Engineering the Video Game Music Ensemble

Image of the Video Game Music Ensemble performing on March 18, 2022 at the Don Keranen Memorial Jazz Concert at Michigan Tech
The Video Game Music Ensemble performs on March 18, 2022 at the Don Keranen Memorial Jazz Concert at Michigan Tech.

Turning a Love of Video Game Music into an Ensemble

What happens when you have a love for jazz/funk/fusion and video game music? Naturally you form an ensemble. Ryan Briggs and Sean Hanson formed theirs in the fall of 2019; the Video Game Music (VGM) Ensemble. The ensemble is now a student-run group of thirty musicians who like to arrange, rehearse, and perform songs from various video game franchises. 

Video Game Music Creates an Emotion and Heightens Interest in the Genre

Image of Ryan Briggs playing base in the Video Game Music Ensemble at Michigan Tech
Ryan Briggs plays stand-up bass in the Video Game Music Ensemble.

Video game music was always front and center. It spoke to them. “It’s similar to the interest with film music, when you hear the initial Star Wars theme music with the title screen, it elicits a very strong feeling of excitement, adventure, and grandiose. It’s the same thing with video game music, the difference is that each piece from a video game isn’t the theme of a story that you’re watching unfold, it’s the theme of your story as the player. It’s a very impactful and personal medium,” says Ryan. “I love the way music can manipulate emotions and make us feel…. It’s just really fascinating to me.”

Sean relates. “Soundtracks are probably the feature of games that enhance it the most for me – since it can really amp up an action or bring the emotion for a sad scene – almost cinematic in a way. And there’s such a huge diversity of music featured in games today as well – a forest might have a somber composition with flutes, piano, and violin – a beach/ocean setting might have groovy Latin percussion and ukulele/classical guitar – a snowy/ice setting might have twinkly glockenspiel and triangle – and a fiery/volcanic setting might have driving drum patterns, heavy electric guitars, and powerful low brass. While these cliches are common in video game compositions – they nonetheless are extremely effective in establishing the setting of a game – and that’s just from an orchestral point of view.”

Online Influencers Show What’s Possible

Online influencers helped to grow Sean’s interest. He started to get involved with the YouTube VGM community. A YouTuber named Carlos “insaneintherainmusic” Eiene played jazz arrangements of popular video game songs (notably Nintendo games). “He basically did everything I’ve always wanted to do – arrange, play, and mix his own arrangements on YouTube, organize an ensemble to playing and recording VGM at his college, although he graduated from Berklee – which is obviously a lot different than MTU, and perform at concert venues and convention centers,” Sean says. Carlos is one of the figureheads of the VGM scene.

The Pixel Mixers community is another key influencer. Sean describes it as “a tight-knit group of musicians of all instruments, genres, and countries of origin dedicated to making collaborative albums dedicated video games/franchises. Everyone here is super supportive of one another, and internet collaborations are very common.” Sean has used Pixel Mixers to collaborate on piano and percussion with dozens of people around the world in a fun and safe environment.

Image of Sean Hanson, founder of the Video Game Music Ensemble at Michigan Tech, playing keyboards.
Sean Hanson, founder of the Video Game Music Ensemble at Michigan Tech.

An Ensemble is Born at Michigan Tech

Thanks to Ryan and Sean, video game music took root here. Now there’s thirty active members. There’s another seventy interested people on Discord. To Ryan, “It’s a great intersection of interests, so when I found someone else (Sean) with the same interests, it was only natural to want to make fun music with like-minded people.”

Adam Meckler, Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Michigan Technological University says “The formation of the VGM Jazz Ensemble is a great example of how creative, resourceful, and motivated our students are here at Tech. All of the credit for VGM’s success and growth goes to Ryan and Sean, who organize all of the rehearsals, arrange all of the music, and rehearse the band in preparation for performances. I am just glad that I have a platform to give them performance opportunities so they can show off all their hard work. Bravo Ryan, Sean, and band!”

So how did it begin? According to Ryan and Sean the VGM Ensemble happened spontaneously. After a Research & Development (R&D) Jazz Band rehearsal, Sean was playing “Space Junk Galaxy” on piano from Super Mario Galaxy. Ryan Briggs (the R&D bass player) took notice of this, and came over to talk about it. The conversation turned to their favorite game soundtracks (Ryan’s primarily The Legend of Zelda and Sean’s primarily Pokemon). Next they were talking about forming a small group. They sought the advice of Adam Meckler.

Sean continues “We decided to choose Thursday nights as our main rehearsal day since the band room was usually open then and also didn’t interfere with any other of the ensembles at MTU. We also asked Zane Smalley to play drums for us – and we’ve since learned that drummers are the ones who control the rehearsal schedule. A few more people joined in (trumpet, trombone, alto sax, and tenor sax), and we mostly just played a few video game songs casually. VGLeadSheets is an extremely helpful database full of fan-arranged lead sheets of various VGM pieces, so we mostly played these for the first few months. At this time, we didn’t really have any end-goals or performances in mind – I was just happy to have a chance to play some of my favorite songs from games with other people. Unfortunately, in March 2020 we all know what happened, and then COVID made us go on indefinite hiatus.”

By Spring 2021 COVID restrictions eased. The VGM Ensemble started using the band room. Advertising on the MTU student Discord, subreddit, and word of mouth helped with recruitment. Ryan and Sean began to create their own arrangements which the ensemble rehearsed. The ensemble got its big break in March  2021. Adam Meckler offered to let them perform between bands at the Don Keranen Memorial Jazz Concert in March 2021 (performance timestamps are at 28:46 and 1:10:53). The band also opened the 2022 festival in March 2022. And Sean recorded a session for an album in April 2021 which he plans to release soon.

By Fall of 2021 membership in the band essentially doubled thanks to interest from freshmen. Ryan and Sean decided to organize their own concert and worked with George Hommowun (Rozsa Production Manager) to get it scheduled. In November 2021 they had their  first concert and filled their allotment of seats (don’t forget, capacity restrictions were still in place). 

“Hands down, our November concert “Playing With Power!” was my favorite moment of the ensemble.” Sean adds, “Doing something like this has been a dream of mine since my senior year of high school, and seeing it become a real thing actually made me tear up a bit. Seeing a full house audience also surprised me, considering we only had our concert information finalized and advertising ready less than a week before the performance – on top of it being right before Thanksgiving break when people were heading home.” Sean graduated soon after. He continues to write arrangements for the ensemble. Ryan has taken on the primary leadership role.

Video Game Music Ensemble Helps Sean and Ryan Grow

Leading the VGM Ensemble is not without its challenges. For Ryan, it has been learning how to play music while leading at the same time. Being aware of what others are playing while you are trying to play your notes can be a multi-tasking nightmare. And doing it while not having a background in music education is an added challenge. As Ryan relates, “I have no background in running and teaching an ensemble. I always took this aspect of it for granted. Band directors made it seem easy, partly due to their experience. They always had a plan.”

Sean supplements, “I’ve learned that there’s a LOT more that goes into organizing an ensemble than just the stuff we see on the surface. Even something as simple as organizing rehearsal schedules can be a lot of work – since we had to account for everyone’s personal schedules, the times the band room is actually available, and even times when parking is enforced or no. I also mentioned earlier that the drummer is truly the person who decides the rehearsal time – since if they can’t make it… you’re not having an ensemble.”

He also learned how to be flexible and to work with the strengths of the team to create success for all. “Since we’re not a music school, we have to account for the different skill levels of musicians here. Since we wanted our ensemble to be available to everyone regardless of proficiency and instrument, writing arrangements that everyone can play while still having fun can sometimes be difficult – I found that out the hard way last year when I arranged “Guile’s Theme” from Street Fighter II in its original key (concert C# minor)… yeah, safe to say some of the wind players were not happy with me. But at the same time, this opens up creative possibilities for arrangements. One of the best examples I can use is our arrangement of “Big Blue” from F-Zero. The original track is very obviously written and played for a computer/electronic instrument with triplet runs at 210 beats per minute. Since these are clearly not playable for most humans, we decided to slow things down into a funk arrangement instead – which everyone enjoyed and appreciated,” Sean says.

Sean Hanson, founder of the Video Game Music Ensemble at Michigan Tech has arranged many video game scores.
Sean Hanson’s arrangement of Monster House.

Why Does Music Thrive at Michigan Tech?

Michigan Tech has a supportive environment for students passionate about music. As Ryan observes, “Tech has a concentrated community of passionate people who are drawn to each other and want to help each other, build each other up. There is no music major here which helps to reduce competition. We’re all in it together and building each other up. It’s a great environment for getting feedback too.” And music runs much deeper for students like Ryan. He invokes a line he often heard from his mother, “While I am in Engineering I will be able to feed my family. But music will feed my soul.” Ryan hopes to continue to cultivate his passion for music.

With nine different bands and ensembles, two choirs, a symphony orchestra, practice facilities, a sound lab and a recording studio, the McArdle Theatre, and the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts, Michigan Tech has great facilities to let students exercise their creative muscles and hone their craft. Ryan has taken advantage of the variety of opportunities in music at Michigan Tech. As mentioned earlier, he plays in the R&D Jazz Band. He also plays in the Campus Concert Band and serves as one of the trumpet section leaders for Huskies Pep Band. “Pep Band is so much fun! There is no band like it,” he beams. “Pep Band was my first group of friends on campus. Everyone is looking for a group to belong to when they step foot on campus. Some of my best friends are from pep band.”

Image of the Michigan Tech Huskies Pep Band
Ryan Briggs (back row, upper left) and the Huskies Pep Band.

Sean points out other opportunities for music such as informal jam groups that pop-up around campus. “There’s also a surprisingly active local music scene for those who would rather play independent of the school – and several venues such as the Orpheum in Hancock and Bonfire in Houghton. And then if you’re an electronic musician/producer, there’s a student Discord server full of electronic musicians to discuss ideas and share works. There’s definitely more than you would expect from a small town like Houghton.”

Music and Sound As Part of Their Future

What does the future hold for Ryan and Sean? Ryan is currently president of the Theme Park Engineering Group at Tech and dreams of a career in theme park entertainment. He’s more succinct about his five year goal. “I want to be working on one of the coasts. I want to be a Disney Imagineer.” He wants “to work on something that makes someone smile.” Combining his engineering skill with his passion for music is a great recipe for creating a satisfying theme park experience.

Sean graduated and has started his career at an architecture firm in St. Paul, MN. He designs systems (e.g. HVAC and plumbing) for government contracted buildings (schools, hospitals, police stations, etc.). At Tech he discovered he enjoyed working with acoustics and sound. “I took Acoustics and Noise Control as a technical elective in Spring 2021. It was hands down the coolest class I’ve ever taken in my college career – since I got to geek out STEM-wise and audio-wise at the same time. I’m especially interested in room acoustics and studio design. So when I interviewed for the company I’m currently at, I brought up my music background and how a healthy noise environment can enhance a building space (they liked it enough to give me a job, so there’s that). I don’t work with acoustic-related information very often, but I do occasionally use simulation programs to see how much noise an HVAC duct is making in a room – and if there’s any changes that need to be made accordingly.”

Sean continues to be involved in music as a side career. His personal VGM covers are available on commercial streaming services and stores (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.), which generates a small amount of revenue every month. “While it isn’t nearly enough to sustain me as a career, it’s nice to receive an extra $20 every now and then.”

Making Music Part of the Michigan Tech Experience

As Ryan and Sean’s story shows, music is a fun and rewarding part of the Michigan Tech experience. This is the place where you can find people who share your passion in music. Where you can partake in a variety of music experiences and genres. Hone a craft that allows you to exercise your creative muscle. 

Ryan shares, “People that are here are here because they want to be here. They love what they are doing. You can come here and do your own thing. You have a special musical interest, you can start your own ensemble. We have a pirate choir. If you have an interest and it’s not already here, you can start it.”

Anyone want to start up a Folktronica, Pirate Metal or Math Rock Band?


Don Keranen Jazz Awards

Director of Jazz Studies, Adam Meckler, has announced this year’s student recipients for the Don Keranen Endowed Scholarship Awards.

Each year, excellence in Jazz is recognized by way of the Don Keranen Memorial Jazz Scholarship. Three students are chosen by their peers in recognition of improvement, excellence, and leadership. Our award winners this year include R&D drummer Zane Smalley, Workshop Brass Band trombonist Matthew Plansinis, and Lab Band Lead Tenor player Grayson Dunham. These students all showed leadership, dedication, excellence, and improvement this year. I am grateful for them, and wish them continued success in the coming years. – Director of Jazz Studies, Adam Meckler.





Zane Smalley is a 3rd Year Software Engineering Major with a minor in Mathematical Science. He is a founding member of the Video Game Music Ensemble, and a member of the R&D Big Band, a Jazz Combo, and the Huskies Pep Band at Michigan Tech. Zane has been consistently involved with various bands and choirs since the age of 10 and started playing drums when he was about 13. When he isn’t in rehearsals, Zane enjoys spending his free time playing Super Smash Bros and Risk of Rain 2 with friends or playing and watching disc golf. 

Matthew Plansinis has had many aspirations in his life, but by far mathematics and music held most of his interest. From a young age, he liked to build stuff and was just curious how objects worked, so pursuing a career in engineering was an obvious choice. He only decided to major in biomedical engineering due to his youngest of two brothers, who was born with type 1 diabetes.

A majority of my life I’ve worked with and used equipment designed by biomedical engineers, so in hopes of improving my brother’s physical health, I chose to follow their path.”

 As for his interest in music, it started in 2011, when he started learning trombone for the first time in his middle school’s concert band. For the nine years following then, he would learn much, play in a variety of bands, and grow his appreciation for many genres of music. At this moment in his life, Matthew desires to gain a better knowledge of the history and theory of jazz, and to continue playing music in the future.

Grayson Dunham is a 4th year Audio Production and Technology student here at Michigan Tech. He has played in the Jazz Lab Band, as well as the Jaztec combo, for his entire collegiate career – as well as pursuing a minor in Jazz Studies. Some of his hobbies include backcountry skiing, mountain biking, music production and performance, and cooking. 


This Week at the Rozsa

by Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts

In the next week, join us for four Rozsa Presenting Series events:

  • Digital Movement of Joy Workshops
    Rozsa Presenting Series
    • Thursday, March 24 — 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
    • Saturday, March 26 — 10 a.m. to noon
      Joy as a catalyst for personal and social change? Each Movement of Joy Workshop curates and facilitates conversations for social change through the art and research of joy developed by founder Naila Ansari. No movement, dance or art experience is needed.
      Register for this free digital workshop.
      —–
  • Sinkane
    Rozsa Presenting Series
    • Friday, March 25 — 7:30 p.m.
      Get ready to dance in your seat all night long because Sudanese-American Sinkane is bringing funky electronica mixed with Sudanese pop to the Rozsa. Check him out on Spotify.
      Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for youth. Michigan Tech students can attend for free and bring a friend with the Experience Tech Fee.
      —–
  • Vieux Farka Touré
    Rozsa Presenting Series
    • Saturday, March 26 — 7:30 p.m.
      One of the world’s greatest guitarists and most innovative musicians, Vieux Farka Touré, is on an American Tour from Mali and his next stop is the Rozsa! Check him out on Spotify and get your tickets!
      Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for youth. Michigan Tech students can attend for free and bring a friend with the Experience Tech Fee.
      —–
  • Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States
    Rozsa Presenting Series

Looking Ahead:

  • The Thanksgiving Play
    Rozsa Presenting Series
    • Multiple dates — Shows begin at 7 p.m.
      Thursday, March 31 | Friday, April 1 | Saturday, April 2
      Thursday, April 7 | Friday, April 8 | Saturday, April 9
      Miss your turkey dinner leftovers? Get ready for a dinner theatre performance of Larissa FastHorse’s wickedly funny “The Thanksgiving Play,” performed by Wolf’s Head Theatre. Vegan and gluten-free dinner options available.
      Tickets are reserved seating by table and must be purchased in advance. Each table will be set for four and you can purchase a full ($120) or half table ($60). Students may purchase a half-table in advance for $20 with the Experience Tech Fee. Please place a single order to reserve seats for all individuals who would like to be seated together. Half tables may be seated alone or with another half table, as space allows.

Masks are strongly recommended for all in-person events at the Rozsa. Please visit the Rozsa COVID-19 Policies for the most up-to-date information.

Tickets to in-person events are available by phone at 906-487-1906 and online. The Rozsa Box Office is open for ticket purchases one hour before performances. 


Jazz Cabaret at the Rozsa

The annual Jazz Cabaret is back in person this weekend! Get your tickets to see Michigan Tech jazz combos, including Jaztec, Michigan Tech’s premier jazz ensemble, perform backstage at the Rozsa.

Jazz Cabaret — 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 28, and Saturday, January 29.

Tickets: $15 for adults and $5 for youth. Michigan Tech students can attend for free and bring a friend with the Experience Tech Fee.

Face coverings are required for volunteers, staff, and audience members at these events. Please visit the Rozsa COVID-19 Policies for the most up-to-date information.

Tickets for these events are available by phone at 906-487-2858, online or in person at the Central Ticketing Office in the Student Development Complex. The Rozsa Box Office will also be open for ticket purchases one hour before performances.


MTU Superior Wind Symphony Releases New Album, ‘iFiesta!’

by Lisa Gordillo, Visual and Performing Arts

The Michigan Tech Superior Wind Symphony has released a new album, iFiesta! The album contains original music by Guatemalan singer-songwriter Raúl López Colibrí, arranged by Mike Christianson.

Based on the children’s book of the same name by Hugo Gordillo, “iFiesta!” is a joy-packed, magical ride of Latin-American beats that will have you strumming, drumming and tap-tap-tapping.

Local children sang in the original concert and appear on the album, which also includes studio sessions, poetry readings and interviews.

“iFiesta!” is available as a hard-copy CD at the Michigan Tech bookstore, K.C. Bonkers and Black Ice Comics. It can also be found on Spotify, iTunes and Apple Music, or by visiting HearNow.

Song lyrics in Spanish and English can be found online.


An Evening of One Acts Auditions

The Department of Visual and Performing Arts announces auditions for an “Evening of One Acts” that will be produced on February 17-26 in McArdle Theatre.  This performance will include productions of four new works that are a collaboration with playwrights at the University of Michigan.  Michigan Tech students will serve as directors for the productions. Shows will be arranged in pairs with the possibility of acting in two productions. The performances are curated by Kristy Dodson, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre.

OPEN CALL: Come as you are! Sides of the script will be provided for you to look over and then read for the audition. Any interested individuals are encouraged to audition.  There are roles specified for four black women in one of the scripts.  The other scripts are open in their actor specifications.  

Plays include:  

I Hope… by Shannon Harper
Shaped by You by Dana Pierangeli
St. Julianna’s School for Troubled Girls by Claire Vogel
Taking Survey by MacKenzie Mollison

Audition Dates:
Friday, December 3, 6-8pm  Open Auditions for all shows. 
Saturday, December 4, 12-3pm Callbacks
Sunday, December 5, 12-3pm Callbacks

All auditions will be held in McArdle Theatre (2nd floor Walker Arts and Humanities Center).


KSO Wins Second Place in American Prize!

It was recently announced that the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra won 2nd Place in the American Prize in Orchestral Performance for its recordings of Jupiter and Sinfonia Antartica! The American Prize is a national music competition for American music performers, composers, directors, administrators, and ensembles.

Joel Neves, Music Director of the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra mentions “This is our second placement in the American Prize: in 2014, I received 3rd Place in the Orchestra Conductor category for the KSO’s performances of Brahms, Symphony No. 4 and Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”

Kudos go to Maya Ablao and Michael Chopp, our sound designers for Jupiter and Sinfonia Antartica; conScience for their choral contribution; Kate Van Susante as soloist; Kent Cyr for building our wind machine; and, of course, the amazing musicians of the KSO for their artistic excellence.


Auditions for Stories that Go Bump in the Night!

Auditions for Stories That Go Bump In The Night, a collection of spooky and fun short stories, will be held this Sunday and Monday.

Sunday, September 12 – Rozsa 120 from 6-8pm.
Monday, September 13 – Walker 210 from 6-8pm.

Please wear a mask and observe social distancing while in the space.

We are looking for several actors, all inclusive, for this project. Those willing to have fun and get into the spirit of Halloween. Auditions will be cold readings, you will be provided with scripts at the time of your audition. Here is a link to some of the stories we are considering: Stories That Go Bump in the Night!

The collection of stories range from children’s Halloween time stories such as the Bogey-Beast, to that of Edgar Allan Poe. Bring your childhood wonder and curiosity!

For more information, contact Trish Helsel, helsel@mtu.edu or (906) 281-0203.


Auditions for The Arsonists – Sept 18, 19

Gottlieb Beidermann, is a respected businessman with a wife, Babette, and a comfortable home. He is the epitome of a conventional upper class gentleman. When rumors of arsonists in the area begin to surface, Beidermann convinces himself that the normalcy of his life will protect him. Evil arsonists may be going door to door, talking their way into people’s homes only to plot the destruction of those houses, but surely these men won’t fool him. A dark comedy, The Arsonists explores corruption, greed, and apathy that exists in society today and how all of us are just sitting around waiting for the world to burn.

Written by Max Frisch, translation by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Kristy Dodson
Staring Joshua Michael Levine (Off Bway Channeling Kevin Spacy

Auditions: Saturday, September 18 and Sunday, September 19 (6:45 – 9pm)
Location: Walker 210

OPEN CALL: Come as you are! Sides of the script will be provided for you to look over and then read for the audition. 

Roles: Babette: Beidermann’s wife, oblivious yet anxious
Anna: Beidermann’s servant, the only one who knows what is going on
Schmitz: A former wrestler and one of the arsonists
Billy: A former head waiter and one of the arsonists
Police Officer: Local police officer
Mrs. Knechtling: The grieving widow of Beidermann’s former business partner
Doctor of Philosophy: One of the arsonists who is now having doubts
Chorus of Firefighters: 3 Firefighters all attempting to save the town from the arsonists 

                                                                                         


Don Keranen Jazz Awards

Director of Jazz Studies, Adam Meckler, has announced this year’s student recipients for the Don Keranen Endowed Scholarship Awards.

Each year, excellence in Jazz is recognized by way of the Don Keranen Memorial Jazz Scholarship. Three students are chosen by their peers in recognition of improvement, excellence, and leadership. Our award winners this year include Jazz Lab Band drummer Izzy Waldie, Jazz Lab Band trombonist Nicholas Bussey, and R&D Big Band lead trumpeter Matthew Fisher. These students all showed leadership, dedication, excellence, and improvement this year. Given the limitations of rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions due to the pandemic, the work these students put in this year is especially impressive. I am grateful for them, and wish them continued success in the coming years. – Director of Jazz Studies, Adam Meckler.

Most Improved Player 
Izzy Waldie, Percussion
Jazz Lab Band

Izzy is a 19 year old Audio Production and Technology Major with a Computer Science Minor here at Tech, and the drummer for the Jazz Lab Band and top combo.  One day she hopes to work as a recording/mixing engineer or high fidelity loudspeaker designer.  She has been drumming since the second grade, and started playing jazz music in High School.  When not behind the kit or doing homework she is most likely making music, spending time with friends, or camping somewhere in the Keweenaw, or all three.

Most Valuable Player 
Matthew Fisher, Trumpet
R&D Big Band

Matt just finished his first year here at Michigan Tech as a Sound Design major. Music has always been a passion of his, and was excited to be a part of Tech’s Jazz Program.

“I’ve never had an opportunity to be a part of a legit jazz band, so I had a blast this year being a part of two bands and a combo. I’m looking forward to the next three years here at Tech and excited to continue performing in the jazz program!”

Most Valuable Player
Nicholas Bussey, Trombone Jazz Lab Band

Nicholas is a Second-Year Chemical Engineering student and trombonist in MTU’s Jazz Lab Band and top jazz combo. Also a composer, arranger and former Ravinia Jazz Scholar, he is constantly growing as a musician, and uses his skills to create multitrack music videos on top of his contributions in the Lab Band and combo. In his free time, he enjoys cycling long distances and playing niche board games. After graduating, he hopes to work to improve sustainability in the specialty coatings, food or plastics industries.