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Groton - It wasn't Robert E. Fitch High School's homecoming football game Saturday afternoon, but for the school's marching band members - milling anxiously about the school grounds, waiting to take the field in their sharp red and black - it was still a homecoming of sorts.
The high school hosted its first high school marching band competition since 2001 on Saturday - a show Music Director Andrew Lefebvre said Fitch used to host fairly frequently but hasn't seen on home turf in more than a decade.
"It was a very popular, well-known show at one point here," said Lefebvre, who joined the staff last year. When he came on board as the new music director, he said parents mentioned the show as something they wanted to bring back after various problems, including construction on an addition, kept the school from continuing it.
Planning began almost immediately. About a year later, eight area bands came to perform on the football field, including Fitch's own Falcon Marching Band. Participating schools included Norwich Free Academy; Montville High School; Putnam High School; Killingly High School in Dayville; Sheehan High School in Wallingford; Francis T. Maloney High School in Meriden; and Joseph Case High School in Swansea, Mass.
The competition was overseen by USBands, the national organization that sponsors high school band competitions and provides judges for the events.
Themes abounded, with each band's costumes and props reflecting the song selection. Montville High's "Autotunes" made use of a forked tarp roadway on which musicians marched to a car-themed set, opening with Gary Gilroy's "Heart of the City" and closing with the Beatles classic "Drive My Car," with flags in traffic-light hues and orange barrels and traffic signs, hit heartily with mallets, in lieu of a traditional drumline.
And when the Putnam High School Clipper Marching Band appeared with its color guard clad in Hogwarts school uniforms from the Harry Potter series - crisp white shirts, ties and even wands - and the xylophonists and cymbalists played while solemnly draped in Dementor-like black robes - the soul-sucking wraiths that terrorize the series' characters - it was only natural that they played from the John Williams soundtrack of the Harry Potter films.
After each entrance, the announcer asked the same two questions.
"Are the judges ready?" Then, "Is the band ready?"
And upon the white-gloved conductors' salutes in readiness:
"You may take the field in competition."
The Fitch band moved up in class this year as the group topped out at between 60 to 70 students - the largest in the band's history, Lefebvre said. While the Falcon Marching Band has been competing every weekend since mid-September at other schools, the group performed its "Seafarers" set Saturday as an exhibition, as host schools traditionally don't compete.
But that doesn't mean they haven't been practicing.
During intermission, the parking lot was filled with more uniformed high schoolers than cars - including Marissa McFadden, 17, and Madeline Little, 16, both drum majors and flute players for Fitch.
"I think we'll do well," Little said. "We've been practicing a long time and working really hard."
It wasn't an understatement. Lefebvre said the Falcon Band did a week-and-a-half camp just before the start of the school year. Now that school is under way, practices are twice a week for 2½ hours, plus playing at home football games and Saturday competitions that will continue until the New England championships in two weeks - a marching band-palooza of 40 to 50 high school groups competing in Bridgeport.
Lefebvre said he has high hopes for his musicians, what with the group's growth and the reinstating of the competition at Fitch.
"I kind of think of this program as in a rebuilding process. It's experiencing a little bit of a renaissance," he said. "It's one of the few bands in this area that is actually showing growth. We're growing every year and we're improving a lot year to year. I'm very happy with where we're at this season."