Their feet were tapping and their heads bobbing, but the students in the jazz ensemble at Centennial Lane Elementary School had yet to perfect their snaps.

Band director Frank Owens tried to help them feel the music's offbeat rhythm. One, two, three, four, he counted softly, his wrist flicking and his fingers snapping unobtrusively by his side.

"Be cool about it," he told the children. "Don't be obvious."

The students followed his lead, trying to adopt their best Duke Ellington posture. Owens then led the class through a few measures of the Ellington jazz standard "C Jam Blues" before the final school bell rang.

"I gotta get harder stuff for you next week," he said as the students packed up their instruments. "You're going too fast."

In Howard, music programs have remained a priority even as the county devotes more time and resources to complying with tough new federal and state regulations for reading and math. Jazz ensembles are a staple at many middle and high schools and have even trickled into about a half-dozen Howard elementary schools, said Rob White, instructional facilitator for the county's music program.

Centennial Lane in Ellicott City has one of the county's largest and most intense elementary jazz programs. About 30 fourth- and fifth-graders there meet once a week for hour-long rehearsals, and Owens expects them to practice half an hour all other days. The year culminates in a spring jazz concert in which students perform about six or seven songs.

At Hollifield Station Elementary School in Ellicott City, Karin Blackburn teaches 19 fifth-graders works such as "La Bamba" and "I Got Rhythm" once a week before school begins. Doug Blanchard fits in a jazz ensemble at Waverly Elementary School in Ellicott City during recess.

Owens scoffs at the idea that pieces such as "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Louie, Louie" or "Tequila" are too much for elementary school students to handle.

"The worst thing you can do is patronize them because of their age," he said. "They're capable of awesome things if you just teach them and then get out of their way."

His is not a class for beginners. Owens teaches the students at a rapid-fire pace. Students must already know how to play their instruments -- some of which, such as the baritone saxophone, are almost as large as the pint-size kids. Owens doles out corrections and praise with the same brusque efficiency.

"See how we had one sax player playing too long on the first note, and it made everything else muddy?" he told the students one afternoon during a rehearsal of "C Jam Blues."

He counted a quick one, two, three, four and had the students run through it again.

"That's, like, a ton cleaner that it was a second ago," he said approvingly.

Then to the rhythm section: "Keyboard, I haven't been paying much attention to you. You cool with those A flats?"

The student nodded, and the entire section promptly played its part for him to scrutinize.

"A little faster than last week," he noted. "I like it."

For 10-year-old Shawna Hammers, "C Jam Blues" is old hat. The fifth-grader played electric guitar in the school's jazz band last year with her sister, Tori, who is 11 and now a student at Burleigh Manor Middle School. They practiced in the playroom in the basement of their Ellicott City home and performed together at a winter concert in the Mall in Columbia and at the school's spring concert.

Outside class, the girls don't listen to much jazz. Instead, they'll turn the car radio to hip-hop, oldies or even the "Jack Diamond Morning Show" while on the way to school.

Still, they said that playing in the jazz band has helped fuel their love of music. The girls have decided to start a rock band -- Shawna on guitar, Tori on drums and a friend as the lead singer. They have even written a song, though they don't have any lyrics for it yet.

"Sometimes you just want to go out of the box and play something different," Tori said. "Something you made up. "

The sisters both list professional musician as one of their career aspirations. Of course, they have backup plans in case the Grammys don't roll in too quickly. Tori is also thinking about becoming a teacher, doctor or veterinarian; Shawna also wants to be a professional dancer.

To White, however, it doesn't really matter what the girls end up doing. He is just glad that students such as Shawna and Tori have been inspired by jazz and music in general.

"Students have very little opportunity to have permission to be creative," White said. By studying music, he said, children are "learning along the way, and they don't even know it sometimes."

Although all Howard elementary schools offer a general music program, many music teachers must divide their time between two schools, limiting how much they work with students. A few teachers, such as Owens, spend their entire day at one school, allowing them to offer extras, such as a jazz ensemble.

By their third rehearsal, the students at Centennial Lane were well on their way to mastering "C-Jam Blues." So Owens treated them by starting to teach them "Louie, Louie," always a favorite. They practiced keeping the beat and sliding through their notes. Owens nodded his head as they played, sipping from a coffee mug decorated with musical notes.

Owens was confident they would be able to tackle an extra piece this year. He told them he was thinking about giving them the theme song from the detective show "Peter Gunn," composed by Henry Mancini. Most of the students just stared blankly at him.

"Ask your parents," he said, jokingly.

"They won't know," one student called out.

Owens smiled in acquiescence. He would make sure that, by the end of the year, everyone knew.

Above, fifth-grader Nick Obrigewitch plays the bass trombone during a rehearsal at Centennial Elementary School in Ellicott City. Right, trumpet players Mark Rothleitner, Pranay Patel and Jerrid Curry keep the beat. Below, Daniel Medina works the trombone while, at her home in Ellicott City, Shawna Hammers strums a guitar. Above, Frank Owens directs the jazz ensemble at Centennial Lane Elementary School during a rehearsal. Right, Tori Hammers, who played in the jazz band last year and now attends Burleigh Manor Middle School, practices a song at her Ellicott City house. She and sister Shawna, who plays with the Centennial Lane jazz ensemble, want to start a rock band and aspire to become professional musicians. Above, Frank Owens guides the percussion section. Below, Shawna Hammers plays rhythm guitar as fifth-grader Peter Traunfeld plays bass at Centennial, which has one of the county's most intense elementary jazz programs.