Harvard Summer Pops inside Sanders Theatre

Mark Olson conducts the Harvard Summer Pops Band during a rehearsal in Sanders Theatre.

Photos by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Out of many, one — band, that is

Old and young, experienced and novice, there are seats for all in the Harvard Summer Pops Band

6 min read

David Schwartz and Andrew Yatsuhashi have more than 50 years of trombone experience separating them, yet the two play in the same section of the Harvard Summer Pops Band and will share the stage as equals at both its summer concerts

It is, in fact, that diversity, that mix of ages, skill levels, and experience, which makes the group such a draw for the area’s brass, woodwind, and percussion players — and for its audience. Performers play side by side, whether they’ve been at it for 66 years, like Schwartz, a retired investment banker, or more like 10 in the case of Yatsuhashi, a sophomore at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

That and a shared authentic passion for music. This year, like the past 47, all of that is the same.

“The people are from all different walks of life,” said flutist Helen Bryant. “On one side is someone who’s played for 25 years and on the other is one of the [Harvard] Summer School students. … You look around and the age span is from little kids all the way up to much older people, but everyone is really committed to it. … You just don’t get to meet that diversity of people on a regular basis when you go off to work every day and just do your job.”

For the Cambridge-resident —who joined the 150-musician band with her son, Lewis — it’s all about rediscovering a beloved hobby. Bryant is coming off a 17-year hiatus that started when Lewis was born. Prior to that, she had been playing for almost 35 years. “I’ve always had music in my life,” she said. “It was a rite of passage [in my family].”

Lewis, a trombone player with the band the past few summers, gave his mother the push she needed to take up the woodwind instrument again. Now, despite being “beyond a little rusty,” Bryant, an associate justice for the Suffolk County Juvenile Court, has found her place among the motley crew.

Jill Smith is another longtime Cambridge resident in the group. She’s also one of the steadiest members in the French horn section.

Jill Smith plays the French Horn in the band.
Lewis Bryant and his mother, Helen Bryant play trombone and flute

Jill Smith plays the French horn. Lewis Bryant and his mother, Helen Bryant, play trombone and flute in the Harvard Summer Pops Band.

In the last 13 years, she’s missed only two summers. Smith likes the options the band gives her in terms of coming and going from year to year, and that there are only five rehearsals before the concerts, one at Harvard Yard and the other at the Memorial Hatch Shell.

“It is low-commitment,” Smith said. “You can practice at home as little or as much as you want, or not at all. [And] the rehearsals are at night, so I could study or work during the day and still be able to rehearse.”

That was important as she earned her Ph.D. at Brandeis University, said Smith, a faculty assistant in Harvard’s Economics Department. She’s played the French horn since high school.

Ryan Burkley, who joined the summer band three years ago, loves the music-making process. The 28-year-old is a seasoned performer and one of the group’s professional musicians. Not bad for someone who started playing the electric bass in high school as part of a garage band before moving into his current instrument, the upright bass.

“It’s relatively late for a lot of people,” said the Framingham resident. “But I really liked it, and I played a lot and practiced a lot. I eventually played in my school’s jazz band and my school’s orchestra, and [then] got into the Wellesley Symphony Orchestra.”

Andrew Yatsushashi, plays trombone as does, David Schwartz.
Andrew Yatsushashi (left) and David Schwartz play trombone. The Harvard Summer Pops Band will hold its two summer concerts this week.

Other groups he’s played with include the Metrowest Symphony Orchestra and the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. Since 2016, Burkley’s played in 27 musicals and is set to start on his 28th in the fall. His most recent gig is with the Harvard Musical Association Reading Orchestra. For Burkley, constantly playing in any group has become an obsession. “I need orchestra at all times,” he said.

Along with community members, the band has its fair share of students. Some go to Harvard. Others, like Yatsuhashi, go elsewhere. Some are even in high school. Harvard Summer School roommates Annika Gagnon and Erika Ding, both 16, share the same birthday, and even play similar instruments. And though they are young, they are both already accomplished.

Gagnon has played flute since middle school and in 2017, as part of the Alaska state marching band, she was part of the 100 or so members who performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

“Across the Yard” as performed by the Harvard Summer Pops Band on July 29, 2018, at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Charles River Esplanade in Boston.

Ding, from Boxford, started with the flute in elementary school but switched to the oboe in seventh grade. She plays in her middle school band, in the Northeast Massachusetts Youth Orchestra, and with the Massachusetts Music Educators Association, where she will be the principal oboe player for the 2019 Northeastern Senior Festival.

Harvard College junior Melissa Drake, a flutist from Rhode Island, began her career by tanking a sixth-grade recital and climbed to the top by becoming the first-ranked young flutist in the Rhode Island All-State Band her senior year of high school. This is Drake’s first year in the summer group.

Julia Cohen, a senior in the Tufts University Wind Ensemble, has been part of the band for two seasons. Cohen, from Montreal, appreciates the group’s open-mindedness when it comes to instruments. Hers, the euphonium, is a lesser-known member of the brass family.

“People who aren’t musicians usually don’t know what the hell it is,” she said of the valved horn that resembles a tuba that shrank in the wash.

Like many, she joined the summer band to stay in shape musically, but she stayed because of the joy she gets making music with others.

“When you’re playing in a big ensemble you just feel a sort of connection with people,” Cohen said. “You’re all following the conductor. You’re all playing the same piece. You can feel the sound you are making just fitting with the sound everyone else is making. It’s just a really great feeling.”

The summer band’s annual Harvard Yard concert will be 4 p.m. Thursday at Tercentenary Theatre. The Hatch Shell concert on the Charles River Esplanade will be 3 p.m. on Sunday. The concerts are free and open to the public.

For more information, please call the Harvard University Band at 617.496.2263 or email Mark Olson (meolson@fas.harvard.edu).