UNH grad puts together video game orchestra

By Charlie Weinmann
On November 30, 2012

UNH graduate student Cheng Her has started to create what he calls a video game orchestra. Her has created an opportunity for musicians to get together and play their favorite theme songs as well as other songs from different video games. He has gathered enough interested musicians to get the ball rolling.
Her spent most of his undergraduate years at Assumption College, and then chose to attend UNH for graduate school, so he could still enjoy New England's winter season that allows him to ski and snowboard. Having studied biochemistry for most of his academic life, Her does research in that department at UNH.
But doing research wasn't enough for him; he wanted more from his UNH experience.
"Life isn't as fulfilling just working in the lab and stuff, so I thought, 'Let me try something'," Her said.
Being a musician, he became inspired by an array of orchestras he saw while working in Maryland. He fell in love with the way the orchestras worked together to create beautiful music.
One day, he got an email from a friend that had a link to a unique rendition of the "Legend of Zelda" theme song. Her had heard this song countless times before, but the uniqueness of this particular rendition sparked an idea. He wanted to create something new and exciting. He made up some "crude" flyers, not knowing what to expect.
"I wasn't expecting anyone to actually see them or do anything at all," he said. He was excited when the first student emailed him, expressing interest in the project. That first email encouraged him to work toward making this dream a reality.
Over the last two months or so, he has rounded up 10 musicians who are interested in joining his video game orchestra. Her mentioned that the number of people who contact him is increasing, mostly through word of mouth now. Those who have signed up are getting their other musically talented friends to join.
Her gave credit to sophomore Olivia Touba, who is a large part of the growing success of the video game orchestra. He admits Touba probably puts more effort into his project than he does. She has helped to motivate Her and inspired him to work hard, he said.
Her grew up playing a variety of stringed instruments. "I learned by playing this really horrible violin," he said. Her played throughout high school but never was interested in learning how to read music.
"I was kind of like a maverick where I would interpret the music differently and so I would play it, but it would interfere with what everyone else was playing because they were actually playing the music. I was playing what I thought the music should sound like in my mind," Her said.
He quit the orchestra in high school because he was tired of being pressured to read music. Today, he plays electric and classical guitar primarily. He joined the jazz ensemble when he got to college and was put on piano even though he had never played before.
"I had two left hands at first," he said. But Her has gone on to become more proficient on the piano, and says he enjoys perfecting his guitar skills.
Her became inspired to start learning classical music, and specifically video game music around the same time YouTube was becoming popular. He was inspired by a few YouTube videos where musicians would cover themes from popular video games he knew as a child.
"Those people did their own thing and just played the music," he said.
Her wanted to learn the music from the video games he loved. He voiced his opinion on how he views video games: "It's not just hitting a button or swinging a sword. ... It always reminds me of being a kid. You didn't know what the world had to offer."
Her described some of his first memories of coming to the United States for the first time: "When we first came to America in '88 or '89, we had never seen a TV or anything like that, so the TV amazed me. We lived next to a family that had a Nintendo, and when I saw this little box with all these colors on screen, we were thrilled. That's what I associate my childhood with, and my first experience in America. ...I was blown away by what the world had to offer."
Her pulled out a small white book titled, "The Pocket Guide to Music Theory." He said he has to use "the idiots guide to music theory" to keep up with the skill level of the other musicians in the orchestra.
"I have to re-learn all this theory to stay on my game," he said.
Her will arrange all of the music for the orchestra, but mentioned that the group has not had a chance to have an official rehearsal just yet.
"I'm on the recruiting binge now," he said.
Her complained about the fact that the group would struggle to find a space within the university to practice, which is a concern with many other groups on campus due to limited space. Despite this small roadblock, Her is confident that the group could put on a few shows in the upcoming semester.
"I don't think we are going to become world famous or anything; I have no illusions of grandeur there, but I mean if some place like the Music Hall in Portsmouth invited us to play that would be really cool to do," Her said.
Her is also interested in having his orchestra play songs from some of his favorite movies. Two movies in particular inspired him to start the orchestra: "Batman Begins" and Disney's "Up."
Three pieces of music that Her said his orchestra must play are the "Back to the Future" theme, the theme from Christopher Nolan's Batman and selections from Lord of the Rings.
"That's sort of like a deal breaker," he said.
He would also love to incorporate iconic noises and sounds from video games as a unique aspect to their music.
"This isn't really a traditional orchestra. Anyone is interested in joining; I would love to have them join. Video game music adopts the more non-traditional aspects of music, so there are all kinds of instruments needed," he said.
Her is roughly two years away from the end of his time at UNH. He has more research to complete in the biochemistry department, as well as to write his dissertation.
"This is a big accomplishment for me," he said. "I wasn't able to do any of this just a few years ago."

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