Building ensembles requires a range of factors to create a groundswell of enthusiasm. It is the combination of factors that makes an ensemble really take off.
Whether it is a community ensemble, school orchestra or beginner concert band, it should be about people wanting to be there and wanting to make music together.
- The purpose of the group
The purpose of an ensemble may sound obvious but it often isn’t.
If it is a senior ensemble, the purpose might be to perform at the highest standard. If it is a community ensemble the purpose might more social and more about rehearsal than performance standard. A junior group might have its main function as recruiting and getting young players to really enjoy music making in groups.
It doesn’t matter what the main purpose is as long as it is clear to all involved. My high school senior hockey team and I never really clicked. Mostly cos I thought it was something I did for fun and the others wanted to win! Neither of us had a superior goal – but it did mean I was in the wrong team!!
- What’s in it for them?
The concept of voluntary membership means that the players have to want to be there, so they have to get something out of it. I had a music teacher say to me once ‘Why won’t they come’ (to ensemble rehearsal). I said ‘Because they don’t want to’ – easy! This is a list of things that my community ensemble came up with about why they were a member of the group.
- To play instruments
- Ensure high standards of performance at any level
Make sure that the ensemble sounds great every time they play in public no matter how small or insignificant the concert. Nothing puts people off a group faster than being embarrassed. If the players aren’t proud of the performance, they will leave – and fast. This has a lot to do with selecting repertoire very carefully.
Make sure you have a good name. It shouldn’t matter, but it does, especially for new ensembles. An established and successful ensemble already has a history of success so don’t change the name. New ensembles have to work a bit harder.
Examples from my experience:
Junior Concert Band vs Arnold St Band
Saxophone Ensemble vs Used Car Horns
Napier Community Orchestra vs The Essendon Symphony
Perception is everything!
- Sort your philosophy
Now this sounds deep but it isn’t. Again, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as everybody is on the same page.
Example: I took over an ensemble where the previous conductor had brought in really good players before the concert. A week out from my 1st concert the leader asked when the others were coming. The ensemble nearly dropped dead when I said there weren’t any coming!!! Personally – I’m not a big fan of importing players unless it is an emergency as there is no sense of pride for the players who have done all the work. We all need to have a system and stick to the system – if you change, make sure the players know and know why!!
- Build a sense of team and pride
I prefer to not let students into an ensemble rather than beg them to stay. I would rather put my energy into making the group something that others really want to be involved with. Camps, Tours and performances are a fast way to accomplish this but it can also be done by achieving common goals – like performing really hard music well, or sharing jokes and traditions.
I took over a kids group once and after the 1st rehearsal they hated me! Nothing had gone well. The following week I instigated 2 traditions.
1. The Crunchie Bar question
2. The very very small yellow pencil.
I gave each student a special gift of a very very small yellow pencil at the start of the 2nd rehearsal and made a big deal about the very very small yellow pencils fitting perfectly on the music stand ready for action.
Crunchie bar questions were things like theory or score reading and questions to do with the music we were playing. The person who got it right got a little Crunchie. These things sound dumb but they work and not just with kids.
- Talk it up
If your group is going well, then your members will do your marketing for you by talking to others. This is the most effective and most powerful form of growth. Never underestimate it. Your current members are your best recruiters.
Growth seldom comes quickly with any ensemble so it is important to be patient and work effectively with what you have in front of you. At all times remember:
This is what we do for fun!