For additional band photos, visit: DeKalb show bands photo gallery
When the game clock hits 00:00 in the fourth quarter of a high school football game, the game is over for the teams, but not for the marching bands.
They have one more quarter to play: the fifth quarter.
“It’s all about the music,” said DeKalb County School District music coordinator Don Roberts. “It’s not about the marching; it’s not about the dancing; it’s not about who has the best moves. It’s about playing.”
The fifth quarter, originally started by Historically Black Colleges and Universities marching bands, is when the two bands battle each other through music. After one band finishes playing a song the other band plays. And it goes back and forth until one of the bands runs out of music or they are forced to stop playing.
“We’ve been out there as long as an hour and a half after the game is over,” said Travis Kimber, band director at Martin Luther King, Jr. High and a 1992 Southwest DeKalb High School graduate. Kimber said M.L King’s longest fifth quarter battle came against Stephenson. “We’ve been escorted out by police on a couple of occasions; lights cut off on us on a couple of occasions.”
The stadium lights have been cut off on fifth quarter sessions between the Stephenson and Redan bands several times as well.
“It got to the point where the ambulance pulled right in front of the bands and shined its lights up in the stadium just to give us a little extra light,” said Stephenson High School band director Quentin Goins.
Marching band is similar to sports in DeKalb County. While the other sports have seasons that last for a few months, band season–which includes symphonic band, jazz band, solo and ensemble groups–is year-round. Band members practice long hours after school and sometimes on weekends to become better musicians and better than their competition.
The bands perform at football games, parades, band competitions and special events. DeKalb marching bands have won numerous awards and performed all over the world. The Martin Luther King Marching Jr. Lions, also known as “The Kings of Halftime,” have performed at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, and traveled to South Africa in 2006.
The Stephenson Marching Jaguars, also known as the “Sonic Sound,” have performed in the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington D.C., the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
The Southwest DeKalb Marching Panthers, who consider themselves the “best band in the land,” have performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Carnival of Flowers in Nice, France, and the Tournament of Roses Parade in 2006 and 2011. They’ve also performed for two U.S. presidents and for the opening ceremony of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. They were also featured in the movie Drumline.
Redan High’s “Blue Thunder” Marching Band has a long list of awards that includes winning the National VH1 Save the Music Battle of the Bands twice. In May, Towers High School band won $5,500 and a Grammy award from the Grammy Foundation. Clarkston High School band received instruments worth $46,150 from a Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation grant.
DeKalb County is known for having some of the top band programs in the nation.
“We like to think of DeKalb County like the [Southeastern Conference] for high school bands,” Roberts said. “The SEC is the upper echelon for college football in the country and we like to think of DeKalb County as the upper echelon for high school bands in America.”
Roberts began his career in DeKalb in 1986 as a band director at McNair Middle School. During that time, the McNair High School marching band was considered the best in DeKalb and it was the first band to reach 200 members.
“Before McNair, Columbia High School was the top band in the late ‘80s,” Kimber said.
Southwest DeKalb became the head honcho in DeKalb in the 1990s. Roberts served as band director at Southwest DeKalb from 1990-96 and then served as band director and music coordinator from 1998-2003.
Roberts said DeKalb County is the best in the band world because of the talented students and teachers.
“We just recruit good teachers and one of the things I learned as music coordinator was that the key to changing a child or changing a program is through the teacher,” he said.
The recruitment of those good band directors, most of them DeKalb County graduates, started the rivalry among the bands in the county, according to Roberts.
“When I first came to Southwest DeKalb, Southwest somewhat ruled the band world by themselves for a long time,” he said. “But then we got band directors in here who weren’t satisfied with that. They wanted some of the accolades; they wanted to be the best.”
Those band directors included Redan High School band director Lorenzo Moore and former Stephenson High School band director Dr. Marvin Pryor, who led Stephenson’s band when the school opened in 1996.
Moore, a 1984 Southwest DeKalb graduate, was named Redan’s band director in 1996. Redan’s band, which was a core style marching band before Moore’s tenure, transitioned to the high-stepping, show-style that is popular with Black marching bands.
Moore said he thinks band rivalries are created by the students.
“They know one another and they’re always talking back and forth on Facebook saying, ‘Our band is better,’” he said. “But one thing that helps our band out is the [Metro Atlanta] Precision Band Camp every summer. They get together and they challenge each other on playing scales and then when they get together at the games it just increases the competition.”
Kimber, who has been the director at M.L. King since the school opened in 2001, said rivalries are usually formed when there are two strong band programs.
“Typically, if the competition is one-sided and one band is very large and the other is very small, or one is very good and the other is not so good, you really don’t have a rivalry,” he said.
Stephenson’s Goins, a 1997 Redan graduate, also said rivalries are formed through outstanding band programs.
“The students feed off the success of others,” he said. “If you’re successful then somebody else wants to be successful.”
Goins said rivalries between bands can also be formed through the rivalries of the schools.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just a rivalry between the bands, but it’s a rivalry between the two schools,” he said. “The cheerleaders, the football team, the bands, everything.”
Stephenson and M.L. King have become one of the top rivalries in the county. When the two football teams meet, the game always attracts a large crowd and has also become a battle between the bands and schools.
Although the word “rivalry” is sometimes connected with hostility, Roberts and the other directors said hatred band rivalries.
“It’s a healthy rivalry because these guys like each other so much,” Roberts said. “They compete against each other on Friday nights but on Sunday they’re at my house watching the football games.”
“We’re watching the football games, watching band tapes, comparing the different drills and that kind of thing,” Moore said. “We learn from one another in DeKalb County.”
“We knew each other before we were band directors,” Kimber said. “Some of us are fraternity brothers.”
“We were friends in high school and in college,” Goins said. “Me and the director at Miller Grove High School [Keven Shepherd] go back to 10th grade.”
They may be friends, but on game day, the friendship is put on hold.
“If we’re not playing Southwest DeKalb this week I may call Mr. [James] Seda and we may go out and have lunch together. But the week of the game we cut all of that off,” Kimber said. “We’re not going to talk that week before the game.”
Friendships form between the band students as well.
“They see each other in the [district] honor band, the all-state program, solo and ensemble,” Roberts said. “They’re very competitive, but they like each other.”
The band directors and students all want their bands to be considered the “best band in the land,” but the ultimate goal is to transform the students into successful musicians. In the past decade, DeKalb band students have earned more than $100 million in band scholarships and some have gone on to become successful musicians or band directors.
“From the competitive perspective, they want to be the best,” Roberts said. “And the directors push the kids. Some people say, ‘Well, you push the kids too hard.’ All I can say is look at the results. Look at the number of scholarships over the years. Millions and millions of scholarships because these guys are preparing our students not to be marching band students but to be total musicians.”