A chilly winter sunrise spreads faint light through the northern wilderness. An alarm clock rings, rousing a lumberjack from sleep. Before the day is done, the thuds of mighty axes and the splintering of breaking ice will echo through the forest.

It is the day in the life of a logger. And with instruments such as flutes, clarinets, wood boxes, and even crackling cellophane, the members of the Washington-Lee High School symphonic band plan to bring the lumberjack's rugged world to life with their interpretation of "Northwoods of Might and Mettle," a piece composed by Robert W. Smith.

A new semester has begun for band director Alex Robinson and his students, bringing with it new music, themes and challenges.

"It's pretty intense," senior Brian Cruse said of the piece while packing up his string bass after class on a frigid January afternoon. "I like it a lot so far."

Robinson said the selection is one of the more difficult pieces of music his students will play this year. Their schedule is a full one and based on their progress during the first semester, Robinson said he thinks his students will continue to excel.

Already this year, five students had a tremendous showing during the All District Band audition earlier this month, Robinson said. Two seniors, Cruse and Erin Ward, were selected for the top wind ensemble and will go on to audition for the prestigious All State Band, which includes some of Virginia's top high school musicians. For symphonic band, three other students were selected for auditions at the state level: senior clarinetist Jeremy Beales, sophomore trumpet player Luke Beckman, and freshman French horn player Alex Srisuwan.

Other major events are on the way. The school's concert and symphonic bands will perform concerts Feb. 20 and Feb. 25, before heading to the District 12 Band Festival in March -- an event that will include about 35 bands from high schools throughout Northern Virginia. Robinson said he plans to videotape the pre-district concerts and review the tapes with the students before the March 8 festival, which will take place at Fairfax's Langley High School. There, three judges from different states will rate the bands and give them feedback on their performances.

"It's really more of a competition with ourselves," Robinson said. "The judges will tell us what we're doing right and what we can improve on, and we can learn from that."

That concert will serve as a precursor to another competition known as Fiesta-val, which involves about 20 bands from around the country. Washington-Lee's symphonic, concert and jazz bands, along with the percussion ensemble and the color guard, will travel to Virginia Beach at the end of March to compete.

Robinson said his students take competitions seriously, but he cautions against putting too much emphasis on them.

"Society has turned the art of music into an athletic event," Robinson said. "It's supposed to be about the beauty of music itself. That means more than for a judge to criticize you because your tuba player doesn't have the right color pants."

Robinson said workshops and musical exchanges are sometimes more beneficial for students than competitions. The 25 members of the jazz band are currently preparing for music clinics at Virginia State University in February and an April concert with the U.S. Army Band's Army Blues. The symphonic band is also scheduled to play at a joint concert with the U.S. Army Band (Pershing's Own).

"These are tremendous learning opportunities," he said. "And, of course, it is just an honor for the students to play alongside such amazing musicians."

Even as his charges excel, Washington-Lee band director Alex Robinson wants them to learn by competing with musicians from other schools.