The ways and wherefores of community orchestras

Edited: April 20, 2019, 7:37 AM · Playing in a community orchestra is a realistic goal for many amateur violinists - and a useful and sometimes prestigious one for paid professionals.

In addition to purely orchestra events of classical masterworks (Sibelius #2 this summer) ours collaborates with professional performers, provides orchestra back-up for other groups (opera, big band) all of which may be actually easier by not being located within a large city.

How does your orchestra make ends meet and how does it integrate into the community? And do you guys enjoy it? Does it have a great team spirit - or do you find yourself in a less friendly but competitive environment?

Replies (29)

April 20, 2019, 7:36 AM · We have two community orchestras. The first is a hybrid university orchestra: Rather than filling out the ranks by offering scholarships to non-music majors, they allow townies to audition. I've never auditioned but I'm pretty sure I'd be admitted.

The other orchestra is a non-audition string orchestra. It's great people but frankly the musical effort is pretty weak. I play viola in this group and I have fun but there is also some frustration. I'm thinking that next year I may audition into the other group.

My daughter takes lessons in a private music school that has its own string orchestra. There are always a few adult "ringers" including myself (viola again) and one of the cellists. The principal violist plays just as well as I do, but they only have one. This is common with youth orchestras to have a shortage of violists. The conductor is an excellent pro violinist and a great director -- I feel that I am getting a violin lesson's worth of tips about bowing, articulation, style, etc. at every rehearsal.

Edited: April 20, 2019, 2:58 PM · I enjoy playing in my community orchestra that plays four concerts a year. We are friendly and uncompetitive with members at different skill levels. We most recently played Dvorak‚Äôs Symphony # 9 and our upcoming concert will include Bizet Symphony in C, Telemann viola concerto (our conductor will double as the soloist ) and a world premiere of a new piece for chorus and strings by a local composer.

We are fortunate to be in a community that supports enthusiastically arts and music created/produced locally.

April 20, 2019, 12:36 PM · My orch (NIH Community Orchestra) plays three concerts a year and two or three chamber concerts per year. We were started by NIH people but are open to anyone, and we have a lot of fun. Over the years, we have had local composers write pieces we could premiere, have collaborated with excellent soloists (we just did the Elgar Cello Concerto with Marza Wilks), and collaborated with the NIH Chorus. We get some funding from, our sponsor, the NIH Recreation Association, and we pay dues each year to belong to that Association. We collect donations at each concert, and all of the money that people donate to hear us goes to the NIH Charities (e.g., NIH Children's Inn). This article, which is several years old gives a good idea of who we are:

https://patch.com/maryland/potomac/nih-community-orchestra-chorus-perfom-annual-holiday-8e40f5c852

April 20, 2019, 8:51 PM · The community orchestra where I am the concertmaster has a strong emphasis on being integrated into the community. We are supported by a mixture of donations and grants. We do not charge for concerts or other activities. We work with the middle and high schools in the area that we serve, which is significantly underprivileged, especially in comparison to the surrounding area. This is one of the wealthiest counties in the US, but in this particular area, more than 50% of the kids qualify for FARMS (free and reduced-price lunch), more than 25% speak English as a second language, and fewer than 15% will graduate meeting the requirements to qualify for a Maryland university. We give guest clinics in the schools, do side-by-side rehearsals and concerts, run a concerto competition aimed at less-privileged kids, run a free kids chamber-music program during the summer, etc.

I've played with several other community orchestras in this area (there are a ton), and they are all quite different. (And I play in chamber music concerts sponsored by NIHCO, as I have friends in that orchestra.)

It's worth thinking about all those organizations dedicated to presenting free or low-cost chamber music concerts to their local communities, too. Some are affiliated with community orchestras, but many are totally separate, and sometimes loosely church-affiliated.

April 20, 2019, 9:14 PM · werewolves, too?
April 20, 2019, 9:37 PM · Lovely to hear what you're doing for music participation, Lydia.
April 20, 2019, 9:47 PM · One orchestra I played with brought some income in by providing chamber music for local events: thus, if a fundraising event needed a quartet they could get one through the orchestra for a fee. I played in a couple of these - one was the kind where we could have played Botticelli or Pink Floyd nobody (least of all us) would have known (the background noise was so loud) but at the other people actually listened and gave us ovations :)

Edited: April 21, 2019, 10:31 AM · I play in two orchestras.

Orchestra #1:

Semi-pro orchestra with professional first-desk string players and principal wind/brass players, all seats auditioned. 30-40% of funding is from ticket sales, the rest is a mixture of public and nonprofit grants, corporate sponsorship, and donations. No membership dues, though some members donate and/or buy ad space in concert programs. We play four regular subscription concerts each season, and also play an annual mostly-pops dinner concert (this brings in more money than any other concert), a "Rising Stars" concert featuring a young soloist from our region, and one or two miscellaneous paid events each year. Some of the grants are for educational work. We play free family concerts twice a year, and send small ensembles to elementary schools to promote classical music. We operate two low-tuition youth orchestras, one of which is selective and one of which is open to beginners, with scholarships for students with financial need. The youth orchestras are expressly aimed at students who attend schools without orchestra programs. Our youth orchestras play side-by-side with us for one piece each season. This orchestra takes pride in high-quality performances and adventurous programming with a lot more modern music than most orchestras play. As far as the atmosphere in the orchestra goes: it's collegial rather than competitive, and highly professional even though most of us are amateurs. Rehearsals are intense and focused as we have a very short rehearsal cycle for a community orchestra. Even with the relatively limited social element, I find this by far the most rewarding orchestra I've played in, mostly because of the interesting repertoire and the opportunities to introduce children to the music we play.

Orchestra #2:

Mid-level community orchestra, all amateur except for occasional ringers to fill absences, with a wide range of ability levels. We played Beethoven's 8th in the fall, and it pushed the the orchestra's limits and required an all-day sectional; we've played Mendelssohn and Schubert symphonies in my year and a half with the orchestra. Over 80% of funding comes directly from the city we perform in, and the rest is mostly from membership dues. We accept donations as well, but don't really solicit them; instead, we collect donations for charity at all our concerts. Concerts are free, which is a condition of our public funding. Orchestra members occasionally provide chamber music for local charity fundraisers, but it is purely voluntary community service, with neither the orchestra nor the musicians being paid for that. This orchestra is still establishing itself, so its personality is a mixed bag. It's friendly and non-competitive overall. But what people are looking for out of the experience varies widely. Some are extremely serious and want to challenge themselves, others are quite casual and there for the social connection, which leads to some social and musical fragmentation. I hope it finds a balance within the next year or two.

I think the inconsistent personality may come from the lack of other mid-level community orchestras in a fairly large metropolitan area. There are several elite community orchestras that have rigorous audition requirements and play professional repertoire, and several casual orchestras that accept complete beginners and play mostly school orchestra pops arrangements, but I understand that there was literally nothing in between when this orchestra was founded in 2013.

Until fairly recently I played in another orchestra where I had been principal violist before leaving to join Orchestra #2. This was a casual orchestra that accepted near-beginners (Suzuki Book 3 would have been easily sufficient) and played mostly easier pops arrangements. 100% of funding was from individual donations, and all concerts were free. Ironically, I felt that orchestra was the least friendly and most competitive of the local orchestras I've played in.

April 21, 2019, 7:04 AM · There are multiple community orchestras in my metro area. I haven't kept up with all of them. Most if not all charge for concerts.

There is also a SCFD tax in my area - Science and Cultural Facilities District. Many of the groups get some funding from applying and receiving grant money from this. It is s small addition to sales tax that gets voted on - I think every 10 years.

I have never examined the budgets so that is the extent of my knowledge.

Edited: April 21, 2019, 10:04 AM · I played in the Desert Community Orchestra in Ridgecrest, CA from 1963 to 1995. (See https://www.guidestar.org/profile/95-2549022 to learn more about its present operations). The DCOA is incorporated as a 501 C (3) charitable arts organization so it qualifies for funds from any charity drives that raise money in the community.

DCO has also been associated with the local community college (Cerro Coso Community College) which provided a professionally trained conductor for many years (when one was on the school's faculty). It uses the funds it raises to pay a stipend to the conductor. For the past 50 years (or so) it has hired professional conductors from larger cities in southern California when one was not on the school's full-time faculty.

I was concertmaster of the orchestra for 20 years and served on its Board twice near both ends of my association with the orchestra. In the 1990s I was president of the Board of Directors and when my 2 terms ended I continued to serve as manager of the orchestra until I moved to Northern California in 1995. I had the job of hiring the next conductor in the early 1990s (toughest part of the job was talking to the rejected candidates after their auditions). Most of the orchestra's funds were spent paying hired conductors their very modest stipends and travel expenses. I have been pleased to see that the conductor I hired over 25 years ago is still conducting the orchestra. I believe the orchestra is still linked to the local community college which can partially fund the conductor as an adjunct instructor.

Linking with a local educational institution is an ideal way to obtain artistic and funding bases for a community orchestra. For 16 years, from 1995 through 2011 I played violin with the College of Marin Symphony Orchestra, Kentfield, CA. The school has had an extremely competent musical faculty to provide direction and coaching. I left the orchestra at the end of 2011 because of vision problems and increasing atrophy of my playing skills.

Since then I have played violin for 4 years and more recently viola for 4 years in a 30-piece chamber orchestra funded by $25/month by each player. We play without a conductor and depend on our concertmaster (who receives a stipend) for musical direction and all our "cues." All of our musicians are very experienced (and most are "old" since we rehearse from 9:45 AM to noon, ruling out those with regular employement). Nice thing about this for those of us with older eyes, is that we each read off our own music stand. We perform 2 to 5 concerts each year. We must be doing OK because we draw players to our weekly rehearsals from as far north as Santa Rosa, as far south as San Francisco (across the Golden Gate) and as far east (across the bay) as El Cerrito, Berkeley and Oakland. The money we raise from donations at our concerts are given to charities that help people with needs.

April 21, 2019, 9:57 AM · I think my current orchestra is very dynamic with respect to fundraising. Unlike most community orchestras there is no membership fee while there are quite a few paid pros including the violin first desk. Part of this success has been by partnering with other groups or organizations that can up their game by playing with an orchestsra or that results in a concert with more diverse and often exciting elements. Thus, in addition to performing with large choirs we have done so with a jazz ensemble and singer, professional opera singers, flamenco dancers, piano or violin concertos and a pro (er, primadonna) pianist/singer. We have also played at ad-hoc city events such as a retirement celebrations for city leader. While this has undoubtedly brought in much needed cash it also has meant that the whole orchestra experience is broadly challenging for us - one week you are playing proms the next opera and the next crooner music. The danger, of course, is that to survive the orchestra becomes something it never meant to be and looses its heart - which is definitely in classical masters.

Up to now the administration has managed a pretty decent balance but I think if they went too far towards entertainment and financial support I suspect that some of the players - in particular the amateurs who have the choice, would loose interest. I should mention that there are a few other community orchestras within reasonable driving distance that could be alternatives. However, for me I just love the whole thing and have found it a terrific learning and performance experience in addition to being a pretty good community.

Edited: April 21, 2019, 12:17 PM · The non-audition orchestra in my area -- I believe they get some kind of budget from the town, but I'm not sure about that. Recently a long-time member passed away (a kindly and charming lady, I shared a stand with her a couple of times) and she left a few thousand to the orchestra. Our only expenses are renting space for rehearsal (from the town, therefore subsidized) and purchasing the occasional new piece.
April 22, 2019, 6:06 AM · NIHCO gets its rehearsal space for free in a local church in exchange for members playing occasional music for the church when the church needs/wants it.
April 22, 2019, 8:43 AM · Now you mention it Tom, Christian churches (at least some denominations) are terrific sponsors not only of orchestra but also many forms of classical music. I'm curious - does anyone know of similar support from other religions denominations too?
April 22, 2019, 9:59 AM · In this area, a ton of churches open their spaces to community classical music, whether orchestral or chamber music.

Some synagogues do also, but it's more common for a Jewish Community Center to have the space/venue for music. And in the various cities I've lived, there's generally been at least one orchestra affiliated with a JCC.

April 23, 2019, 4:20 AM · I am not sure if it counts as a "community orchestra". My orchestra is a learning orchestra which we have membership fee that fund most of the expenses. There are government grants and charity donations, but given the size of the orchestra, I doubt those cover much of the expenses.

I suppose it is more like your youth orchestra or school orchestra, except this one is composed of adult late starters. There is no official statistic, but my guess of the average age is around 40~50, with handful still in their 20's. Most of us starts playing string instrument quite late in our life, or returners after many years of hiatus. There is no audition, but the places are limited. We also have different ensemble groups. So depending on your level, you got placed into different group. There are three concerts per year.

I really enjoy it. I think we have a very good community. People are very supportive.

April 23, 2019, 6:22 AM · Community orchestras seem to range from 'COMMUNITY orchestras' to 'community ORCHESTRAS'. At one extreme, as in the former (as in the post above) its about camaraderie, mutual support and simply enjoying getting together and making music. The audience may be mostly friends and relations - but often includes people associated with the performance venue. At the other extreme its about trying to play the pieces to a professional level with the community and social elements very second place.

Interestingly, I played in an orchestra that was very much the 'COMMUNITY orchestra' when I joined it. The playing was actually pretty good but there was little emphasis on trying to get it perfected. The orchestra recruited a new, dynamic young director who seemed to have career aspirations. The first change was to exchange the excellent but opinionated amateur concertmaster with a semi-professional one (an advanced university performance student). Gradually, the orchestra gained in musical ability but also lost its community feel and competitiveness crept in (as in arguing about desks etc).

Which is better? Neither of course since it depends on which standard you use to assess. I think I would like to belong to one of each: one with real pressure to excel and one where you can just let your hair down and be part of a supportive group.

April 23, 2019, 1:08 PM · "I think I would like to belong to one of each: one with real pressure to excel and one where you can just let your hair down and be part of a supportive group."

That's where I am right now, which I think is ideal.

"Gradually, the orchestra gained in musical ability but also lost its community feel and competitiveness crept in (as in arguing about desks etc)."

I don't think competitiveness correlates that much to musical ability. It doesn't at all, in my experience. I've played in eight community orchestras in my life, all the way from non-auditioned orchestras accepting complete beginners to semi-pro, rigorously auditioned orchestras. The only two where people were highly competitive about chair assignments were both closer to the lower end of the ability range and very much social orchestras playing mostly in front of friends and family. (The strongest orchestras I've played in have also avoided competitiveness by having varying forms of seating rotation.) I think it has more to do with the personalities involved. It takes only a few people with big egos to make an orchestra unpleasantly competitive.

One of those unpleasantly competitive orchestras became that way because of intergenerational conflict -- it had several older members who were condescending toward younger musicians, seemingly refused to believe that anyone under 50 could possibly have decent musical training, and argued with the director when he seated anyone without gray hair in front of them. It was still entirely a social orchestra, but a very cliquish one.

Edited: April 23, 2019, 2:53 PM · "Consider yourself fortunate if you have something like this in your area."

I certainly do.

Because, where I grew up, I would have considered Lancaster County extremely fortunate from a music standpoint. I grew up in Dubai. At the time, the nearest orchestra of any kind was in Muscat, more than 5 hours' drive away and on the other side of a national border. There were no string teachers at all in Dubai until 1994, the year before my family moved back to the US. (And it wasn't until 2017 that I found out about two string teachers arriving in Dubai in 1994.) As of 1995, there were only three orchestras on the Arabian Peninsula, an area one-third of the size of the continental US with over 60 million people: a professional orchestra and a youth orchestra in Muscat, Oman, and a community orchestra in Kuwait City, Kuwait. Dubai did not have a community orchestra until 2002, and to this day has never had a professional orchestra.

April 23, 2019, 3:33 PM · The Ambleside Orchestra, the community orchestra in which I play, is supported by membership dues, grants, and donations. We play four concerts a year, plus the occasional community event. We don't have auditions, being grateful for whoever we can get. (Especially violists - I was dragged into the orchestra, given a viola, and told to learn how to play it. It's funny how so many people in this thread are violists.) We have 45 or 50 members. The conductor and concertmaster get an honorarium, and we pay a few ringers; the rest of us are just there for the joy of playing.

We might qualify for a Guinness Book record for the largest age spread in any orchestra - we have a photo of a 12-year-old violinist with a 98-year-old trombonist, a difference of 86 years.

We're getting better all the time - at our last concert we played Schubert's Symphony No. 9 to enthusiastic applause, and we're working on various pieces by Mendelssohn for our next concert.

We hold our concerts in the same church where we rehearse, and our audience is mostly locals. One of our ringers has come to enjoy playing with us at least as much as in the larger, more advanced orchestra in which she regularly plays.

Edited: April 24, 2019, 6:31 AM ·
I currently play in two community orchestras, the first orchestra is full of people who have probably gone to local conservatories, teach their instrument for a living, and in the case of my desk partner, has played professionally! This orchestra offers a lovely atmosphere, I suppose there is a slight sense of competitiveness amongst members, but only of the healthy kind. Our conductor is fantastic, and I have learnt an awful lot from him. We have done some fantastic pieces, including V. Williams London Symphony, Leningrad, Mahler 2 and 3 (I think), Brahms etc, as well as accompanying some extrememly talented soloists for pieces such as Concerto de Arunjeuz (aptly named Orange Juice from Brassed Off!), Mendelssohn's violin concerto and Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. All of which I have thoroughly enjoyed learning!

The second orchestra I play in is in my city, and the members are those who have played since childhood, but in many cases, play on their second or third instruments, but still play to a relatively high level. In my case, I am on the viola instead of the violin, having only really played the viola properly for about six months so far! This orchestra has a grand total of four viola players, two of whom are violinists in the first instance. Our most recent concert included the New World Symphony, which was fantastic, and everyone played extremely well! We rehearse in a church, and play concerts in the same church. We are well supported by the Canon there. Again, another friendly orchestra, everyone turns up to have fun, and we pop to the pub after rehearsals!

I am the youngest in the first orchestra, and the other orchestra, our age starts at 16+!

April 25, 2019, 8:35 AM · Elise,

What works by Botticelli does your orchestra play? I was shocked to read that a 15th century Italian artist penned symphonies! (Joking aside, did you mean Botticelli?)

April 25, 2019, 1:26 PM · Most likely Respighi's Botticelli Triptych.
April 25, 2019, 1:57 PM · I did say 'could have'; to be honest, I just used his name because it sounds so cool - but thanks for the Respighi catch AH!

So here is a picture of a primitive violin by Botticelli for both of your troubles!
http://www.tuscantrends.com/a-rarely-seen-botticelli-work-displayed-in-montevarchi-2/

April 26, 2019, 7:47 AM · I played in a community orchestra in China for 5 years. It was a godsend, especially for folks who were new to the city and didn't really know anyone outside of work. As my teaching job began to take up more and more of my time my social life dwindled, but I made sure to come to rehearsals every week because playing in a group always left me feeling upbeat and stress-free.

Of course our gracious conductor and artistic director shouldered the majority of the burden in terms of holding the orchestra together. Without her it would have fallen apart. I think community orchestras need someone or a group of people who are really dedicated, otherwise they won't last in the long term.

April 26, 2019, 8:06 AM · Absolutely Jasmin - we have a librarian (who gets a stipend) who is fantastic - organized, proactive and charming who I think is in many ways the core of the orchestra but there are many other people who volunteer with the mechanics of the rehearsal and even more so of the off-site performances (which they all are). I live some distance away so my practical contributions thus far are more limited - but I am trying to help with such things as web sites.
April 26, 2019, 11:04 AM · The community orchestra my mother is the music director of, the Greenwich Village Orchestra, does annual concerts that are both kids concerts and special needs inclusion concerts. These are a big hit every year with the hall being nearly full. Additionally, they do chamber music concerts in hospitals.

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