during practice Monday at Odessa High School. Michael Bauer|Odessa American

Never the one to back down from a challenge, Mayo is excited about the opportunity this year for his band to advance.

Last year, Odessa High didn’t get to compete at regionals.

“I’m a competitive person,” Mayo said. “I like to do those kinds of things. I’m glad (the UIL) is giving the kids a chance to have that opportunity because they didn’t have it last year. All of Odessa and Midland bands made the decision to not be competitive last year (and) just to take care of the football games.”

Regardless of what year it is, expectations will always be high for the OHS marching band when it comes to regional competition.

The band has received an I-rating for 81 consecutive times (not including last year) and will be going for 82 this fall.

Mayo and his students are well aware of the expectations to continue that streak of I-ratings at the region competition.

“I haven’t been here that long to feel that kind of pressure, but I imagine when I first came here, it was a little bit of pressure to make sure it continues but we got to keep pushing to make it happen,” Mayo said.

Ramirez echoed those thoughts.

“I think the motivation is just as it was two years ago,” Ramirez said. “I really want us to advance, but it’s going to be really hard. We deserve to advance but we have to work hard for it.”