Band director Robert Gill was less than 96 hours from fulfilling his dream. In four days, the Cardozo High School Band, 160 strong, would be marching down the palm-lined avenues of Pasadena, Calif., in the Tournament of Roses Parade.

No other band from the Washington metropolitan area has done that in the 91-year history of the pageant, and Cardozo, an oasis of musical determination in a desert of poverty, delapidated housing and rampant drug traffic, could in some respects be considered the band least likely to make it. t

Although proud, Gill was at the same time fearful -- afraid that when Cardozo marches past the television cameras this morning (the parade begins at 11:30 EST on Channels 4, 5 and 9) it might be not only the first band out of the city's troubled public school system to make such an achievement, but also the last.

Music programs have been one of the silent fatalities of the city's political wars and budget battles, and Gill does not like what he sees on the horizon for those who might want to emulate his "Crowd Pleasers" in years to come.

"I'm scared about the future," the 34-year-old director said after services at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church last Sunday, where he prayed with the band. "I believe that cutbacks in elementary and junior high music will have a profound impact on us.

"When you beat up on the body, the head will eventually fall. I'm afraid you may be seeing pointed problems at Cardozo within the next two years."

Buoyed by a widespread outpouring of public support, Cardozo made it to the Rose Bowl Parade almost in spite of some problems posed by the school system:

As the Cardozo Band was preparing for Pasadena, for example, Gill was notified by school officials that he was one of 700 teachers scheduled to be laid off as part of the city's budget-cutting program. The band director at Eastern High was similarly threatened.

"They didn't know that I had worked four years at the Post Office before becoming a teacher. I had done government time. I had tenure. I'm legal," Gill said with obvious relief.

Gill's position was salvaged, but things are less rosy elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Banneker, Lincoln and Garnett-Patterson, the junior high schools that traditionally feed into the Cardozo High music program, recently lost their instrumental music teachers. Shaw Junior High is now the only feeder with a band.

Moreover, for several years, Gill and other band directors around the city have been losing some of the best musicians in the city's public school system to the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, the District's specialized fine arts academy.

In order to get Cardozo to the Rose Bowl, Gill had to come up with quick-fix solutions.

"We spent months begging and pleading with kids who don't know where they are going -- whose parents don't care where they are going -- to join the band," recalled Gill's wife, Mary, a teacher at Jefferson Junior High in Southwest Washington. "Not every kid, mind you. But there are some who had never held an instrument until nine months ago and they are blowing strong."

That got Gill's band to Pasadena this year. But . . .

"Realizing that every year I'll be getting less and less, efficiency becomes the optimum," Gill said, looking to the future. "If I get 15 students, then 15 have to play -- no matter how bad. You just hope you can get 10th graders smart enough to learn to play in a hurry. I'll be lucky to get 25, but you lose 35 to graduation. It's harder than building a football team."

The budget cuts have forced city school administrators to decide which special subjects -- art, music, physical education and foreign language, for example -- can be taught as complementary curriculum.

Grace Bradford, supervisor of the D.C. school music program, likens school curricula to a grocery store, with bargain-conscious principals looking for the best buy.

"The school principals must choose what to buy -- how many hours of reading, how much music or art can they afford," she explained. "But I don't think many people are looking down the road at what's going to happen in senior high when nobody can play music. And just when opportunities for them are beginning."

Gill sees the advantage of the band not only as an avenue to higher education, but also as a builder of character.

In the past, several colleges whose own marching bands are molded in the same fast-paced, high-stepping tradition as Cardozo -- Southern University, Norfolk State, Morgan State and Bethune-Cookman, for instance -- have offered college scholarships to the best of Gill's marching graduates.

Even many who did not go to college follow the progress of the band. "I stay in contact with the band because I know what the band did for me," said Michelle Bolin, a 1975 graduate of the Cardozo school and band who volunteers as a band seamstress."You had to keep a C average to stay in the band otherwise I might had dropped out of school. I remember, and I want others to want to remember, too."

That's what keeps Gill going.

"Nine months. And we got it together," he proudly told the congregation at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church Sunday. A few minutes earlier, he had left the podium momentarily in tears. "People had faith. Blind faith. Nobody could turn back these future leaders," he said.

"Some of them do act up, you know -- don't go to classes all of the time. But I see something in all of them. If we can do for them -- through a band, or a classroom or athletics -- let's do it. There always has to be a bridge to carry the kids across."