Forget football. Forget basketball. The after-school activity that really puts their schools on the map, say students at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke and Herndon High School in Herndon, is the marching band. And if you don't believe them, they say, you can look it up.
The marching bands at the two Fairfax County schools, they point out, have the most student members of any school organization, take up the most time for participants, win the most honors, and represent the school at more distant places than any other organization.
Both bands were recently cited for their excellence by the county Board of Supervisors.
Danny Stein, who plays baritone horn for the Herndon band, boasts that the band's reputation for excellence is "known nationwide." The Herndon band recently won three major events: the Robinson Spectacular, the Mount Vernon Classic and the Culpeper [Va.] Invitational, the last for the third consecutive year.
Band members at Lake Braddock, which won its fourth consecutive state title this year, are no less self-confident. "We are known to be an excellent organization," said Karla Spagnola, a junior. "We can play almost anything."
Lake Braddock also won the Tidewater Festival in Virginia Beach and a competition at the Virginia State Fair in Richmond, and it played at half times of a Monday night football game between the Redskins and the Atlanta Falcons at RFK Stadium and a football game between the University of Virginia and N.C. State in Charlottesville.
Herndon band director Richard Bergman said the success of the two bands indicates that "Fairfax County's music program is outstanding, one of the best nationally." Other marching bands that have won in competition this year include bands from Mount Vernon, W.T. Woodson and Falls Church high schools.
Success, however, does not come easily, say band members and their directors. "The kids work long, hard hours," Bergman said of his 140-member band. During the school week, he says, band students have music classes five days a week and practice for an additional 2 to 2 1/2 hours four days a week. They also practice eight hours a day during a two-week "band camp" before school starts in September, he says. "It's a tremendous commitment, requiring as much or more concentrated time as any organization in the school."
The students, however, say the rewards make the effort worthwhile. "It's definitely worth it," said Lake Braddock senior Suzi Yankosky, who has played clarinet in the band for four years.
"We do something for other people when we play, and we get a lot out of it ourselves," said Ryan Cole, a junior at Lake Braddock who has a trumpet solo in the show. "It's almost a high" to play in front of a crowd, he said.
Jeff Williams, a junior at Herndon who plays the alto saxophone, said what he gets out of being in the band is "a sense of teamwork and the thrill of playing and understanding music."
Lake Braddock's Spagnola, who as a drum major is one of her band's two on-the-field conductors, said that what she likes about being in the band is "the good feeling you get when you know you're contributing to the school and your friends and you do it well."
Band members at both schools say love of music is the first requirement to play in the band, citing the commitment of time involved and the fact that most band members take private lessons. "Most of us are more interested in music than any other subject, except maybe lunch," said Herndon trombone player Matt Wienke.
Band members, however, hasten to add that they are not one-sided, citing the fact that more than half of each school's band members earn average grades of 3.5 or above (on a 4-point scale).
Because of their common interest in music and in the band, band members say, most of their friends are in the band. Yankosky said that despite the size of the lake Braddock band [197 members], "We like to think of ourselves as one big, happy family . . . . We hang out together."
The band directors at each school say they pick the music and work with drill designers hired by the bands' booster clubs to arrange the marches for their shows. The schools' 10-minute routines consist of three songs, ranging from upbeat jazz numbers such as Lake Braddock's "Rocky Point Holiday" to slower, more melodic pieces such as "Lullaby on Broadway" played by Herndon. Both schools try to close their routines with a bang, they say. When Herndon plays "New York, New York," said director Bergman, "we go for peel-the-paint-off-the-wall volume."
Lake Braddock band director Carl Bly says marching bands are judged on how well they perform in three categories: the music, the drill and the general effect of the band. "It's not only how well we play that matters, but also how balanced we are -- the difficulty level of the music and the drills and, especially, the mood we create. How much emotion we bring to the crowd can be the difference between winning and losing in competition ."
Bergman, who decides which songs the band will play as early as six months before the start of the fall season, says lengthy preparation is crucial. "It's like preparing a Broadway show. You have to choreograph it for the maximum visual impact, and you have to decide what kind of statement you want to make," he said. "The mental discipline you instill in the kids shows in the final product. One hundred and forty kids makes 280 feet, and we have to teach them how to coordinate with each other."
Bly agrees. "These kids really have to work hard," he said. "It's difficult enough to play sitting down, let alone marching fast on a football field."
But the effort produces magic moments. Lake Braddock's Yankosky said, "It's an incredible feeling when it all comes together and we say to ourselves, 'Look at what we've done.'"