HAZARD — Pauletta Smith believes in her band members, and in turn they believe in her. Anyone who disputes this claim has to do little more than take a peek inside the band room at Hazard High School, where the school’s marching band, known as the Band of Gold, displays their (and their predecessors’) accomplishments under Smith’s direction in the form of numerous plaques and trophies lining the walls and shelves.
Under her direction for the past 33 years, Smith’s bands in Hazard have racked up copious amounts of awards, including three state titles and numerous runners-up trophies in Class A competition, her latest just this past Saturday at the state finals of the Kentucky Music Educators Association. And while the school officially came in second place, Smith said she feels like her students came out the winners.
The Band of Gold fielded only 27 band members during the finals on Oct. 27, held on the campus of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Hazard was the smallest band in the competition. In contrast, the Class A state champions from Beechwood High School fielded 102 members in their marching band, but only outscored Hazard by a mere five-tenths of a point.
“We definitely feel like winners, for our size, to be second in state,” Smith said.
Going into Saturday’s competition, the Band of Gold had already scored some competitive wins in Pulaski and Madison counties, as well as competitions at Corbin and Russell High School. After weeks of practice they were ready for state competition, and though they would be up against some much larger bands, there was no intimidation factor, explained senior Hannah East.
“We know that we can beat them, because we’ve beat them before,” East said, adding that competitions like these are more about the teams’ quality rather than quantity.
But scoring highly is never a given, Smith noted, especially since band competitions, while judged technically, are also open to the opinions of the judges.
“I was confident in the fact that the kids were ready to go and perform,” Smith said, adding, however, that she wasn’t necessarily confident of the outcome.
“You never know,” she continued, “when you’re going to KMEA state and judges are coming from all over the United States, and they all have different preferences, different tastes, different styles.”
Since July the band had been preparing hours each week to compete at a high level and perfect their show, which this year was titled “Appalachian Memories” and told the story of old Kentucky and included a lot of Appalachian music.
To a certain extent, though, directing a small band presents some added challenges from the beginning. It can limit what bands can do in their shows, and every member has to be on top of their game each time out. The band was only as strong as their weakest link, and that was an adage that Smith said was often quoted to the band members throughout the season.
“Every kid in this band performs,” Smith said. “There’s no horn holders out there. Everyone can play. They’ll play more than most people do in a larger band.”
But the main thing was that the band believed in themselves and their talent, and that they knew there was belief in them as well.
“If they buy into it … then they’re going to push that much harder to not let the other ones down,” Smith said. “We call it a band family, so they don’t want to let their brothers and sisters down.”
That family extends to the director and her assistant director, Jon Day, and color guard coordinator Jama Griffie. And from the students’ perspective, the work was well worth the reward.
“We want to be the best we can be,” said senior Marcus Prater. “Any show that Mrs. Smith puts in front of us, we want to max that out.”
So, there is this combination of things going on with the Band of Gold, from the dedication of the directors who work year round to raise funds for competition trips, design the program, and push the kids to excellence, to the hours of practice the kids put in every day to reach that level of achievement only few bands do. But most of all there is a belief that despite their numbers and other challenges they may face, they can still compete with anyone.
“If you believe in them, they’ll believe,” Smith added. “That’s the whole thing.”