CategoryMeet the Members!

From Chiptune to Orchestration

Full article originally published in the Spring 2016 edition of Pan Pipes, newsletter of Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity.

For some, video games are a hobby. It’s something to do on the weekends, or in a rare moment of free time, or known only as a fleeting obsession of teenage children. But for some, like Alyssa Menes, the love of gaming evolves into a career.

Menes is a game composer and sound designer based in New Jersey. She holds a degree in Music Theory and Composition, but it wasn’t during college that she found her career path. It was several years later, while working in an unrelated field simply to pay the bills, that she attended a panel on game audio at the Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest) in Washington, D.C. The panelists discussed how to break into the gaming industry at the local level through independent game developers or smaller companies. Inspiration hit: This is awesome, she thought. I can do this!

Soon after, she began attending game development events locally. “As a freelancer,” Menes says, “you have to actively build your work. Initially there’s a lot of going to events and growing the network.” She started getting work creating sound effects for many independent games, but her first big project was composing the ending credit scene for an indie game titled Blackwell Epiphany. “Once your name starts to get out there,” she says, “the people start coming to you.” . . . With a background in classical composition, [Menes] uses live recordings and incorporates a lot of woodwinds and strings into her work. But there is also something to be said for the vintage feel of the Atari. “Sometimes a game developer wants to use chiptune,” Menes says, “and I have to simplify.”

Her musical career doesn’t stop there. On top of composition, Menes also offers private music instruction, plays bass guitar for Asphalt Grey—a local rock band—and, her most recent project, founded the Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra. “I really wanted to provide a community outlet for musicians who don’t have an opportunity to play,” she says of the orchestra. “Gaming music is very near and dear to me, and I wanted a place where we could come together and have fun.” She brings her composition and teaching background into rehearsals. She encourages the orchestra’s members to arrange music, which gives them a chance to do something they wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to learn. “But it’s a learning experience for everyone,” she says. This is Menes’s first time conducting for a group, and also several of its members are returning to their instruments after years of not playing. The group is preparing for its first concert this summer.

It’s not all work and no play—Menes also makes time to actually play the games, both for fun and for research. She’s currently into Just Cause 3 and Fire Emblem Fates, and is also involved in Smash Brothers competitions. “Not professionally. It’s just for fun.” Then, she added with a laugh, “But for glory.”

My First Year With MGSO

About a year ago, I attended a small video game convention, appropriately titled, “A Video Game Con.” In between throwing money at every retro game I could find (and a pretty sweet Final Fantasy canvas display), I heard about a live performance from a local band, the Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra. All I needed to hear was “symphonic video game music” and I was sold. My past experience with similar performances came from the music tour “Video Games Live,” which I still consider to be one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. It made me appreciate my hobby even more, and gave me a glimpse at how incredible video game music could sound on an orchestral level. As a huge Final Fantasy 7 fan, nothing could prepare me for the magnitude of awe I would experience from hearing “One Winged Angel” live.


With my admittedly high standard for live game music, how was my first impression of MGSO after their performance? Well, following the show I immediately signed up as a clarinet player, and I’ve been an active member of the orchestra ever since.


Before joining MGSO, it had been over three years since I’d even picked up my clarinet, let alone played it. Muscle memory helped a bit, but I was lucky if I could remember what half of the sharp or flat notes were. I couldn’t quite play the songs correctly at first, but I sure knew what they were supposed to sound like. Some of the highlights at the time included arrangements from Banjo Kazooie, The Legend of Zelda, and Chrono Trigger among others. Hearing the rest of the orchestra play the music was enough to keep me motivated to try my best. After all, I was practicing with a group of talented musicians who were just as interested in video games, and music, as I was. By the time my first rehearsal came to an end, I knew I would be spending the rest of the week in anticipation for the next band practice.


Since my first practice, I’ve spent a full year rehearsing new music for all of our events, ranging from formal concerts to smaller side performances. In the midst of many hours of practice, and tons of laughs along the way, I believe I have grown not only as a musician; I have grown as a person. I can be very timid by nature, and it’s often difficult for me to meet new people without feeling nervous. Despite this, I can’t possibly be anxious around so many friendly people. Our conductor, Alyssa, really knows how to bring out the excitement, and potential of everyone in the orchestra. She takes the time to give advice during difficult sections of a piece, and encourages the band to be confident in our musical abilities. On many occasions, light-hearted humor goes a long way to make everyone feel comfortable with the music. I always appreciate her metaphors for some of the arrangements. A personal favorite is the classic “grocery store boss battle;” if we’re playing an intense boss theme, it probably shouldn’t sound like we’re casually strolling down a grocery aisle. It’s the small, silly moments like this that make rehearsal a joy. When Alyssa is enthusiastic about our music, so am I.


MGSO is a family of musicians that continues to amaze me each time we rehearse. Our concerts have rekindled my passion for playing in a band. I’ve come to realize how much I missed getting together with a group of people, and giving our performances everything we’ve got. I’ve even built up the courage to perform a solo during one of our recent pieces, “Ashley’s Theme,” from the WarioWare series. I would have never even considered playing a solo when I used to perform music years ago, but MGSO brought out a lot of confidence in me. Now, my goals are becoming more ambitious than ever, and I hope to one day arrange my own piece to perform with the band. It will no doubt be a challenge, but I think I have what it takes to make it possible.


Whether we’re readily preparing for an upcoming concert, or enjoying some downtime at IHOP after each rehearsal, there are always opportunities to build new memories with our band. Here’s to another awesome year with my friends at MGSO.

“You Heal Me” by Janet Iturralde Santana

It’s safe to say that over the past few years, we have been pushed to deal with more stress than ever before. The feeling of powerlessness to help those around the world can bring us down. These negative emotions and images that we are surrounded by can affect our health, and even our personality. Some call this experience being in a “low vibration state.” Dr. Masaru Emoto takes this concept even further; he shows us how these vibrations can cause deformity in water crystals when negative emotions and vibrations are present. That means positive and high vibrations can inspire healing, while low vibrations just don’t. Vibrational and Holographic Sound Healing is a growing field that uses sounds and vibrations to improve health. The treatment uses the subtle energies of the body and implements like Crystal Bowls, or the voice.

When my husband and I moved back to NJ this year, I was in one of those low vibration states. My Uncle-Father had just passed away, and with him left the connection to his children and other family members. The loss felt insurmountable, and little by little I started to dig upwards out of sadness, self-pity, and guilt that comes with being a Cancer survivor. No one tells you that. Grief comes in stages, and you need to respect those stages and journey through them. Rushing grief can only serve to push you back into it. Just like rushing love, it all backfires. I walked the wire very slowly, trying not to get dragged back into the very comfortable, warm, and dark apathy. I had to meditate on the future, and find the rhythm of life again.

Another thing happened when I moved to NJ. As soon as I felt ready, there was something I had wanted to do for a long time; it was my goal to be a part of the artistic and musical world. My Facebook friend, Jorge, was a part of a cool group that made music, and they were seeking members. I wanted to be a part of it, so I joined the Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra, not knowing how it would change my life. The orchestra raised my vibration and reminded me of whom I really am.

Being around kind and gentle people helped me to trust. It helped me realize there are people like me; I just didn’t know where to find them. When I joined, the orchestra was practicing a song from Portal, a game I had never played or (I’m embarrassed to admit) even heard of. We were practicing “Still Alive,” and the song touched me deeply. How can video game music have such a deep message? Was this music made for me in this time? The song brought with it a powerful message, and I needed to hear that message desperately shouted in my face at full volume. It was something I had been denying myself because of the guilt and shame that comes with surviving.

It all started with, “This was a triumph.” Although so many great things were happening in my life and Real Estate career, I didn’t see myself as a winner. In the next line, “Huge success;” the truth was I was still here doing great things and working, yet for some reason I just couldn’t celebrate it or be happy about my achievements. “The science gets done” brought me gratitude for the life-saving treatments that were tested on me at Jackson Memorial Hospital Sylvester, which worked for me only because stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is curable. Then, “You make a neat gun” reminded me of cocktails tested in my treatment, which made me nonmetastatic in 6 rounds of chemo. This song gave me the “WIN” I so desperately needed. I sang it in the shower, in the car, at work, and even designed a costume for it. The truth was, I AM still alive. And so are you!

Another win came when I was asked to be a “White Mage” for the orchestra, someone who makes others feel comfortable and safe. Prior to my diagnosis in 2012, I had trained and earned a Life Coaching Certification. Someone saw that in me and asked me to be there for others, to show up for them. It was the very thing I needed to be for myself. We learn by teaching, and when I was asked to raise others’ vibrations, mine was raised as well.

When I say that the Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra means a lot to me, it is because it is my medicine; it is my serum that brings happiness, and a natural high to my life that nothing else can match. I hope this can help us all heal a little bit from this crazy world. When things are out of your control, you can control the rhythm of your life, and know that it can always change.

I invite you all to feel the vibration of your own heart. Remember that life is a song; there are highs and lows, and moments of sweetness. And I’m so grateful every day to be a part of your song.