Ryan Nealon has auditioned for Spring Sing four years in a row with three different band names.
This year, the fourth-year ethnomusicology student will finally take the Pauley Pavilion stage with his band, Third Degree; it will be their first time performing in the show.
Nealon first auditioned with his band, Moonlight Express, in 2014, and then again in 2015 and 2016 as the Ryan Nealon Band. The group rebranded itself as Third Degree in January 2017 and tried out once more for the Spring Sing band category.
Nealon screamed after opening his acceptance letter outside the James West Alumni Center in February.
“I saw the word ‘Congratulations,’ and I almost threw up,” he said.
[Read More: Daily Bruin coverage of Spring Sing 2017]
Nealon credits Third Degree’s success to his personal maturation and the expansion and cohesion of his band.
During his first two years of auditioning, Nealon struggled with rejection and self-doubt.
“I felt like my band was my safe place because that was the one thing that I had that no one could tell me I wasn’t good enough at,” he said.
Nealon said he grew from his experience with past auditions, focusing more on making music for himself rather than playing to impress other people.
He felt as though he wasn’t being taken seriously while performing as Moonlight Express, a cheesy name that haunts him to this day, he said.
“I was trying to be really deep, but at the same time it just came out really stupid,” Nealon said. “My band makes fun of it forever.”
He rebranded the group as Ryan Nealon Band during his sophomore year in 2015; the band began to gain traction, booking gigs and releasing an EP.
He solidified his rhythm section with regular drum, guitar and piano players. The new players collaborated with Nealon to arrange the rhythm and blues songs in their repertoire, he said.
“It made my band something that was so much more than it ever could have been and ever was,” he said.
Third Degree pianist Bret Paddock said the role of the rhythm section is to keep the band together while other sections such as horns and vocals add energy to the music.
“The rhythm section is the foundation, everything else is added color,” Paddock said.
The band also grew from two background vocalists and two horns to three background vocalists and four horns.
Adding new members allowed Nealon to diversify his arrangements with musical elements such as four-part harmonies and call-and-response techniques, he said.
Tenor saxophonist Hugo Shiboski has been playing with Nealon since freshman year in Moonlight Express. Many people see the horn section as a supplemental aspect of the band, when it is actually what causes a band’s sound to pack a punch, said the fourth-year ethnomusicology student.
“It’s like having four additional voices in the group,” Shiboski said. “It just really expands the colors and the impact we have at our disposal.”
Over the course of two years, the same students kept coming and playing gigs with his band. Nealon decided to change the name again to Third Degree in fall 2016.
“It started to click, I think this is actually a band now,” he said.
Nealon said the name symbolizes the band’s hot and fresh sound as well as the idea of leaving a musical imprint on listeners, like a third-degree burn.
Third Degree will perform “I’ll be There,” a song Nealon originally wrote as a duet with his friend, Jada Banks-Mace, for a songwriting class at UCLA in fall 2016. He then worked with his band members to arrange it for Spring Sing.
“It’s talking about being together and being really close as a family,” he said. “That’s like my band in a nutshell.”
The song draws influences from old-school classics such as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and funk artists such as Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone. Nealon said it is an anthem with a catchy chorus that is easy to sing along to, bringing a pop twist to the band’s R&B roots.
Although the band retains its original style, Third Degree has become a more close-knit group of players with a more developed repertoire.
Nealon said people always ask him why he keeps expanding the band.
“I love having that big sound,” he said. “There’s nothing else like it.”