Amateur string orchestra

Edited: August 20, 2018, 7:40 AM · Hello. In my local area, there is already a local amateur symphony orchestra comprising strings woodwind, brass etc. So I was thinking of setting up an amateur string orchestra, open to anyone over a certain level. With myself as the conductor (to get some experience). What does everyone think? Would this be a good idea or...?

Replies (26)

August 20, 2018, 8:04 AM · If that's a dream of yours, why not? It won't hurt anything to try.

Just be prepared for a LOT of work, and generous helpings of disappointment when (inevitably) players who initially commit to the group stop showing up. You'd also be in charge of rehearsal and concert space, providing music, group policy, and seating arrangements.

You think anyone wants to sit last chair, even in an amateur group?

Really - I'm not trying to discourage you. But think it through.

August 20, 2018, 8:10 AM · I would do what my youth string orchestra did, seating wise
August 20, 2018, 8:11 AM · What did you do? Straight up auditions?
August 20, 2018, 8:13 AM · No. Had the best of them sat as principals, and the rest scattered around. With occasional switches around so no one was sat at the back for too long
August 20, 2018, 8:15 AM · I feel auditions could potentially spoil the fun for some people
August 20, 2018, 8:32 AM · I guess rotating seating could work, as long as you have clear-cut stars to sit in the principle spots.

Again - go for it. But if you do it make sure you follow through.

I remember a youth orchestra conductor in a town where I lived for a while had the same idea about forming a group for adult amateurs. He managed to get it organized but scrapped the whole thing after a few months. It really pissed some people off and stained his reputation a bit.

I'd hate to see that happen to you.

August 20, 2018, 8:36 AM · Conducting is something I'd potentially like to go into in the future, so would want as much experience as possible instead of waving my baton to a recording??
Edited: August 20, 2018, 9:49 AM · 2 years ago some string players in the "amateur"** conductorless chamber orchestra (~30 players) I've been playing with for 6 years(now) decided to try forming a "Friday String Serenades" group to get together twice monthly. 13 of us showed up and maintained that number pretty well for the first year. We also play without a conductor. That number of players allows us to play most of the well-know string serenades that have been composed (3 on divided parts (you know what I mean if you've played these) plus a bass). The second year the number of players dropped and now we are about to start the third year.

Initially we had to pay "dues" of $10 per year to rent the room in the community center where we play, $15 the 2nd year, and now the rent has increased and with the attrition of players we will have to pay $20---and we have had to stop aspiring to play serenades and dropped to octets, sometimes septets or sextets, quintets and even quartets. The one week it would have had to be trios, we all just stayed home.

The "Serenades" organizer's original plan was that we would be performing in the future for some musicale organization she belongs to, but upon hearing our weaknesses we rather unanimously decided against that - so we just play twice monthly for the fun of it. So we are just a "reading ensemble."

The chamber orchestra also started as a "reading ensemble" but started giving 2 annual concerts in our rehearsal hall to pay for the free "rent" we were granted by the community center. The orchestra has now at least doubled its performance schedule and plays other venues as well to raise donated money for charitable purposes.

**When I say we are an amateur** orchestra, I should add that a goodly percentage of our players have degrees in music and/or have been employed in music in one way or another (private or school teaching, etc.) and all of us are "seasoned" players. Both orchestra and "Serenades" meet in the morning since we are pretty much all retired or have jobs that allow us to own those mornings.

No doubt both the chamber orchestra and the Serenades group would be better with conductors at the helm, nevertheless, playing in groups of this size without a conductor is an instructive challenge. But some music (simple though it may appear) is nearly impossible for non-professionals to play without a conductor.

Most of the music we play is available for download at IMSLP.org .

The chamber orchestra was been formed without auditions, but mostly by invitation since the founders knew lots of musicians to call upon. As more players learned about us and asked to join and the orchestra grew, a board of directors was formed and decided rather than use auditions we would let people come and try us out and the board would make judgements based on input from other players (which has been freely given (who wants to sit next to a bad player?). It turns out most people whose skills were questionable either did not return or were long-time players who just needed a few weeks to get their chops back.

August 20, 2018, 9:05 AM · I'm part of a group (30 person choir and 10 piece orchestra, with violins, bass, clarinet, and keyboard) that performs at the church. We play mostly famous religious music from the classical and baroque periods during mass, but we do concerts on the side as well to balance the chequebook.
It holds together remarkably well. Been around for a decade. Always wanted to start my own group but every Polish musician within 70 km is already in the existing orchestra.

Dunno if you plan on playing classical or religious music, but partnering with a nearby church is a good idea. Place to perform, rehearse, and everyone already meets there on Sundays anyhow.

August 20, 2018, 9:09 AM · I'm not a religious man
August 20, 2018, 9:27 AM · Truth be told, neither am I. But if the church enables me to play music with a large group of dedicated musicians, then I won't complain.
August 20, 2018, 9:58 AM · "Had the best of them sat as principals"

Ah, but who determines who is the best? It's less contentious in a youth orchestra with adults in charge. Even if there is grumbling (and there is always grumbling), the power structure is clearcut. But in a volunteer amateur group being organized by someone who is likely younger and less experienced than at least some of the musicians, unless a few clear stars show up, arranging the seating is a minefield.

Leaving that aside, organizing an amateur community group has some of the same pitfalls as teaching an adult student--people have jobs, families, outside obligations, all of which can get in the way of a weekly commitment. The youth orchestra likely has disciplinary measures in place for students who miss too many rehearsals, but what are you going to say to an adult who misses three weeks in a row?

I don't think your idea is bad but I think you are underestimating the complexities and hurdles ahead.

August 20, 2018, 10:10 AM · Players like to have an experienced or at least a thoroughly competent and businesslike conductor in front. How well do they know you? How well do you know the music? It all depends on whether you can motivate them to give up their precious time.
August 20, 2018, 10:13 AM · I served on the board of my city's community orchestra, and I can 100% tell you seating is the least of your worries. Adults, with maybe one or two exceptions, are aware of their abilities don't grumble about seating- they just want to play. The difficult part will be finding a rehearsal venue and finding a concert venue. People don't want to let you use their space because of the liability and usage costs, for free anyway. You'll have to raise funds to pay for those, and they are more expensive than you'd think.

Also, have you considered that musicians won't want to be led by a completely inexperienced conductor? I wouldn't join a group that had an untrained conductor- it's just not fun at all.

August 20, 2018, 2:15 PM · Once again, I agree with Marry Ellen. My main frustration with community orchestras was not about lack of skills, but lack of commitment and the reluctance from management to introduce rules for attendance. I can tolerate players on lower level, but can not those who miss rehearsals and then appear at concert time. It is your biggest challenge. Unless there is enthusiasm and commitment, results will be poor.
August 20, 2018, 3:28 PM · Julie is spot-on.

Starting a group isn't easy. If you want to do a string orchestra, and it's small enough to be chamber-sized, your initial rehearsal venue should probably be somebody's house. But I don't know why people would want to work with an inexperienced conductor. If you're a highly accomplished violinist, you could potentially lead from the concertmaster's chair, but that wouldn't be conducting experience per se.

August 21, 2018, 12:53 AM · Can I make a suggestion? If you end up going through with this, PLEASE pick music that 80%+ of the players can do proficiently. Don't pick music just because you, as the music director, like the music. Pick it based on what you think the players can DO.

This is a huge pet peeve of mine in both youth orchestras and community orchestras. They pick pieces WAY above the average player's level and then just accept that most of the notes won't get played accurately. Just one big blur of sound.

August 21, 2018, 12:55 AM · Regarding venues, churches are going to be your best bet.
August 21, 2018, 2:50 AM · Erik I agree with you entirely on that (although my youth orchestras were very good at picking rep that was the right level generally)
August 21, 2018, 4:25 AM · I'm also not a full time musician as such, currently an amateur (hoping to start university in 2020). I work full time, so could potentially fund the venue and music myself, depending on expense
August 21, 2018, 5:49 AM · Pardon me Jake for coming across like an agony aunt, but it doesn't sound like this is a venture that really burns you up. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a vanity project, but you can't expect players to devote a lot of time and effort to a conductor who just wants "to get some experience". I recall playing in at least two amateur (although hand-picked) orchestras conducted by ambitious young musicians who went on to have successful careers as conductors. At the time we (the band) weren't 100% impressed, but enough to be generally supportive and it's nice to see their names crop up on a CD cover or hear them mentioned on the radio.

Unfortunately we've all been exposed to other "conductors" who lack some or most of the desirable attributes:

Non-specific "musicality"
Thorough knowledge of the repertoire
Engaging personality
Organizational skills
Understanding of the instruments in the band

and last but not least

Training in how to wield the stick

Edited: August 21, 2018, 9:41 AM · @Erik "youth orchestras and community orchestras ... pick pieces WAY above the average player's level"

Couldn't agree more. However, thankfully in my area there is a handful of amateur orchestras, including my string chamber orchestra, that specify grade 8+ (or equivalent experience) as the preferred level for their membership. Such orchestras often have a number of music degree amateurs together with a sprinkling of retired symphony pros in their line-up, and, most importantly, a professionally trained conductor who has the attributes listed by Steve Jones (at least two I know are full-time professional conductors). They are thus able to put on attractive competent performances of professional repertoire, with professional soloists on occasion. These orchestras, in my experience, usually choose their programmes through their committees, in consultation with the conductor, ensuring that the music is not beyond their collective capability.

With the other orchestras, programmes are often chosen not by them primarily but by their conductors who tend to rely on lively music with plenty of brass, woodwind and percussion to overlay the strings. Anyway, given the circumstances, that is a sensible and fairly safe option, and is popular with the audiences.

August 24, 2018, 10:43 AM · Another point: String repertoire is hard. The Tschaikowsky or Dvorak serenades are harder than much of the symphonic repertoire--if only because there are no wind and brass sections to hide behind.

So if the skill level is not very high you end up being restricted to baroque repertoire. I am far from wanting to disrespect it. But it becomes a bit monotonous.

August 24, 2018, 11:21 AM · You folks have a lot more experience than I, but, I was listening to a video of a local amateur orchestra the other day, and it was the horns that made it just about unlistenable. VERY evident when they are not in tune. Perhaps the strings were bad too, but the horns were omnipresent and intolerable. But, that is one orchestra and one set of ears behind that observation.
August 24, 2018, 12:50 PM · The French horn is possibly the most difficult of the brass instruments, so it is not surprising that amateurs can fall over in the stress of performance. Depending on the orchestra, one solution is to choose pieces where the horn parts are fail-safe. Another is to have a conductor who is also a professional horn player and can coach the horn section on their technique - one of my orchestras is fortunate in having such a conductor, and we have no worries.
August 24, 2018, 2:22 PM · I wonder if that's why so many conductors of amateur orchestras seem to be horn players? Of the eight conductors I've had in amateur orchestras, five have been horn players. (The other three: an oboist, a violist, and a pianist.)

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