As football and soccer teams prepare for the fall sports seasons, the county's marching bands are also prepared to enter the field competition.
Pulaski County, Somerset, and Southwestern's high school bands all have elaborate shows planned to wow judges across a series of contests this year, combining precision-honed musical abilities, dazzling drill, and high-flying colorguard routines.
Each of the three band directors is at a different stage in their program. At Pulaski County, Scott Sexton is coming off of his most successful season to date at the school -- and indeed, the school's most successful season ever.
"We achieved our highest finish at KMEA (Kentucky Music Educators Association) Class AAAA Semifinals in school history and finished third overall in MSBA (Mid-States Band Association) Class AAA Finals, finishing first among all bands from Kentucky," said Sexton, now in his 14th year at Pulaski. "We also scored our highest score in school history at the Bands of America Grand National Championships."
Over a series of Saturdays, high school bands will travel to KMEA and MSBA events and compete against other bands from the state and region in a set of scored areas, judging things like musical performance and visual wow factor, as the band makes pictures on the field with their en masse movements. To be successful, a band must put together the whole package -- something crowds get a glimpse of at halftime of high school football games, though the bands continue to work on and perfect their routines throughout the season with the goal of high finishes and big trophies.
Sexton is optimistic about the coming season, which could serve them better as a hybrid classification system is implemented incorporating school size and band size, which won't penalize smaller bands in higher classes because the schools are large. Sexton said the band will learn for certain what class they're assigned to soon.
"This year's group seems to be starting even stronger than year and has the potential to achieve to much higher levels of success," he said.
This year's version of the marching Maroons features 70 members and will be doing a show titled "Synergy" -- most band programs today feature specific themes connecting all the elements and musical numbers.
"'Synergy' ... literally means how things come together to create something new," said Sexton. "We represent this visually through showing how celestial entities are constantly being formed in space. Our props will evolve throughout the show to demonstrate this 'synergy.'
"Musically our show also depicts synergy by combining musical works together that normally would not be performed together to create a new musical work," he added. "The first movement combines 'Mars' by Gustav Holst and 'The Canyon' by Philip Glass. The second movement combines 'Blue Shades' by Frank Ticheli with 'Moondance' by Van Morrison. The third movement mixes themes from 'Moondance' with 'Moonlight Sonata' by Ludwig Van Beethoven to create an emotionally stunning ballad. The fourth moment revisits 'Mars' which is now combined with'Jupiter' by Gustav Holst."
Sexton is assisted by Brittany LaBelle, a 2014 PCHS graduate, who has returned in the role of assistant band director, and Eric Hale, retired from Bourbon County after an accomplished career with 11 state championships and three national titles, who is serving as drill designer, music arranger, and staff member for the P.R.I.D.E. of Pulaski, as the band is called.
Austin Gilliatt, a former assistant under Sexton, is now the head director at Southwestern, having replaced longtime local band director Dan Carpenter last year. Though he hasn't spent as much time building his program as the other directors, he's already experienced success as SWHS had its highest placement ever at KMEA state semifinals last year and its highest placement at the MSBA championships and ended their season with their first Bands of America appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"The transition (from Carpenter) was smoother than I could have ever anticipated," said Gilliatt. "The kids responded extremely well to me and we seemed to hit it off from the very beginning. The parents, faculty, and administration also gave me a very warm welcome, which helped make the transition smooth for everyone."
Before being in Pulaski County, Gilliatt was the music teacher and choir director at Belmont Elementary School in Hopkinsville, Ky., and was able to gain "some great teaching experience" in college with schools like Taylor County, Glasgow, Allen County-Scottsville (where he attended high school), and Springs Valley in French Lick, Ind. He studied in college at Campbellsville and the University of the Cumberlands.
This year's band is up from last year at 91 students, and like Pulaski, is uncertain where they will be after reclassification. Whomever they face, they have a show planned called "There Are No Strings on Me" that has a real story to tell, said Gilliatt.
"While the show is based on and around puppets, it has a much deeper and metaphorical meaning," he said. "The strings, as the show progresses, represent and become a metaphor for the challenges and burdens that we often face, and which take control of us. The show will begin light and carefree while slowly becoming peculiar, moody, yet playful. In the end though, we must take control of our life to make sure we don't let 'strings' control us, hence the show title, 'There Are No Strings On Me.'
"Some of the music is based on the 1940 song, 'I've Got No Strings' from the Walt Disney film 'Pinocchio' along with original music composed specifically for the 2019 Southwestern Warrior Band," he added. "The band will also premier custom performance tops and color guard uniforms designed and made specifically for this group and show."
Megan Lenox, who is assisted by her husband John, is beginning her sixth year at Somerset high school. After a 2018 in which "we brought home many trophies, including first in class A, Best Percussion and Best Colorguard," reclassification will make predicting an outcome this year difficult, she said. However, "our goal is to always perform to the best of our ability for that 7 minutes that we are on the competition field. We just want our students to perform their best each time and have fun making music with each other."
Lenox said that it's the work ethic and positive attitude that will be the "driving force" behind how this season goes.
"We have a young group, but they are very motivated," she said.
The theme for the 2019 show "Born From Fire," noted Lenox.
"This is a recreation of the devastating wild fires that destroyed Yellowstone Park in 1988," she said. "The audience will hear quotes from Lizst's 'Symphony No. 1,' Mussorgsky's 'Night on Bald Mountain,' Tchaikovsky's 'The Tempest,' Berlioz's 'Funeral and Triumphal Symphony,' as well as original music by our assistant director John Lenox."
As with every activity kids participate in at school, being part of the band is something that shapes a teenager, that creates memories and a foundation for the rest of their life. Lenox feels fortunate to be able to help her students succeed and gain a better sense of self, and to provide a home in the school environment for those who are musically gifted and curious alike.
"Lifelong friendships and being part of something that matters to our school community is very important to us and our students," she said. "We don't expect each kid that marches to become a virtuoso on their instrument. Some will graduate and eventually become doctors, lawyers, educators, engineers, etc. Marching band teaches music and movement but more importantly the value of team work, work ethic, and how to build relationships with those around you.
"We have a long standing tradition here at Somerset," she added, "and our students are happy to be a part of that tradition."