Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2006
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School House Rock
By Ashley Washburn

School House RockFor Paul Brandt, playing trumpet in the Cornhusker Marching Band was more than a diversion from his chemical engineering classes. It was an opportunity to use the creative, expressive portion of his brain—which Brandt believes ultimately helps him in math and science.

Engineers and scientists are commonly labeled “left-brained” because the brain’s left hemisphere controls logic and analytical skills. Creative, artistic impulses come from the right side. But the “left-brained engineer” label may be a misnomer. An engineer needs cooperation from both hemispheres—the right side allows one to see the big picture, while the left side allows one to focus on the details.

Numerous studies have shown that children who take music lessons perform better on mathematical and spatial intelligence tests than their non-musician classmates. The reasons behind the correlation are still unknown, and some researchers doubt it exists at all. Whatever the reason, the College of Engineering has several believers in the power of music.

UNL’s men’s a capella group, the Bathtub Dogs. Senior engineering student Jason Lowe is pictured in the back row, third from right. Courtesy photo.
UNL’s men’s a capella group, the Bathtub Dogs. Senior engineering student Jason Lowe is pictured in the back row, third from right. Courtesy photo.

The Pride of all Nebraska, the Cornhusker Marching Band. ©UNL-Stenbakken.
The Pride of all Nebraska, the Cornhusker Marching Band. ©UNL-Stenbakken.

Sophomore construction management major Ben Baldwin (front and center) performs with the Scarlet and Cream Singers.
Sophomore construction management major Ben Baldwin (front and center) performs with the Scarlet and Cream Singers. The group makes an average of 50 appearances a year. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Alumni Association.

Dean David Allen is one of them. Under the influence of his mother, a gifted pianist, Allen trained as a classical pianist for 13 years. He also played trumpet in his high school’s marching band. Music is still an important part of Allen’s life. When he’s in a funk, Mozart’s “Turkish March” changes his tune. And Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is a standby whenever Allen wants to wallow in a mood.

“Music is kind of the antithesis of engineering, which is characterized by rigor and logic, whereas music is art,” he said. “It’s creative in a whole different way than engineering, yet I’m surprised by how many people I know in the engineering and sciences who are accomplished musicians.”

Carolyn Barber, UNL director of bands, said music was a therapeutic way for students to decompress from the daily grind.

“While engaged in music, the brain will tend to flush out distractions and worries and focus entirely on the activity,” Barber said. “It’s a great stress reliever and reenergizer.”

Barber said musicians also learn determination and perseverance, valuable skills for any engineer. The marching band memorizes new music and field formations for every home football game. Brandt said he had moments when he thought it would be impossible to learn and memorize his music in time for kickoff.

“I guess some people might get discouraged by the challenge, but it really made me try even harder and suddenly I was able to pull off some crazy stuff, musically speaking, I would have never thought possible.

“I think that sort of attitude, never giving up and having to learn new things constantly, is essential in engineering. I’ve found approaching my studies the same way really helped me succeed,” he said.

Jon Ranard is director of the Scarlet and Cream Singers, a vocal performance group whose repertoire includes jazz, swing, ballads, folk songs and musical theater. He said the “Screamers” quickly learn to balance their time and set priorities.

Many campus ensembles, including the marching band and Scarlet and Cream, hold camps before the fall semester begins to learn the basics of a show—music, staging and choreography. During the school year, groups hold one- to two-hour rehearsals at least twice a week, usually more, and many musicians practice several hours on their own to perfect what they’ve learned in rehearsal.

Campus music groups require a significant time investment from their members. Scarlet and Cream performs 50 to 60 times a year. Marching band members can expect to perform every home football game and play gigs at Misty’s or Grandmother’s restaurants the night before a game. Many band members also belong to volleyball and basketball pep bands.

Jason Lowe, a member of the male a capella group Bathtub Dogs, has found his solution to time management: “Not sleeping takes care of most of it!”

However, the senior mechanical engineering major said he makes time for rehearsals and 20 performances annually because he loves the thrill of performing. The Bathtub Dogs cover pop songs and entertain audiences with skits and videos.

Brandt said being part of the Husker football experience was the marching band’s reward for hours of hard work. “Performing is a great way to go all-out once a week,” he said. “Some shows are better than others, but the music is almost always something you can get into.”

Because of the long hours of rehearsal, travel and performance, campus musical ensembles become family-like units. Senior architectural engineering major Blake Soukup said he met many of his closest friends in the University of Nebraska at Omaha marching band.

“You form a tight bond when you’re striving for a common goal together,” Soukup said.

This fall will be the first time Brandt watches football games as a spectator instead of a band member. He made the difficult decision to leave marching band to focus on schoolwork.

“Having done band successfully for three years, I know that I have the time management skills required to pull it off again, but it also adds another element of stress to a pretty stressful major,” Brandt said.

Soukup, a trombone player, left band for the same reason. He said he was happy he left on a high note—performing at President George W. Bush’s inaugural address in Washington, D.C.

Ultimately, Ranard said, being a collegiate musician is a delicate balancing act between academics, time, and of course, love of performing.

“Members of this ensemble (Scarlet and Cream) make many sacrifices and give of themselves 100 percent of the time, but the rewards of performances, alumni connections and unique opportunities provide a healthy balance,” he said.

Jon Ranard has seen the Scarlet and Cream Singers from two perspectives—as a member from 1983-87 and now as director. He offers these tips to collegiate musicians:

  • When you think you’ve gotten everything covered and you’ve checked your calendars, that is the best time to check everything again. Life happens and every single person forgets to write something down or misinterprets a detail on occasion.
  • Be prepared to be flexible.
  • Be conscientious enough to plan ahead, even when you think you won’t have to.
  • Speak to professors if you’re having difficulty.
  • Keep your instructor, employers, family and friends informed of your performance schedule. It sometimes takes a village to manage full-time courses, work, family events and performances.