While I waited for my first Pops Orchestra at UCSB rehearsal to begin, I remember nervously fiddling with the keys of my tenor saxophone. It had been three years since I had last played, and I missed that electric feeling. As one of the student conductors stepped up to the podium with his baton, the 60 musicians soon began to fill the room with the swelling melodies of a Harry Potter movie medley, and my nervousness fell away.
As a political science and philosophy double major at UC Santa Barbara, for someone like me, few opportunities come along to play music. The Music Department’s orchestras and jazz bands offer spots to non-music majors, but winning a seat requires considerable skill and keeping it takes significant practice time — neither of which I had. Pops Orchestra founder and current Co-president David Nakazono helped to change that by creating an orchestra open to everyone interested in playing lively music with passionate people.
Nakazono first got the idea during fall 2014 when he learned the Music Department’s orchestra had no need for trumpet players for the pieces they were playing that quarter. Nakazono had played in the formal orchestra every quarter as a trumpet music performance major before that, and he suddenly found himself with much more free time. “Orchestral music is my favorite genre, and so I wanted to figure out how to fill that hole in the quarter,” he said. “It gave me the idea of starting another orchestra where we could play really fun music from movie soundtracks or video games.” With some helpful guidance from UCSB Music Professor Christopher Rountree, Nakazono set his plan in motion.
Starting out, he had only 10-15 musicians and no designated practice space. They had to bounce around from classroom to classroom to rehearse, which became a problem because, as Nakazono said, “You just can’t play cello at a desk.” But after bringing on key leadership members, gathering arrangers to write customized pieces for the eclectic assortment of instruments, and finally landing a suitable place to practice, the group became a full fledged orchestra with 60-plus musicians. According to lead arranger and future co-president Tristan Dario Perez, the organization is entirely student run. “We write the music; we teach the music we conduct. We organize the rehearsals, and we get the spaces. We manage all the money and invest in all the equipment.”
But the Pops Orchestra at UCSB is not merely a copy of UCSB’s Chamber Orchestra; it is a relaxed atmosphere of passionate musicians playing what they want and doing what they love. Co-president Dylan Aguilera, who plays trombone and majors in music performance, explained, “One of the main core principles of the group is to just let anyone who wants to play music to play music.” This orchestra is open to everyone in the community, from students to professors to anyone in the Santa Barbara/Goleta area. Even the way Pops Orchestra at UCSB selects the music is up to its members. The leadership posts a poll every quarter for suggestions, and then the arrangers figure out how to make it work. This has led them to a range of exciting music such as movie soundtracks, video game compositions, classical pieces, and even Taylor Swift songs.
Although Pops Orchestra is going strong, many of the key members of the group — such as Nakazono and Aguilera — graduate this spring. Nevertheless, they feel confident that the organization will continue to grow because of the passion the members have for the organization. “There are always going to be people who are interested in playing music. And if people have an interest in something, there will always be some people that will work to make it keep going,” Aguilera said. Nakazono also noted that next year’s leaders, including Perez, are more than qualified to take the orchestra to new and exciting places.
After several rehearsals with Pops Orchestra, it felt almost as if I had never stopped playing my saxophone. It was amazing to finally have a space where I could do what I love without feeling the pressure of perfection. At the final concert of the quarter, we took the audience on an adventure through the caves of Tibet with Indiana Jones, in the shark-infested waters of Jaws, and to the magical world of Harry Potter. As I stood with my fellow band mates to bow in front of the clapping audience, I realized that joining Pops Orchestra had been one of the best decisions I had made in my undergraduate career.
To check out Pops Music Orchestra at UCSB, the Pops, Rocks, and Stars concert begins at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 6. Admission is free, and it will take place in the University Center Hub at UC Santa Barbara. To find out how to join Pops Orchestra, email firstname.lastname@example.org.