Above: Taft Charter High School students create visual effects during their award-winning ‘Shades of Latin’ performance.

San Pedro High School color guard members dance with silk flags and props, providing visual accompaniment to their first-place-winning show, “Tales from the Seven Seas.”

East Los Angeles College stadium was alive with noise and excitement, but there wasn’t an athlete or cheerleader in sight. Instead, it was musicians and dance teams who were the main attraction.

Marching bands and color guards from 35 L.A. Unified high schools took to the field Saturday in the District’s 43rd annual Band and Drill Championships. Sponsored by the Beyond the Bell Branch, the friendly competition represents months of preparation for thousands of students as they showcase half-time field shows with marching musicians, ‘pit’ percussion, color guards and dance teams.

“This is a showcase of music and art and a great deal of hard work,” said Tony White, coordinator of music and entertainment education, who has organized the event for the past 20 years. “What’s most important is the unification it represents. Students come together from all over the Los Angeles area and give their absolute best to show what they’ve learned.”

Starting at 9 in the morning until 9 at night, the marching bands performed their precision routines while accompanying dancers and drill teams that used flags and other colorful props for visual enhancement. With performances lasting about 10 minutes each, schools competed in one of four divisions based on the number of musicians on the field.

The schools taking the top score in their respective divisions this year were Grant High School, John F. Kenny High School, Taft Charter High School and San Pedro High School.

View additional photos from this event

White, who competed in these types of competitions when he was a student, describes himself as a torch-bearer who brings this genre of music and entertainment to new generations of students.

“They are not only sharpening their skills in the arts,” he said. “They are learning about dedication, commitment and what it means to strive for excellence. It puts them on a solid foundation to excel with a college or university education, their careers or any path they choose.”

Darnella Davidson is in her third year as band director for San Pedro High, which earned the highest score of all 35 bands. It was also the third consecutive year the band has taken first place in the L.A. Unified championship.

“I’m so proud of our students, staff and parents for making this year so amazing,” she said. “Our students set smart goals for each competition and achieved all of them. And, with a large freshmen class, our regiment was able to get into character and perform like pros.”

As a drum major for San Pedro High, sophomore Andrew Soto marched at the front of the band and conducted the music.

“The district’s band championship is an unforgettable experience,” he said. “The program allows us to demonstrate all of our hard work and dedication and to represent our community with pride.”

Following performances, awards are announced by music and entertainment education coordinator Tony White.

According to White, the pride and enthusiasm felt by students like Soto often inspires them to pursue their own careers in music and performing arts. Many go on to become music teachers themselves.

Band director Wilber Ibarra for Kennedy High – which also won first place in its division for the third consecutive year – is a former student of Davidson’s.

“It’s so rewarding to see our kids come together after months of hard work to do something magical,” Ibarra said. “It all comes together on a day like today. They did their absolute best, and they sold it.”

Ibarra added that achieving first place takes incredible commitment.

“We start practicing as early as July,” he said. “The students give up their time after school, on weekends and holidays to make this happen. We even spent three full days in rehearsals over the Thanksgiving break.”

White acknowledged the extraordinary commitment students make to participate.

“These students don’t really get time off,” he said. “They participate in every single football game, both at home and away. They give up most of their weekends in the summer and fall marching in parades or preparing for competitions like this. And, this is on top of their general courses of study, athletics and other extra-curricular activities they may be involved in.”

According to Kevin Thurow of Grant High School, whose band finished first in its division, the commitment is well worth it for educators and students alike.

“These students never cease to amaze me,” he said. “Through all the practice and hard work, we develop strong bonds like few others ever get to experience. Each section comes together to form a cohesive unit and ultimately a great band. All of us have worked hard, day in and day out, so we know we did our best no matter the outcome.”

Van Nuys High students demonstrate the physical demands of half-time shows as they march in formation during a performance of ‘Excerpts from String Quartet No. 10.’

Beyond the Bell’s senior executive director, Alvaro Cortés, says continuing to promote student access to these rewarding experiences is a worthwhile endeavor, as students who participate in music and entertainment education tend to have better attendance, achieve more in school and graduate at higher rates than their counterparts.

“For over four decades, we have proudly supported our talented young musicians and drill teams in demonstrating the very best of what L.A. Unified has to offer,” he said. “The discipline, time-management and artistry these students put into these performances is not only extraordinary, it is just the kind of well-rounded educational experience that prepares them to be college and career ready.”

Many of the students competing in Saturday’s competition are also involved in the L.A. Unified All City Honor Marching Band, which will make it’s annual showing in the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. Practice is already underway.