As the names of the 11 high school competitive marching bands battling for a USBands Group II Open national championship were read in reverse order of how they fared in the competition last November, Brian Ecton was afraid that he would not have to wait very long to hear Calvert Hall College High School's name mentioned.
However, when the announcement came that his band had won the competition, Ecton was as surprised as he was elated.
"At around seventh place, I was waiting to hear our name be called," said Ecton, 38, who now in his 11th year as the Towson all-boys Catholic school's band director. "I was still waiting when they announced third place. I thought maybe I had missed one or two of the names, so I asked somebody if they were announcing fourth or fifth place. Then when they announced second place — and it wasn't us — I was shell-shocked."
The reason Ecton was so surprised by the victory was because the performance of the 55-member band — which is part of the school's 140-member instrumental music program — had been so spectacular at the regional competition a couple of weeks earlier, on its way toward claiming the state championship, that it seemed even to have outshined the band's stellar effort at the national event, he said.
At the regional event, which was held in College Park in October, Calvert Hall had been at the very top of its game.
"There was a level of energy you could feel," Ecton said. "And the execution was at a level we've never seen before."
Austin Wilson, a senior who plays the bass drum and is the assistant drum major, said that the band on that day exceeded every expectation it had set for itself.
"That was definitely the one performance that sticks out leading up to nationals," he said, as fellow band members Sam Little, Patrick Haley and Anthony Mamakos nodded in agreement.
The national finals were held At MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, the home of the New York Giants and New York Jets professional football teams, where the band felt it might have hit a flat note or two in its performance and worried that its national championship bid was lost.
Or, as Little, a sophomore trumpet player said, the strength of the performance was "not as obvious" to the Calvert Hall musicians as the regional performance had been.
Wilson added that attempting to duplicate the regional effort "didn't feel quite as successful."
The judges believed otherwise, though, much to the relief of Ecton and his staff, Sarah Fabian and Rob Smith, as Calvert Hall was declared Group II champions.
The competition included six groupings based on the number of musicians in each band, with Group II being the second smallest. Group II comprised bands with between 35 and 53 members, although Calvert Hall also had two participants who helped with the band's sound system.
USBands is part of Youth Education in the Arts, a nonprofit based in Allentown, Pa., and is the largest sanctioning body for scholastic music competitions in the United States, according to its website.
The judges evaluated the bands' performances based on criteria that Ecton said includes how skillfully it played, moved and marched while displaying a sense of uniformity musically and visually. Judges also considered how well "the various elements of the show contribute to the story and how effectively the performers demonstrate the desired effect," he said.
One person who knew the extent of the band's abilities was Brother John Kane, president of the Lasallian school established by The Brothers of the Christian Schools.
"Was I surprised [by the band winning a national championship]? Yes and no," said Kane, who now is in his third year at Calvert Hall. "To be honest, when anyone tells you that your band is the best in the country there is an element of surprise, but because of their overall talent and the effort Brian, Rob and Sarah and their staff put in, you know how good they are. If they had told me we were third or second, I would have still been thrilled."
And yet the cherry on top of Calvert Hall's award-winning sundae was yet to come.
At the Sugar Bowl, in New Orleans, during Christmas break, Calvert Hall was looking to complete an undefeated season with yet another victory in a field competition to go with its regional, state and national banners.
The band won that competition, too, earning it the right to be part of the color guard for the national anthem before the football game between the University of Oklahoma and Auburn University at the Mercedes Benz Super Dome, making it a clean sweep and perfect ending to their time in the band for seniors Haley, Mamakos and Wilson.
"Being our last time playing together, I was a little nervous," said Haley, a Lutherville resident who hopes to continue playing the mellophone at Boston College or Villanova University. "We hadn't lost a single competition all year, and I didn't want it to be our first defeat."
The Calvert Hall program was started a half-century ago by Felice Iula and George Freitag and began competing in the late 1990s.
"It kind of rose pretty quickly after that," said Ecton, who was hired as an assistant to Mark Hart in 2001 and took over head duties five years later. "We treat it like a fall sports elective, like football or soccer."
And like those sports, practice and participation typically run four to five months. Summer practices kick off in August, with daily sessions that begin at 9 a.m. and don't wrap up until 6 p.m.
Once school begins, practices are held for three hours after classes.
"It's a time commitment," Ecton said. "Parents worry how their student is going to keep his grades up, but we put a lot of stress on their academics. We have found that students involved in the arts tend to perform very well in their academics. In last year's graduating senior class, the valedictorian was a member of the choir, while both the salutatorian and the student with the highest academic average were members of the band."
Moreover, many of the school's musicians — 44 percent by Ecton's calculations — also play a team sport at Calvert Hall.
"Success breeds respect," Ecton said. "People can see the level of dedication and the hard work we put in."