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College of Engineering at The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

In Step with Engineering

In Step with Engineering

More than math, the desire to create is in the blood of some engineering students. A love of music helps set the pace for their fruitful academic careers.

Computer engineering major Max Guiterrez wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into when he signed up to be part of UTSA’s first-ever marching band.

When Guiterrez’s family moved from Brownsville to the Bahamas following his sophomore year of high school, he thought his days in a marching band were over. “They didn’t have a band program of any kind my junior and senior year of high school. So I sort of got over it. I kind of missed it for awhile, but just sort of forgot about how much fun it was.”

It was while researching engineering schools in the summer of 2011, that Guiterrez learned UTSA would be launching its inaugural marching band that fall. “That sounded kind of cool,” he recalls. “I thought I wanted to be part of building something from the ground up, creating something new. I hadn’t played music in a while and I really missed it. And then, when I heard the band would be performing in the Alamodome, I really wanted to be a part of it.”

Then came the reality.

“When we marched out of the tunnel at the first game with 50,000 people yelling and cheering, that was definitely a rush,” Guiterrez laughs. “My heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t even tell if I was in step.”

“My heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t even tell if I was in step.”

Max Gutierrez

Guiterrez, now a sophomore, is among a number of engineering students who have found a way to balance the academic rigors of a scientific major and the artistic satisfaction of a musical outlet – a balance researchers have found to be an important factor in collegiate success.

“I try to arrange my schedule so I only have classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” explains Guiterrez. “That’s the time I do most of my school work. Then on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday I can spend time on my music and still study for my classes.

“My strengths are in math and science but I love music. I like being active and this gives me the chance to pursue music and support the school.”

Margo Gardner, a research scientist at Columbia University’s National Center for Children and Families, has found extracurricular activities are not only enjoyable, but also beneficial to students. Using data from the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study, Gardner calculated the odds of attending college were 97 percent higher for youngsters who took part in school-sponsored activities than for those who didn’t. Gardner also determined the odds of completing college were 179 percent higher for those who participated in extracurricular activities.

Associate Director of Bands Ron Ellis, who heads the UTSA athletic band program, believes non-classroom experiences are just as important a part of college life as studying. “Being in the band and being a successful student go hand-in-hand,” he explains. “I want to see all these kids graduate, not just the music majors. I want to see engineering students graduate. I want to see business administration students graduate. I want to see all our students become well-rounded college graduates.

“Parents ask all the time about the time commitment to being in the band. Studies have shown the odds of graduating are no better for a student who spends all his time studying and one who spends all his time partying. There has to be a balance. We want our students to experience all of college life, not just academics.”

Before coming to UTSA in 2010, Ellis was an assistant director of bands at the University of Central Florida where he built the marching band program from a group of barely 100 to a performing unit of more than 325. He also currently serves as a music director for Walt Disney Attractions Entertainment in Orlando, Fla. where he has directed the Toy Soldiers and the Student Musician Program since 1993.

“Engineering, math and science students tend to be some of the more creative people out there,” says Ellis. “There’s an orchestra in Boston, a world-class orchestra, that’s all doctors. None of them majored in music. They just like to play. I believe art and science go hand-in-hand. It’s a no-brainer to me. Everyone wins.”

The UTSA athletic bands are made up of a cross-section of the student population. Only about 20 percent of the band’s members are music majors. There are no auditions—everyone is welcome to participate.

“The biggest surprise to me,” says second-year civil engineering student Jacob Poell, “was the number of shows we had to learn. In high school you only learn one basic show. At the college level you learn about six different shows. You don’t spend a lot of time learning the music. You should already know how to play. We spend most of our time learning routines.”

Poell, a Smithson Valley High School graduate, admits he loses some sleep due to his busy schedule. “I don’t get to go out with my friends very often. My social life revolves around the band. I’m a big sports fan and this is a way of supporting the UTSA athletic program. I’ll definitely be in the band again next year and I would certainly recommend it to incoming students. Between rehearsing and performing, I’d say the band takes between 12 and 15 hours a week. Then I have a part-time job. So between classes, studying, band and working, I don’t have a lot of down time.”

Nor does biomedical engineering major R.J. Vaughn. Now in his junior year, Vaughn has seen the athletic band grow from just an idea to a thriving community.

“Expectations were high when we first started. People were psyched about having a football team and everything that goes with that, a band, cheerleaders, pep rallies, tailgating, all that stuff. There were some high expectations,” says Vaughn.

“Then, when the program had the success it did in its first year, that just ramped up expectations even more. We have high expectations of ourselves. We’re taking it to the next level this year.”

For Vaughn, music is recreational, a way to express his creative side. It’s also a way to spend time with other musicians.

Vaughn and his bandmates use their shared experiences as both motivation and support system. “The social circle is part of the appeal. We have a very close-knit group. People I play with in the band understand the rigors and sacrifices you have to make to be there and they’re very supportive. They understand when you have to study and when you have to rehearse and we find time to spend together to just hang out and have fun.

“I learned time management in my freshman year. It was difficult at first but I learned how to balance work and relaxation and have time for both. Honestly, it can be a little rough for anyone, regardless of what your major is. As long as you can find that balance, things will work themselves out.”

Bianca Dumlao, a freshman mechanical engineering student, wasn’t on the UTSA campus when the Spirit of San Antonio was being formed. She was marching with the Kempner High School band in Sugar Land, Texas. In fact, she was the drum major at KHS for her junior and senior years—a passion she’s finding difficult to give up.

“I was going to quit band after high school to concentrate on my studies, but I saw how much fun everyone was having so I signed up,” says Dumlao. “I’m so glad I did. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s more fun than high school. In high school it’s more competitive. We went to different contests and our main focus was on University Interscholastic League (UIL) band competition. At the college level, it’s more about spirit and supporting the team. Everything we do on campus and in the community is about supporting the team.”

Like most non-music majors, Dumlao doesn’t take any music-related courses other than participating in the band. As a freshman however, she’s leaving her options open. “Right now I’m just participating in the band because it’s fun. I might look into a music minor but that’s something to think about in the future.”

Vaughn, a saxophonist who intends to march again in his senior year, sums up his collegiate band experience with a not-surprisingly engineering-related analogy. “There’s an old saying about ‘the sky’s the limit.’ How can you tell us the sky’s the limit when we’ve already put our footprint on the moon?”

–Randy Lankford

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