LOUISVILLE — Lafayette High School reclaimed the throne Saturday at the Kentucky Music Educators Association state band finals, taking first place in Class 5A over rival Paul Laurence Dunbar, which came in second.
This marks the 19th year one of the two Lexington schools has taken the title. Lafayette has won more competitions total, but Dunbar was the reigning champion from 2007.
Also competing in Class 5A were North Hardin High School in Radcliff, which took third; and John Hardin from Elizabethtown, which took fourth.
Louisville resembled an emergency evacuation zone Saturday morning as more than 100 school buses, charter buses and trailers, and thousands of cars carrying parents and friends, crowded highways to bring 80 high school marching bands from all over the state to the Kentucky Music Educators Association semi-final competition.
Those bands, which were narrowed down from around 120 at Oct. 25's quarter-final competition at Tates Creek High School, included five from Lexington. Lafayette, Dunbar, Tates Creek and Bryan Station high schools competed in class AAAAA, the largest class based on school size; Lexington Christian Academy competed in class A, the smallest.
Semi-finals were held at various high schools throughout the day. Only 20 bands — four from each class — advanced to state finals. Lafayette and Dunbar were the only Lexington bands to make the cut.
The finals begin at 6 p.m. at Papa John's Stadium.
Temperatures were ideal for performance, hovering at around 70 degrees most of the day. Several local band directors expressed their fear that last week's near-freezing temperatures would carry into the weekend.
"When we practiced on Monday and it was cold and sleeting, it was pretty useless. We ended up coming inside. It was too brutal. It's hard to breathe and hard to get your mouth to do what you want it to do," said Debbie Brookins, director of Lexington Christian's band.
Cold temperatures can also produce an uneven sound.
"In cold weather, it's difficult to get the instruments warm, which is a problem because the wind instruments stay under pitch," said Dee Bishop, band director at Tates Creek
"But mallet instruments shrink. Their pitch goes higher. You're going in opposite directions because of the cold."
Lexington bands met at as early as 6 a.m. Saturday to rehearse their shows one last time, though most could only run through their physical drill. Instruments were already packed away in trailers or, in Lafayette's case, common courtesy prevented them from rehearsing their music outdoors.
"Lafayette is in the middle of the neighborhood, and it's very annoying to our neighbors if we start having music at dark-thirty in the morning," said Peggy Gabriel, board member of the Lafayette Band Association. Gabriel also has two children in the school's band.
The last band to perform at state finals will take the field at 10:45 p.m., with awards following, then pizza and speeches from individual band leaders. After an hour's bus ride back home, the bands that qualified for finals won't see Lexington again until around 2 or 3 a.m.
"It'll be a 20 hour day for us, easy. By this point, that's pretty much S.O.P. for us," Lafayette senior tuba player Jay Hawkins said before the competition.
There was several hours down time between semi-finals and finals, however. Band directors encouraged students to bring pillows, blankets and anything else they needed to relax before finals.
"Personally, I'll have a sleeping bag. If it's warm enough, I'll just hop out on the ground and sleep right there," Hawkins said.
For seniors, state competition can be a sentimental time. Not only was Saturday the last day they will take the field for state competition, it was the last time they'll take the field for any KMEA competition.
"Tomorrow, for me, will be like a part of my life is ending," said Sam Nickell, senior field commander at Bryan Station, in an interview Friday. "I have six or seven months of school left, but I feel like that high school journey is already over."
Both Danielle Dobken, senior field commander at Dunbar, and Sarah Bardle, Lafayette's field commander, called the end of the season "bittersweet." Even though it's the end of their high school band careers, it's also the end of late night practices, Friday football games and all-day competitions on weekends.
"I'm very excited to have a life again," Bardle said. She plans to use her newfound free time to catch up on Grey's Anatomy and look for a part-time job.
"I'll probably be filling out a lot of college applications and catching up on schoolwork," said Dobken.
"I'm going to take a big, deep breath and just relax, seriously relax, for the first time in four and a half months," said Nickell. He plans also to try and pick up more hours at his job at Smashing Tomato.
And some, like Kelsey Walls, senior percussionist at Tates Creek, just aren't ready to give it all up.
"I'm involved in indoor drum line, which starts next weekend, so I'm not getting any weekends off in a while," she said.
Despite the long hours and loss of social life, none of the students interviewed said they'd do anything differently. For them, the rewards of participating in marching band far outweigh the consequences.
"It's taught me leadership. It's really taught me how to handle different situations and how to get people on the same page, and get them excited," said Corey Adams, senior trumpet player at Lexington Christian.
"When I was younger, I wasn't really confident ... Band brought me confidence. I can do things that other people can't. I can play five instruments," said Brooke Howard, a senior drum major at Bryan Station. She played oboe, flute and piccolo, among others, throughout her high school career.