If there’s one thing a gifted musician knows how to do, it’s improvise.
That’s what numerous high school marching bands across the country had to do to deal with the COVID-19 situation. Pulaski County High School was one of those bands.
Turns out, improvisation made for some incredible high notes for the Marching Maroons.
This past weekend, Pulaski County took the USBands Division One National Championship. Also winning Best Overall Effect and Best Colorguard with a score of 95.25, the “PRIDE of Pulaski”’s foray into the brave new world of virtual band competitions was an incredibly successful one.
“While the season may not have happened the way it normally does, there were opportunities along the way that we might not have had (if not for COVID-19 disruptions), including the chance to compete with a whole difference group of bands and experience new circuits,” said Pulaski band director Scott Sexton. “We’re trying to take it for what it is and celebrate the fact that we were able to continue safely and successfully this season when many other groups were not able to do that.”
Indeed, there’s even more to celebrate. Because of the virtual nature of the competitions — record the band performing and submit it online, rather than go to a physical place and perform as is customary — Pulaski was able to pick up additional accolades in other competitions this weekend as well. Pulaski was named the Class 2A Gold Medalist in the Commonwealth Pageantry circuit, and 2A champions in the Central States Judges Association Virtual National Championship.
And for a while this year, no one knew if any of it would be possible.
“In July, when KMEA (Kentucky Music Educators Association) decided to cancel the season, and MSBA (MIdStates Band Association) and Bands of America quickly followed suit, we were unlike a lot of programs in the states, which decided to go uncompetitive or not field a band at all,” said Sexton. The band did know that they wanted to take advantage of whatever options were available, but weren’t sure what those would be.
“There was a lot of uncertainty,” said Sexton. “At that point, we didn’t even know if there would be football games to perform at (during halftime).”
But Pulaski decided to prepare for the possibilities ahead by confronting the craziness of this year head-on. The band had already finished their first week of camp when they made the decision to completely overhaul the show and come up with a new concept: “2020: Just a Dream?”
As marching bands continue to develop thematically complex shows, Pulaski has embraced this paradigm and run with it. The idea is that the chaos of 2020 seems like a dream one wants to wake up from; the field featured bed props and backdrops that opened up to reveal other things — the coronavirus, murder hornets, etc. — and eventually brightness to contrast the darkness. Music included renditions of “Aha!” by Imogen Heap, “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics, and “Dream Weaver” by Gary Wright.
Helping Sexton and assistant Jarod Thurman pull it all together on short notice was advisor Eric Hale. 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.
“Mr. Hale helped us come up with a new show on a moment’s notice, and worked with (us) to devise something fun for the students to work on and hopefully also be competitive,” said Sexton.
The director noted that it was “therapeutic” for the students to get to work on a show in a time of great change in their lives as students, even if they had to do things much differently. Band parents made masks through which students could play their instruments, as well as protective “masks” for the instruments themselves. Social distancing policies and other standard coronavirus protocols were also in play.
“There were all these crazy things we had to do,” said Sexton. “The kids were amazing about following all of these (regulations). ... Along the way, this group probably got to rehearse less than any in group in recent years just because of the limitations we had with the season. Any threat of (virus) exposure, we’d immediately pause rehearsal until we knew things were safe. That slowed down the progress, but at the same time, we wanted to make sure our experiences were going to be safe.”
When the USBands organization announced they’d have a fully virtual season with competitions running from the end of September up to the championships last weekend, the opportunity came for Pulaski to pit themselves against other bands their size from across the nation. They consistently stayed in the top 5 for two weeks, then surged to the top toward the end of the season. Competing in Division 1 based on band size, against 50 other virtual performers — some from Kentucky, many others from elsewhere, Pulaski was first named state champions, then Southeast Regional champions, and finally national champs in their division. That includes topping 29 other bands at Nationals, beating out schools from New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
The Commonwealth Pageantry circuit focused on bands from Kentucky with some from other states, and the MidStates circuit held the Central States championships, which also saw wins by Pulaski in their class size. Pulaski also got to compete in a couple of other competitions held by schools in Kentucky, winning first place at both Daviess County and Owensboro Catholic, and also held their own contest, the Pulaski County Invitational, as always — even though it was not a money-making effort this year, but just for love of marching band competition.
“We were fortunate Barren County was able to host a hybrid contest (option of in-person or virtual) so we were able to compete in-person on October 17,” said Sexton. “It was a challenge at times to motivate kids to prepare, taping in an empty or near-empty stadium every week, vs. being able to travel to all these places.”
To compete “virtually,” the band films its performance and submits the video at a certain day and time. Judges watch it and send back feedback, like at normal competitions. People an watch the livestreams of the performance and then that Saturday evening, the awards ceremony is presented live online.
Pulaski has been climbing steadily up the ladder in Kentucky high school marching band competition, and in what might be its winningest season yet, the students also had to deal with conditions unlike any band before them. Perhaps that makes the music all the sweeter at the end of the season.
“I think everybody will be glad to get back to normal,” said Sexton. “... A lot of our success just came in trying to take the situation and design a show that was creative but spoke to the judges and our audience about the experiences everyone is living through. We made it a fun experience for our kids and took a lighthearted approach to all the events in 2020.”