Twelve students in Cox Mill High School's concert band practiced scales for auditions during class last week. With such a small group, each player could be heard, leaving no room for error.
Band director Joseph Earp stopped students and instructed them to clap the beats.
"Don't rush," he said, emphasizing each clap.
Nearby, nearly 20 trophies lined a tabletop - a reminder of the band's first season and sign of a promising future.
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Playing through its inaugural year, the Cox Mill High School band is finding its rhythm with a small ensemble. With no senior class at the high school, which opened its doors last fall, the band has only about 40 students.
Last fall, the school's marching band, which had about 25 members, participated in five band competitions - an ambitious move for a first-year band, Earp said.
Only four students had any marching band experience, forcing the band to start from scratch to teach students basic steps and techniques.
"We had to start from nothing and learn slowly," Earp said.
The group held its first rehearsal last May at Jay M. Robinson High School, Earp said as he recalled recently listening to a recording from that rehearsal.
"It was pretty rough," he said, laughing. "But by the end of the season, they really understood what to do."
Performing "Spectacular, Spectacular," a show based on "Moulin Rouge," the marching band placed at all of its competitions. They even took home several first place wins.
Earp said the band is trying to help develop a sense of pride and tradition at Cox Mill High School, where many students transferred from other area high schools.
"We're setting the traditions," said freshman clarinet player Ola Noras. "We have to do twice as good next year."
Noras said having a small band allows everyone to get to know one another and become close as a group.
"We spend so much time together," said Jake Branham, a freshman baritone saxophone player.
"Too much time," Noras added, laughing.
Earp was the band director at Robbinsville Middle and High schools in Graham County when he applied for the band director position created by the opening of the new school off Cox Mill Road in Concord.
A graduate of UNC Charlotte who did his student teaching at Jay M. Robinson High School, Earp said he jumped at the opportunity.
"This area feels more like home," he said.
But building up the band was no small task.
Before he even interviewed for the job, Earp started gathering prices for equipment and creating designs for marching band uniforms.
The band was budgeted $250,000 to purchase necessary equipment and instruments, including a set of timpani drums that cost $8,000 and 100 marching uniforms that cost about $30,000.
Earp said he doesn't have all the equipment yet he wants for the band. He'd like to have some trumpets and more sheet music.
"We've got to start somewhere and build over time," he said.
Other local band directors with experience in beginning band programs, including Chris White at Hickory Ridge High School and Blair Smith at Jay M. Robinson High School, have helped Earp along the way.
Smith became Jay M. Robinson High School's band director when the school opened in 2001.
"It's a great opportunity to start a program," Smith said. "You have the ability to set every tradition the school has from uniform style to music style to the look of the band room. You get a chance to start fresh."
But that opportunity is also a burden, Smith said, explaining the stress of setting standards at a new school and accumulating supplies that include everything from water coolers to piccolos.
When a new class enters Cox Mill High School next year, Earp expects the band to double in size. By the band's third year, Earp hopes to split the group to form two bands.
For now, Earp is working to build students' musical knowledge and skills.
"Everybody has to play well," Earp said. "You can hide in a big group, but when everyone has to play it makes everyone in the group stronger."
Earp sets the bar high for his students. Now the band is preparing for the N.C. Music Educators Association Music Performance Adjudication, a festival in which bands perform music rated on a scale that measures the difficulty of each musical piece from 1 to 6, from beginners level to college level. Cox Mill's band is made up of many freshman, who typically play on a grade three level.
"A few people suggested grade three," Earp said. "We're shooting for four. It's not out of our reach, but it's definitely going to challenge us."