By Paula Friedrich
It’s a Tuesday night at 10:15 P.M. and the Michigan Pops Orchestra board meeting has just ended on the fourth floor of the Union. While the board members chat, an acapella rehearsal next door drifts through the walls. “They’re our less talented cousins,” jokes the Pops archivist Kevin McDonough (French Horn).
In all seriousness, Pops and acapella groups do have one thing in common: they play rearranged “popular” music. So for the Pops Orchestra that can be Bach, Lady Gaga, show tunes— McDonough: “Show tunes are great, or even fabulous you might say.”—whatever they think would be fun.
Bus Director Marie Ternes (French Horn) said the Pops Orchestra this year is made up of 114 musicians who joined for that very reason: fun.
“[Pops] is for people who love to play music and don’t want to stop after high school or after their bachelors degree, but they also have another passion,” she said.
That might be biology or engineering or creative writing. Pops members are mostly non-music majors, but they still have to go through an audition process–“The seven trials,” McDonough deadpans. About 250 people audition but only about 100 musicians can fit onto Michigan Theatre’s stage so they have to draw the line there.
Even just the seven-person board is pretty cramped in the University Activities Committee office, where they meet, so the sheer number of musicians can turn into a stress-factor for the student-run organization.
“Copying music for people can get pretty stressful.” says Programs Director Tim Wiryaman (Cello)
“Yeah, copying music for everybody in the orchestra is 13 songs for 100 people.” Ternes chimes in. Then so does the rest of the board.
“We have 114 people this year.”
“Is that the biggest it’s been?”
“It’s gotta be.”
“We have an army of French Horns.”
“No we’ve had bigger.”
“That’s when we had a really bad trombone section.”
But back to this year: the orchestra rehearses three hours every week. Outside of that the board agreed that most members don’t really rehearse.
“We typically count on maybe an eighth of the orchestra actually practicing,” McDonough says earnestly. “We’re not trying to perform the best possible piece of music that we can. I mean, we perform great music and we do a really good job at it but we’re not trying to be perfect at it.”
Wiryaman said most members are capable musicians, so they are able to work off of sheet music on the spot.
Ternes said she was surprised at the high caliber of the orchestra when she first joined.
“I was like ‘Oh these are all the rejects that didn’t get into the music school,” she explained. “But what it really is is people who didn’t necessarily want to go to the music school because they want to do something else.”
“I would venture to guess that music was probably the first love of of many of the people in the orchestra,” McDonough said. “That it was the first thing that any of us worked really hard for.
Even now when I play my horn I have this comfort and this sense of calm and this its almost like a meditative process where it brings me back to my center.”
UAC Liason Neal Anderson (Trumpet) says he joined Pops so he could keep playing, but stayed because of “Pops Love,” which is what they call their strong sense of community.
The board, seated in a semi-circle, listens to McDonough talk about the moment when people “get Pops.”
“For some people its that first day at rehearsal when they end up meeting someone who’s going to become their best friend.”
“Or their wife,” chimes in Publicity Director Jen Wei (violin). She’s talking about the fact that McDonough met his fiancée through Pops.
That draws a chorus of “Pops Love!” from the rest of the board.
The orchestra also uses “Pops Love” to describe the way they feel about the organization itself. Ternes said Pops becomes the only thing she thinks about on “concert day.”
“I put everything else aside,” she explained. “No matter how busy I am with school or work. It doesn’t really matter that day is for Pops and it’s from 8:30 in the morning to 11 o’clock at night. Its just euphoric.”
“It’s kind of a beautiful thing in the sense that we all worked together to come up with this very singular idea of what we thing music is or what we think something should sound like,” McDonough said. “But the fact that we’re working together in such a way that it just comes out magically. That’s part of music that part of art that’s part of being friends and being passionate about something.”
And last Sunday that was true when the orchestra filled the Michigan Theatre for “Pops Takes Flight.
“We’re actually ‘taking flight,’” McDonough says.
“We bought enough balloons to lift Michigan theatre up,” Anderson riffs.
The rest of the board’s on top of it:
“We did it before that film, UP”
“Yeah we’ve been planning this since like 2005. Michigan Theater doesn’t even know.”
“We’ve been collecting balloons for the past like 5 years. We have 10 million.”
“We cant really guarantee a safe landing.”
“But we’re bringing our shotguns so we can knock a few out at a time.”