Students sat upright in their chairs, eyes fixed on the conductor and instruments at attention.
Shiprock High School's band students had gathered in Fort Lewis College's band room Friday morning to prepare for an upcoming festival in Gallup. Over the 2012-2013 school year, the program has been reborn — rising from 10 years of stagnation. This group of 59 poised and dedicated students continues to amaze people who hear them despite the ups and downs.
"When we came in at the beginning of the year, (the students) hadn't marched in a football show in 10 years or so," said Paul Magnuson, band director. "We got a number two rating at the district (competition). We've been pretty busy."
Magnuson returned to Shiprock High School in September 2012 after about 10 years at Tse' Bit Ai' Middle School. He had been the band teacher at Shiprock High School for 11 years, and began teaching music in Central Consolidated School District in 1992.
Today he teaches guitar classes, concert band, percussion ensemble, and color guard/beginning band at Shiprock High School. The color guard, beginning band, concert band and percussion ensemble are the marching band during the fall.
The high school's music department has come a long way since he arrived.
The program began the year with 16 students. That number rose to 60. In a few months, students have attended festivals, began marching in shows and three were accepted into the New Mexico All State Honor Band.
"It's just a great opportunity to be back," Magnuson said. "I've known the kids. They're very respectful and they're working hard. In the long term, (this program's) going to grow. We just finished the district honor band and the (Ft. Lewis College) honor band. I believe (competitions) help them. It gives the students a chance to perform with some of the best kids in the state. It really motivates them. It brings out the best, and (the kids) push each other.
Students also say they've benefited from the new structure and energy.
"Playing the notes is one thing, actually making music is another," said Montgomery Johnson, an 11th grader and alto saxophone player. "This year is a whole lot better."
Johnson said he enjoyed marching and the increased opportunities to enter festivals and competitions.
But ensemble playing has not been without its challenges.
"The music was pretty easy for me to get down, but as a group, it takes time to learn," he said.
With the district band festival at Gallup High School coming up on March 6 and 7, ensemble playing will take the utmost importance.
"I'm really impressed with your intonation," said Mark Walters, director of bands at Ft. Lewis College, after working with the group on Friday. "You're a really fantastic group, and you have such a wonderful band director."
Walters gestured toward Magnuson.
"I've know this man for years, and he has such a big heart," he said.
Last week, however, was dominated by an unforeseen loss.
Joel Jay Williams, 16, the band's and jazz band's baritone saxophone player, passed away from a congenital heart defect on Monday.
The school's music department has been taking the loss in steps.
Magnuson and his students each wore a lime green ribbon or a lime green shirt in Williams' remembrance.
"They're just resilient kids," he said. "They loved him. A lot of them had been in preschool with him.