It's 8 p.m. in parking Lot A of FedEx Field, and Lionel Harrell ducks his chin inside his wool-and-leather jacket, pulls a black knit hat a little lower over his ears and begins to work. There's an unusual chill in the air in Landover on this early December night -- the kind of cold that waters the eyes, stings the cheeks and numbs the lips.
The cold lips are a particular problem tonight because the work Harrell is doing consists of marching around the parking lot in time with 80 other musicians from the Washington Redskins Marching Band as he blares out the Latin tune "Malaguen~a" on his trombone. Playing trombone sometimes makes it necessary to wet the lips, but the cold makes it necessary to avoid it.
"It's cooooold out here," Harrell says to a fellow band member who is nuzzled inside a fluffy fleece scarf and cap. "What's it, like 20 degrees?"
The wages of being one of the members of the band: cold lips, frozen fingers, Wednesday nights tromping across the asphalt. But the payoff is huge, band members say: free admission to every home game plus two free tickets for family or friends, an occasional parking pass and the chance to glorify in brass, wind and percussion Washington's professional football team.
The 126 musicians, bandleaders and technicians who make up the Washington Redskins Band staff say they've got the best part-time gig in the world. They've recorded a CD, even though it wasn't released. They're in the NFL Hall of Fame. They're the darlings of the nation's capital, one of only two marching bands in the NFL. While the Baltimore Ravens also have a marching band, other teams make do with pit bands.
"It gives us the chance to be kids again," said band personnel director Tony Cardenas, a saxophone and tuba player who is a retired sergeant major from the U.S. Army Band. He now teaches music at Sinclair Elementary School in Manassas. "We all love it."
Besides that, nothing works better for drawing women at parties.
"People find it interesting," said Harrell, 25. "I do it because I love playing and I love football, so it's the perfect opportunity. You get to go to all the games free, sit in the end zone in one of the lower sections. We get free box lunches. You meet a few players. Everybody is just so fascinated that you play in the Redskins band. That notoriety is something that is very exciting."
Harrell grew up in Hyattsville listening to his father, Lionel, practice the trombone in the basement. When his high school friends were pumping Snoop and Tupak on their car stereos, Harrell was booming classical composer Antonin Dvorak, jazz saxophonist J.J. Johnson and Duke Ellington.
By day, he teaches music at four Prince George's County elementary schools. He helps direct the Prince George's County Youth Orchestra and performs with the University of Maryland Community Band, the Heritage Trombone Quartet and the Tonic Brass Quintet.
Band director Eric Summers, who taught Harrell at Northwestern High School, suggested he audition when he was 21. Every home-game Sunday for the past four years, Harrell has donned the burgundy-and-gold suit and native American headdress and marched onto FedEx Field.
But it's not easy work. The band members' routine is practiced and honed under the direction of no fewer than 26 skilled band leaders until it is as sharply synchronized as the touchdown plays.
Each member of the 90-piece band auditions for the privilege of joining, and competition is fierce. Candidates must be experienced at sight-reading music and at moving and playing an instrument, Summers said. It helps to have a connection, too.
The members, ranging from 21 to 83 years old, are from many fields, including accounting and welding. Many, like Harrell, work as professional musicians in clubs, bands and orchestras. Teachers work alongside former students -- French horn player William Lloyd has three former students in the band.
The band's technical crew is something of a family affair. The senior member is William Walker, 66, of Hyattsville, who has spent 40 years prepping the band for practices and performances. His sons, Steven, 33, a technician who lives in Bethesda, and David, 34, a printer from Bowie, have been on the crew for 12 and 15 years, respectively. They started coming to the games to work with Dad when they were barely out of diapers.
The tradition continues with David's daughter, Dominique, 8. "I've been coming to every game with my Dad and Granddaddy since I was a baby," she said.
Drum major John Carpenter interrupted the chatter. "Concert B-flat! Concert B-flat scale, please! In half notes!"
The 80 members of the marching band picked up their instruments and began to play.
"Listen! Please listen!" Carpenter implored, urging the musicians to synchronize their sound.
Trumpet player William Lloyd, in black slacks that aren't doing enough against the chill wind, shifts from one leg to another whenever the movement stops. Longtime member Dan Gregas rubs his hands together and grins mischievously as he adjusts the shiny "headlight" he wears on his forehead over his knit cap. Band director Summers is rubbing cold hands together as he paces.
The only person who doesn't look cold is trumpeter H.T. Gold, who is outfitted in his trademark shorts, T-shirt and hoodie. "He always wears shorts," said Stefan Monica, who joined the band in 1969 to replace an alto saxophonist who band members say died from pneumonia after a particularly frigid contest in Philadelphia. "Only difference is, when it's real cold he wears socks."
Band members rehearse their field show for more than an hour in the cold, marching in straight lines that then curve, a single queue that evolves into a series of lines. They play and replay songs.
Then, it's inside to the warmth of a nearby restaurant for soft drinks and more practice.
Band leader and clarinet player Edward Green, a retired warrant officer with the U.S. Army Band, is concerned about the NFL Fox theme song the band will play.
"Some of us are just playing notes . . . wrong!" he said. "Better musical tone is what we are looking for, ladies and gentlemen. Can we do it again? Let's try! Instruments up. Here we go! One, two, one, two three and . . ."
The band starts to play.
Later, there's a team meeting. Band officials pass out parking passes to the game to winners of the weekly drawing.
There's discussion about the temperature at the next game, and Summers exhorts the musicians to keep to the dress code: only the yellow dickeys -- no turtlenecks. Sweat pants are allowed under the uniform pants, but only if they don't show. The band members' elaborate feathered headdresses make wearing hats difficult, so cold ears are another hazard of the job.
"You layer, and you deal with it," said Monica, a deejay and video production manager. "You layer for the snow and the rain. You learn how to be comfortable in a rainstorm."