THEY CAME DRESSED FOR battle, teen-age gladiators in royal blue capes and starched ivory jackets. Brandishing clarinets, trumpets and flags, they took the field to the beat of the bass drum. Their parents, armed with blankets, coolers and videocameras, took their seats in the bleachers waiting for the contest to begin.
Suddenly a voice from the stands breaks the tension: "Nice job, Norm!"
The crowd applauds and the fifth annual Maryland State High School Band Championship at Memorial Stadium begins.
Sponsored by WBAL Radio, the Rotary Club of Towson and the Tournament of Bands, this competition allows Maryland marching bands of all sizes to demonstrate the unique skills required in today's high school band. It is no longer enough to play an instrument and march in a straight line.
This 12-hour marching marathon also raises money for charity. All proceeds from Saturday's contest benefit the Towson Rotary Service Fund and the WBAL Campaign for Kids.
Down on the field, the judges pace about awarding points for precision. They speak into tape recorders making comments that each band director will receive at the end of the day.
Meanwhile, the Linganore High School band forms rings of musicians and colorguard members. They bow in and out, looking like falling rows of brightly colored dominoes.
"That's my favorite band I ever watched," says Katie Owens, 5, referring to the Liberty Lions from Eldersburg who have just left the field. "My sister and her boyfriend are in the band. I waved to them. I hope they saw me."
The Lions seem to be the crowd's favorite as well. Their performance is greeted by hearty whoops and the clanging of cowbells. The band members, for the most part, remain modest about their playing.
"We did pretty well," says tuba player Steven McDonald, 14. Percussionist Erinn Petrucelli, 15, interrupts to say, "I say we are a breed apart!"
She may be on to something. Not just anyone can play an instrument and walk backward at the same time. McDonald, red-faced and sweating, elaborates. "It's really hard. You've got this heavy tuba and your feet go forward and your body goes backward. You feel like you're going to fall over the whole time."
There are other hazards as well. Trumpet player Brandon Schreiner, 14, recalls the times his shoes fell off.
"Once during a contest, I lost my right shoe. One of the judges had to remove it from the field so no one would trip. You can't stop. You've got to keep marching." He demonstrates. "Fortunately, it didn't happen today."
If it had, a runner would have removed it. Three girls, all volunteers, run on and off the field while the band is playing, setting up equipment as needed.
Jennifer Graham, 14, explains her role. "We set up the field. There's not as much pressure. We don't have to memorize music or anything. We just look at our hands." She proudly thrusts out both hands, coded with numbers and arrows revealing the destinations of the flags.
"I hate this! I hate this!" one of the Lions mumbles as he waits for the judges to tally up the points. It is a long wait. The band clusters together on the sidelines as the announcements begin. The judges start with tenth place. They edge up to third and still the Lions haven't been called. A majorette clenches the hand of the sax player beside her. Both of their eyes are shut tight with expectation. Second place is announced.
It is not the Lions.
"We did it! We did it!" the majorette cries as she bursts into tears. "The First Place Winners in the Group II division with a score of 81.6..." The rest of the news is lost as the Lions roar about their victory.
Drum major Becky Daw, 15, leaves the field hoisting the trophy. It is a two-tiered marble beauty. She goes up to band director Steve Miller and asks, "Do you think I can take my hat off now?"
Outside the stadium another school bus pulls up and another band unloads, waiting its turn to do combat. Somewhere, from deep within the stadium, comes a muffled crash of brass and drums. Then the disembodied strains of Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" are carried away by the light autumn breeze.