The Solid Gold Sound of the UCLA Bruin Marching Band is, to say the least, world traveled. The band has performed in Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The band has opened for the Rolling Stones, backed up Gwen Stefani, and recorded with BTS on its best-selling album Map of the Soul: 7. The video of the band’s subsequent BTS halftime show has received millions of views from all over the world.
All this aligns well with Ken Fisher, the associate director of the marching band and the interim director for the 2022-23 season. Hired in 2015, Fisher was a world traveler himself, with years of experience that stretched from Scandinavia to Mexico. At the same time, taking the job felt more than a little like coming home.
“I pretty much grew up on campus,” said Fisher. “My mom was an alum, we lived in the area, and we had tickets to the games.” Unsurprisingly, he became an avid UCLA sports fan. And he also loved music, playing the clarinet in the school band. One day, he spotted a bass clarinet in the band room and took it home. “Something clicked,” said Fisher. “I was hooked.”
At thirteen, Fisher discovered the saxophone, but not the way you think. Most students start off on the alto or the soprano. Fisher picked up the baritone. And he could play. By fourteen, he was taking gigs with professional bands. College took him to UCLA (where else?) where he majored in music performance.
After that, Fisher was off to the life of a professional musician. He spent a summer with the Disney-Grammy Jazz Band and toured with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Then he landed a gig playing in a twelve-piece band on cruise lines.
“I lucked out there because I worked on new ships, they call them ‘startups,’” Fisher related. “New crew, new players, all very talented. We would fly out to Helsinki and board. Then it would just be the crew crossing the Atlantic before we would pick up passengers on the eastern seaboard.”
Fisher spent four years playing for audiences at sea before finding a new job, this time in Mexico, as a member of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Jalisco in Guadalajara and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Sinaloa in Culiacán. Ever restless, Fisher moonlighted in pit orchestras and show orchestras, such as the Royal London Ballet and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and backing up bands like Banda el Recodo and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.
“Music culture is so rich in Mexico,” said Fisher. “Everyone came to hear the state orchestra. We played two shows a week. We did run outs where we would go into the provinces and play for small towns and villages. I co-founded a new music group, Cuarteto Extremo, that won grants and played new compositions by young Mexican composers.
In all, Fisher spent seven years in Mexico before returning to Los Angeles, where he resumed his professional career and added an M.M. in Bassoon performance. Then he took the UCLA job as assistant director of the marching band.
It was the kind of job where his own international profile came in handy. The Solid Gold Sound of the UCLA Bruin Marching Band would soon travel to Taiwan to perform in the Taoyuan International Band Festival. The marching band’s reach also increased through social media. Fisher translated the announcements of the YouTube videos into Spanish. Fisher’s wife, Miki Fisher, translated the announcements into Japanese and Ji Young An, lecturer of violin performance at UCLA, translated them into Korean.
“It was always gratifying to see so many positive reactions to our videos from places like South Korea, Mexico, and Guatemala,” said Fisher. “The UCLA Marching Band really is worldwide.”
But it’s also a hometown band. Last June, Fisher directed the marching band in an onstage performance backing up Gwen Stefani playing to a packed Hollywood Bowl. It was a special moment for the students in the band. It was also special for Fisher, and not just because it was a chance to excel on one of the world’s biggest, most hallowed, stages.
“The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) was on stage that night, too” said Fisher, who has been involved with the youth orchestra since its inception. All throughout his career, Fisher has dedicated himself to giving back to the community and helping bring music education to underserved communities. It was gratifying to see YOLA and the UCLA band performing in the same place.
“My two worlds really did collide up there,” recalled Fisher, smiling. “All in a good way.”