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Rob Garner - 'Note'-worthy Video Games
Web editor Rob Garner spends his work days hovering over a keyboard. But it’s keys of a different type that occupy his off-hours: Garner is a musician in the Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland.

“GSO is the very first college orchestra to draw its repertoire entirely from the sound tracks of video games,” Garner says. “By taking these songs and putting them in a concert hall, we hope to bring new audiences to orchestral music and to video games. We tend to think this music is great, even if you’ve never touched a game controller.”

Garner’s musical career began in the fourth grade when he decided to learn trumpet. “I didn’t like math, and music was an occasional free pass because it met at the same time,” he says. “I picked trumpet because it was small and only had three buttons to worry about.”

Garner kept up with the horn through college. GSO’s founder recruited Garner in late 2005. Back then, the group was brand new. There were less than a dozen members and the group had yet to rehearse, let alone perform in public.

“I saw a chance to couple music performance with a childhood love of Nintendo games, so I jumped on board,” Garner says. To resolve an overcrowding problem in the trumpet section, Garner switched to flugelhorn, a cross between the trumpet and the French horn, in the fall of 2007. He ran GSO’s administration as a graduate student and now serves as the group’s president emeritus.

Rob Garner playing the flugelhorn.› Larger image
Rob Garner playing his flugelhorn. Credit: E. Campion
GSO today consists of 120 people, 80 in the orchestra and 40 in the chorus. Rehearsals are once a week and the ensemble gives one concert each semester. “We don’t want cost to be a barrier,” Garner says, so the shows are always free. Students manage all aspects of the ensemble, he says, including conducting and sheet music production. “There aren’t a lot of game scores available for purchase, so members listen to the music and transcribe parts for GSO by ear.” Garner notes that the process “gives the music our own style.”

He finds it remarkable how dedicated everyone is to GSO, given that members receive neither payment nor academic credit for their efforts. “In a lot of cases people sacrifice their time and money to participate,” he says. “But the music and the people mean so much to us that we’re more than happy to do it.”

Gamer Symphony Orchestra in session.› Larger image
The Gamer Symphony Orchestra during one of its concerts. Credit: E. Campion
“We’re not just about performing,” Garner says. “We also want to make sure that the people in GSO are enjoying themselves. For us, it’s not just about our performances, it’s about our community.” Garner adds with a smile: “Some of us love GSO so much that we start relationships within it.” Garner met his fiancée, a violinist, in the ensemble.

The greater community of video game music fans is paying attention, too. GSO shows routinely fill the largest concert hall on the university’s campus. Some area high schools have even founded orchestras in GSO’s image.

The professional Video Games Live touring concert series took interest in the college musicians, and the two groups worked together to add some GSO pieces
to the tour in 2011 and 2012. “Video Games Live was one of the sources of inspiration behind our founding, so to get that level of recognition from them was simply amazing,” Garner says.

GSO capped off its 2012 season with a spring concert at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. “The museum invited us to perform as part of their ‘Art of Video Games’ exhibit,” Garner says. “Our whole purpose is to show that video games have legitimate artistry. It’s immensely satisfying to see that idea gaining ground.”

Related Links:

› Gamer Symphony Orchestra website
› More Outside Goddard profiles
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.