SAN CLEMENTE — When the San Clemente High School marching band strikes up the Beatles' classic "With a Little Help From My Friends" today, they will be playing their level best for "Mr. M."
And he will be in the audience instead of his usual place in front of the band. But it's a moment that band director Andy Magana wouldn't have missed.
Just a month after his kidney transplant operation, Magana, 36, is still too unstable to lead his students at their first competition with other high school bands at Valencia High School in Fullerton. But he was determined to be there.
Instead, it will be up to co-drum major Mike Fleischmann, 17, to lead the 107-member band, dressed in red and black uniforms like Sgt.t Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, through Magana's Beatles favorites.
"To me, it doesn't matter how they do; just the fact that they go to the competition," said Magana, of San Juan Capistrano.
Although Magana began dropping by the Triton Marching Entertainment Unit's rehearsals just two weeks after leaving the hospital, the band has fended for itself during the past month.
Found to have kidney disease in March, Magana continued to teach until the day before his operation to receive a kidney from his sister.
"When I was going into hospital, I wondered where they would be by now," the day of their first competition, he said. "But they have surpassed my expectations. They've just really done a great job. I am very proud."
His students describe Mr. M, who has taught at San Clemente High since 1993, as demanding, focused, talented and dedicated to his work. Some see him as a parent figure. One student calls him the Terminator for his undying passion for music.
"It was really tough at first not having him there and keeping the momentum going in rehearsals, but at the same time it brought us together more," said Fleischmann, a senior in his fourth year with the band.
The band has been "flying without a net" in Magana's absence, said parent Marsha Schwartze. "They are doing it for him mostly," she said. "He cares so much about them. Coming in to practice when he's not supposed to. When he should be home recuperating, he was there listening to them to hear how they sound."
Just three weeks after Magana's condition was diagnosed, he flew to Seattle with about 80 students for the band's spring tour. As the band was boarding the bus for Vancouver, Canada, Magana and his wife, Darla, went to a Seattle hospital so he could undergo dialysis.
About three hours later, they were boarding a plane for Vancouver. They caught a taxi to the mall where the band was performing and walked up just as the students were about to begin. Co-drum majors Fleischmann and Kimberly Gordy were deciding which one of them would have to take his place and conduct the band.
"I came walking up through the mall, and they broke into applause because they were wondering if they were going to see me," Magana said with a chuckle. "I cut it close, but it worked."
The school hired a substitute in September to be an instrumental musical teacher, and parents chipped in about $8,000 to hire a private coach to help students with the choreography. But neither instructor actually leads the band in performances.
"It will be another couple of weeks before I go back to teaching full time," Magana said. "I do get tired very easily when I am conducting. Right now, I am only good for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time. My body will tell me when it's time to get back."
In his absence, students have been taking over some of Magana's duties, such as collecting money for band T-shirts, organizing fund-raisers, sorting mail and taking care of his office, said Gordy, 17.
"His office started to get messy, and Mr. M had his own system to keep it clean. So we made baskets and labeled them," she said. "We made our own system."
Since Magana has been coming to rehearsals during his recuperation, he helps "out just like normal, but when he gets tired he stops," Gordy said. "He doesn't want us to see that he doesn't last as long. But it's nice to have him back."
But, she said, "We knew he was back in full swing" when he was unhappy with something and said so. "We knew we had Mr. M. back for sure."