LE MARS, Iowa | Kevin Xayyavong breathed a sigh of relief and, just as fast, held his breath in the moments following a performance by the Storm Lake High School jazz band at the Northwest Iowa District Jazz Festival on Monday at Le Mars High School.

"That wasn't our best," said Xayyavong, a senior trumpet player. "It was good, but we can do better."

Bands across four enrollment categories competed on Monday for a first- or second-place finish that automatically would send a jazz band to the Iowa Jazz Championships in Ames next month. Storm Lake's musicians, under the direction of Colleen Hecht, were gunning for their fourth straight IJC trip.

"That's our goal: To go to state four straight times," said Juan Espino, who, like Xayyavong, is a senior trumpeter.

Espino picked up a growl technique using vibrato on his horn this year, and he used it throughout the Tornadoes' finale, "The Rat Race." Unlike his classmate, Espino said he believed his jazz band mates delivered their top performance of the year.

"To get first is our goal each time out," said Xayyavong, who soared on flugelhorn in the ballad "Always and Forever."

Maybe Xayyavong's assessment of the group's effort was off a bit. His wardrobe could help explain things: He had to borrow a pair of dress shoes for the show. "I forgot my shoes at home," he said.

Xayyavong, who hopes to join the Iowa State University marching band this fall, said he plays to study computer engineering. Espino, meantime, said he'll take his academic pursuits to Michigan, where he wants to study mechanical engineering.

Both young men began playing in the band as fifth-graders. Neither followed a parent's lead. They simply both sought music as a way to become more involved in school.

"These are two of our senior seniors, who I'll hate to see go," said Hecht, who is directing her second Storm Lake jazz band. Earlier, she taught for five years at Newell-Fonda and for a decade at Rockwell City-Lytton.

"We're playing more difficult music this year and the kids are playing better," she said.

Storm Lake's group competed in the Iowa Jazz Championships one year ago, but failed to reach the top eight of 15 qualifiers across the state. The goal, beyond making it back to Ames this April, is to improve upon that finish, Xayyavong said.

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