TARPON SPRINGS — As class ended at Tarpon Springs High on Tuesday, work in the band room was just beginning.
Preparing for the spring concert, director Kevin Ford was straightforward and firm as the band initially struggled to keep time in composer Tanner Menard's Joe's Last Mix.
In challenging the young musicians, Ford used life-lesson phrases to drive his points home: "You have got to have presence," and, "I want you to be confident as soon as you come in there."
At one point, Ford asked a student: "The whole band is depending on you right there; what do you need to do?"
"Learn my part," the student finally answered.
Lessons like these — being present, confident and dependable — helped restore Menard's steady but ever-moving beat at Tuesday's band practice. And those same lessons have turned Tarpon Springs High School Leadership Conservatory for the Arts into a nationally acclaimed music program.
That acclaim will grow with the official announcement, at the spring concert tonight, that the band has won the 2008 Sudler Shield Award, considered the highest accolade for a high school marching band.
"What this does is, it honors our students, parents, alumni and community for their longevity of hard work and support of our music education program and their commitment to excellence," Ford said.
The award is given to high school, youth and international marching bands from any country that exemplify a standard of excellence over a period of time.
Bands must submit a DVD from the current year, a resume or fact sheet of the marching band, and the present marching band director must have been in the present position as director for the past five years, including the year of nomination.
"One of the reasons we chose Tarpon Springs is because they are one of the finest marching bands in America," said W. Dale Warren, professor of music and director of concert bands at the University of Arkansas and the chairman of the 17-member jury that made the decision for the John Philip Sousa Foundation.
"It's that simple," Warren continued. "No question about it. This is not a flash-in-the-pan deal. There has to be a history of excellence at the school before we will even look at you."
Warren, who will present the award today and will serve as guest conductor for one of the band's pieces, said the final scores are not revealed but that Tarpon Springs "scored remarkably across the board with all the members."
Other winners were Broken Arrow High School Band, Broken Arrow, Okla.; Coppell High School Band, Coppell, Texas; and Musica Grato High School Band and Jusan Junior High School, Himi, Toyama-Ken, Japan.
Warren said 2008 was the first year that four bands had been recognized in a single year. Seminole High earned the award in 2004. A school can win the Sudler Shield only once.
"We began this program 15 years ago with just seven kids," Ford said. "It had dwindled down and was on hard times. It makes me think of those students who began this process with us, who believed in us. I'm proud of the kids."
Judy Amorello, president of the band boosters, agreed.
"In some ways, it feels like overdue praise," said Amorello, whose son Michael is a junior in the percussion section. "It's the unknown jewel in North Pinellas. Not everyone knows about the band, how extraordinary it is, and the impact it has on these kids."
Tarpon High's Leadership Conservatory for the Arts is completing its first year as a magnet program. The curriculum includes an 18-week leadership course that all the students must take.
Today's concert is the last of the school year, but that doesn't mean much of a break for the young musicians. In two weeks, the band will begin preparations for the fall season.
The last Saturday in May, there is an "icebreaker rehearsal" where the incoming freshmen meet the returning marching band members and the show for the next school year is announced.
During the summer break, there are volunteer Tuesdays every week in which band members can attend a three-hour practice session. They learn the music, marching and marching band fundamentals. Then there is a one-week band camp in August.
When school resumes, the band practices from 5:15 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and performs at football games on Friday nights. The band practices the halftime show thousands of times, Ford said.
"Usually, it's associated with sunburn, sweat, 'one more time' and 'reset,' " laughed Emily Fredrickson, 18, the band president and a senior who will attend the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut next year to study jazz trombone.
"At the end of the day, we feel emotionally and physically drained, but it's rewarding because of what you learn. And some days, it's rewarding because it's over and you need a break."
Fredrickson said the music program has made her a better musician, helped her make friends and taught her leadership and organizational skills.
"The only words I can say is that it changes your life for the better," she said.
Senior drum major Seth Hochberg, 17, agreed. But the true reward comes, he said, when the band has just nailed a performance.
"It definitely can get a little tedious," said Hochberg, a tuba player and section leader who will study audio engineering at the University of Miami next year. "But when you are done (with a show), there's nothing like it. 'Electric' would be the best word."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or email@example.com.