Starting an Orchestra, got the plan, need input

February 1, 2009 at 02:46 AM ·

I know there's a few other similar threads here (they're on the first "orchestra" page even), but this is different enough that I'm needing some input and advice.

What's going on is, I'm trying to get together an orchestra in my community (county-based "community orchestra") that has a choir that works alongside for events.  That's the easy version.

NOTE:  I'm contacting every music teacher in the county (public & private schools as well as college), anyone who has taught music in the county, etc. 

Complex version:  I'm trying to get together 3 orchestras, and a few "mini-orchestras" (basically a few people to represent the different sections).  None will require auditions really, but the main community orchestra will only have people who know how to play, one will have people that can pretty much play (like students in pre-college years and the students), one might be added for, well to be honest the people that can't play worth anything but would feel bad if they didn't have events.  The mini-orchestras will be a few people from the main orchestra to do small events.  Overall as the plan has it listed, there are two main groups: those that know what they're doing and the students (any age). 

The plan is for the orchestra to hold 5 actual "sell ticket" events (only one outside, and it'd be only if weather's good): Valentine's Day, 4th of July, Halloween, Christmas, New Years -- and the plan is to get the orchestra to be available at Baseball games/etc in the town and other things as well.  Planning on between $2-5 for tickets to help generate money for things (see below), and the orchestra purchasing things such as tympanis or other expensive or bulky things that normally people don't have.

OK… that covers the main thing.  Now the catches:

1)      Unless I win and get elected mayor, there's next to no chance there'll be a discount for renting the community center (the community center is designed for music/plays/events or just dinners [some soundproofing and echo-removal holes]) -- to hold a music event we'd have to rent all three (or at best 2, using one room as a buffer) rooms as it'd be too noisy for anything else to be held.  ($200/rental, planning on 1 meeting a week, so $800/mo -- it's possible however that they'd only charge $100-150, I'm assuming worst-case)

2)      Teachers may have to be paid as well to get them (can't blame people, they do have a life after all), and I already allocated $10/hr for 16 hours of work for ten teachers [so $1600/mo].

3)      Total so far is $2400/month -- money's got to come from somewhere, so here's the unfortunate catch:  people belonging to the orchestra will have to pay a small amount of money each month that would vary depending on the number of people joining; and those wishing to learn an instrument will have to pay at least $10  more than the others.

a.       Assuming 50 people in both (100 total) [and the max fee for rental], there'd be $20 set fee + $15 more for students as a min to break even (so $20 for orchestra, $35 for instruction).

4)      I'd really prefer there being 2-3 sessions for students a week, and up to 2 sessions for the orchestra; but it'd drastically increase the costs (although we might be able to have other places for nothing for smaller groups - especially if we get band directors and such).

5)      I have no idea how popular the idea will be….. I'd like to think it'd go over well (the local college theatre and music department has to turn people away, and has a 1 year waiting list or more for music lessons), but with people cutting back in spending…

So, any suggestions, comments, etc that might be useful (like where to get music too.... I'd prefer things that are free [ex: classical], and potentially some modern stuff too).  I really hate having to even consider charging people for belonging to the orchestra, but if sales/etc are high enough (after some purchases), they'd be refunded the money they paid.



Replies (13)

February 1, 2009 at 04:21 AM ·

>so here's the unfortunate catch:  people belonging to the orchestra
>will have to pay a small amount of money each month that would
>vary depending on the number of people joining

This is the death knell of your idea, before it even starts.

Unless you are affiliated with a community college of some sort, where people can earn credit hours (and pay for them), you will be hard pressed to find anyone of college age or older that is willing to *pay* to play. And without a set fee??

Realistically, you need to start small, with ONE group, and build support in your community before expanding. It's the concept of "doing one thing well" before attempting to create a huge multi-tiered organization that requires lots of administration and funding.

As for music, there is enough stuff out there in the public domain that is free to download from places like the Internet Music Score Library Project, the Werner Icking Music Archive, the Mutopia Project, and so on that even a small orchestra can put on an excellent season for only the cost of printing and duplicating the parts.

February 1, 2009 at 05:15 AM ·

I started a youth orchestra 15 years ago.  The biggest hurdle was liability insurance.  I started by operating through the Parks and Rec. department and offered it as a class.  We had 8 violins and 2 cellos our first session.  The newspaper just did an article about our groups - we have 2 orchestras now.  You can go to and search Prelude String Orchestra to read the article, view a slide show, and a video.  The process of expanding is too lengthy to include in this message so if you would like to contact me through this site you are welcome to do so and I will give any advice/information that you request. 

February 1, 2009 at 05:44 AM ·

Unless you are affiliated with a community college of some sort, where people can earn credit hours (and pay for them), you will be hard pressed to find anyone of college age or older that is willing to *pay* to play. And without a set fee??

There would be a set fee of $20/month as I mentioned (which would only exist if it'd be required to rent a place -- and could be less (so refunds) if we could get it cheaper -- and would be reunded in part, full, or full+ some if events went well - so yes, it's possible the people might get paid some); if it did go through the college they'd have to pay a min of $540/year just for the credits, and they're only allowed I believe it's 16 months (4 classes) before they'd max credits out for it, and a certified teacher on the college payroll would have to do everything ---- the way I've got it setup in the plan, it'd only cost $240/yr if no money is made from anything.


Thanks for your comments, they're appreciated (I just wanted to comment on that part).


February 1, 2009 at 07:36 AM ·

Here in Tokyo there are several hundred amateur orchestras and almost all of them require their members to pay a monthly membership fee, usually between 20 and 50 USD per month. This doesn't strike me as odd nor expensive at all because if you join a yoga class or a sports club or similar, not only will you have to pay membership fees there, too, but you will pay significantly more.

Many amateur orchestras here only give one or two concerts a year and each member who will be playing at the concert has to pay a fee that goes towards covering the cost (hall rental etc) which is usually between 100 to 200 USD per event. Again, if you are a member of a sports club, most often there are one or two big socialising events per year where you will incur the same or higher cost.

This may not work in the US, but perhaps it provides a different perspective about how people value their hobbies.

February 1, 2009 at 05:46 PM ·

There's 2 ways to go about it.  You can start small and grow, or you can start off big like you want to and then dwindle.  First option is best.  You don't want to start an orchestra, you want to start a bunch of orchestras and unless you're a superhero with lots of investors then this is just a dream that will turn into a nightmare and then you'll be begging to wake up. 

That doesn't mean I don't applaud your efforts, I just mean you need to be realistic.  Find a place to rehearse that is free (community centers, church basements, high school auditoriums, etc.)  In exchange for that you will provide a concert there that is open to the venue's community.  No need to be renting out halls.

Find investors like local businesses to buy ad space on your programs, grants, foundations, etc.  This is a lot of hard work, 90% of your efforts will be here so if all you're looking to do is wave a baton then you have to enlist the help of someone.  Expect to pay that someone.

Focus on having 1 group, just one.  Nobody gets awards for starting 5 orchestras at the same time.  Learn how to walk first, then join the olympics.

Set a goal.  5 concerts a year, 5 venues, small orchestra of amateurs, a few good principal players that are paid (only pay principals to begin with).  Good principal players will know how to draw the best out of their section and if it's full of amateurs they will get an education of it too.  Cheap music, or showcase a local young composer.

I'm not against charging members to be in the orchestra.  But beware that this will attract strictly amateur players.

A great way to get exposure is to host a local high school concerto competition.  People who want to audition must be members of the orchestra for at least 1 season.

Good luck, keep your dreams high, but be realistic about it.

February 1, 2009 at 06:11 PM ·

I certainly applaud your efforts to organize a community orchestra in your area. But trying to work through the finances should not necessarily have been your first task. It isn't all that easy to get people to commit to any community group. That a local college has a waiting list does not mean that those folks are just waiting for you to organize them. People who are already competent players may already have as much musical involvement as they want or can manage. For instance, PS music teachers do music all day long, may also often teach privately in the evening, have a string quartet or church job, are involved in requirements for add't. workshops, training & grad credits. Some may agree to volunteer or help out for a while, but over the long run may run out patience in the typical community group. I think you would do well to settle on one orchestra concept to start, and maybe you will be able to expand later. If you want an orchestra that can pretty much sit down & play a few concerts a year, specifically recruit, distribute music, hold several rehearsals & perform. (For an orchestra that works like this, you could talk to Nancy Strelau at Nazareth College about the "Women's Orchestra".) For the more typical community style of cheerful volunteers of mixed skill levels which usually means mostly "intermediates",  you could look into how New Horizons International works. (google them.) I have been giving some thought to starting a group in my rural area. I have two friends lined up, one almost-intermediate & one advanced-intermediate. I thought I'd put an ad in the local shoppers' guide to see if we can find enough more for roughly a double quartet. If so, we'd likely meet in my living room, use music I bought for my PS job, and whatever I can borrow, to start. Sue

February 1, 2009 at 06:45 PM ·

Oh, just so you all know, I'm not planning on it starting out big -- I'm assuming there'll be like 20 people total if that (and most being wanting to learn more than the other).  The 50 total is just a starting point for things I had to use to even make it cost effective if the worst-case happens.  And like for the multiple orchestra thing:  it's only for the sake of people who know what they're doing (and doing it well) might not like being next to a 5 year old kid who just picked up the instrument a few days ago.  The overall sound would be horrible, and there'd be no way to even get people to attend things at a price  -- the smaller groups would be just 2-4 people that might want to do something on the side that just happen to meet through this idea.

And as far as a place that's free and not some hall.... the $200 is for the community center in town (it's the worst-case max price, in reality, it'd probably only cost $50-75 [actual price for the space that'd be used], with an agreement to possibly get it free with a little effort as the town's wanting to get an outdoor theatre built -- they spent money for some of it, but there's no reason to have one so people won't give money) .

Plus, as the music classes in my county have been cut drastically that could influence things (few years ago a school would have up to 120 music students -- same schools now have 20-40, and a few have cut all music programs).


Just to clarify more :)  -- thanks for all the comments.

February 2, 2009 at 07:22 AM ·

Doing a community orchestra through a junior college, while requiring a mountain of paperwork, does alleviate a lot of these concerns since you'd be working through an established educational organization.

At least in my case, the liability insurance was absolutely critical, followed by continued monitoring of our organization's 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and support from the city of Irvine, CA.

I run a youth orchestra program, the Community Youth Orchestra of Southern California (, which I took on after the founder and music director retired in 2005. Any time you work with kids under 18 there's a whole lot of things that need to be considered, especially where your support staff are concerned. This year we expanded to two ensembles, serving the 8th grade and younger musicians, and pushing our older ensemble to a college/high school level. Most of the high school age musicians in our region end up in one of the two large programs (Pacific Symphony Youth and Orange County Youth) so it made sense to make available programs for students below and above that level rather than competing for players. Despite the growing pains, strong parental and teacher support has made it all possible and I've enjoyed a relatively high level of music-making with players in both groups.

You've mentioned getting in touch with local's good to get an idea for what kind of ensemble program that they feel is needed that might not be present in your area, and enlist their support in organizing one. I've been very happy to send my best and brightest private and school students to my colleagues' youth orchestras for a number of years now, and it's through the teachers that a large portion of the membershipo can be recruited in a beneficial and cooperative way.

February 4, 2009 at 05:43 AM ·


I currently am the conductor for a community orchestra in which people pay to play. I don't know the exact figure (I don't collect the money--they hired me to conduct), but we have 3 10-week quarters.

The problem with this scenario is that it attracts amateurs and beginners. This is fine for our situation--it fills a needed niche in the community. We have about 25 strings (string only). So the music we can play is limited, and people don't feel feel they have to be there at every weekly rehearsal because they're paying us. It works for everyone, though.

Recently, a guy came to town intending to start a professional group. Different story altogether: he paid for the first concert out of pocket, something like $13,000. But he didn't do his fundraising homework. The orchestra folded after one concert. And no one decent in the community wanted to give any more time for free.

So my advice is to figure out exactly what type of people you want to have, and why they want to play in your orchestra: a fun, relaxed learning experience? Hardcore with advance repertoire and no missed rehearsals? Retired amateurs? Young students a la youth orchestra?

Then you have financing in place. My amateur orchestra has a board. You may wish to consider forming one.

The worst scenario would be, like the "guy that came to town," to put on some big production that can't sustain itself, crashes, and burns in corn field.

February 4, 2009 at 05:28 PM ·

Oh boy do I remember being hired in a worse situation than that Scott.  I was hired by a respectable contractor (someone I've worked for before) in this new orchestra that a conductor was starting.  I recognized many colleagues in the orchestra and it turned out to be a great group of players.  Anyway we played the concert and then waited for our checks.  About a month later we all received a long letter from the conductor saying he wasn't going to pay us after all.  Turns out he had been promised a lump donation from one donor who never followed through.  He hadn't secured any other funds.  I will never forget giving up 4 rehearsal days and a saturday evening concert engagement and never got paid!!!!

February 5, 2009 at 01:34 AM ·


I admire your ambition. Hard times can present opportunities for those who are not afraid of risk. As a person who has started and managed some reasonably large organizations, I have some simple suggestions for you to consider. Start with your core players/administrators. Don't bring in the cast of thousands or the expectations will be all over the place and everyone will take their toys and go home. Your core needs to be really core, as in "hard core". They will set the tone of the whole organization. Start with small chamber performances and invite new players a few at a time and see if they can click with the core and take directions. These initial performances should be of the best quality you can put together. If you have doubts, don't do the show. You don't want to be overambitions and sink the boat while you are still in the port with too much dead weight.

I would not start with a vanity orchestra. Maybe offer lessons and education for those folks. While small is easier, focus and committment is more important than the size. Maybe start with a conductor, section leaders, and then one fundraiswer-marketing/money person (this might need to be 2 people). Get the players to promote small quality events to their personal networks and get good reviews. The administrators need to be squeaky honest. If you can get a really knowledgeable board do it, but don't get people on the board for just fundraising or prestige. Just hard workers who share your vision and can delay gratification. Limit the size of the board or at least how many can vote. Too many politics for the start.  It is a noble but long slog you propose. I advise you don't go sniffing after money. The wealthy can spot that a mile off and get hit up all the time for bucks. Design a quality product first and then send some promo tickets to target donors.

Essentially, I would work to "boot strap" a small org to get some revenue flowing in FAST. This could take a year or two, so make sure they don't quit their day jobs assuming they have one. If you go the nonprofit route you will be competing for an increasing slice of shrinking pie. I don't think it is a timely thing to do right this moment, but that depends on your pool of available sponsors and events. Good luck.

February 5, 2009 at 03:11 PM ·

Good luck!  My advice is to keep it simple. Start with a community orchestra.  The other smaller groups may follow or not.

I also play in a community orchestra, with no auditions required.  We pay $125 per year.  This helps cover the cost of:

-The conductor

-The music (so expensive!)

-Some equipment (mostly stands, chairs and percussion)

The rest comes from arts funding agents.  It's taken 10 years for our orchestra to come together so that we sound as good as we do.  Most people show up weekly for rehearsals, some don't.  Working adults can always make it every week, with other demands on their time. Our group is made up primarily of professionals who don't want to give up playing/performing.  We are an adult orchestra.  This is because there are enough youth opportunities available for the kids, and next to none for adults.  However, the odd 16 year old gets in if need dictates. We give 2 concerts a year.  Ticket prices are $15/10.

We're often short key players, because you dont' always have all the volunteers you need, so we get ringers in for concerts when necessary.  That also requires some work to organize.




February 5, 2009 at 06:17 PM ·

Here's a site that may lead you to some inexpensive scores: The Composer-Conductor Bridge 

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