A look at Mardi Gras parade marching bands

For some, the long march, the crush of the crowd, the weight of the instruments and the unpredictable weather would seem to be reasons to avoid joining the school band.

"No," said Katie Higgins, a 10th-grade trumpet player from Tara High School in Baton Rouge. "We're having so much fun, we don't think about any of that until the end. You definitely don't complain about how tired you are until it's all over."

Katie, who has marched for Tara in New Orleans before, said she and the band will return to the streets this season when they march in Rex, Tucks, Orpheus in Covington and other organizations.

Similarly, Chris Bergeron, 17, of Kenner, said, "I usually get a few blisters, but others have it much worse. It's not such a big deal unless it's really hot and you're carrying a lot."

Bergeron, a senior, is drum major for Brother Martin High School's marching band, which will march this year for the Krewe d'Etat.

The two young musicians are representative of thousands of students from all over, who said they come head to head with unexpected camaraderie while marching with their high school bands during Carnival in New Orleans.

It may seem daunting at first, especially to those who don't grow up in the midst of Mardi Gras. But both young musicians agree that the rush they get from making music for hundreds of thousands of screaming people far outweighs any concerns they may have about blisters, thirst or fatigue.

And they are often surprised at how easy it is to befriend fans of good band music.

Feeling the best "When you perform on the street, the people make you feel like you're the best," said Katie. "On the field at school, when you're practicing, you get sick of it and you're ready to go home, but when someone yells out to you from the sidewalk, and tells you how great you sound, it's really thrilling."

The trumpet player, who has been working on her craft since grammar-school days, said her non-native status has been no problem for her in New Orleans.

"Even though we're from Baton Rouge, the people tell us they love to hear us play."

"I've never experienced anyone being rude," said Chris, who has also played clarinet in the marching band and who will begin studying engineering at LSU when he graduates in May. "I've actually met a lot of nice people while I was marching. You stop a lot, sometimes as long as a half hour, and when you're at ease, you just start talking to the crowd around you."

Dedication required Katie and Chris say the music they play on the streets takes hard work and long hours of practice.

"It takes a lot of motivation," said Katie. "You have to be able to get along with your peers and help each other out. You have to be like a big family."

And her advice to up-and-coming band musicians is to "practice, practice, practice. You always want to do your best, and that's the only way you will."

Chris and the Brother Martin band prepared for the 2004 parade season by "bringing back the things we did during football season," said Martin Hurley, who has been band director at the high school on Elysian Fields Avenue for 30 years.

Moving from the schoolyard rehearsal to the actual streets is "a lot harder than you would think," said the drum major. "There is commotion from the crowd, and people are talking to us. I've always been on the end (closest to the crowd) and that's made it even more interesting."

Marching is inbred Katie said marching in a band during Mardi Gras is something she always knew she would do. Her parents would bring her and the rest of her family to Mardi Gras from Baton Rouge every year. "I started taking band in the fifth grade, and I always used to think that would be cool to be able to travel and see how things are in different places," she said.

"Katie's a fine musician," said Tara High School Trojans band director Dominic Madison. "She knows how to have fun, but she likes to work hard, too." She shares that trait with most of the 40-plus members of the marching, traveling band from Baton Rouge, he said.

Chris, who has played clarinet since fourth grade at St. Philip Neri in Metairie, said he ended up in the band because of his brothers, who had also gone to Brother Martin.

"My brother Michael (who has since graduated from LSU) was in the band," said Chris. "He got me interested in it."

"I guess my parents were bringing me to parades since I was 1," he remembered. "We went to the Metairie parades, and sometimes to Zulu and Endymion. When I was little, I was afraid of the bass drums, because they came out right to the edge of the street and made too much noise."

Chris said since he joined the band as a clarinetist, he was glad to be carrying a light instrument as opposed to that heavy bass drum he recalls as one of his first Mardi Gras memories. "I used to be afraid to be alone in the middle," said this year's Brother Martin drum major. "You do tricks with the mace (the drum major's baton), and I dropped it once, at the first football game of the season. After that, I never dropped it again.

"I've gotten over the fear of people watching me, and it's because of the crowd's reaction. When I perform well, it's so much more rewarding than hearing people groan in disappointment."

"We select the drum major" said Hurley. "It's always a senior. Chris was a natural. He's one of our better musicians. Plus, we select someone who shows a sense of leadership. I'm talking to you now, and he's in there in the band room rehearsing more than 100 players. The kids respect him."

As different as they are, Chris and Katie have caught the attention of their teachers and fellow students -- and the crowds on the street -- because they have determined to meet their own musical demands.