With the start of school less than a week away, the students in the Centennial High School marching band were clustered in groups in the school's parking lot, instruments in hand.
They had been practicing since 3 p.m. It was nearly 9. The sun had set, and a crescent moon glowed orange above them.
Yet energy levels still were high as the band ran through yet another rendition of "Any Way You Want It," by Journey. The students were grouped by instrument and were practicing the dance moves that would be part of the performance. Their assignment from band director David Matchim: "Make it look like you are having fun." Like it's a party, he said.
Soon, the 100-piece marching band began playing. The five mellophone players did their moves, which involved jumps and mid-air twists. Flautists, clarinetists, trumpeters and other groups danced the moves they had been practicing. "Clarinets, your party looks lame," said Matchim when the performance ended. "Flutes, your party looks awesome."
Across Howard County, similar scenes were being played out in other high school parking lots, part of an annual pre-school ritual known affectionately as Band Camp.
Though students have had to endure corny Band Camp jokes because of the "American Pie" movies, the students marching in these parking lots seemed happy to catch up with friends and learn their routines.
"I think everybody's really excited to be here," said Dominik Campora, a 17-year-old senior, during the Centennial High School practice on Aug. 21.
Marching units in Howard County range in size from fewer than 50 students to more than 200, and typically include squads of dancers, flag-swingers and sometimes rifle-tossers. Some marching units have "pits," with vast percussion sections that must be hauled onto the stadium field at halftime of football games, then taken off before the second half begins.
For marching units, the start of each school year is a time of new challenges and opportunities. The previous year's seniors are gone, a new crop of freshmen are learning how to play instruments and march at the same time, and the drum majors are getting comfortable in their leadership roles.
The challenge for band directors is to create a cohesive — and entertaining — performance with students of different ages and abilities, and who play different instruments. The challenge for students is to learn the routines, learn to march while playing their instruments and learn to work together, all in two weeks or less.
Hammond and Centennial are among the six high schools with home football games on Friday, Aug. 31, leaving very little time to perfect the music and choreography.
"We work harder than the sports teams," said Bryan Eber, band director at Hammond. The early first football game this year "puts a little extra pressure on us," he said.
"Marching is a lot different, but it's a lot more fun," says Killian Mullay, 13, a freshman at Hammond High School, who plays clarinet and has quickly made the transition from a stationary musician to one who can carry a tune while walking backward, diagonally and in step with her fellow marchers.
Sam Aubin, 17, a senior in his second year as Hammond drum major, expressed confidence as he watched the band members perform in the parking lot.
"It's going really well," he said. "The new kids are getting really good."
At Centennial, one change this year is that there will be no practice once school starts, so band camp is the only opportunity for students to learn the routines.
"It's fun," said Justin Reiss, 14, a freshman at Centennial. "It's a lot of work, but it's worth it."
He's played the mellophone for five years but is just now learning to march.
"It took a while in the beginning," Reiss said, "But now that it's the second week, I've got it down."
At the other end of the experience spectrum at Centennial is Gregory Richmond, 17, a senior and percussionist in the pit section.
"It's like family," he said. "I look forward to band."
"I think it's going really well," Emily Reiss, a senior, 16, who is section leader for the saxophones.
Sometimes, there are bigger changes. Howard High School is adding an entire electronic section, with keyboards, an electric guitar and a bass guitar, said Christopher Campbell, who is band director and also teaches the school's music tech class.
Though details of the set-up and breakdown of the electronic equipment were still being finalized last week, Campbell was confident it would be a "fun show." Between popular songs including "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5 and "Where Have You Been," by Rihanna, there will be 30 to 40 seconds of dancing to dance music composed by the music tech class, he said.
"The kids are very excited about it," Campbell said.
Incorporating a new element is challenging enough, but it has been even more difficult because the track and football field have been torn up to install a turf field, Campbell said, and electric outlets have been moved.
"It's been an interesting year to try to put the electronic stuff together," he said.
"The integration of electronics in a whole marching band setting is a revolutionary idea," he said. And one that has been taken from concept to reality at warp speed.
"It's not a lot of time at all," he said of the two weeks he's had to coordinate a band with 72 musicians, two drum majors, a 16-member dance team and seven members of the new electronic group. "It's been right out of the gate pretty fast and furious."