Developing a Community Music Group
By Albert Asch
In the Beginning
In September, 1968, the University of Wisconsin Washington County Campus opened its doors to the first student body. At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday of that first week the first rehearsal of the Kettle Moraine Community Orchestra was to begin. Everything had been done to attract community musicians to the rehearsal: articles and pictures to the paper; visits to musicians who were interested in a community group who could help recruit; letters to musicians in the community notifying them of the new organization and requesting that they bring a friend and finally letters, a newspaper article and posters announcing the time and place for the first rehearsal of the new community music group.
I was at the door at 7:00 ready to greet the new members, welcome them and ask what part they would like to play. By 7:15 there was one clarinetist, a violin, a mandolin and a percussionist (with no sticks). As I walked to the unfinished music department to find music for that unusual quartet, I thought “Oh well, it is a beginning.” When I returned to the library there were 45 musicians ready to play! In West Bend at that time 7:30 meant 7:30. Warm-up? Who needs it? We rehearsed very easy selections and had to call it quits at 9:15. The woodwinds and brass had no chops and the violinists were playing with their left elbow on their knee.
The 36 years that followed that first rehearsal have had the usual ups and downs. At times it was a luxury to have a string bass and at times even a second bassoon.
That community orchestra is now the Kettle Moraine Symphony Orchestra, Inc. with complete instrumentation, an office in West Bend, a part time executive director, a personnel manager, a librarian, stage manager, equipment manager and an active board of directors. The Kettle Moraine Symphony Orchestra is the resident orchestra at the Schauer Arts Center in Hartford and presents nine concerts a year in West Bend, Hartford, Slinger, Kewaskum, Jackson and Cedarburg. It is still a community orchestra with members from 19 communities in the Kettle Moraine Area.
Tips for Organizing a Community Group
By working with the Kettle Moraine Symphony (and the Lakeshore Symphonic Band) I found some ideas that worked for me. I will mention a few in the hope they may serve as a starting point for someone interested in organizing a community group.
First and foremost is to enlist the help of musicians who have expressed an interest in starting a community group. Call them a committee, task force or advisory group. They will be invaluable in getting the word out, organizing the music, finding rehearsal space and performing venues and recruiting. If your work with a community group is in addition to a day gig you must have a person (or persons) to handle many extra details that arise. After a while you and your committee will select a manager. A good manager is priceless.
Recruiting New Members
Personal contact is the most effective way to recruit new members. By asking your first members to be ambassadors for the group you will achieve more than any other public relations efforts. I still fill vacancies in the Symphony by accepting recommendations from the present members.
Auditions vs. No Auditions
It is not a good idea to require auditions in the beginning stages of the groups’ development. Many people returning to their instrument after a long lay-off (and there will be many) just won’t do it and you could lose what may become a valuable member of the organization. I would talk with each prospective member and assure them that as long as they enjoyed the playing and are willing to grow individually as the group grows, they will have a chair in the group. To me, the initial goal of a group is to serve the member musicians. The Kettle Moraine Symphony has a musician development fund (many times underwritten by donors) which is used every year to help musicians pay for private lessons. We always have more applicants than we have funding.
Developing a Board or Support Group
One should develop an active board of directors or support group as soon as possible in the early stages of the group’s organization. I stress active as to merely advisory. The active board helps at concerts, aids fund raising efforts, helps recruit new members and gives community input to the group and its’ leader.
Choosing repertoire is the biggest challenge to the director of a community group. The music needs to encourage members to come back each week and at the same time it must challenge the strong players and not frustrate the weaker players. Concert programs should have audience appeal and be satisfying to the musicians. Much of the Orchestra’s concert repertoire comes from suggestions the musicians have made. Even with a reasonable command of the repertoire selecting music is a daunting task and one of the most challenging and crucial tasks for a director. It is a rare occasion when the members, the audience and the director “like” everything a director programs. It is a balancing act.
Directing the Group
Directing a community group has its fulfilling moments (performing “Russian Christmas Music” to a full house in the Cathedral at Holy Hill) and its down times when you and the group need to, as a “family,” help a member going through tough times. A director needs, more than anything, a sense of humor because you will have a “Bill” in your group. Bill was a faithful member of the orchestra in its early days. He was always there; he took his cello out of the trunk of the car once a week and was usually fortified before coming to rehearsal. The cello section had a pedal “D” in a section we were rehearsing and it sounded like a study in dissonance. I had them all play the “D” and Bill’s was a half step off. In my kindest and most diplomatic way I suggested to Bill that his “D” was a bit out of tune. Bill replied: “That’s not possible; it is an open string and I tuned it last week.”
Albert Asch is Emeritus of Music at the University of Wisconsin, Washington County Campus and is music director of the Kettle Moraine Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was started when the University opened its doors in 1968. The orchestra has now reached semi-professional status.
Asch, a native of Kentucky, came to UWWC from Wichita State University in Kansas where he taught oboe, music education and directed the concert band. Asch’s orchestra experience includes oboist with the Louisville Symphony, the Wichita Symphony and the Urbana Chamber Orchestra. In addition to teaching at Dupont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky, Asch has taught at the University of Louisville and the University of Illinois-Urbana Campus.
Asch’s undergraduate and Masters Degree work was at the University of Kentucky. The Doctoral work was at the University of Illinois.