A revised schedule taped to the door of the band room at Washington-Lee High School delivered news that was certain to disappoint.
"No Marching Band Performance," it said in bold letters, referring to an Oct. 19 marching band competition. It was one of several school-related events to be canceled in response to recent sniper attacks that have terrified the Washington area since Oct. 2.
Just when the 74 members of the marching band had begun to smooth the rough edges of their challenging routines, school officials restricted them from practicing outdoors because of sniper-related security concerns.
Band uniforms, sheathed in black garment bags, have remained in a corner of the band room since an Oct. 5 performance. Until the sniper is caught, more outdoor events -- including the outdoor practices, competitions and performances that comprise the bulk of the band's fall marching season -- are likely to be canceled or rescheduled.
Faced with such uncertainty, band teacher Alex Robinson has had to find new ways to keep his restless students focused. For a few days, the class practiced their marching routine in the school gym.
"When you have a big group, there's only so much you can do inside," Robinson said. "You can do small segments of your show in the gym and work on problems, but to do the complete show is kind of impossible."
Realizing the limitations of such indoor practices, Robinson and the students instead began to focus on their winter program, which includes symphonic band performances of selections from American conductor John Philip Sousa. Seated in their chairs, the students focused on sight-reading instead of marching; in many cases, they played pages of notes with no prior introduction to the music.
"I have to keep them motivated," Robinson said. "I have to keep them moving in the right direction. Because the goals and expectations were set so high, and I had pushed them, a lot of them are feeling like this is a letdown, but unfortunately it is out of our control. So we have a new set of goals now."
The transition can be difficult. Robinson said the students, many of whom are new to the band, have had trouble shifting from the energetic style of half-time performances to the controlled and often subtle tones that characterize the new selections.
During one afternoon class, Robinson corrected the students, indicating a need to play a section more softly. At one point, he had them sing their parts in unison as a way of better acquainting them with the music.
Talk of marching season has not completely faded. In class, Robinson discussed the possibility of competing in a state marching festival at the end of the month that could include more than 40 school bands. Participation depends greatly on security issues and school district officials' decisions to allow bands to participate. Festival organizers are considering allowing bands whose practices have been affected by the shootings to play the music without performing the marching routine.
Despite their lack of practice, many of the students in Washington-Lee's band are eager to perform, even if it means playing while standing in place.
"So we're just going to go and stand there?" one girl said, clearly puzzled by the prospect.
"Given the choice," Robinson responded thoughtfully, "Yes."
Toward the end of the class period, an announcement over the loudspeaker updated students on the latest cancellations of outdoor activities. There would be no cheerleading practice that afternoon, nor the next day. Football practice would take place in the gym. The announcement also instructed students riding buses to go directly home after school.
After the announcement ended, Robinson didn't waste any time. With a few minutes left in the class, he tapped his lectern in 6/8 time and with fluid hand movements led the students through a section of a Sousa march one last time before the sound of the school bell.