You can’t get any cooler than a group of students getting together to form a VGM orchestra that grows to be a huge success. In the fall of 2005, UMD Gamer Symphony was born on the campus of University of Maryland that only had 5 students. Few years later, they have over 80 musicians! Playing VGM varying from Tetris to Halo to Final Fantasy, the music they play is bound to please the general audience. They also just had their spring concert of 2009 on May 9th. I was able to have some questions answered by them.
How did the UMD GSO start?
The University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra officially started as a student group in the fall of 05, but the first rehearsal was in Spring 06. It started as a tiny group of only 5 musicians, and there was a lot of turbulence trying to find a direction, but under the guidance of our conductor Greg Cox, we were able to quickly grow musically to where we are today.
Did you expect it to become well known?
Yes, I think there are a lot of people that would be fans of us if they knew about us.
How many do you have currently playing?
We currently have about 83 musicians, including our chorus. Some members were in both the orchestra and the chorus, but we're asking everyone to pick one sub-group to be a part of now in order to be able to focus better.
How difficult was it to gather so many musicians who wanted to play VGM?
Not really so difficult. Once word got out, there were a lot of musicians who wanted to play with the GSO. One semester, we almost doubled in size. However, we are still lacking a bit in strings, at least proportionally. We still haven't found a contrabassist. I guess some instruments just don't lend themselves well to being played by gamers' delicate fingers.
What are your personal favorite pieces?
Given that I arranged it, a big one for me is Kirby Super Star. Having something you created performed in front of a 1000-person audience is an awesome experience. I'd say it was the proudest moment of my life. Other than that, I love our Chrono Trigger song (even though we stole it), One Winged Angel was awesome, and Still Alive is very emotional for me. Halo's pretty awesome too.
What seems to be the crowds favorite?
On the 9th, from the feedback sheets, people seemed to like Metal Gear Solid a lot. I like that piece too. Actually, I really like a lot of our pieces. There are only very few I don't; I suspect our audiences may feel the same.
How do you decide which game music to play?
Each arranger is free to decide what they arrange, and if the Music Committee decides the arrangement is good enough and we have time that semester, we'll do it. We have a lot of arrangers, probably about 10 so far. We have a listserv where we post our arrangements-in-progress and they get commented upon. It's a collaborative sort of process sort of thingy.
Any troubles when setting up UMD Gamer Symphony that had to be overcome and if so what?
Rehearsal and concert spaces were always our biggest concern. Originally, we had to rehearse in a moldy old lecture hall with no space for stands and bad acoustics. We still have to do that occasionally today, although we normally use the Chapel, which has its own problems, like not having enough chairs. So we bought some. We have to make do with what we have. Convincing the Student Government Association to give us money for these things is sometimes a pain. We also have to rent a tuba, because nobody owns one.
Any future pieces you have in mind playing/performing?
There are always a lot of ideas swimming around any given arranger's head. Personally, I'd like to arrange music from Goemon's Great Adventure, the DKC series, Metroid Prime, and a bunch of others. We may be doing SMW2: Yoshi's Island next semester, but then again, we may not.
I know arrangements are sometimes spur of the moment. Kirby Super Star happened out of the blue one day while I was trying to arrange Mega Man X music, and I just completely changed gears immediately. Greg's told me a similar story: he had been working on a Starcraft piece for a while, then just decided to do Katamari.
How did more and more people join, through advertisement or personal connections?
Most of the freshmen we get are from advertising during orientation. In the beginning, though, it was mostly friends of people already in the orchestra joining.
When's your next concert?
We have concerts at the end of every semester. Our next one is slated for some time around Dec. 12.
Lastly, do you have any suggestions/advice for those who are thinking about starting a video game music orchestra at their own college?
Err, don't wa-ri, do yah best?
We actually are very interested in helping out other orchestras who want to play video game music - we've helped support a GSO at a local high school, Magruder HS. They just had their first concert, and it went really well. We have a separate nonprofit organization dedicated to this kind of thing, so I guess my advice would be to contact us. If you're really serious, I mean. First you'll have to get some people together; we're not gonna come to your college and recruit. But we started out as a 5-person group, so that'd be enough. Anything other than that, though, we would love to help. Arrangements, planning, SGA support, that sort of thing. We love the idea of other people doing this. It'll help if we have to move in the future.
I want to thank UMD GSO again for answering these questions and playing music that fills gamers (and hopefully anyone!) with joy and passion. Definitely visit their website http://www.umd.gamersymphony.org/. One thing is for sure, I'm a hardcore advocate for campuses having their own VGM orchestra. It would bring variety to the college experience ;)