Taking the High Road with High Street

Imagine, for a moment, that you are 12-years-old. You and 449 other students are herded into the school gymnasium where a six-member band, decked-out in neon zoot suits and fedora hats, is playing decade hit songs from 1940’s “In the Mood” to Bruno Mars’ latest hit, “Uptown Funk.” Your hands and feet involuntarily move with the beat. Before you know it, you’re playing an inflatable guitar, wearing an Elvis mask with sunglasses, and you’re the star of the show.

High Street Band has performed at more than 250 school assemblies over the years. It’s a passion of theirs. “The one thing that we have tried to engender with kids is a love for music,” says Matt Summers, the band’s lead singer. “Every musician, at one point in their life, was inspired by a vocalist belting-out a song or a drummer tearing it up. That’s the effect we want to have on kids.” And indeed they do. Their approach to music education is just as unorthodox as their suits, demonstrating how a jazz C chord on a keyboard transforms into a C7 guitar chord with a single note change, and suddenly BAM—it’s a James Brown song. “When we play ‘I Feel Good,’ we tell the teachers, ‘Okay, you’re the only ones that know the 1960s and ‘70s dances, so get on up and dance.’” Matt doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Everyone from teacher to principal to office staff dances the boogaloo, the jerk, the twist—and they really get into it. “You can see these kids thinking to themselves, maybe my teacher is pretty cool, after all.” Then the unforgettable happens: High Street instructs the students to shout out “we love you” to the teachers. It’s music to their ears, causing tears of joy to well up in their eyes. Afterwards, they express their gratitude to the band. “That was beautiful to hear them say. It made my year.” In the four days before the Festival, 12,000 local elementary and middle school students and their teachers will share the same experience.

This year, Providence Medford Medical Center is partnering with Southern Oregon Music Festival (SOMF) to fund the assemblies. High Street, a tireless supporter of SOMF’s commitment to Music Education, states that “SOMF’s leading the way by making music accessible to students who cannot afford it, while giving us a platform to help them do that.” Other supplemental programs, like SOMF’s annual Instrument Donation drive, has collected over 200 used and new instruments since its inception in 2011. Each instrument’s condition is assessed by Duane Hess, owner of Tom’s Guitars in Medford. Those needing repair remain at his shop (with grants covering the costs for those repairs). The rest are distributed according to wish lists submitted to SOMF by Jackson and Josephine County School District representatives. SOMF’s Leave a Legacy campaign encourages individuals to donate their instruments. One woman alone donated 82 instruments that she had stored away, hoping to put in the hands of young musicians. “The idea is,” explains the Festival’s Executive Director, Dennis Ramsden, “each instrument brought someone tremendous joy at one point in time, but now it’s just sitting in a closet, getting dusty or rusty. Why not pass along that joy for someone else to experience?”

Drummer Bruce Wehler and saxophonist Steve Goff couldn’t agree more. They both started with used instruments. “When I was a sophomore in high school, my parents bought me a 1956 Selmer Mark VI alto sax. I still play that sax,” Steve reveals. Then Bruce adds, “I still use my vintage Rogers drums sometimes when we play. It’s my secondary set.” What’s really wild is that after 20 years of playing together, this is a revelation to everyone. Matt quips, “And I still use the same voice I had in grade school!” This is just a sampling of the levity High Street brings, which may explain why they’re so popular with SOMF’s audiences. “I think the thing that makes our band successful is that there’s no ego. That’s hard to find. We’ve all been in bands that fall apart because someone didn’t get enough solo or face time,” says Steve. “We also have Matt, who has a gift with audiences.” And Matt loves a challenge. Who else could get a bunch of Microwave Engineers or every male member of The World Potato Congress to dance? “Well, we are from Idaho,” Matt jokes. When he sends Steve onto the dance floor playing his sax in his bright pink suit, you can’t help but get pulled-in. “Whether we think we played great or not, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is: was it fun for everyone in the room? That’s our goal, a higher goal than any other band I’ve ever been in.”

After being energized by the assemblies, High Street will take the stage Friday afternoon, October 2, kicking-off the first of seven sets they’ll perform during the three days of the Festival with their unique brand of fun. For the remainder of the school year, SOMF will pick up where High Street left off, providing classroom instructors, private music lessons, and musical instruments for all grade levels at Jackson and Josephine County Schools. Individual guitar lessons are also offered at Central Medford High School and the Medford 549C School District Classroom at the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center, inspiring wayward youths to make better choices. When asked what else High Street would do to improve the Music Education Program, they chime in unison, “Make it bigger. We’d love to tour schools full-time.” It’s just that rewarding. Best of all, Festival admission is free for children under 12 and student discounts are offered up-to age 23.

To donate a used musical instrument, call 866-448-1948. To purchase tickets to see High Street and the rest of the Festival bands, visit somusicfest.org.