Putting the PEP in the Band
For 20 years, before University of Hawaii marching and pep bands can fire up the fans, Gwen Nakamura lights up band members. If it looks like UH band members are having fun, they are - and it all starts with their energetic leader. Just about every day before morning’s first light reaches her St. Louis Heights home, Gwen Nakamura hops out of bed and makes her way downstairs, past a shelf stacked with more than 100 cookbooks and countless newspaper clippings of her favorite recipes, and into a world of succulent, symphonic delights.
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Just about every day before morning’s first light reaches her St. Louis Heights home, Gwen Nakamura hops out of bed and makes her way downstairs, past a shelf stacked with more than 100 cookbooks and countless newspaper clippings of her favorite recipes, and into a world of succulent, symphonic delights.
The kitchen is her destiny, and neither the trusty saxophone that has been her shadow for so many years nor the balloon hats she has come to be known for, are needed for these trips.
Baking has become her “thing” as of late - a creative endeavor filled with the kind of salty- or saccharine-loaded high notes needed to get the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s assistant band conductor properly warmed up for another hectic day.
The compositions always vary. One day, the cadence going on in her head may call for a mixture of butter, Karo syrup and Tabasco sauce spread over Tostitos with a dash of furikake and heated to perfection. On another day, her imagination may lead to a crescendo of mochiko butter cookies. On yet another, a creamy rendition of coffee-chocolate brownies.
“Music is a creative process,” Nakamura explains. “I think baking is like that too, because you can do so many variations of the same stuff.
“I like to experiment. And if I see an interesting recipe in the newspaper, I’ll cut it out. Or if there’s a new cookbook, I’ll buy it and try it out. I’m kind of religious about that.”
Although she readily acknowledges the influence of older brothers Neil - full disclosure: he is MidWeek‘s director of commercial printing - and the late Paul Jr., both of whom she refers to as “wonderful cooks,” Nakamura isn’t afraid to admit that she’s somehow evolved into the family’s unofficial baker, particularly on those special occasions.
“Everybody gets a cake or pie from me at their birthday,” she confirms.
Even her dog’s veterinarian collects a homemade cornbread treat once in a while. But those on the receiving end of Nakamura’s gifts should beware of her cupcakes, some of which can be quite deceiving to human eyes.
“I gave these dog cup-cakes I made to a girlfriend once, and she put them in her refrigerator for her dog,” she recalls. “But her boyfriend didn’t know it and ate them.”
Did he like them? “No. He ended up complaining because they didn’t taste so good,” says Nakamura, laughing.
Despite all the goodies emerging from her oven these days, Nakamura’s sweetest success undoubtedly comes from that highly visible perch at Manoa, where she stands as the energetic leader of the university’s marching band.
It’s a job she’s performed exceptionally well in over the past 20 years. And with the Warriors’ football and volleyball teams back in action, it’s once again time for Nakamura to get back to doing the thing she really does best.
So strike up the band, Gwen, and let’s get the crowds jumping!
“We’re looking forward to this season,” Nakamura says shortly after band camp broke in August, when the university’s 250-plus band members first began learning their pre-game and halftime shows. “Hopefully, we can do our jobs by getting the crowd riled up.”
Actually, it’s quite easy for Nakamura to fire up the fans once the band breaks into the opening notes to Co-ed (The Fight Song), or the ever-popular Hawaii Five-O theme song. Throughout the stadium or arena, ti leaves are immediately set in motion like paddles.
Nakamura, however, isn’t just standing there as a casual observer. She’s busy working the crowd by accompanying the beat on a tambourine, or bobbing her head and swaying her petite frame to the music.
Needless to say, the atmosphere is quite electric.
“To me, that’s what it’s all about,” she says. “You’re part of the action, the rah-rah, the whole spirit of college athletics. And if the crowd is enjoying it, then I’m enjoying it.”
Without question, Nakamura knows how to have fun. Her balloon hats, which are twisted and formed by Maui’s Russ Hiranaga, and her seasonal- or movie-themed costumes, fashioned by her own hands, continue to be a hit among fans young and old.
“My favorite all-time hat is the Christmas hat that Russ makes,” Nakamura says. “That’s the one I always keep following a game. Every other hat I give away.”
As for her outfits, “She’s always so creative with them,” explains former UH band member Denise Nakamura, who graduated last spring and is no relation to the assistant band conductor. “When we played Kung Fu Panda one year, she made a panda costume and was the cutest panda ever!”
Having worked at well over 1,000 college games over the past two decades, it would be understandable if Nakamura chose to take a break from the seemingly nonstop action at Manoa. But the noted busybody - who also gives private music lessons to several dozen high school students during the week - claims she’d be too lost without a baton in her hand, without a stadium or an arena to energize through music and showmanship.
Colleagues still marvel at her unyielding devotion to UH sports and the thousands of band members she has tutored over the years.
“Gwen continues to be the most dedicated person I know,” offers Thomas Bingham, the current interim dean of Arts and Humanities and a former UH band director. “She has sacrificed a great deal of her personal life to serve UH music and athletics, and her concern for our students is genuine.”
In recognition of her years of service, Nakamura received the Chancellor’s Award for service at the University of Hawai’i Awards Convocation last Tuesday, saluting the university’s teaching, research and service leaders.
In addition to the marching band, Nakamura also commands the year-round pep bands that appear at UH men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball games, as well as the concert band that performs during the spring season.
Additionally, she’s part of a staff that visits just about
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