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It was 9 o'clock on Sunday night, and junior Katherine Panzica had never been happier to see the parking lot of Kenmore East High School.

Panzica, one of 40 student musicians who traveled to Chicago on a whirlwind four-day band trip in early February, had been on a bus for more than 12 hours before finally arriving back in Tonawanda.

"It was exhausting," she says.

Phil Aguglia, the school's band director, kept the students busy, booking three different Kenmore East ensembles to perform in the Evanston Jazz Festival. They participated with 40 other bands from throughout the Midwest at Evanston Township High School, about 15 miles north of downtown Chicago.

Out-of-state music trips aren't unusual. Most Western New York band and choral students have traveled on one, with destinations ranging from New York and Philadelphia to Virginia and Florida.

Alumni of North Tonawanda High School have even created their own Facebook group to discuss their favorite band trips of all time. So far, California is considered the best destination.

But the Kenmore East trip was more hectic than most. Students left on the 560-mile drive to Chicago on a Thursday and were back by Sunday night.

Four Kenmore East jazz band members -- Michaela Scozzaro, Michael Christie, Daniel Bub and Alec Safy -- received awards for outstanding solos at Evanston.

Students also had the opportunity to participate in a daylong workshop. Instructors covered a wide range of technical topics, from articulation to improvisation and comping, which, according to junior Brendon Grabowski, "is a way of strumming chords on guitar or playing rhythms on a piano."

In addition to the student bands, which hailed from cities across the nation, attendees heard a tribute to the late bass player Jaco Pastorius, performed by the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.

Though the festival was their main objective, Aguglia and fellow teacher Evelina Brady made sure the students had the opportunity for side trips. Traveling on Friday, they stopped at the Conn-Selmer Music Factory in Elkhart, Ind., seeing brass and woodwind instruments being manufactured. They rode the elevator to the top of Chicago's Willis Tower, the tallest skyscraper in the United States, and walked Navy Pier. On their trip home Sunday, the group stopped off at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

"We were constantly busy," says Brady.

This wasn't the first time that Kenmore East's jazz ensembles have traveled to perform. Last year they drove to New York City to compete in the Charles Mingus Jazz Festival, an excursion similar to their Chicago trip, and the year before, Aguglia and the jazz band traveled to New Orleans.

It takes months of preparation before one of these trips.

"We started looking at the music in September, and began to rehearse in November," Aguglia says. He holds practice between 7 and 7:45 a.m. two times a week, in addition to meeting with members for lessons during the school day.

A week before the Evanston competition, the Kenmore East jazz band staged a concert with St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, Tonawanda High School and the George Scott Big Band, of which Aguglia is a member.

The concert was a precursor to their Chicago performance, and, Katherine says, "It was a good place to listen to others who have an interest in jazz, too."

Aguglia views music as an expression of ideas, and says the Chicago trip was definitely worthwhile, even though the schedule was hectic, the rehearsal hours long and the bus rides even longer. But he would have no qualms about entering another festival.

"Oh, yes," he says, "I would absolutely do it again."

Lindsay Thomas is a junior at Kenmore East High School,