Music to my ears: an interview with NUJO

Written by Music

Sophie Wilson speaks to Tom McDonald, president of NUSU’s society of the year and resident jazz band, about their success in 2019

How many gigs has Newcastle University Jazz Orchestra (NUJO) played at this year, and what types of gigs have they been?
Since last September NUJO has performed for 36 separate events, including numerous society balls, celebration evenings, competitions, small band showcases… and even a wedding! We’ve also hosted our own events, including many of our acclaimed Jam Nights! Our players then managed to achieve high commendation for their exceptional performance at The Great North Big Band Jazz Festival 2019. Myself and the rest of our committee this year couldn’t be prouder of the versatility and adaptability they’ve effortlessly demonstrated.

Why do you think NUJO (very deservedly) won society of the year?
I started in NUJO three years ago, at a time when as a society we were just a group of mates who were playing fun music, cracking jokes and creating memories in a jazzy atmosphere. Since then, the band has undergone an enormous transformation, making a name for itself as its own brand of professional big band… but not much has changed; now we’re working harder, but are still playing hard too, laughing and joking as we go.
The societies in the running this year had all clearly worked incredibly hard on their projects, so much so we couldn’t call who would win! I think that what made our members stand out may well have been three particularly endearing qualities they, time and again, exhibit across rehearsals, socials and performances.
Firstly, they are incredibly dedicated to the music that they perform, and they are exceptionally talented musicians. Our members undergo intensive weekly rehearsals each semester in order to hone their top quality sound, on top of setting up and running their full ensemble singlehandedly at the majority of venues. No mean feat when they’re all trying to balance studying for a degree at the same time!
Secondly, they always demonstrate their selflessness when it comes to helping out other societies, sacrificing whole days at a time to setup, perform and pack-down at their functions and balls. It always makes me proud to see the amount of effort the team put in, just so they can make everyone else’s evening that bit extra special by sharing their talents for performance with others. Lastly, but by no means least, their comradery.
I’ve never before met a group of individuals who make one another and those around feel so happy, whooping as their mates bust out blisteringly hot solos mid-performance, only to then get their audiences up and dancing, very often joining in themselves! Somehow everyone in NUJO this year had managed to meld these qualities together and use them to engage, excite and encourage so many people, from all walks of life (student or otherwise), to come together and enjoy the Jazz Orchestra as much as they do.
Personally, I don’t think these attitudes are anything new to the band this year; like I said at the start, the band has grown a lot since I joined. The main difference this year was that the band actually let everyone in on just how much effort they’ve put in behind the scenes, and in doing so, managed to share more than just the notes on their music with the rest of the NUSU. This could possibly be why the judges granted the band such a high accolade this year, for which we are incredibly grateful.

Image: NUJO

What made you decide to run for President of the band, and have you enjoyed your year as president?
I was initially a bit reluctant to run for President, as the last president had left big shoes to fill! However, I did have a couple of good ideas I wanted to try out, such as de-stressing our auditions process and creating our own online booking form. There was also a whole lot of encouragement from my friends in the band at the time; they sparked my enthusiasm to build NUJO a wider musical network and a more professional reputation, adding to the great work the last committee had strived hard to achieve.
Our members this year have been just as supportive, and they’ve helped me to still feel like a part of the gang, rather than a floating figurehead… but of course, they still groan at my puns-becoming president was never going to change that! However I must send so much gratitude their way because they’ve been there for me at every turn, and I only hope that they have felt the same way about me.
To say I’ve loved every second of my time heading NUJO is as clichéd as it is true, no two days are ever the same, or without their own unique challenges! The opportunities it has provided me in allowing me to develop my skillset and express my creativity have been absolutely fantastic. The most important skill this role has helped me to build was how to delegate; as a former control-freak, the notion that the president’s job was not to do every task, but rather to ensure that every task got done, was a subtle difference that, up until this year, I’d never fully understood.
My time running things here has shown me that everyone in a team can bring new and useful skills to the table. If you were to ask me if I’d do it all again, I’d tell you I’d give my right arm for the chance … but quite how I’d ever play the trombone one-armed is beyond me!

What has been your favourite memory from NUJO this year?
It’s so hard to pick just one! The auditions, our first gig, the competition, our last gig, all the silly moments…. I am taking away a countless amount of wonderful memories from this year, as I’m sure the rest of the band will. But I suppose that’s all the thinking time I can buy myself… The standout moment for me would have to be NUJO’s murder mystery night. Thrilling storytelling, crazy costumes and a hilarious night of dancing and tomfoolery! It was the moment I felt, when the freshers really came out of their shells for the first time, and this year’s cohort became the musical family we all know and love today.

Image: NUJO

What would your advice be to other societies for next year, in terms of both making sure their society is a success and also that they enjoy being on the committee?
I should start by saying that each member of every society is going to have a different perception of what a ‘successful’ year is; are they out to raise awareness for a good cause? Are they trying to turn a profit? Do they just want their members to come away with happy memories of their time in the society? This year we chose to focus on the latter, and decided put our members’ enjoyment above everything else, which we came back to and asked ourselves about at every challenging decision we faced.
It would have been very easy for us to become blinkered and purely profit driven this year, particularly when a large number of gig opportunities presented themselves during the spring. But we thought overworking our members would have spoilt their enjoyment of the music and made NUJO feel more like a chore than a passion, so we actually turned down multiple paid opportunities in favour of organising some more socials and respite. This meant that we could ensure that the band had the best experience possible. Having this clear idea of what you deem success to be before you dive in definitely helps in the long run, and allows you to look back at the end and feel proud of your achievements, rather than leaving wondering if trying a different approach would have been any more ‘successful’ .
Pinpointing exactly what this definition is for you before getting started in your new roles pays dividends in the end, I promise! With regards enjoying being on a committee, a couple of tips I wish I’d have known sooner would be to step back and smile, take the mickey and muck in! Having spent the past year trying to organise gigs, I found it all too easy in the early days to spend each second thinking about which jobs needed to be done for the next one, without ever stopping to appreciate the great performance we’d just given.
Whatever you do to make your members and others happy, don’t forget to feel proud of what you achieve as you achieve it; a little self-praise for your own motivation goes far in the long run. One of my favourite things about being on a committee has been just getting to know everyone, their quirks, their foibles and what makes them laugh! Striking up a good rapport with the team from day one and every day since really just revolved around us all ironically taking the mickey out of each other, of course never seriously, but always in such a way that we were all creasing ourselves with laughter, no matter the situation. This strong rapport is now one of my fondest memories of the year, and made each moment that extra bit more enjoyable, particularly because it’s hard to get into arguments when you’re all giggling!
Finally, don’t be afraid to forget you even have a committee role! My greatest fear this year was growing distant from everyone in NUJO by being a ‘behind the scenes’ President. I did a lot of running about, liaising with organisers and taking calls, so really struggled at first to find time to get to know everyone in the band properly, particularly our freshers. I found a great way to beat this feeling was to get more involved in the setup process, as configuring a big band required a lot of communication between us all! If you ever feel like your becoming too distant from your society when you join its committee, I’d strongly encourage you, from my own personal experience, to get your hands dirty and just do whatever it is your society does! With your members and fellow committee around you, any activity can allow you all to bond and for friendships to blossom, try not to let yourself become isolated and wrapped up in the organisational responsibilities. It’s true what they say, if you enjoy what you do you’ll never work a day in your life… it couldn’t be more appropriate when it comes to a role on a society committee!

Does NUJO have any exciting plans for next year?
We sure do… but you’ll have to come and witness them for yourself!

Last modified: 4th July 2019

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