SPENCER, Iowa | On a gray Wednesday morning, as the sun struggles past a wall of clouds on the east horizon, familiar sounds bounce down the halls at Spencer High School.
Ron Pingel, a custodian, looks up from his vacuum and turns it off, quieting the roar. He directs a visitor through the commons area, past a series of classrooms and toward the din of heavy metal and clanging metal.
"They lift weights in there every morning," Pingel says.
Taking one last right turn, Pingel opens a wooden door and reveals another set of students, hard at their discipline. The Spencer High School Jazz Band, 15 strong this day, moves quickly and with precision through "Bill Bailey," a 1960s chart by Mike Heathman.
"We need to do it over and over and over," warns Kurt Schwarck, band director. "Start at (measure) 120. Trumpets, brass, make sure you're forte there. It's a big room we'll be in. I'm afraid you'll get swallowed up. Think of it as a basketball court. You'll have to be heard."
The room? It's a spacious site inside the Iowa Events Center, where the Iowa Jazz Championships play out on Tuesday. Spencer High School's jazz musicians play there for the first time in 31 years. How's that for making noise!
"Let's stand up for this; that should help us," Schwarck says.
Four trumpets rise in the back row without complaint. They roar past "sheepish," (Schwark's description) reaching forte in no time. They continue, joined by the rhythm section and saxophones as Schwarck paces, a mix of satisfaction and nervous energy.
The scene no doubt repeats in pre-dawn scenes filling Northwest Iowa band rooms from Newell to Sioux City this week. Directors and their charges fine-tune sets they'll present for judges while competing with the best Iowa offers across four enrollment classes.
The Spencer High School Jazz Band is the fourth Schwarck has piloted to the Iowa Jazz Championships. He's directed at the state festival 10 times. His state resume breaks down this way: Walnut High School, once; East Union High School, three times; Creston High School, five times; and now, Spencer.
"I'm back in my hometown," the Spencer native says. "And this is one of the best groups I've ever had. When they stop playing, they talk music. They take direction. They're coachable."
Coachable. It's a term every coach seeks to use in a positive vain. A talented group of musicians who can't -- or won't -- take direction veers off-course, ending up noisy, scattered, and often sitting at home in early April, horns in cases.
"This year was our year to go all out," says Lauren Sather, a junior at Spencer who carries her soprano saxophone and this jazz band through its second song, "I Hope In Time A Change Will Come," a 1956 tune by Oliver Nelson. Sather's solo lasts the length of the song.
"She found the album cut from 1956 and listened and listened," Schwarck says of Sather. "She's really done a good job of capturing Oliver Nelson."
Sather admits a feeling of shock -- the best kind of shock -- when the Spencer High School name was read at the Northwest Iowa District Jazz Festival last month at Le Mars Community High School. Spencer topped the Class 3A competition that day, showing these Tigers had earned their stripes in the form of a 2014 state berth.
"I was nervous before the results were announced," Sather says. "We had a good run during our performance and I had a good feeling, but I wasn't sure."
A similar "good feeling" didn't turn out so well in Sather's freshman year. The Tigers on that day in 2012 thought they'd played well enough for a trip to Des Moines. They hadn't. A premature celebration wasn't about to happen again this time around.
"When the second place team (Storm Lake) was announced at Districts in Le Mars, I told my band that they had better not say a word," Schwarck says. "They were not to react. They've done so in the past and it hasn't worked out."
The band rested, to borrow a music term. They hit forte once the organizer, Paul McEntaffer, said, "First place...Spencer High School."
"This is really happening," Sather says. "We're really going (to the Iowa Jazz Championships)!"
Since that time, the Spencer High School Jazz Band has put in the hours, working to fine tune music they've had since December. According to Sather, she and her peers are listening to one another more and becoming much more nit-picky.
Senior Lauren Schwarck, a trumpet soloist and the daughter of the director, notices, especially during "Bill Bailey," her favorite of the band's three songs.
"I love hearing the sax section in the beginning of 'Bill Bailey,'" she says. "It's so fun to play behind them. They were good at the start of the season, and they've just gotten better and better and better."
The pre-dawn regimen and all that fine-tuning produces a clean sound and obvious enthusiasm. The beat goes on as the custodian returns to his vacuum and the weightlifters their metal.
Kurt Schwarck nods and paces, raising his arms with the brass section's forte, high notes piercing the hallways, long before the opening bell.