The cymbal player's hands are nicked and cut. Bandsmen blow their horns so hard their lips swell and burst. High stepping marchers' muscles cramp, ankles are sprained, but for Cardozo High's marching band, the show goes on.

"Life after high school at Cardozo is not as certain as it is after graduation from some other schools in this city," said Robert W. Gill, the band director. "So here, we grab the bull by the horns, then we shake it, shake it, shake it."

Cardozo High School, a mass of red brick stacked formidably into a rendition of schoolhouse Gothic at 13th and Clifton streets NW, draws its students from both the neat, narrow row houses nearby and the mean streets that cut through the surrounding neighborhood.

There are many board up shacks near the school, not all of hem vacent. There are few supermarkets. More pawnshops. Stripped autos sometimes make homes for dogs along side streets. Here many a youth has been tripped up trying to be somebody.

When new Mayor Marion Barry visited Cardozo recently, he indicated some concern. "I wasn't sure I was in a school or where I was. There was so much noise in the classroom that anybody who wanted to learn couldn't learn. There was marijuana being smoked in the restrooms."

But band director Gill said boastfully, "You don't smell it in the bandroom." Band president Michael Johnson, shrugged: "We get a natural high when we perform."

The Cardozo High School Marching Band. They call themselves "The Crowd Pleasin' Band." At other inner-city high schools, it is the basketball team or the football team that offers the glory, the scholarships -- The Way Out.

At Cardozo, it is the band.

"The football team calls us chumps," said Michael Dorsey, 15, who plays drums for the band. "Maybe it's because they don't win as much as we do."

Over the past three years, the band has won 23 first place awards. They are in the Apple Blossom Festival and the Cherry Blossom Parade every year. They were in Mayor Barry's inaugural parade. They have been televised at Redskins and Bullets fames performing at halftime. For the Bicentennial Parade,they were placed at the end of the line and guarded by a motorcade of police officers as nearly 2,000 people pressed in behind them to boogaloo along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Their instruments blare. They perform hip-swinging, disco dance routines to the music of the O'Jays, Earth, Wind and Fire, Foxy and the Funkadelics. They spin, knees bending to the ground, then uncoil, propelling themselves into the air.

"If it wasn't for the band I would be so bored with school," said Jacqueline White, 16, a tenor saxophone player. "This takes up a lot of time. Memorizing things you like -- like songs and dances -- helps when you have to remember stuff you don't like -- like math."

Some Cardozo High teachers complain that morning band practice leaves some students acting nervous and unable to sit still in class. Gill, who begins practice at 8 a.m., said "I want them excited when they leave. I want them to come back. School should escite. If they feel bored in an English class... well, let's just say I wouldn't let them get boared in mine."

"My group has so much energy," Gill said."That is typical of the Cardozo student and it has a lot to do with where most of these kids come from. You can feel the energy when you walk in the door. I just try to harness it, so we spend a lot of time working out."

Gill, who grew up in Washington and graduated from Spingarn High and Howard University's School of Music, started the band nearly 10 years ago. In the beginning, he had nothing but bugles and drums from the ROTC, which had been disbanded the year before, so he borrowed instruments from Shaw, Banneker, Lincoln and Garnet-Patterson junior high schools.

He went to church groups, PTA meetings, and the United Black Fund and canvassed neighborhoods looking for recruits and support. He worked with junior highschool band directors to ensure that he had enough new talent to work with each year. Band members baked cookies and sold them, washed cars and gave paid performances to pay for trips. And they did something else that got them support.

"White bands would always march detached from the crowd, heads ponted straight," Gill explained the other day. "We wanted to be part of the crowd, excite them, move and shake them." In time, Gill added, "The band began to sell itself."

The school board provided money, and the band's efforts began to pay off in a big way. Students began to get college scholarships. At first they went to the smaller black Southern schools. Once there, they did not forget Cardozo. They would send back to Gill the songs they were doing at college. The Cardozo band would use them and it got better. It got bigger. And then scouts from larger black Southern colleges began knocking on Gill's door.

Now, Gill said, of the 15 to 25 seniors in the band each year, about three-fourths get scholarships to go to college. They go to such schools as Alabama State, Florida A & M, Birginia State and Southern University in Baton Rouge, which have big rook bands like Cardozo's.

Tyrone R. Evans, 18, a trombone player for Cardozo's band this year said, "I'm trying for a scholarship to pursue this music thing. My second choice: law. You know, be a cop."

"The horn is my best shot, too," said Kenneth Brown, 17, who plays tuba. "I could go into construction, but hey! I want college."

Gill encourages the. "I have developed a pretty good relationship with the Southern schools," he said. "Generally I tell my students to just keep up the grade point. Let me worry about the rest. If they work hard for me, I will get them there."

Gill said he keeps the band's tension level and motivation high be constantly looking for "shoot-outs" and "showdowns" with other bands in the city, and when those around them have been "blown out," they gear up for section competitions among themselves.

"It helps them deal with pressure later in life," Gill said. "I really think I have something legitimate going on here. So if any of my kids knock on your door for a donation, help them out. I mean, the next time they knock they could be carrying guns. It can change that fast around here," he said.

The band works hard. They practice two hous before classes begin each days, again during lunch period and for two more hours after school. But, at almost any hour of the school day, there are students on break between classes in the bandroom and it is alive with sound.

Lately, the band has been trying to raise money for something special -- a national battle of the bands, of sorts. They have been invited to New Orleans nest month to perform in three Mardi Gras parades.

During the planned 1,000-mile bus trip, they hope to go one a black history tour of the South that includes stops at Martin Luther King Jr.'s home and church in Atlanta, the Tuskegee Institute and Carver Museum in Alabama and at Alabama State University, where band members plan to audition for scholarships.

For Robert McDougal, 16, a small lad two wears neat, button-down shirts and a smart part in his close-cut hair, this is an exciting prospect.

McDougal arises at 6 o'clock every schoolday morning so that he can travel from his morning so that he can travel from his home on the other side of the Anacostia River to band practice at Cardozo at 8. He does not live in the Cardozo High School zone but got special permission to transfer, just so that he could be in the band.

"I dream of marching into New Orleans," he said the other day. "I can see the crowds on both sides of the parade. I used to wonder why I came all the way across town to be in the band. Now I know."