Just three weeks after leading 140 teenagers to capture the state marching band championship, Martin Dickey isn't resting.
Aside from prepping for concert season and competitions, the Nation Ford High School band director spent last week in New York City - scouting hotels and studying performers in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
This time next year, Nation Ford will be marching through the city.
The invitation to perform in the annual, nationally-televised trek through Manhattan is a new feather in the 50-year-old band leader's crowded cap. Even in York County, home to some of South Carolina's top bands, Dickey's accomplishments stand out.
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After winning eight state titles at Fort Mill High, he left in 2007 to start Nation Ford's band program from scratch. The first two years, the group reached second place in its class.
This year and last, they are state champs.
What is Dickey's secret?
People who know him point to several ingredients - a platoon of skilled staffers, unwavering parent support and a system that starts honing students' abilities in middle school.
Even more critical, they say, is Dickey himself.
One thing everyone agrees on - the 5-foot-7 director is demanding.
In class, Dickey wears button-up shirts and slacks and waves his arms like an orchestra conductor. At times, with arms folded and head down, he listens.
He directs straight-faced and dead-pan, peppering students with praise and sharp critiques. He leads with the coolness of someone who knows where to go and has little patience for distraction.
When students missed a note in Jingle Bells one afternoon, Dickey chided, "We wasted a minute of rehearsal time because not everyone was prepared."
Later, as he was giving instructions, two students on the back row chatted.
"It's really cool that you interrupted," Dickey snarled. "That's real mature. You're almost in kindergarten. I apologize to the rest of you for them."
"He will totally call you out," senior alto sax player Christina Niedermeier said. "You get so nervous, it's like, 'Oh my gosh.'
"He's blunt and he's honest, and it hurts sometimes. But he's personable."
Dickey's approach has won over students, who say his expertise and expectations motivate them to excel.
"You can always tell that Mr. D strives for excellence," said Taylor Rouse, a senior drum major and oboe player. "He can connect with students better than any other teacher I know. You can go into Mr. D's office and talk to him about anything, even if it's not about band."
Dickey teaches students to perfect their performance and forget about competitors. Unlike many high school activities, band tournaments are decided by judges' opinions and often are won by fractions of a point.
He stresses manners. One-third of a student's grade is "deportment," or "how you handle yourself" - saying "yes sir," "yes ma'am;" congratulating competitors.
"My approach is very simple," Dickey said. "We talk about two things all the time: You have to work extra hard and you must always maintain your focus on yourself and on your team.
"Too many people get self-absorbed and wrapped up in the competitive aspect. It's not a sport where it's us versus them. We can only control ourselves and how good we're going to be."
'He was a rock'
Ask a band student, parent or staff member what's special about it, and they'll likely say, "Band is like a family."
From summer camp to class to practice after school and on weekends, the group spends much of the year together. They share meals, buses, bunks, tears and laughs.
At Nation Ford, Dickey balances an atmosphere of business and jest.
His criticisms often are sarcastic barbs that draw snickers.
When students erred during practice one afternoon, Dickey called them out.
"So we need to hold your hand ... I guess because you can't count to six. I guess we have to count for you. How many of you have that issue at home where your parents have to go to the bathroom with you and help you?"
Later, he told horn players to blow so that "your grandma sitting in the back row with a hearing aid can hear it."
Steve Turner, a former booster club member, recalled performances when his daughter Jaclyn was drum major and Dickey would raise a sign behind her signaling the band's next song.
"He'd wink at me and it would be something like 'Born to be Wild,'" Turner said.
Students and parents have come to rely on Dickey.
One year, the group was devastated by a band member's suicide.
"We were all just in pieces," Turner said. "Somehow he kept kids focused. He was a rock that week. The kids needed that."
Part of Dickey's success stems from his knack for spotting talent. His most significant hire was Ray Linkous, a drum corps veteran and a former stage performer whose Broadway show "Blast" won a Tony award.
"He's our secret weapon," Dickey said.
Linkous' laid-back demeanor contrasts Dickey's gruffer approach.
"We have a good chemistry," Linkous said. "We are able to adjust to whatever role the other is taking."
They craft elaborate shows. "Solaris," which won this year's state title in class 3A, revolved around the sun and blended elements of Mayan culture. Students performed on and around a giant, bright yellow tarp representing the sun, in the middle of which they erected a pyramid.
"When Fort Mill and Nation Ford came out, that was it," said Jim Boyette, a former Fort Mill High principal who attended the competition. "Everybody knew one of them would win and the other would be second place."
Fort Mill's second-place finish was .05 points behind Nation Ford.
'Part of our culture'
Nation Ford's success continues a legacy in a town where band is a way of life. Signs along S.C. 160 boast of Fort Mill High's 22 marching band state championships.
Both high schools' bands regularly receive invitations to perform across the country. Local concerts draw crowds that rival those at football games.
The school district's band directors have built what amounts to a feeder system in which students begin learning fundamentals in the sixth grade.
Family support has grown with the bands' ambitions.
The booster club, a parent group formed originally to supplement band programs with bake sales and fish fries, raises more than a half-million dollars a year for trips, music writers, instruments, uniforms and training sessions with musicians and choreographers.
Band students are expected to pay $100 to the district and $300 to the boosters each year. Families can work off booster fees by volunteering at fundraisers. If a student's family can't afford to pay and can't work, the booster club pays, Dickey said.
Roughly 10 percent of the town's 3,000 high school students are in band.
"That's a pretty strong number," Fort Mill High Principal Dee Christopher said. "It's part of our culture and who we are."
At Nation Ford, enrollment has surged from 60 students the first year to 140, outgrowing the band room. The group practices wherever there's space - on the football field, in the auditorium or split between the band and chorus rooms.
Dickey, who was in fifth grade when he picked up a trumpet and joined band, was an assistant director at Fort Mill High in 1994 when the director quit just as school started. Dickey and a colleague stepped up to co-lead.
The next year, Dickey took the job.
"The first time I heard them play, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, they're so much better than any high school band I've heard,'" Boyette said. "Martin told me he was content being assistant band director, but when he took over, he found his niche."
Dickey's father was a band director but quit to take over the family's insurance business. His older brother, who played in his high school band, gave it up to study math.
Dickey stuck with it. After college, he considered joining a military band but opted to go into education.
"I enjoy seeing students succeed," said Dickey, who has been married 24 years but doesn't have children.
And his students do succeed.
"My two do better academically during band season than any other time," said Julianne Best, whose son Jared and daughter Alexandra are in band. "I'm impressed with the way he tells children to conduct themselves like ladies and gentlemen."
"Mr. D is the reason for our success," Niedermeier said. "He makes it fair, and he makes it so much fun. He says he'd rather deal with students than adults.
"Mr. D is the reason why a lot of us do band."