It will still be dark next Monday morning when the first coach pulls into the car park at Tynemouth college, and a group of sleepy teenagers start to haul bags and large boxes on board. With good management, or luck perhaps, they'll have a few early nights under their belts before setting off on their 500-mile round trip to London; it will be 5am on Tuesday before they see Newcastle upon Tyne and the college car park again.
November 3 is the most important date of the year for the North Tyneside Steel Band and for 3,000 other young musicians all heading to the Royal Albert Hall and the Music for YouthTES Schools Prom. The steel panners will lead the way down the M1 at 6am, but hundreds more coaches, cars and minibuses from west Wales to East Anglia will join them on roads heading to the capital.
This will be the 28th annual prom, a three-day culmination of a year's musical preparation by pupils and teachers. Few of us get the chance to play before 5,000 people in the red and gold plush of the giant Victorian arena, and few of those taking part this year will ever set foot on the Albert Hall stage again. But the effort is not just a musical one. The prom is also a mammoth feat of organisation, the target point of a logistical operation that began 12 months ago when schools applied to regional Music for Youth festivals, and continued through the summer with the National Festival performances on London's South Bank.
Coaches have to be booked, insurance forms checked and risk assessments completed. Heads and teachers are under enormous and still growing pressure the moment they drive through the school gates and on to the open road, mindful of censure, legal action or worse. A trip to the Royal Albert Hall is hardly white-water rafting, but there are risks. This year is the tenth anniversary of the M40 minibus crash, in which 12 pupils and their music teacher from Hagley RC high school lost their lives as they travelled back to Worcestershire from the Schools Prom.
Distance, cost and convenience mean the steel drummers of Tyneside are on the go for 23 hours non-stop this year, which is tiring for teenagers, and impossible for the younger performers. For groups such as the Rochdale Junior Brass Band, with their six-year-old cornet player, the trip is a two-day affair, with an overnight stay to break the journey. They perform on Wednesday, the final day, but will spend Tuesday night at the Hampstead Heath youth hostel in north London.
Rochdale is quite a force in the brass band world, boasting Wardle high school, for example, a regular Schools Prom participant which has a band for every year group. But this is the first time the borough has taken such young children to the capital. Transporting a group of 30 juniors is not easy, but, like the other participants, they have already had a trial run, having come down to the National Festival in July. It is the star turns in the summer who are invited to come back for the Albert Hall.
"It's a wonderful experience, and you just make it work, don't you?" says Fred Bowker, manager of Rochdale's borough music service, and the town's Man of the Year for 2003. "The first task is to get the youth band down there by teatime on the Tuesday evening. They're very excited, although I think the parents are even more excited than the kids."
The trip is inexpensive at pound;17 a player, heavily subsidised by Rochdale council and supported with hours of labour from music centre staff such as band leader Hayley Moore. She came up through the borough's band system herself, and now plays cornet with the Yorkshire Building Society's band, current European champions. Her accounts of the Albert Hall have already caught the children's imaginations - although, unlike this year's band, she has never played the theme tune from The A-Team there.
There is a similar journey to be made on the other side of the Pennines, in the village of Stanley, near Wakefield. At 5am on Tuesday, as the exhausted Tynesiders roll back into Newcastle, Stephen Peace will just be getting out of bed. Soon after he will be sorting out luggage in the hall of St Peter's CE primary school for a schedule of daring complexity.
Theirs is a three-vehicle convoy. Coach one contains the Stanley St Peter's Infant Players, 30 seven and eight-year-olds, plus instruments and blue and white costumes. Their musical performance, which the children wrote themselves, is based on the story of the Willow Pattern.
Coach two is for parents and helpers who are keen to do some early Christmas shopping in the West End. The third coach takes those who just want to attend the evening performance.
St Peter's has, like Rochdale, decided that a same-day return trip is too long for seven and eight-year-olds. Some will take sleeping bags and stay overnight on the floor of St Agnes church in Kennington, south London; others have rooms at a Travel Inn. The following day the school will run a sightseeing tour, including a visit to the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye.
This is the second time Mr Peace has led an expedition to the Schools Prom.
"You need constant liaison with the parents," he says. "That's what's probably made the trip easier this second time. But the first time it's pretty daunting. You're forever thinking of extra bits and pieces."
The real chaos, he has learned, comes when the final notes have faded and, at 10.30pm, parents and children head for the wrong coaches with other people's luggage.
And if two dozen junior children sounds like a handful, how about 500, which is the number in Oxfordshire's massed choir, drawn from 31 schools in the county? St Joseph's RC primary in Thame is one of those taking part.
The school is not far from London, so pupils and staff can leave at a civilised hour, but the real question is what happens when the horde is let loose in the Albert Hall for their afternoon rehearsal. Joy Farrell, assistant head at St Joseph's, remains calm at the prospect, confiding that good behaviour was as important a consideration as musical talent when she was selecting her own team of 16 singers.
Some schools are planning to fill the time between rehearsal and performance with trips to Hyde Park and the museums in nearby South Kensington. The Stanley St Peter's Infant Players have been promised tea at Burger King. But Joy Farrell says her children will probably want to stay and watch the preparations, fascinated by the occasion.
This is the first time St Joseph's has been to the Albert Hall, but so far everything seems to have gone smoothly. "It's been surprisingly less work than I expected," says Mrs Farrell. "The children have learned the music quickly, and it's been well organised."
There has been plenty of parental support, with lifts to and from rehearsal venues, and tapes made to help the children learn the words. She is relieved that the concert comes soon after half term - which means her children will have spent a week getting used to staying up late.
The pupils have entered into the spirit, too, running a cake sale to pay for the gold and purple T-shirts they'll be wearing. Ten-year-old Florence Cahill has even given up football for a while to attend choir rehearsals - "something I wouldn't normally do". Her main concern is getting caught out by the camera. "I'm a bit worried about making a mistake on stage."
The massed choir has been shown a video of last year's prom by way of warning and encouragement. There is still plenty to do, of course. Parents have been told to find Union Jack hats for the audience rendition of "Land of Hope and Glory", which closes the concert on all three nights, while Mrs Farrell is hunting out a supplier of flame-proof flags.
Children are not the only valuable commodity on show: musical instruments are not cheap. Coping with cellos and guitars is awkward on a long journey, but doubly so when they are the "cellos" and "guitars" of a steel band. The steel pans cost between pound;450 and pound;1,200 each, and it doesn't take much to send them out of tune. North Tyneside usually packs them on a trailer behind a minibus, but this time they are travelling in luxury and hope everything will squeeze into the coach. The band helped raise the cash for this trip with an engagement promoting NewcastleGateshead in London earlier this year. But given that it cost pound;1,000 to get down to the National Festival in July, they will have to think carefully before applying to the prom again.
They, too, considered staying overnight. "But the problem is that for gigs like this we have to take the kids out of school," says David Edwards, the band's musical director. "We have already done that once this term. To ask for two days off is pushing it a bit."
The Abraham Darby school, which performs on Monday, has been to the Albert Hall twice before, so band leader Simon Platford is an old hand. He knows all about the end of the evening as well as the beginning - that even when his 70-piece wind orchestra is heading home to Telford, Shropshire, there is work to be done. "The bit the public never sees is the bit at 3am when the timpanis and tubular bells have to be taken off the coach and you have to put away all the music. I know one school that went to the National Festival in July and lost their entire set of folders of music. As a single set costs a minimum of pound;400 that is no joke. We also have to be careful of health and safety when we're moving the instruments."
He advises fellow music teachers: "Always allow for something to go wrong, because it will. My pupils laugh at that because I tend to be a stressed person. When we arrived in 2000 we found that one lad didn't have the music, one girl didn't have her shoes and one of the lads didn't have his trousers."
The music was faxed over, while, thanks to the miracle of the mobile telephone, the missing clothes came later with the parents.
"The thing to remember is that you're walking on to a stage that everybody who's anybody has been on," says Mr Platford. "You are in your own way creating a little bit of history. If you can't enjoy that and realise how special it is, you're not going to enjoy anything."
Tickets for the Schools Prom are available from the Royal Albert Hall box office: 020 7589 8212; www.royalalberthall.com
MUSICAL ROUTES: ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE ALBERT HALL
The Big Day
How the day of the performance unfolds for the Stanley St Peter's Infant Players, Wakefield
6am Headteacher Stephen Peace arranges the band's luggage and instruments into three carefully marked piles in the school hall
6.30am The children arrive and the first bus loads up
7am Bus number one, containing pupils, instruments and costumes, sets off
8.30am Bus two departs with parents heading for the London shops
10am As the children take a break at a motorway service station, back in Stanley, bus three sets off, taking the families who want to stay the night in London
11.30am Arrive at Royal Albert Hall for rehearsal
1pm Packed lunches. No plastic boxes allowed. All wrappings to be disposable
2pm Visit museums in South Kensington
5pm Tea at Burger King
6pm Children arrive in changing room
8.15pm The performance
8.30pm Back to changing room and straight into school uniform
9pm Return to auditorium clutching union jacks for 'Land of Hope and Glory'
10.30pm Great bus hunt, when parents and children seek out their coaches parked all around the Albert Hall
12.30am Bedtime for pupils staying overnight on the floor of a south London church
2am Other children and parents arrive home A YEAR IN THE MAKING
How Abraham Darby school, Telford, prepared for the prom
September Apply to take part in one of the many regional Music for Youth festivals
January Begin rehearsals with the 70-piece show band
March Band performs at the regional festival (held, as it happens, in Telford). More than 20 groups from the Midlands and further afield are judged by representatives from Music for Youth
Easter A big brown envelope arrives at school inviting Abraham Darby to play at the Music for Youth National Festival in the summer. A small envelope usually means bad news. Rehearsals begin again
July Perform at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames.
The school takes its brass, jazz and show bands - a major expedition and an overnight stay for 85 students and 11 teachers
August Invitation arrives to take the show band to the Royal Albert Hall and the 28th Schools Prom
September Fresh music is selected and a tough practice schedule drawn up November 3 Abraham Darby performs on the opening night of the three-day event