I'm attending the state high school marching band championships Saturday in Louisville, so I thought I would get ready by stopping by a Lafayette Band rehearsal earlier this week.
It didn't take long to feel as if I were in a time warp. It was a cold, crisp afternoon, and the setting sun cast long shadows across the school's blacktop practice field where I had spent countless hours as a teenager.
The equipment, drill and music were more sophisticated than I remembered. The show featured themes from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen and Maurice Ravel's Boléro. What looked familiar was the sight of 200 teenagers intensely focused on achieving perfection.
Like a handful of other states — Texas, Indiana and Georgia, among them — Kentucky has long had some of the nation's best high school marching bands. Lafayette has been a dominant player for decades, and it gave birth to its strongest rival, Paul Laurence Dunbar.
When Dunbar opened in 1990, its district was carved from Lafayette territory. Many Dunbar band parents are Lafayette alumni, and the band's first director was my Lafayette classmate Craig Cornish. (He is now the director at Middle Tennessee State University, whose 300-member band rocked Commonwealth Stadium during the Sept. 13 halftime show.) For the past dozen years, Dunbar's program has thrived under director Jeff Hood.
Since 1990, the state championship trophy for the largest high schools has gone either to Lafayette (13 times) or Dunbar (five times). Among their competitors Saturday at Papa John's Stadium will be Lexington's Tates Creek and Bryan Station. Lexington Christian Academy is competing in the smallest-school category.
Kentucky schools of all sizes have had a tradition of excellent marching bands — Adair, Clark, Harrison and Bourbon counties among them. Why is that? "There was a perfect storm of some really great teachers who set high standards and expectations," said Charles M. Smith, Lafayette's director for the past 13 years.
Lafayette's dynasty began in the 1960s with Walter Hall and then Leslie Anderson, who went on to build Tates Creek's band. J. Larry Moore laid the foundation of success in modern drum and bugle corps-style shows that was built upon by his son, Steve Moore (now director at Colorado State University), Pat Dunnigan (now director at Florida State University), Smith and his longtime assistant, Terry Magee.
"And, of course, the parents are the ones who really make the program go," Smith said. "They raise the money and provide so much support. We couldn't do it without them."
To understand the significance of marching band competitions, you must understand this: While it's about music, and it's about winning, it's not really about either.
"Band, more than anything, teaches you to be a self-starter," said Larry Moore, the former Lafayette director who remains one of the most inspirational people in my life.
"It teaches teamwork, sacrifice, the discipline of cooperation and responsibility," he said. "I used to say that, if you missed English class, you hurt yourself; if you missed band, you hurt everybody."
Moore's former students are now his doctor, dentist and accountant. "All you have to do is look around our community and see how many people have prospered because of the self-discipline they learned in band," he said.
While every band wants to win first prize, Smith points out that contest judging is inherently subjective.
On the tall, metal tower beside Lafayette's practice field that gives Smith a judge's-eye view of rehearsals, there's a big sign: "It's easier to be better than somebody else than to be the best we can be."
Students memorize music and complex drills and hone them to perfection over months of daily practice. That teamwork forms bonds that often last a lifetime. Success provides a shared sense of accomplishment that's hard for outsiders to fully appreciate.
As I was shooting pictures during Lafayette's rehearsal, I heard someone call my name. I turned around, and before I could make out the backlit figure walking toward me, I knew it was David Cole. I've seen him maybe three or four times since we graduated from Lafayette 32 years ago.
"You only recognized my voice because we're here," he laughed. "Anywhere else ...."
David said he had done volunteer audio-visual work for the band for years, and that both of his daughters had been band members. The younger one graduated last June. "I can't stop coming back," he said.
We talked for a few minutes about how marching band had influenced our lives, and the lives of his daughters. We searched for words to adequately explain it.
"Just say this," he said as we parted. "It's a way of life."