The maestro swiftly tapped the baton against her watch. "Sit down, sit down please," boomed the voice from center stage. "It's only 9:01. Just enough time for the third movement."

One Mozart movement later, and members of the Fort Hunt High School string orchestra scrambled to their next classes while maestro Marilyn Schwaner rested her pencil-thin baton on a music stand.

Two months from now, Schwaner hopes to be resting that baton on a music stand in Vienna, Austria, where the Fort Hunt String Orchestra has been asked to perform at the prestigious 10th International Youth and Music Festival.

The orchestra received its invitation last year, and Schwaner laughingly admits that she very nearly passed up a chance of a lifetime for the young musicians.

"When the mail-a-gram came a year ago, I almost threw it away," she recalls. "You get so many ads in the mail. Then, I looked at it and said, 'Hey, this is an invitation to go to Vienna.'"

An invitation to Vienna -- for those not versed in the lore of concerts and competitions -- is more than a bit to stroll along the Danube. It is a chance to perform where the greats called home: Haydn, Schubert, Strauss and, of course, Mozart.

In July, the 32-member orchestra will compete along with student musicians from 42 other countries in a week-long series of concerts.

"It was such a surprise and an honor," said the peppery-haired Schwaner, who has been directing the Fort Hunt orchestra for 10 years. Although three other American student bands have been invited to the competition, Fort Hunt is the only string orchestra from the United States that will be participating.

The students were equally surprised by the invitation, but quickly went to work to help raise the $50,000 they estimate it will cost to make the trip. They have sold candy bars, mowed lawns and washed cars. They still are almost $40,000 short of their goal, but hope that an upcoming auction and raffle will help fill the coffers. Several local groups have offered services and goods for the event, including a local plastic surgeon who has donated a $1,500 hair transplant to be suctioned.

"I would be really disappointed if we couldn't go," said 15-year-old Steve Ming soon after an 8:15 a.m. practice last week. Ming, a lanky soccer player, has played second violin for nearly 10 years. "There's a real feeling of togetherness and playing on a team on the orchestra. Everyone is working to make something whole," said Ming.

Schwaner agrees: "Music is communication and to make it complete it must be performed. Unlike a painting where there are only two steps -- someone who paints and the audience -- in music there are three steps -- someone must create the piece, someone must play it and someone must listen."

Although Schwaner is not sure how the orchestra was chosen, she suspects it probably was due to the orchestra's performances in other international and national competitions. During the last several years, the orchestra has won numerous awards -- including two silver medals at an international music festival in Bermuda.

"We're different from most student orchestras in that we play the compositions entirely as the composers wrote them. Most school orchestras play arrangements and watered-down versions that are much easier," Schwaner says.

"When the composers wrote the pieces, they were not writing them for student orchestras. They were writing them for professional musicians. These are difficult pieces, but you must make demands of your students. Only then will they rise to a higher level."

The orchestra practices nearly an hour every weekday morning and an hour-and-a-half every Tuesday night. Most of Schwaner's students, she adds, have been playing together for at least three years and some for as many as six.

While playing in Vienna may be new to most of the Fairfax students, performing will not be. The orchestra, Schwaner says, usually plays seven concerts a year and many of the members perform individually or in chamber groups. During the festival, the orchestra will play five compositions. Three will be classical compositions by European masters: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, by J. S. Bach; Eine Kleine Nachtmusik K. 525, by Mozart, and Serenade for Strings, Op. 48, by Tchaikovsky.

But the orchestra also will pay homage to its own musical heritage with works from two of the United States' best-known composers, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. From Copland, the orchestra will perform Hoe Down, from the ballet Rodeo, and from Gershwin will come Lullaby, a brief movement for string quartet, which had been adapted for a string orchestra. The work was written in 1919 or 1920, according to the composer's brother Ira Gershwin who "rediscovered" it in the 1960s.

Despite the excitement of such honors as the Vienna invitation, Schwaner tries to give her students what she calls a realistic view of life as a professional musician.

"I never encourage my students to pursue a professional music career. It's too hard to live," says Schwaner, a professional violinist who performs with an orchestra in Fairfax County as well as other professional groups. "I tell them to enjoy and love their music.

"Music is a way of physically and emotionally carrying out thoughts of some highly organized language. It's not specific like the spoken language, but in some ways it may be more specific to the individual who can create a new emotion for himself.

"Music makes us thrive."