The Pulaski County High School Marching Band is going out on a high note.
The band earned one of the best-ever finishes for a local school and particularly the best for Pulaski County this past weekend in the state marching band competition. The P.R.I.D.E. of Pulaski as they are also known finished fifth in semifinals — just missing the top-four cut that advances to the rarefied air of state finals by the thinnest of margins, .7 of a point.
Moreover, the week before, the band finished in the top four at quarterfinals competition for the first time in school history.
“It’s our biggest milestone, and by far the highest finish at semifinals — the previous high was 12th place last year,” said Pulaski County band director Scott Sexton, who noted that they also rated the highest “Distinguished” score they’ve ever received at semifinals, an 89.0. “It’s the highest score I can ever remember getting at KMEA (Kentucky Music Educators Association contest).”
Sexton is in his 14th year at Pulaski County, and has seen the program continue to build steadily through that period, to where it’s within a hair of some of the state powerhouses — such as perennial juggernaut Adair County, which was only a point ahead of Pulaski this past weekend, and ended up winning the Class AAA competition in finals.
Over a series of Saturdays, high school bands travel to KMEA and MSBA (Mid-States Band Association) 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.
This year’s version of the marching Maroons features 70 members and is doing a show titled “Synergy” — most band programs today feature specific themes connecting all the elements and musical numbers.
“Musically our show also depicts synergy by combining musical works together that normally would not be performed together to create a new musical work,” said Sexton. “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.”
The music and drill packages were designed by Eric Hale, himself a product of the Adair County legacy, who won 11 state titles and three national championships while at Bourbon County as director. Hale is retired now, but has been working with Pulaski the last few marching band seasons and has played a significant role in their building success.
“We’ve kind of become a retirement hobby for him,” said Sexton. “He worked with us several days a week. ... He knows the formula for success. Our kids bought into his philosophy and work ethic. We’ve enjoyed having his knowledge and expertise and enthusiasm, and it’s helped push us to another level. We were already starting to be successful, but his addition gave us that extra edge to push us all the way to the top.”
To get to that point, said Sexton, the band made it a point to go to the most challenging testing grounds they could, contests that they knew would be loaded with stiff competition.
“(We scheduled) so that we would be up against past and current state finalists every weekend,” he said. “That allowed us to measure our progress and see where we’re at by comparison to them. ... We wanted to go up against as many as possible in the early weeks of the season to see what adjustments needed to be made.”
The Class AAA roster was “stacked,” said Sexton — “It’s one of the most competitive classes.” In addition to Adair County, other bands from this part of the state like Taylor County and Russell County loomed as finalist threats.
In their first outing of the season, at Bourbon County, Pulaski went up against multiple state finalist-caliber programs and finished third, taking home “Best Colorguard.” Next was at Lafayette High School in Lexington. Sexton said they tend to only invite potential state finalists, so Pulaski was “honored” to get the call. Though their finish wasn’t as high there, some judges had Pulaski as high as fifth in the range of bands there. Then Pulaski went to a MSBA qualifier at Bourbon County and finished third overall, first place in Class AAA.
The following week, Pulaski beat a big-city band they’d been chasing, Paul Laurence Dunbar, at George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester. It was a “huge” competition, said Sexton, with over 20 bands. There were 10 finalists, all of them annually successful programs, and Pulaski finished seventh, with third place in Class AAA.
At state quarterfinals, Pulaski finished in the top four — ahead of them were Russell County, Garrard County and Estill County. Only Estill beat them again this Saturday. Taylor County just barely edged out Pulaski from making the final four that advanced to the last round of competition.
And Pulaski survived bad weather to get there — the rainy wind, which saw gusts up to 45 miles an hour, blew part of the band’s set into the field command’s podium. “She kept conducting and didn’t miss a beat,” said Sexton of drum major Adrianna Ragan.
“We continued to consider the comments of judges from quarterfinals and continued to add additional visual content, and made slight adjustments to the music to help give us even more of an advantage going into last week,” said Sexton. “We wanted to refine it and get is as clean and crisp as we could. Anything to effect the visual score, and make sure we’re maximizing all these things. The judges expect you to be very clean, but you also have to perform very, very well, so you have to continue to up the performance levels, work on what emotion needs to be conveyed in various areas to make sure you’re maximizing your performance.”
Though Pulaski is done with state competition, they still have a November 9 date in Cincinnati at West Clermont High School for the MSBA finals competition. Sexton said Pulaski is one of the favorites to be in the top five, along with old foe Taylor County.
Sexton said he’s proud of his students and staff, including assistant director Brittany LaBelle. There is still room for growth, but Sexton is excited about next year. Only seven seniors will be lost — only one in brass and one in colorguard — so there will be a “strong group” returning and Sexton is optimistic that the success will help recruit more students to the band program as well.”
“They are very proud and rather than being disappointed and hanging their heads about missing finals, they’re proud of their accomplishments,” said Sexton of the students. “They are motivated to come back and work even harder this year to make a final push to move in final four. They certainly have that potential.”