WASHINGTON -- Jennifer Dalton, a senior who plays the trumpet in the Bel Air High School band, sat about 50 feet from George Bush yesterday as he announced his bid for re-election. She could hear the president but couldn't see him.
"Here it was, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I couldn't even see the president," a slightly dejected Ms. Dalton said.
A phalanx of Cabinet officials and secret service agents -- who see the president all the time -- as well as some well-to-do Republicans were standing between the 56-member band and the presidential lectern.
Still, even without a view, band members said it was a thrill to entertain the 1,800 people packed into the ballroom of the J. W. Marriott Hotel for the president's 20-minute appearance.
"This is going to be something to remember for our senior year," said Amy Jones, who plays the flute. "It was well worth it."
But band members had to pay a stiff price for the honor.
They had to learn about a dozen numbers they'd never seen before Friday. They had to endure 16 1/2 hours of practice, including a marathon session Sunday. And they had to get up at 4 a.m. yesterday to be in Washington early enough for the Secret Service and its bomb-sniffing dog to examine their instruments.
It was only last Thursday that Wes Lockhart, the 28-year-old band instructor, found out that the Bush/Quayle election committee had selected his band to perform.
The committee had asked Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, to recommend a Maryland band. She'd seen the Bel Air band's performance at the Flag Day ceremony last year and told the re-election committee to contact the school.
"We generally take two or three months to prepare for our concerts, and we weren't given much time to prepare for this," Mr. Lockhart said. "My head is still spinning."
Despite the lack of time, Mr. Lockhart said, the youngsters diligently applied themselves. They learned to play "Hail to the Chief" with a very majestic rhythm, the endless version of "March Grandioso" and a sharp rendition of "Gallant Men."
On the bus ride from Bel Air, the students displayed no anxiety, even though this would be the largest audience they had ever entertained. When they were reminded that the announcement would be carried live on CNN and shown on network television, several called it "awesome."
As the bus approached downtown Washington, the students fell silent.
"It is going to be over so fast, but it is going to be so neat," said Shannon Graham, as she left the bus.
While band members set up their music stands, reviewed their music and received last-minute pointers from Mr. Lockhart, the Bush loyalists began filling the hall.
In an effort to get the best view possible, some of the crowd began to stand in the spaces around the band. Some of the flute and piccolo players couldn't see their music or Mr. Lockhart.
"I had to hold my flute down and I couldn't play half of one number because a woman was right on top of me," said Jennifer Parr, a sophomore. "As for the president, all I saw was some lady's back."
Several of the youngsters were able to capture glimpses of the president by looking in a large 10-foot-high mirror on the wall behind them or at a ceiling mirror.
"We were able to see the top of his shoes and his head," said several brass players in the third row.
By 10:30 a.m., the ceremony was over.
A Secret Service agent turned to the band, gave them a double thumbs-up sign and said, "You guys were really great."