Niki Arens is a senior at Lexington's Lafayette High School, where she is a captain of the marching band's color guard. She is an intern at the Herald-Leader through Fayette County Schools' Experience-Based Career Education program.
As many people prepare Halloween costumes this weekend, hundreds of teenagers around the state, including me, are putting on shining spandex and well-tailored uniforms in preparation for the culmination of four months of rigorous work.
Saturday is the Kentucky Music Educators Association State Marching Band Championship in Bowling Green.
For many, it might seem just another silly high school band competition, but for the students in the 80 bands that made it to semifinals — and the 20 that will earn a chance to perform in Saturday night's finals — it's the end of another season of hard work and improvement. Four Lexington bands, including Tates Creek and Henry Clay, have made it to semis, but the popular and closely watched Class AAAAA rivalry between Lafayette and Paul Laurence Dunbar will be put to its final and greatest test of this season.
I am proud to be a member of the color guard in the Lafayette band, which has won 16 state championships. Dunbar has won six state titles, including last year. The shows put on this year by these bands could not be more different: Dunbar's is titled "Shine," and Lafayette's is called "Shadows of Eternity." Yet it is surprising to see how similar these bands are.
Students of each band are set to a high standard: to be the best that they can be.
"I learned that doing your best is one of the most important life lessons," said Aaron Hudson, a drum major at Dunbar. "Winning isn't the only indicator of success."
Similarly, on the tower that stands on the Lafayette band's practice field, a sign hangs with these words: "It is easier to be better than somebody else than to be the best we can."
Often, we underestimate ourselves, and we can never reach our full potential. Marching band has allowed me to realize that potential, and fulfill it to the best of my ability.
Along with this rigorous work ethic comes lots of practice. Both Lafayette and Dunbar rehearse for countless hours during the summer and the school year. Lafayette practices are scheduled for about 2½ hours every day after school, and Dunbar practices are similar.
Both bands have the determination to win, something seen not just in the number of state titles each has earned: Lafayette has been a finalist every year since the state championships were created in 1986, and Dunbar has been a finalist every year but two since the school was created in 1990. Most years, especially in the past decade, Lafayette and Dunbar have finished either first or second, usually separated by just a point or even fractions of a point.
One must look through the eyes of a student in a marching band program to understand the journey and how much Saturday means to each of these talented young people.
The Lafayette marching band has affected my life in almost every way. It builds character, confidence and, most important, friendship. Performing a marching band show is like reading a book. It takes viewers through a story, portrayed through music and dance, meant to entertain audiences by the thousands. What many people don't see is the hard work put into making a show possible.
I started color guard my freshman year. Everyone remembers how it felt being a freshman: terrifying. Now imagine throwing a frightened freshman into 100-degree heat, handing her a 6-foot pole with a bed sheet attached, telling her to toss it above her head — and catch it when it comes back down. That was band camp. It was the most challenging experience I can remember having, yet the most rewarding. After three weeks of nearly non-stop work. I had accomplished things I could have never imagined I could. I felt strong and confident.
In sophomore and junior year, I continued to improve my technique and performance quality, but it never seemed to be enough for me. It is not adequate to just "be good." I had to set myself to a higher standard and never settle for being good enough. I had to be great. These two years I could work toward that personal goal, but it would be this final year of high school that has meant the most.
Senior year came with great responsibility. I was named captain, alongside another member of the color guard, Natasha Hagan. Now I was accountable not only for myself, but for 37 others. Their mistakes were my mistakes, and I was expected to fix them. This year has undoubtedly been my favorite — not only because of the perks that come with being a senior, but because I was leading others to reach their full potential, as a performer and as a person.
"It means everything to me," said senior Stella Sharpe, one of Lafayette's drum majors. "It isn't only the students that I love; it's the staff, the inspiration, and most of all, the music. Music has a special place in my heart. I love it and wouldn't give it up for anything."
The Lafayette marching band has been so much more than an after-school activity. It has become a way to dream, to do bigger and to ask more of myself. Four years all comes down to Saturday. It will be the day I say goodbye to the greatest community I have ever been a part of.