(ran PAS edition)
Six in the morning, a tuxedoed Walter Hansen stands quietly in the leafy green lobby of the Crowne Plaza hotel. He's surrounded by the subdued chatter of dozens of nervous, half-awake teens.
The calm at the center of the storm.
Not far away, percussionist Shaun Jones' ponytail bobs as he wearily explains to bandmates Lisa Huey and Coralea Redgrave that he's not anxious about the competition _ even though he didn't sleep much last night.
"I've never been so spoiled in my entire life," Jones said with a laugh. The hotel includes amenities impressive to the 16-year-old, including cable and a health club complete with weight machines and a swimming pool.
Sammy Portalatin Sr., whose son is the high school drum major, is there as a chaperone. He helps round up sleepy musicians.
A chorus of "Shhh" makes the rounds through the lobby as the kids punchily ape a scene from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Malevolent Dr. Evil presses a thumb and four fingers together like a hand puppet, jabs the hand toward someone speaking and says "Shhh!"
Finally, the person doesn't say a word, but Dr. Evil says "Shhh!" anyway.
"That was a pre-emptive Shhh!"
Outside, a pair of Gray Line buses wait to haul the Land O'Lakes High School band leader and his musical team to a suburban Atlanta high school.
It's Friday, April 24.
Almost show time.
April 23, 4:14 p.m.
Fourteen hours earlier, the two buses creaked and hissed to a stop in the paved roundabout in front of the red-brick hotel near the Perimeter Mall.
The passengers, jubilant members of the Land O'Lakes High School band, spill out, collect their luggage and check in.
For dinner, they visit the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Atlanta.
Then it's back to the hotel.
The kids have nowhere to practice. Teams from other schools also are staying at the Crowne Plaza, and the management doesn't want them disturbing guests with loud music.
Hansen must wait until morning, just before the jazz band and orchestra are set to play at W.F. McEachern High School, for last-minute rehearsals.
He hopes it'll be good enough.
April 21, 4:30 p.m.
On Tuesday, with the trip still 48 hours away, Hansen runs the orchestra through its paces.
He is a Land O'Lakes native who has hopped the globe with the U.S. Navy. His dark hair is cut short in military fashion. His bearing is confident, quiet and rather imposing. He is stern but encouraging.
When something goes wrong, silence falls with a sharp look and a furrowed brow.
When something goes right, Hansen unleashes an easy, disarming smile.
He's not smiling much during this, one of the last practice sessions the band will have before the Grande Southern Challenge in Powder Springs.
Percussionists are missing cues. Trumpeters are playing too loudly.
One teen leans back in his chair in the stepped band room and topples over backward.
Despite these ominous indications, however, Hansen has reason to be confident. Already this year, the band has scored superior marks against local high schools.
"We're not ready yet," Shaun Jones says as he puts the finishing touches on sealing up a bass drum. "But we will be."
April 24, 6:20 a.m.
"Turn off the lights, pass it up."
The whispered request flows forward from the back of the second bus from teens who want to catch one last quick nap before Friday morning's competition.
Some lightly hum the tunes they'll be playing.
As the bus rolls west on Interstate 285, the sky slowly brightens.
Outside, it is 57 degrees.
"Performance weather," Shaun Jones calls it.
After today's competition, the band is scheduled to visit Stone Mountain, a huge granite memorial to the leaders on the Confederate side of the Civil War.
Someone asks how long they'll have to change clothes at the hotel before the buses depart for the tour.
"Five minutes," Hansen says, deadpan and utterly believeable.
Hansen finally breaks out laughing. "No."
April 24, 7:30 a.m.
"This isn't like any high school I've ever seen," mutters a Land O'Lakes student as he marches across the hardwood floor of the McEachern High School stage.
School workers whir down into the descending orchestra pit to retrieve a grand piano from the adjoining basement.
Others test the sophisticated lighting and sound system.
Outside, greeters meet competitors in the lobby, with its ornate gilded mirrors and fancy Victorian chairs. It's a far cry from the facility the Land O'Lakes band members are accustomed to: a rather plain gymnasium shared with sweaty athletes.
The competition has drawn bands from Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Indiana, Wisconsin, Alabama and Texas.
The first performance: the Land O'Lakes jazz band. After a brief warmup, Hansen turns toward the judges sitting in the back of the auditorium, baton in hand, and silently seeks their permission to begin. Once Hansen gets their assent, he nods, turns back to the band and counts. "One, two, one, two, three, four . . ."
The jazz band rolls through a breezy rendition of East Side Drive. Before moving on to Dizzy Gillespie's Mantika, Hansen confers quietly with the horns and percussionists.
The musicians seem particularly energetic and confident with Mantika, and the audience _ including students from competing schools _ cheer each solo.
Next up, the Northeast High School jazz band from Oklahoma City. This band has a slightly more professional look than Land O'Lakes and plays several songs in its set, including On the Edge, Walk in the Park and Dance of the Bald-Headed Monkeys.
It's an impressive performance.
Backstage, the full Land O'Lakes orchestra is practicing one last time.
April 24, 10:26 a.m.
Head angled low, Shaun Jones stalks offstage in the single file procession after the orchestra's set.
"Shoot me now," he says grimly, rolling his eyes.
He thinks he botched the triangle part in one of the numbers. A jazz band member, he was substituting for someone who couldn't make the trip. Shaun had only about 24 hours to learn the part.
Another percussionist slipped up, playing a full measure prematurely _ and loudly.
Not good. But no one fell over backward.
Hansen remains optimistic: "We've had better performances, but we did okay."
Sammy Portalatin Sr., the band chaperone, breaks the news: One of the two buses broke down with a bad starter.
They'll be running late for Stone Mountain.
The kids kill time shushing each other and chasing shadows.
April 24, 11:08 a.m.
The buses finally arrive, and the musicians load their instruments and climb aboard.
They might be thinking about lunch. Or even a little about Stone Mountain.
However, they probably are like Shaun Jones and Walter Hansen _ dwelling on the performances and wondering how they fared with the judges.
The second bus' engine rumbles as Hansen climbs aboard with more news.
He has some results.
"We had some tough judges," he says. "Jazz band, we know whatever we did onstage with East Side Drive, we could have done better. Overall, they thought you guys did a good job. Mantika kicked. The judges liked it and had a lot of nice things to say about it.
"Now, symphonic band, I know someone came in early on percussion, but our balance and blend was terrific. Everything went so much better than it had in the past. The judges gave us superior marks."
That brings cheers and applause to the previously subdued passengers.
Hansen smiles. "You have a lot to be proud of."
Last Thursday, it was business as usual for Land O'Lakes band members.
Back to the normal grind of crowded buses and classes. Squeezing through the throngs between periods. Playing music in the just-fine gymnasium. Catching up on sleep and homework. Cramming for tests.
At the regional competition in Atlanta, they finished third overall _ a strong showing.
Neither bus broke down on the way home.
"The kids were ecstatic," Hansen said. "The band did great. Everything went really smooth and they had a great time."