London Amateur Orchestras

There’s a great page on facebook for amateur orchestras in Britain, unsurprisingly called UK Amateur Orchestras, but with a terrific number of groups in London and the surrounding area I thought it would be helpful to have a group that focussed exclusively on the London scene.

If you play in London, or have an interest in the amateur orchestral scene, please feel very welcome to join London Amateur Orchestras. It’s for everyone, it’s self explanatory, so please keep it clean.

Some really helpful resources for looking for an amateur orchestra in the UK can be found at http://amateurorchestras.org.uk

The photograph above, is of The Wandering Minstrels, a London amateur orchestra that played charity concerts from about 1860 to roughly 1900.

A BASIC GUIDE FOR STRING PLAYERS

For more advanced players, the resources given are a helpful introduction to the London scene, but I come across many people who have taken up the violin after several years rest, or who lament not learning it to a particularly high level as a child. By writing for you, I hope that this can be helpful to everyone. Good luck!

I’m not sure if anybody knows quite how many amateur orchestras there are in London, as some pop up and disappear again and different people have different ideas of how big London is, but one way or another there are about 100 amateur orchestras within the M25. Naturally there is enormous diversity in the nature of orchestras, from those whose standard is indistinguishable from professionals all the way to ensembles for complete beginners, so whether you are a retired professional musician, or a complete beginner, the miracle of London’s amateur orchestra scene is that there is a place for you somewhere along the line. What I can say, from many years of experience in a variety of orchestras is that it is incredible to see how amateur musicians can develop with an orchestra over the years. I’ve seen adults who have come to orchestral music barely capable of contributing to the orchestra and sitting out the concerts becoming confident strong player over the course of a few years. It takes persistence, but to a great extent amateur orchestral string-playing is about experience and the hours put in, but lets face it, plenty of us learned violin up to grade four or five in schools without an orchestra, may not have had the skills or confidence to join an orchestra at university, and still hanker for the opportunity of playing a Beethoven symphony in concert. Everything is possible, and London is particularly good at providing the means to achieve all of this.

One of the most incredible institutions of the London music scene is The London Violin School, which specialises in helping adults who are complete beginners or who are very rusty so if you are coming back to the violin because you played it in childhood, this is quite a smart set of people to look up. It’s an incredibly kind and encouraging environment, and discovering that other grown-ups are facing the same challenges that you are makes (re-)learning the basics all the more rewarding. Of equal measure is the East London Late Starters Orchestra. Frankly what they achieve is absolutely humbling, and I strongly advise anyone with limited orchestral experience to have a go with them in order to get started and develop basic skills.

No doubt I will get huge complaints from my friends for making crass generalisations, but there is a tendency for orchestras to be ranked by London Travelcard zones – the more ‘serious’ or established they are, the closer the rehearsal venue will be to Zone 1. Of course there are exceptions both ways, but if its up to you to navigate the daunting reams of opportunities, it’s a fairly good rule-of-thumb. Again, I will receive a bagful of complaints for saying so, but orchestras that practice once a week in term time are less likely to be serious more laid back than those that compress a few rehearsals into the three weeks before a concert. At the end of the day, don’t get worried if the orchestras that you go for seem to be selective. It’s better to aim your sights lower at first and migrate into orchestras of a higher standard as you find your level rather than sitting there feeling humiliated by the standard of the musicians around you. Once you have your feet firmly on the ground, word of mouth will find other playing opportunities.

My own teenage experience involved a monthly rehearsal with a village orchestra largely for adult learners in the church hall. It mimicked Dad’s Army perfectly, from the battle between the ardent violinist of a parish priest, versus the disapproving church-warden, to my desk partner who played the mandolin that he had picked up off an Italian prisoner of war during the North African Campaign rather than a violin. The gulf between occasionally leading the section in that orchestra and dragging along at the back of the seconds for a Tchaikovsky violin concerto with a London orchestra could not have been greater. I discovered that my monthly rehearsals had given me a completely distorted picture of musicianship, and it took me quite some period of determined effort to get back on my feet. Fortunately these new experiences came to me early enough that I was able to capitalise on them and develop into a solid player early on.

Even for intermediate players, the quality of London orchestras can be unexpectedly high by comparison to what they have experienced before. If you were lucky enough to have a school orchestra, or to play in orchestra at university, it’s not until you take a step up that you begin to gather a realistic perspective. There is a curse amongst orchestras of the kind of person who played at the front of the firsts at school, and after perhaps ten years of idling at university and the start of a career, feels naturally suited to that place in the orchestra. Really – no. You will develop better as a musician in a different place, and there are quite a few orchestras (mentioning no names) were the first violins are propped up by a professional leader and a few music students hired in to give it strength, but the real musical core is in the second violins (there are similar pathologies in the viola and cello sections – brass, wind and percussion have a whole legion of unique states of mind all of their own). All orchestras have their own politics about how to start of a new member – some will trial you at the front, and others will lump you at the back and this may vary from section to section. One of the last frontiers of science is understanding how to properly order a string section. A healthy orchestra rotates on a continuous basis. Don’t become an ossified and stagnant first violin, even if you did lead your school orchestra aged sixteen or hogged the front desk of you non-audition university orchestra for a full three years! (Miaow!)

One of the miracles of string sections of orchestras is that it’s really surprising how much extra baggage they can carry if there are key strong players within. Big symphony orchestras can hide no end of sins, and if the repertoire is nineteenth century schmalzy Romantic, then frankly if your bow is going up and down in time with the rest of the orchestra then your going to survive. Only experience and hours in rehearsal with the rest of your orchestra can refine your playing until you stop getting lost, fake less, and maybe actually play all the right notes in the right place. Don’t be afraid of a challenge if you are having fun in good company because it is incredible to see how people can improve over time, but if not there is always a different orchestra that is less demanding.

As a more advanced player, I’m a huge fan of The Rehearsal Orchestra and I think it’s an enormous contribution to the London scene, as it runs a series of day and weekend courses that look at challenging repertoire under professional conditions. If you want to gauge what you are capable of, it’s a great meter.

Finally, lessons… most amateur musicians are guilty of going without lessons for years, and unsurprisingly as weekly lessons and rehearsals don’t really work with a professional life outside music unless you are a total nutter. There are really two things to say. I strongly recommend Pro-Am Strings as a way of getting lessons online and videos that you can watch on the commute to work. Secondly, there is a misconception that if you go for lessons you have to commit to them weekly, monthly, or whatever. Some of the best lessons I have had have been one-off, looking at difficult corners of a piece, or more general things such as bowing or posture. I’m not a professional, so a refresher so that I sink into slightly less-bad habits than before is enormously beneficial.

There’s an amazing world out there. If you have only ever dreamed of playing in an orchestra, the world is still open to you, and it’s never too late! Enjoy!

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