Dozens of Northern Virginia high school bands hit the road this month and next for destinations such as Orlando and St. Petersburg, Fla., and Toronto.

Mount Vernon High School's Marching Majors this week heads to the 1986 Festival of States in St. Petersburg April 6-10 after a month of fund raising and rigorous practice. The planned journey was preceded by a hard-hitting publicity campaign that blitzed the media with press releases and bumper stickers announcing the trip.

Charles Robb, who was then Virginia's governor, gave his approval for 147 students from Mount Vernon -- his alma mater -- to represent the state at the festival. The school will compete in marching, symphonic and parade performance categories all decked out in new uniforms.

While the Festival of States is trumpeted in the Mount Vernon news release as "the only recognized national competition that invites one band per state based on quality of performance," other band officials say it is not possible to rate competitions because there are more than 100 national band events and the judging procedures vary. "For anything to be categorized as a national contest, with an elimination, is not accurate because there isn't one," said James Copenhaver, president of the National Band Association.

For example, the West Potomac High School Band is traveling April 29 to the National Tournament of Bands at Circus World in Orlando, where 103 of its students will participate in parade and symphonic performances. West Potomac Band Director Roy Holder said his approach is different from some of the more competitive bands in Fairfax County: "We don't ever want our kids to feel like their only value is beating somebody," Holder said. "We use competitive events to show how far we've come."

Holder stressed that his neighbor, Mount Vernon High School, has a "very good program." He said that "anybody who tries to give the impression there is one best band in the state is really not accurate because they're so different."

Jay Walker, assistant director of the Mount Vernon band, stressed that his group was "not boasting," but that he considers the Festival of States to be "the closest thing" to a national championship. He said there was no competition with other state bands in order to represent Virginia and that bands attended by invitation.

The Herndon High School Band is preparing for the May 14-18 Universal Festival of Bands in Toronto. Herndon's wind ensemble and symphonic band will be matched against musicians from the United States and Canada, said Richard Bergman, Herndon band director. The spring trip is an annual event for the Herndon band, which attended the Florida World Music Festival in Orlando last year.

Other Fairfax County and Northern Virginia bands will be leaving town in coming weeks as well, each with a different agenda for performance and pleasure activities. The first criterion for attending most of the various events is money (the Mount Vernon High School trip is costing students $430 each, for example), according to Copenhaver of the National Band Association. "Bands want to take a spring trip and expose their group to some competition," he said, "and, to be very honest, the deciding factor is often who can afford to come."

The question of quality is determined according to who shows up and who the judges are, which often varies from year to year for each contest, Copenhaver said. Some competitions have better reputations than others, he added, noting that the Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Va., traditionally brings together some of the top bands from across the country.

Copenhaver said the trips can be good experiences for aspiring musicians to see what their counterparts are doing, but that the emphasis should stay on education versus winning or losing. "It concerns me that there's too much emphasis on marching bands, for example," he said. "Since our job is to be educators, I'm much more supportive of concert band events in the spring. If they do marching band events all year 'round, I certainly question the educational value."