The sun had just filtered through the dark, frozen clouds on a cold Sunday afternoon as I sat down with Leo Dolan, a freshman from Summit High and lead singer of The Catch at Thump coffee in downtown Bend.
“Man, I feel like I’m famous,” says Dolan with a grin. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”Truth is, most high school bands rarely receive any ego-inflating attention from audiences, much less local media, even high school reporters like myself. But that doesn’t stop high schoolers from pursuing their rock and roll dreams. To the contrary, in a world where academics, sports, video games, and social media are all competing for teenagers’ attention, forming a band remains a tried and true rite of passage.
There are no statistics on high school bands (maybe they can add it to the next census…), but there are more than a dozen in Bend alone. Extrapolate that across 50 states and thousands of cities, and you start to sense the sheer scope of the high school music landscape.
But it’s a music scene that’s as overlooked as it is vibrant.
After talking with a mix of older adults about high school bands, I ended up hearing things like, “They don’t have a lot of experience,” and, “It’s just a phase they’re going through,” or, “They don’t have what it takes to make it.”
But for a high school musician, being in a band is much more than a phase. It’s a rare and fulfilling experience that can decide where they go and what they do after graduating. It’s also one of the few activities that isn’t directed by parents, coaches, or teachers.
“Me and our lead guitarist Joe Murphy were in a school band together when we first decided we wanted to start a band,” said The Catch’s Dolan. “It was horrible music and we wanted to write our own stuff.”
“It’s a way for me to express myself and to express the way I feel,” said 17-year-old Chase Mickel, another high school student from Summit and lead singer for part-time band Bridge The Gap.
But all this expression and motivation has got to start somewhere. Stress, time, and money are just a few major challenges every band faces.
DISCOVERING THEIR CHOPS
Starting a band is not a simple task. You’ve got to find like-minded classmates with some musical ability. Once you do connect, there’s the awkward first rehearsal, teaching riffs and licks to play, kicking out members, and so forth—all issues a band will face at some point. There are also the more mundane issues that most “adult” bands don’t even consider—like where to practice when you don’t own your own home and how to get to rehearsal if you don’t have a driver’s license.
“It was a little awkward at first because we didn’t know each other very well, but it smoothed out after a couple rehearsals” said Dolan, of the Catch’s first rehearsals.
Being in a band is a dynamic and creative endeavor, but it’s one that can be filled with tension.
“We definitely argue sometimes about how the songs should be arranged and who plays what part at what time. Everyone in a band wants to stand out with their solos, but there are appropriate times to do so,” Mickel said, taking a sip from his chai.
Like any relationship, disagreements and confrontations can be healthy. If a group of teens can patch the occasional tears in the fabric of a band, it can bring them closer together and keep them on their feet.
Learning to get along and learning how to perform in front of an audience, though, are two different things.
“We didn’t become comfortable with the way we played until about our third or fourth show. Before that, we had only played in front of our friends, which made me feel self-conscious. I become much more physical on stage when I play for strangers now,” said Dolan.
Once a band gets comfortable on stage, the crowd begins to become more involved. This kind of attention is what keeps the band’s coming back. “It feels like an adrenaline rush basically,” Mickel said.
When it all comes together, it’s a rush that can border on euphoria, even for a high school band. “It’s kind of like flying or being in the best place you could imagine. It’s pretty much the best feeling possible” said Dolan.
Yet, as much as it is a formative experience, it’s also a fleeting one. Unlike most “professional” bands, participating in a high school band is a race against time, which for most is counting down to graduation, as well as college, travel, and beginning a career.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Just like the older and more experienced bands, teen bands put in hours on end to perfect their sound and their set lists. But with each passing month, the band members move closer to graduation and the rest of their lives—lives that often don’t include their band mates.
This is the time when friendships split and new plans are made.
It’s no different for The Gap.
“The band will have to separate for some time because I’ll be leaving to study music in California” Mickel said. “But when I move back, I hope we can get back together. The separation is sort of a time for young musicians to grow and learn new things.”
Some bands like The Catch will continue to chase the dream.
“We’ve actually talked about this before,” Dolan said. “Our older member, Jon wants to go to COCC so we can stay as a band. It’s way too awesome to give up.”
Just how far, or long, they will go is anyone’s guess. What’s clear, though, is that it will take a great amount of devotion and willingness to continue the journey.
The reality, though, is that it’s hard for a group of young musicians to focus on what’s in store for the future simply because they’re living in the moment. It’s about having a perfect rehearsal, keeping guitars in tune and having fun.
In other words, it’s about rock and roll.
Keegan Leonberg is the Source Weekly’s high school intern for 2011-2012 and is set to graduate from Bend High this month. In addition to being an aspiring writer, he played bass in several high school bands. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.