Music: The Greatest Escape


Travis Tribble


Summer is coming and there will be an abundance of new bands to go see, including SCC student Em Heffernan’s project Nessy.

Em Heffernan singing in the band Nessy at a house show. Photo credit Travis Tribble

On April 20, Nessy opened a house show with a combination of eight-bit digital pop and jazzy rock. Heffernan’s vocals were clean and at times operatic as the drummer produced danceable beats. The guitarists layed down gritty chords and intricate solos while the keyboard player filled the room with playful harmonies.

The music had a magic to it that, at face value, was hard to place but had everything to do with a balance of Heffernan’s years of experience, education at SCC and lifelong commitment to practice.

The Early Years

Heffernan started playing guitar at five years old, mostly to impress their father who is an Irish folk musician. “Part of why I wanted to learn music was because I wanted to show my dad, like, ‘I can do that too,’ you know, like, ‘Look at me!’” Heffernan said.

Around fifth grade is when classical music training took hold as Heffernan started learning to read music and play the viola first, followed by the upright bass for the school orchestra, which continued for the next eight years. Heffernan would play guitar through elementary and middle school, which intensified as their gender identity started come into play.

“There’s so many factors that go into gender socialization,” Heffernan said. “I used to hang out with girls and we’d play dress up and I’d consider myself just one of the girls like hanging out. Then as I got older, my parents didn’t take me to do that as much.”

After a brief stint playing sports, Heffernan decided to focus 100 percent on mastering music and started taking guitar lessons at Best Buy’s specific music program until it shut down.

That’s when Heffernan ended up in the School of Rock.

Big Stages and Competitions

The School of Rock is an international program where kids ages eight to 18 are organized into bands that play live shows covering a range of popular rock music from the ‘70s to present day. “It was kind of an intense place,” Heffernan said “The elite house bands were at the top of the food chain.”

However, after only two seasons Heffernan auditioned for, and was accepted into, one of those elite house bands. Without much formal training on the guitar, Heffernan attributed this success to endless hours of practice saying, “It was all I did: For so long music has been my top form of escapism.”

Playing every venue in Seattle with the exception of the Key Arena, Heffernan was eventually chosen to be the guitarist in a band that would perform in an international competition against every other School of Rock program in the world.

The band didn’t do so well on the first day, and was not selected for the finals. On the second day of the competition they lucked out and got in on a “wild card” — where a band was randomly selected to get a second chance to prove themselves. “So later that day we were going to play on the same stage as Alice Cooper in front of like hundreds of people,” said Heffernan.

They realized that every other school had several kids in each band, and were swapping them out for fresh players each song but counting the band as a single submission. Knowing they had to do something different, Heffernan came up with the idea of playing two songs instead of three and playing them concurrently.

“We played ‘Stone Cold Crazy,’ and right after the last note we hit our E strings, (we) just let them ring out in unison, tuned down to drop D for ‘Super Not’ and kept the drums going in a solo to make a full transition,” Heffernan said.

They ended up winning the entire competition for Seattle’s School of Rock. According to Heffernan, this was a huge experience that they ended up taking for granted. “Immediately after I was like, ‘oh cool, what’s next?’ — and what a mistake.” In hindsight, Heffernan expressed regret in not enjoying the accomplishments and learning from the missteps and instead deciding to move on quickly toward a new project.

Party Shark and the Rebellion

After the ether of success in School of Rock, Heffernan felt the need to take matters into their own hands. As an act of rebellion against the structure of School of Rock, Party Shark was formed, a punk surf rock band in which Heffernan played drums. They booked house shows around Seattle and played music so aggressive that Heffernan would sometimes bleed on the drumset.

Party Shark played a Seattle “battle of the bands” program called “Sound Off” and lost in the first round. Heffernan was focusing on solo projects during that time and decided to take that failure as a learning experience. “We were having a hard time networking with other people,” they said, “which was a huge loss for us but at the same time that band had some issues, and ended up falling apart.”

SCC and the Future

Heffernan started taking music theory classes and private piano lessons at SCC in winter 2019 under the guidance of SCC music professor Charles Enlow. “Once I kind of got over myself it was like, okay, I could learn something from going to school for music.” Heffernan said. After successfully auditioning for private piano lessons from Enlow, Heffernan decided to integrate the classical structures they were learning into their band Nessy.

Up and coming musician Em Heffernan. Photo credit: Travis Tribble

“Trying to make the piece unique to yourself but also hold true to standards of different eras like Baroque and Romantic,” Heffernan said. “That’s something that I’ve never gotten from any other kind of teacher or playing any other kind of music: the insane attention to detail.”

Heffernan is taking full advantage of what the music department has to offer; not just in lessons, but also in networking. Nessy has found a music business major that is acting as band manager and helping them work on branding. They are also recording with one of the digital audio students. “I’ve been in a rut where I’m in a local band and I don’t know where the opportunities are, so I’m now trying to just create them,” Heffernan said.