"I don't want any heroes, and I don't want any zeroes."
Thomson High School band director Jessie Morlan encouraged and cautioned the Bulldog Brigade even as they finished their warmup and huddled to march onto the field in Waynesboro, Ga.
Stay focused, he told them. Stay together, he said.
"You can't control how well somebody else does. You can only control yourself," he said.
"You hear that?" he asked, gesturing toward another practice area near Burke County Middle School. "Somebody over there sounds awesome, and they're next."
"I want you to look focused," Morlan said. "I don't want you to look scared."
They bowed their heads as Morlan said, "Give them that fire, that drive, that energy."
And then they gathered in two parallel lines and marched to the edge of the field, where they would wait yet again. By the time Saturday ended, even the first-year members would realize what Susanne Boynton already knew. "This is an all-day event," said the boosters president for the Pride of Burke County Marching Band, the hosts for the third annual Burke County Bear Invitational.
"We got here at 8 and we'll be here until 1 a.m. cleaning up," she said.
Boynton and others worked to direct the competition and the event. "Everybody's supportive," said Burke County clarinetist Daijah Thomas, who said it was fun to offer ice water and directions to the Thomson visitors. The freshman's own band would perform last. The host band would receive ratings, but would not be eligible for trophies.
The Thomson musicians, drum majors, dance line, twirlers, flag corps and staff had launched their campaign at 7:30 a.m. Monday, Aug. 1. They had worked in sun and darkness through two months of practice and six football games, including homecoming at The Brickyard just one October night earlier. They had translated the music of Billy Joel into motion. Band boosters had built a 24-foot piano keyboard to accent the sidelines for The Piano Man.
They had arrived in time to dress at 1:45, warm up at 2:45, and perform at 3:30. The final evening performance would end at 9, and the judging and awards would keep the bleachers filled well past 10.
Finally, the band was set to perform before the judges.
In and near the Thomson section of the bleachers, parents waited to applaud improvements to the familiar show.
Raymond Brinkley clambered up the ladder to watch from atop the pressbox, from where six judges would critique every aspect of 10 bands. Brinkley, a Thomson Fire Department captain, likes to drive buses to the band events.
"My children played in the band and I just never gave it up," said Brinkley, a grandfather of two.
Mac McAlister was busy as a band parent, not just as the band boosters president. He paused long enough to invite all band parents to take part at 7 p.m. the second Tuesday of every month, in the band room.
"We're gonna win," said band parent Karen Krome, a schools paraprofessional.
"It's fun, but it can be a lot of work," said band booster Roger Whitaker, who helps build the props for the band show. "We built the Statue of Liberty last week," said Whitaker, explaining that that prop will be ready for next weekend.
Thomson boosters roared in applause when the Bulldog Brigade took the field. The crowd hushed when drug majors Ethan Dowler and Ty Cummings saluted the judges in unison. Boosters applauded the flow of flags and dancers through the band, and the music and movement of the band itself.
The Brigade earned first place among the three teams in Class AAA, earning a berth in the evening competition. Dowler and Cummings received a trophy for earning a Superior rating.
In the evening session, Thomson placed fourth overall, behind Lakeside, Southeast Bullock and Pierce County.
Thomson's bleacher section again erupted in applause as drum majors and section leaders took the field for the awards ceremony.
Morlan said the Brigade's rating climbed 5 points to 77.45 for the evening show. He said he was pleased with the performance, but said a band always wants to improve. He thanked the parents, staff and community for their support.
On Monday, McDuffie County Board of Education member Greg Derry added his applause. In an e-mail to community members, he said that the band, like the Thomson football team, blows away the competition.
He thanked Morlan and the rest of the staff for their pursuit of excellence and their dedication to the band members. "This program has amassed a considerable trophy case, has performed across the country, and now has a growing number of former band students who are performing at the highest levels of musical entertainment across the country," he said.
The Thomson band takes the field again Saturday for the second annual Grovetown Warrior Invitational. They again face Henry County in Class AAA.
The third round of the Georgia Marching Band Series will be Oct. 22 at Jeff Davis High School in Hazlehurst. Bands participating in at least two of the five show dates will be eligible for the Championship Finals on Nov. 6, also at Jeff Davis in Hazlehurst.