On a hot Tuesday at Midland Valley High School, junior Hannah Redd joined classmates Daniel Coffin and Jaxen Coleman during a band practice, working on new material.

The tuba might seem difficult to manage for the petite Redd, but she disagrees. She started playing the tuba as a seventh-grader.

“But it does look like a satellite dish,” Redd said cheerfully.

Throughout Aiken County, high school band students have taken the field in the last few weeks of summer, enjoying the opportunity to learn their football halftime and competition programs.

Flutist James Bechtel joined the Midland Valley band as an eighth-grader, and said, “These are the best years of my life. ... Most of my friends are in marching band.”

The bands usually begin their programs partially before performing their full shows. Competition festivals will begin in less than six weeks. For first-year marching band players, the adjustments can be challenging. After three years at Kennedy Middle School, however, trumpeter Alex Hogue welcomed the new opportunity.

“It's different, but it's been a good experience,” he said. “I like marching, and I've seen some of the competitions (in the past).”

Bandsmen who have moved up to drum majors this year include Michelle Koval at South Aiken High, Jai'Bria Quattlebaum and Jamilynn Flores at Aiken High and Brandon Smith at Midland Valley.

“It's been extraordinary,” said Koval, a flute and piccolo player. “I've learned so much in the last few years, how to be a part of something bigger. I signed up at the last minute about becoming a drum major. But I ended up really loving it.”

Quattlebaum and Flores also surprised themselves by trying out for drum major positions. Flores said she didn't understand at first that she and Quattlebaum would be responsible for 75 classmates, “but I've really enjoyed it,” Flores said.

Brandon Smith, the Midland Valley drum major, has put up his saxophone during the marching season. He recalls his anxiety as a rookie eighth-grader.

“I've grown up, now working with freshmen and sophomores as the drum major,” he said. “It's more like family here.”

The band directors are veterans in their professions. Neil Nelson has been a band director for 10 years and is starting his third year at South Aiken.

“We've grown every year,” Nelson said. “It's great to see these young people achieve their goals. They're working really hard, and this is my favorite time of the year. All the bands start at the same place, and the sky's the limit.”

Ryan Westberry, the Aiken High band director, offers students a wealth of opportunities – symphonic and concert bands, percussion ensemble, jazz band and a number of small ensembles.

“These guys are awesome,” Westberry said during a practice session. “You don't have to be in marching band to be in the program. It's all voluntary, and we endure the heat and the rain.”

Band director David Hastings is starting his 15th year at Midland Valley, and said, “It never gets old. Once you get back with the kids, this is what life is all about.”

One of his 2005 bandsmen, Joanna Hamilton, returns to help out during the summer. She played bass clarinet for three years. When Hastings learned Hamilton had studied dance throughout her life, he asked her to join the color guard.

“I love Mr. Hastings,” Hamilton said. “He has been a great example and teacher, with a wonderful passion for band. I'll be with them all year.”

There's no chance that Midland Valley band students have ever heard of the late Harry Carry. He was a legendary baseball announcer for the Chicago White Sox and later the Chicago Cubs – leading the crowd with “Take me Out to the Ball Game,” during the seventh inning stretch.

But the Mustang band members will perform Carry's signature song as a key selection in their program.

“We're not just going to play it,” Hastings said. “We're going to sing it, too.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.