RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to New Orleans where it's the peak of carnival season, and that means music. High school marching bands form the backbeat of Mardi Gras, marching in parades night after night for weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. And the kids who march in the parades become, for a moment, true stars, with massive crowds screaming their names. It's a lesson Keith O'Brien learned recently when he spent a night on the parade route in New Orleans with the McDonogh 35 High School marching band.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Trumpets, grab all your stuff and go right outside. Don't play.
KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: In less than an hour, the McDonogh 35 marching band - including the flag girls, the dance team, the majorettes, the color guard and the actual band - needs to be on the parade route five miles away. But some kids can't find their uniforms.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Anybody have uniform 260?
O'BRIEN: The color guard in the parking lot outside is all out of sync.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Stop. You're off. Do it again. Five, six, five, six, seven, eight.
O'BRIEN: And while the teachers dart from one crisis to the next, handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to fortify the band for the night, the kids, all 81 of them, struggle to find their rhythm.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
O'BRIEN: It feels like it will take a miracle to leave the band room on time. But this is what they look forward to all year. They'll spend three hours marching four miles before some of the largest crowds that any musician, of any age, will ever see. And the kids will tell you: they live for that moment when they hit St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans' most majestic thoroughfare, sounding like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MCDONOGH 35 MARCHING BAND: (Playing)
O'BRIEN: Sixteen-year-old Donte Dray, in the second row, right side, leads the trumpet section.
DONTE DRAY: This is our season. Like, they have football season and basketball season. Mardi Gras is our season and you look forward to it.
O'BRIEN: Dray is a veteran of Mardi Gras parades. He marched in his first one as a 12-year-old.
DRAY: I was definitely nervous. You know, the first time, it's always nerve-wracking. But once you get out there more and more, you get used to it.
O'BRIEN: But just shaking the nerves is only the half of it. High school marching bands in New Orleans march night after night during carnival - the equivalent of running a 5K every night, rain or shine, with a sousaphone on your back, while still showing up for school in the morning.
DRAY: Your first parade is like your wake-up call. If you're not in shape, you're going to find out that night.
O'BRIEN: Trumpet valves break. Uniform pants tear. Kids trip and fall on wayward beads. If it can happen, says McDonogh 35 snare drummer Swante Bell, it will.
SWANTE BELL: The worst thing that ever happened out there to me was the time I dropped my drumstick. And I was still marching. I was trying to tell somebody, hey, get my drumstick. Get my drumstick.
O'BRIEN: It was gone and Bell kept marching with one drumstick. At McDonogh 35, that's just what you do. The school, named for a 19th century shipping magnate who donated a fortune to improve the education of poor students, was the first African-American high school in New Orleans. Today, kids come from all over the city.
LAWRENCE RAWLINS: Some of them are single-parent homes. Some of them are being raised by their grandparents. Some of them are being raised by family members that are not family members.
O'BRIEN: Band director Lawrence Rawlins can't control those circumstances. He can only dictate the music.
RAWLINS: They say all of our kids nowadays can't get along. That's not true. Marching band in Mardi Gras, you see a whole unit. You see a unit from the front to the back. From the flags to the dancers, to the band, the majorettes, flag twirlers - everybody's doing something together.
O'BRIEN: And so, for kids like Swante Bell, band isn't just something to do after school five days a week.
BELL: Being in the band is all about being a family. That's how it really is. You're all brothers and sisters. You're close. I mean, it's changed my life in a big way. Like, I used to be shy. I didn't really talk much. But, like, once I got in the band, I started opening up to people.
O'BRIEN: And people, during Mardi Gras anyway, certainly open up to Bell and all of the other members of the marching band.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All right, (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Come on, girl.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh.
O'BRIEN: McDonogh 35 on this night marched its four miles. The kids got home after 10 o'clock, and then they got ready to do it all over again.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I love y'all.
O'BRIEN: They'll be back out here tonight and tomorrow night, laying down the beat of Mardi Gras. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien.