The Salt Lake Pops Orchestra: Interview with Founder Nathaniel Drew

First off, tell our readers what the Salt Lake Pops Studio Orchestra is, for those who are not already familiar with it. What’s the vision for the group, what are your overarching goals, what philosophies guide your choices, etc.?

I recently went to talk with local high school orchestras and their directors about the Salt Lake Pops Orchestra and I was shocked to find very small orchestras. They were all very talented and dedicated to their instruments, but it seems that playing in an orchestra is no longer a popular or fun thing to do for most teenagers. When I was in high school for example, we had over 100 members to our orchestra. Now, some of these schools were lucky to break 30.

In contrast, I visited my old high school choir teacher Mr. Larson whom I admire greatly. We chatted about how different the choir is now. Strangely, it was a fun and popular thing to be a part of in our high school, though I know a lot of other high schools were struggling for members at that time. There were around 100 members to our a capella choir when I was there. I thought that number was huge back then. No one rivaled the numbers our choir could produce. Now there’s over 160 members! That blew me away. I knew that part of why his choirs were so successful was because he was an amazing director and always expected a lot out of the choir. However, many of the local choirs have increased in numbers by a huge margin as well!

When I drove home I talked with my beautiful, and pregnant, wife about it. She simply stated that it was the “Glee effect”. Suddenly it hit me. Choir has become cool! Glee is a television show that puts together popular music for choirs and makes it fun!  Instead of singing the traditional madrigals and hymns the choirs are now singing Gloria Estephan, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga! No wonder it’s popular.

This is music that is current, relevant, and speaks to the emotions of these teenagers. High school bands started updating their repertoires 50 years ago with modern compositions and have grown in size compared to the orchestras that I’ve seen decreasing in number everyday. Why are orchestras dying? Because they think playing only BeethovenBach, and Mozart is the only way to educate our kids within an orchestra.

The Salt Lake Pops Orchestra would like to present a solution. Play music that speaks to the people in your orchestra, potential orchestra members and your audience. Continue to play the incredible music of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, but supplement that music with something that will excite kids: popular music from artists they already listen to! Play Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” or Katy Perry’s “Firework”! We’d like to make orchestra current, relevant and FUN again! Even one song every concert could change things for your orchestra. To help, we’ve decided give our sheet music away for free. The individual parts. The score. Everything. People can even email us if they have special needs for their orchestra. We do ask for donations so that we can continue this revolution. It simply helps provide free music for others who don’t have any money.

In choosing your group’s music and “covers,” what do you look for? What pop music really “pops” your interest?

Honestly I just look for really popular music on YouTube (typically over 50mil views) that speaks to me and the lyrics are clean and meaningful. Because we’re trying to change the culture of orchestras we need to present music that is currently popular. That may change a little bit down the road, but I’m sure that we’ll always have some music that’s current.

You’ve had some pretty high profile LDS singers and performers working with you. Lindsey Stirling, Alex Boye, David Osmond, Jessie Funk… they have pretty high profiles within the Mormon community (and, in some cases, like Lindsey Stirling, even outside of the Mormon community). How did you convince them that this was a worthy project and what drew you to them initially?

Well, I sent them the music for them to listen to and mentioned that it would only take an hour of recording and an evening of filming and I’ve only had one local musician reject my offer. Everyone seems to really want to be a part of a new medium in YouTube and be backed up by an orchestra. They’ve all done this as volunteer work because they really believe in what the orchestra stands for. I feel very blessed and am somewhat humbled that artists of their caliber would work with a no name guy like me.

4. Any anecdotes you have with these performers? What was it like working with them?

Lindsey Stirling is just a nice down to earth girl. No pretensions. When she came to record she came in this old beat up car with no make up on. I almost didn’t recognize her at first. I think her fans on YouTube would attest to the fact that though she is beautiful physically her beauty really comes from her personality and that comes out when she’s dancing playing violin and her interviews after her videos. She also went out of her way to help the orchestra and get us views by sending traffic our way through links from her videos.

Alex Boye is so full of energy! All I hear from Alex is how talented I am, and how amazing it is to work with the orchestra. At the shoot he would joke with the orchestra, and there were times I would have to calm the orchestra down so that we could get another take. Alex and I are working on some other music currently, and I’m sure you’ll see it before Christmas. Mostly because he still has my razor, and I still have his hat and shoes!

David Osmond is the type of guy that looks you right in the eye and just exudes confidence. When we recorded “Firework” there were a few things in the final mix that sounded a bit odd to him and he actually had a producer friend of his call me and work through some of the glitches with me and my engineer. He’s that committed to his art. He and his wife Valerie are also incredibly giving. My wife Emily and I just had our first baby boy: Liam. Before he was born they actually stopped by our place and gave us a gift for the baby and even called back a few times to see if we’d had the baby yet!

Aubree Oliverson is a sweetheart. At 13 years old she’s playing violin at a higher level than some current studio professionals. I sent her the music for “Firework” and she rewrote some of the most engaging moments of the piece to fit her playing style. Her father Stephen was also incredibly helpful and nice. He encouraged Aubree at every turn and even helped as an assistant on the film shoots. At the high school shoot his job was to “loop” kids walking in the hallways so it looked natural like a normal high school hallway.

Jessie Funk is a sweetheart. She was actually really excited to work with the orchestra and wanted to help in any way she could. There was a scene we shot on the top of a parking structure downtown Salt Lake for “Falling Slowly” that she drove to straight from Las Vegas where she had just been surprised with Celine Dion tickets. She couldn’t stop talking about the concert because she was so excited that she had just seen Celine Dion! That coming from a vocalist that could probably give Celine a run for her money!

You are the arranger for these songs. How do you approach adapting popular songs that are already established in the public eye? Is it difficult to retain the original the spirit of the song while still adapting it to your own needs and style? Do you feel like you are able to re-create the songs in meaningful new ways?

Typically I like to either infuse my arrangements with modern beats and/or synths, instrumental solos and/or mix up the sex of the vocalist. I also like to really bring out the meaning of the words in the songs. Working with video means that you get to interpret the words of the songs a bit more, and if the music can make that even more clear it seems to really resonate with me, and hopefully our followers. Unfortunately I’ve had some purists really get fired up about my arrangements because they don’t always stick to the original intent – or what they perceive to be the original intent of the original artist. I actually revel in turning a popular song on it’s head.

You have an amazing cinematographer in Paul Meyers. Tell our readers a little more about him.

I met Paul when he was a teenager. At that time he had already built his own dolly and dolly track. He’s just so committed to his art. For each of these music videos he spends hours researching the look that he wants on YouTube and Vimeo. His take on cinematography is much the same as mine as a musician. He wants the colors, depth, and focus of each shot to elicit specific emotions from viewers. There are no “accidents” in his work. He uses fog, snow, and other special tools to really draw focus and create the cinematic shots that he’s going for. He’s also been flying back and forth from Germany to film high-end car commercials. He’s a really busy guy and I’m very lucky to work with him.

What songs are next on the Salt Lake Pops plate? What performers be jumping in next?

The next song we’re doing this week is “Bring Me To Life” by Evanescence. It will be a violin solo piece with the orchestra’s concert master Kerstin Tenney. After that we’ll be doing a mash-up of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails and “Mad World” by Tears for Fears with Johnny K. and Jen Marco. After that we’ll be doing a Les Miserables medley though I haven’t decided the direction I’m going to take with it yet. Oh, and I’ve been approached to do a video with The Piano Guys.
Do you have any plans for the orchestra beyond these beautiful music videos? Concerts, CDs, projects, etc.?

There’s a benefit concert at the Covey Arts Center on December 6th. We’ll have a CD out around the same time. The reason we’re doing these videos is to get an audience, and next year we are working out a tour.

How has the response been from your orchestra musicians? Have these projects lit any fires inside them?

The musicians seem to be really responsive. I’m not sure I know any musician that doesn’t like to play popular music. I’ve even been contacted by award-winning broadway composers.

What about orchestra and pop music drew you to mash them together?

I’ve been arranging pop music and writing film scores for my day job, and I thought it would be great to join them together. What really got me going though was seeing the local high school orchestras. They are really diminishing and I wanted to figure out how to really start growing their numbers again.

This group obviously isn’t working on Mormon-centric music. It’s going for a universal audience in more ways than one. But for you, personally, how has being a Mormon informed the way you approach your music and other projects?

I always like to find music and lyrics that are above the hate-filled and at times crude popular music. If I’ve replaced one hate-filled song on a teenager’s ipod I would feel really good.

In ten years, is the Salt Lake Pops still going to be around? Is this a long term project for you?

Yes. I have some huge plans for this orchestra. Awareness is very small right now. I plan on making a really big impact on the culture of orchestras. Not just by giving the sheet music to orchestras for free, but hopefully creating revenue sources for these orchestras. I have a lot of plans that will take some time to implement. Right now videos are our main focus. However, in the future we are going to have some live shows that are really going to knock your socks off!

If you want to subscribe to the Salt Lake Pops You Tube channel, go to

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    5 thoughts on “The Salt Lake Pops Orchestra: Interview with Founder Nathaniel Drew”

    1. There is an aspect of the pops style that may be worth wondering about. A member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who I knew as a fellow ward member, once said he they had a pops program that night, and he said it in the tone of someone facing an unpleasant task, so I asked what the problem was. He explained, “It’s like chewing bubble gum for an hour straight. I feel my mind turning into mush.” Probably not a problem for most of the high-schoolers, but perhaps a problem for the better musicians among them already with a few years of playing experience.

    2. Sorry, that was rude.

      What I mean to say is that very few performing artists are in a position where they can ignore the classics/standards of the repertoire.

      The audience owes us nothing.

    3. John,
      Although I understand the impulse of the performer you’re talking about, I think it’s also important not to disregard popular art and music.

      Shakespeare was seen as the “popular” art of his day, and was slammed by his peers and critics. Yet now he’s the canon of canon. I especially like groups like Pops Orchestras who stretch the original intent of the art to its borders and do something new and classy with it.

      But, then again, I read comic books and think there’s some great writing happening in that medium. So I’m not one to be elitist in my tastes. And I’m finding a great deal to love in _Monsters and Mormons_ right now, which definitely plays with genre fiction.

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