Occidental-Caltech Concert Band Preps for Saturday Performance


Author: Cordelia Kenney

The Occidental-Caltech Concert Band reflects the ideal for musical ensembles. With nearly 80 members drawn from Occidental and Caltech students, alumni, professors and community members, the band brings together the old and the young, the young college kids and the seasoned scientists. In preparation for their upcoming concert next Sat., Feb. 19, the group gathered in Thorne Hall for their weekly Thursday practice, filling the room with lively banter and laughter.

When asked about their experience, students overwhelmingly agree that the concert band has been enormously worthwhile. Since the band is based at Caltech, most members heard about it through word of mouth or by actively seeking out musical groups on campus. Jessie Salter (first year), who plays the bassoon, stated, “I knew I wanted to do music in college, so when I went to try out for orchestra, I saw the flyer for concert band and decided to sign up.”

Most Occidental members wanted to continue to play their instruments in college and were overjoyed to discover the concert band. “It used to be that playing was a chore but I’m doing it because I want to and because I love it. I met people I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Joyce Lee (sophomore) said, a member of the flute section.

Meeting once a week for two hours, the band is a way to keep up on an instrument without paying for private lessons or committing too much time to an ensemble. Shelby King (sophomore), a flutist, explained that the group is casual and informal. “Everyone wants to be there and to play; it’s a really easygoing, fun atmosphere and everyone is very passionate about it,” she said.

Although a majority of the students are from Caltech, Occidental contributes 15 students to the ensemble, the highest number yet, according to director Bill Bing. Priority is given to Occidental and Caltech students who want to enter the group and then other instrumentalists from outside the partner colleges are invited to join to fill unique musical positions. Members from the Jet Propulsion Lab, a Caltech professor of geology, a director of the Deep Sea Network and a chief scientist from the Spitzer Space Telescope are just a few of the players from the wider community of both schools. As Bing described, the band has an added bonus of serving as a place where “students can mingle with scientists who are well-established in their field…it keeps the old young and lets the young potentially find a mentor.”

Not only do students socialize with renowned scientists, they also get to interact with talented musicians. The band constantly works with guest conductors, who occasionally even bring in their own original scores. Guest soloists such as David Shiffren and Allan Vogel, both of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, as well as numerous others have accompanied the band in concert.  Even juggler Stephen Bent ’09 joined the band onstage for their Feb. 2009 concert.

Their relationship goes further than exchanging performers, however. Next month during Caltech’s spring break, the band will travel to China to perform with band members from Tsinghua University, one of China’s leading universities. The performances with Tsinghua will be held at the Great Wall and the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Bing explained that the offer came unexpectedly via email from a tour group based in Canada; after doing some research, Bing accepted this remarkable opportunity. To enable all students to go, Bing negotiated with Irene Girton, the Music Department Chair as well as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, to provide a grant for the trip and significantly reduce the students’ expected contribution.

Bing, who has been with Caltech since 1970, is the mastermind behind the integration of the two schools. After becoming the conductor of the Caltech concert band in the mid-eighties, Bing also began teaching trumpet here at Occidental. At this time Occidental needed a band director, so Bing came up with the unique idea of fusing the Occidental and Caltech bands. Since that time, the band has enabled an enthusiastic, diverse group of musicians to converge weekly and create music.

Indeed, Bing’s personable and amiable directing style, which includes a fifteen-minute snack break of gourmet treats, is part of what makes the band so enjoyable. King, who, along with everyone else, affectionately refers to him by his first name, describes the consensus among students, “Bill is an amazing conductor who provides a great balance by getting us to work and still have fun.” Intrinsic to the band’s success is his “ability to make us sound so great and have fun while doing it,” King said.

The respect is mutual. When asked about his favorite part of band, Bing immediately responded that it is the students. “We are sincere about what we do,” he said. Getting to spend time with who he describes as wonderful people is in large part what makes it such a meaningful endeavor. It is no wonder that Bing elicits such adoration from his group. With remarks like, “making music is not necessarily about hitting the right notes,” Bing easily reveals his warm, compassionate teaching method and concern for his students.

Truly a hidden gem of the music department, the Occidental-Caltech Concert Band merits no overlooking. Seldom is a group able to fluidly incorporate such a variety of people into its fold and make it remarkable. So look for the posters on campus this week to attend their free concert this Sat., Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Thorne Hall.

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