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On Collective Direction, Or Lack Thereof

I love living in smaller cities. My current home in Alberta has about 60 000 people for a stable population, and that suits me just fine, for the most part. It’s not so small that you know everybody, or even the majority of people you’ll see walking down the street, but it’s not so large that it takes you 35 minutes to get to work and gives you a smog-based lung infection while you’re at it.

One of the things that is a little harder for me to deal with is the difficulty this places on the music side of my life. Given the smaller population, the largest and highest level of ensemble we have in the city is basically the local wind orchestra. This ensemble is composed of some semi-professional players, but a larger chunk is merely those who’ve kept up with their high-school band instruments for a while. There are a few smaller groups, but in general, those community ensembles plus the conservatory is basically it. (Obligatory aside: I’m not complaining about these groups. They are filled with wonderful people and good musicians.)

Where I lived before, there were 2 community wind orchestras, the various ensembles based out of the university, a local symphony orchestra, plus the conservatory of music and a professional dance/swing band. Even this is small potatoes compared to larger centers like Los Angeles, New York, or, closer to home, Vancouver or Calgary. So, it becomes more difficult for me to keep up with that side of my profession.

As such, I’ve thought a great deal over the past 6 months about how viable it would be to support some other extensions of the common music programs we currently have here. Specifically, I’d love to see a small symphony get started. That, however, has a slew of obstacles associated with it.

Compare it to your standard school arts program for children. Let’s say you’re in charge of developing some sort of music program from a state of disrepair to make it a new focus for the area. Where do you start?

First of all, you’re going to have to make do with less than you want for at least a year, maybe as many as two or three. There’s a certain inertia to many human experiences, and the arts are no exception. If you try to change the way something has worked (or at least not failed miserably) for the past few years, be prepared for quite natural resistance on the part of others involved and the institutions/traditions that have accustomed to a certain way of doing things. You will have not as many people involved as you need to really showcase the potential, and you will have to be prepared for that. Once the proof-of-concept has been demonstrated by an increasing quality of both the program and the positive responses by participants, then you can expand to where you want to truly begin.

Also, there will be costs to be considered. For a school or conservatory, this is often merely the cost of instruments or other necessary equipment, which most groups will at least recognize the need to fund in some way or another. However, if you’re attempting to start a full-fledged professional group, you need to hire many more people. Do you want a conductor who is at least decent at his or her job? Well, that costs some. Do you want a concert space? Rental fees say ‘hello’. How are you going to do your PR? Probably you need to hire at least one or two people to man an office and print tickets, posters, and generally try to inform the community of how awesome you are.

Next, you will have to worry about who’s going to participate. For a school, this is slightly less troublesome. As a secondary-school band director, I could make do with not having any tubas, or saxophones, etc. This is simply because they are there to learn how to play their instrument on their own and in a group, nothow the program can get a perfectly proportioned professional ensemble. Correct balance of instrumentation is great but not ultimately necessary for the school teacher. However, a professional symphony needs its ratios correct. If you have only 3 violas, you simply can’t field an adequate string section to compensate for your 4 French Horns. Also, are they going to be paid? If so, how much, and how many of them will get paid?

Yes, I would love to steal this conductor. (Borrowed from laopeningnights.wordpress.com)

If you can get all of the above figured out, you are actually ready to start your attempt. That’s right, without all of that, you don’t really get going. And in all likelihood, it’s going to be a rough beginning as things work out slightly differently than planned. The trouble then will be to keep that inertia going so that the organization doesn’t simply die outright before it has a chance to show what is possible.

In retrospect, it would be much easier to just wait for a high school band job to come along so I could practice these skills and situations, but waiting forever isn’t my style. One of the big reasons I became a music teacher is that I love both teaching and making it as much as possible, and if there’s any way that I can help others to make it, I’m going to try and see it done. If anyone has some suggestions to add as to how this might be made a little easier, I’m all ears.

Ask me again in 5 years to see if the inevitable early grey hairs were worth it. They probably will be.

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