When Jay M. Robinson High School's marching band took the field at Central Cabarrus High School on a recent Saturday afternoon, the football team was nowhere in sight.
No cheerleaders yelled from the sidelines, and the scoreboard was blank.
But members of the "Pride of Robinson" wore intense expressions under plumed helmets. They were there to compete.
More than 20 high school marching bands convened at Central Cabarrus on Sept. 25 for the Carolina Cavalcade of Bands, an annual competition at the school.
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Cabarrus high school marching bands compete in a handful of competitions each fall in addition to their traditional duties at football games.
"Most everybody's there to see the football team," Jay M. Robinson's band director Blair Smith said of the bands' Friday night performances.
But on several Saturdays, the often unsung heroes of the football field are at the center of attention, performing for fans and being judged on everything from the precision of the bands' steps and the color guards' timing to their musical performance.
Smith said most people don't realize the amount of work that goes into a band's performance.
Band members aren't simply standing and playing, he explained. They're moving up to 160 beats a minute - while playing an instrument.
"You have to be an athlete to do this," said Smith. "But seeing the crowd and performing ... it makes it all worth it."
Sweating beneath their helmets at the Central Cabarrus competition, Robinson band members marched in step until they reached the outskirts of the end zone, where they began to peel off their heavy uniform jackets.
Some rejoiced with high-fives, while others shook their heads, lamenting a missed step or note and hoping the judges didn't notice.
In the press box above the field, several judges - many of them high school band directors - filled out score sheets and recorded their critiques.
The bands arrived at the competition with nearly three months worth of long practices during which they rehearsed shows over and over to perfect steps and music.
The competition season starts long before the school year begins.
Northwest Cabarrus High School's marching band began having practices in July, and band members attended a two-week camp in August to learn the 2010 show.
Before the bands can even begin to learn the show performed at competitions and football halftime, band directors must select music, design props and create drill, the steps the band makes throughout the entire show.
"I don't think a lot of people realize how much of a process this is," said Sam Bogan, Northwest's band director.
The 67-member band now practices Tuesdays and Thursdays for two and a half hours after school, on Fridays before football games and sometimes Saturdays before competitions.
The band also performs at the varsity football team's home and away games.
"We're definitely all about school spirit," said Bogan.
Bogan said directors put a lot of effort into the bands' shows, trying to plan shows that appeal to band members, football crowds and competition judges.
This year, Concord High School's marching band's show, "Carpe Noctem - Seize the Night," features a suspenseful mix of music from "Sleepy Hollow" and "Twilight," the wildly popular book-turned-movie about a teenager's romance with a vampire.
A few high schools host their own competitions.
Many of the Cabarrus County marching bands will close out their competitive season Oct. 23 at Hickory Ridge High School when the Blue Regiment hosts its third annual Hickory Ridge Festival of Bands.
Wherever the bands go, parents aren't far behind. Several parents travel to competitions to help transport and set up equipment.
Just outside Central Cabarrus' stadium, Carol and Mike Blake helped coordinate volunteers - many of them fellow parents - as they arrived for the Carolina Cavalcade of Bands.
The Blakes' daughter, Kelsey, is a sophomore in Central Cabarrus' band, and their son was a band member until he graduated in May. Now he plays in the band at N.C. State University.
The bands put in long hours - just like the football teams, said Mike Blake - and they like to show their support.
"I love it," said Carol Blake as she pointed volunteers toward the concession stand. "We're band parents. It's what we do."
By the time the Robinson band performed at Central Cabarrus, they had racked up awards at Mount Pleasant High School earlier in the day. The band had been named grand champion among bands competing in the 1A, 2A and 3A classes at the Mount Pleasant Showcase of Champions.
By the end of the day, they secured another first-place finish among 3A bands at Central Cabarrus.
Several bands competed twice that day. Hickory Ridge High School's band took first place among 2A bands at Mount Pleasant. At the Central Cabarrus competition, Cox Mill's band won first place among 1A bands, and Concord High won top honors in the 2A drum major category while Northwest won first place in 2A percussion.
Robinson senior and drum major Mac Mullins said he doesn't think his school's band is underappreciated. He said he has classmates who stick around at halftime at football games to watch the band.
"We always say there's a reason we're called the 'Pride of Robinson,'" he said.
For band members, it's not all about competition, said Ryn Crawford, another senior drum major at Robinson. Many band members have performed together for years, some since middle school.
For many of them, it's about camaraderie and friendship
"The band creates such a big family," she said.