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Sight and Sound, Step by Step

James Madison High School Marching Band prepares for the fall season.

A "dry" 90-degree morning is still hot. The sun beat down on the shorts-clad James Madison High School Marching Band members standing in the open softball field. Perched upon a ladder, band director Michael Hackbarth, in hat and sunglasses, called out instructions and observations through a microphone. Another wired director, drill designer Kent Baker, walked among the students, detailing steps, counts and beats.

An electronic Metronome called out beats as the band members concentrated on their footwork.

"Water break," Hackbarth called out, and in noticeable relief, dozens of sweating students walked, instruments in hand, off the field for 15 minutes of respite.

This is Madison High School’s annual summer band camp.

"This is just the wind section," said Hackbarth. "Percussion and flag drill team are practicing inside. Next week, we unite the whole 120-member band."

The visual routine, choreographed to the band’s interpretation of "Adagio for Strings," is designed by Baker, and practiced in brief, 5-second "musical phrases." As the band masters each musical phrase throughout the fall season, more "phrases" are added.

Hackbarth estimates that the band will know the material well by late September, and will have it mastered in time for the big Towson band competition on Oct. 20.

Baker’s drill book, in which he charts out every single step to every count, is as complex as a football playbook. Each page of squares and arrows represents a musical phrase.

"We pace it out so that the entire football season is for learning and mastering," said Baker. "We’ve got 120 students executing the visual and musical elements at the same time."

If a section sounds louder than the others, Hackbarth hears that and corrects it. If someone — or more than one someone — is out of step, Hackbarth’s eyes pick that up and corrects it. But Hackbarth is pleased by their progress, pronouncing the band, at one point, "ridiculously good."

Baker, on the field, reminds the band members that the steps are very specific, as he counts out eight steps, 4 boxcutter, more steps and then reverse. The students pay attention as they rehearse.

DESPITE THE HEAT, despite the repetition, band president and clarinetist Ian O’Neill said, "If you’re not playing football, band’s a great thing to do.

"The people are fabulous," said O’Neill. "It’s a great thing to come in on the first day of school as a freshman and know so many people.

"I like traveling to competitions, too."

O’Neill’s cadre of "best friends" prefer concert season to marching band season. Rising senior Melissa Kinter, flute section leader, feels concert music, with its emphasis on musical finesse, is more challenging. Alto saxophone section leader, Mason Lubert, agrees.

"Marching band is as devoted to visual elements as musical ones," said Lubert. "Whereas in concert band, you focus on the musical details only."

James Sennett, the low brass section leader, was more direct. He really likes doing music, and, he, too, prefers the concert season. A climate-controlled environment is very nice, Sennett said.

James Airhart will be starting college soon. A 2007 graduate of Madison High School and a four-year band participant, Airhart stopped by to watch his old friends practice.

"I enjoyed concert season most of all," said Airhart. "But marching season was fun when we were doing competitions.

"Competition really gives you a sense of accomplishment."

ALMOST FOUR hours since the start of the day’s practice, the band breaks for lunch. Baker tells them their performance surpasses where he thought they would be in terms of quality.

They have down 30 seconds of their performance routine. By the close of the practice day, the band will have learned about a minute of their performance.

"Guys," says Hackbarth, "give yourself a round of applause."

They do.