How to start a community music ensemble
April 11, 2009 3:09 PM   Subscribe

Are there instrumental equivalents to community choirs? And which ones work?

I'm loving being in a community choir. The director brings songs from around the world, teaches them to us one part at a time until the harmonies are developed, and then we perform once a season. No sight reading, no technical proficiency required, just tons of fun. It's a big hit, with 40 members after only a few months.

I'd like to get a sister group started, only with instruments. I know tons of American roots and other kinds of music I could teach to people, and I think I could help shape the performances if people bring guitars, banjos, fiddles and other acoustic instruments. I play a bunch of instruments myself.

I live in a small, friendly island community with lots of musicians, so the demographic feels right. But I don't know of anyone who has done this before. I've heard of standing jam sessions, but not of open-to-the-community groups that practice and perform. Have you?

I might as well air my worries, and perhaps you know solutions to them:
  • The bluegrass curse. Some people can really play, and they want to play the right way. This could kill the fun of the community. I don't want music purity or blazing solos every time. On the other hand, I don't want to dumb people down.
  • Jamming. I do not want to play 10-minute meanders on Grateful Dead songs. I do not want to play half-remembered Bob Marley songs as in college. But maybe some people do. How do I add some focus and punch to the proceedings without becoming a dictator?
  • Numbers. What if four piano players and no fiddlers show up? What if 25 people want to join? Do I split the group?
  • Song choices. Not everyone is as excited about 1920s string bands and Italian folk music as I am. On the other hand, they might enjoy them if they learn them. Are there musical traditions broad and enjoyable enough to invite everyone in? Or should I try to include a bit of everything? Or: To hell with it, it is what it is?
Thanks for thinking this through with me.
posted by argybarg to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would contact Dusty Strings over in Fremont. It seems like that's kind of the bluegrass hub around here, and they probably know of some groups, or if not, can put something on the bulletin board.

In fact, I would put exactly your invitation and bullet points on craigslist and on bulleting boards in Vashon. Communication of what you want up-front is key.

If 25 people show up, take turns. Those who don't like that will form their own offshoot group, maybe closer to where they live, or whatever. Bonus: you're all still better off knowing each other than before.

Or maybe hold an adult ed class on bluegrass playing at TCC, or something. That would set you up a bit more formally as the leader/skills teacher/repertoire chooser.
posted by ctmf at 4:00 PM on April 11, 2009

My co-worker plays clarinet in the Grand Street Community Band, a small orchestra in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They play classical stuff.

The conductor is a very energetic young guy who is also in charge of several music ensembles at the large high school where the community band rehearses and performs. I get the sense that he steers the group and has a major role in deciding what they play. But my co-worker likes him and doesn't feel he's a dictator.

The focus on classical music probably helps them attract a certain kind of musician: the kind that's able to read sheet music, is interested in playing things according to "the book", etc. (There are no auditions, but everyone plays pretty well. Of course, this is NYC, and there are tons of ridiculously talented people here.)

It sounds a bit like what you want to do is start a community band that plays every style of music that you personally like, and nothing that you don't. It might be better to narrow your focus to a particular style.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:01 PM on April 11, 2009

Also: I have always wanted to learn banjo, so if you do get something going and don't mind a rank beginner...
posted by ctmf at 4:01 PM on April 11, 2009

I belonged to two municipal bands in South Dakota -- one was a much more competitive and selective organization in a larger town, and the other was an extremely laid-back and non-selective group in a small town. By "band" I mean your typical band class band -- trumpets, clarinets, Philip Sousa and the whole bit. 4th of July concerts in the park, nursing home entertainment, war memorial dedications. Very midwestern, very much The Music Man. (Although no marching) This may not be exactly what you're looking for, but if it is open to everyone, you're going to get some woodwinds ;)

Both bands were sponsored on some level by the city, and both had a formal director. The Sioux Falls Municipal Band is still directed by the same guy, who is also part of the South Dakota symphony. The other small town municipal band was voluntarily directed (or for very little pay) by the band director from the local college. SF Muni Band met once a week for a 3 hour rehearsal, and played about 2 shows per week. Small town Muni Band met once a week for a 1 hour rehearsal and had maybe 3-4 shows the entire summer. SF Muni Band members got paid quite nicely (especially for me as a high school student) with about $10/hr for a rehearsal and $20 for a performance or something like that. Small town Muni Band we got like $50 at the end of the summer, and we had to work the pizza booth at the arts festival to help raise funds.

So these organizations may be a little more formal than what you are anticipating, but I think joining forces with a director of a local high school or small college band will get you much easier access to musical literature, funding sources, and maybe a director who can take charge of rehearsals without making you look like a dictator. If you're looking for something involving more non-traditional instruments, I remember Small Town Muni Band once featured several pieces in one concert that had Special Guest Dr. Philosophy Professor on accordion. It was a hoot.

If you're thinking more a traditional acoustic/folk band rather than your traditional sit down concert band, an organization that comes to mind is the South Dakota Acoustic Christmas, a group that started out as a bunch of amateur instrumentalists playing at arts festivals, Irish dances, park concerts, etc. There is also an Irish "jam band" in my current town, and they seem to come out about once or twice a year at the Irish restaurant around St. Paddy's day. I also knew quite a few people in small jazz ensembles that would play at random restaurants, etc.

Anyways, not sure if that is what you are looking for, but that is my experience with community bands. It sounds like you are wanting something in between a small folk/jazz ensemble and a full bore Philip Sousa concert band.
posted by sararah at 4:13 PM on April 11, 2009

I think you can combat the bluegrass curse and the numbers curse simultaneously, by making it a policy to put people on instruments they don't know how to play, even the experienced folks. Experienced musicians will love the challenge, and will only be somewhat better off than people who don't play at all prior to coming in. Plus, dumbing it down will benefit everyone at that point.
posted by davejay at 4:24 PM on April 11, 2009

except maybe the main drummer. the main drummer should be solid.
posted by davejay at 4:24 PM on April 11, 2009

I realize that Spokane is about five hours from where you are, but perhaps the people there, at New Horizons Bluegrass Band, can help you out.

Here's a link to the FAQ for New Horizons International Music Association, with links about how to start one's own band.

(I'm not a member, but my father is. He enjoys it quite a bit.)
posted by Lucinda at 6:01 PM on April 11, 2009

I've not got precisely what you want, but I'm doing a research paper on open sta ge nights at the moment (writing it actually inspired me to a similar idea just today, so this question is exciting), if you would like to read a draft you're welcome to meflmail
posted by yoHighness at 6:50 PM on April 11, 2009

posted by mrt at 7:48 PM on April 11, 2009

I know it's not exactly the format you're considering, but Fort Worth has the Fort Worth Civic Orchestra. There are several community bands and orchestras around.

Success for these groups is understandably difficult to determine. There are typically many more woodwind players than brass. And in turn, many more woodwind and brass players than strings. In any of these groups, organization is key. Traditional orchestras lend themselves to organization because the players don't expect to improvise or solo as is found in popular and folk music.

Clear goals from the outset might be useful. Inviting musicians to play a set number of rehearsals for a specific program on a set date would focus the experience. The leader, presumably you, could make the experience flexible and seek input, but having a clear goal would possibly avoid many of the issues you list.

Getting in contact with music educators in your area would be a great resource. They likely have students looking for performance outlets.
posted by GPF at 6:28 AM on April 12, 2009

I've been to several contradances where the band is an open community band -- whoever wants to, shows up. Most recently I saw this at Glen Echo, near Washington DC. I have no idea how it worked, but there must have been 30 people at least on the stage, and they clearly knew enough of the same songs that they could play for the dance easily. Contra people are insanely friendly, so I bet if you googled them you could find a contact email for more details.
posted by obliquicity at 7:45 AM on April 12, 2009

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