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Amped Up: Eastside Memorial Band Rocks Out at SXSW

Imagine you’re an aspiring musician. One day you get a call, asking whether you are interested in opening for a slew of other artists performing at a community barbeque. Oh, and the barbeque takes place at one of the most famous music venues in the city. And the caller is actually a well-known, nationally syndicated TV personality. Also, you will perform before a crowd of thousands on the final day of the world-renowned South by Southwest music festival. And, the real kicker: you haven’t yet graduated high school. 

It may sound too good to be true, but that was reality for Eastside Memorial High School’s band students, who set fire to the stage at Stubb’s BBQ last Saturday.  A group of 30 dedicated Eastside music lovers kicked off Feedback, a SXSW celebration and brainchild of chef-turned-TV host Rachael Ray. Thousands of music patrons lined up as early as 6 a.m. to be granted entrance into one of the final festival showcases that featured a line-up of 15 popular musical acts, Ray’s culinary creations and, of course, the lively beats and bellows of the Eastside Panthers.

Playing before a crowd of enthusiastic music aficionados is not an easy challenge to take on, but it was an opportunity EMHS Band Director Alan Guckian couldn’t pass up.

“We wanted an opportunity to showcase our talented kids in a venue where people have never heard them before,” Guckian said. “We wanted to get exposure to a different audience.”

Note-for-Note, Practice Makes Perfect

Guckian and the band only had a month to prepare for the high-profile event, and quickly started to rethink the components that make up traditional high school band performances.

To prepare, the band learned to play modern songs that would serve as crowd pleasers, like “We are Young” by the Grammy Award-winning group Fun and “Thrift Shop,” the chart-topping song by fellow Feedback performers Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.

“We wanted music people would recognize,” Guckian said. “We wanted people to hear the first couple of measures of a selection and look at each other saying, ‘Oh wow! Can you believe they're playing that? How cool!’”

But more than just learning the notes of today’s Top 40, the band had another important lesson to learn. According to Guckian, the students needed to internalize what unfolds when you merely “play” a song, and discover what changes when you “perform” one.

The Performance of a Lifetime

When the Panthers arrived at Stubbs at 9 a.m., the students met a crowd of tired, queued-up festival goers that stretched around the corner and down the street. Having just returned from a cross-state department music trip that same morning, the students were exhausted, but still energized by the thrilling combination of adrenaline and anticipation. No time was wasted as the young musicians broke out their drumming needles and unfolded their sheet music.

“I don't think it really sank in just how big a performance this was until we pulled up in front of Stubb's,” said Guckian. “The students got really amped when they saw how many people were there. They seemed to really feed off the crowd energy.”

Then the doors opened. Before the crowd could file in completely, the band began to play, or rather, to perform.

Percussionists moved in unison with the vibrations of their cymbals when they crashed together. The woodwind section swayed with their saxophones during soulful measures and waved them overhead during drum solos. And the electric guitar player moved his entire body in organized chaos with every strum of his instrument.

Their audience was enchanted.

“I knew we needed to give them a good show,” freshman Mary Ortiz said. “So that’s what we did.”

For the students, opening for a dynamic group of talented musicians before a lively and enthusiastic crowd, made for the experience of a lifetime.

“The event was awesome,” panther freshman Adam Perez said. “It wasn’t only fun, it was life-changing.”

For a school that has struggled to keep up band enrollment numbers, Guckian said he hopes this opportunity will help draw more band participation and make a lasting impression on the community.

“It was one of the most fun experiences I have had as a teacher,” he said. “I think this will help to bring new perspective and positivity to our campus, and the community will start to see EMHS as the vibrant campus that it is.”