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  • On Building a Volunteer Ensemble

    A FEW THOUGHTS ON BUILDING A VOLUNTEER ENSEMBLE

    Occasionally over the last ten years I’ve been asked for advice based on my experience of founding and growing the String Orchestra of Brooklyn and our success in retaining a dedicated core of talented volunteer players. Below is adapted and expanded from an email I sent to one music director who was having problems with attendance and retention of players in his ensemble. These are mainly considerations for a volunteer ensemble, but I have also found myself screaming silently to myself at paid gigs when some of these principles and practices were not being followed…

    First off, remember that in a volunteer group, your primary audience is your players. They are the first people you need to think of when you're programming and making other decisions about the group. Don't worry as much about what you think an outside audience wants. The main audience that will come to your events will be people that your players invite. And if the players aren't excited about the concert, they won't invite people. Also make sure the tickets are affordable so your players are comfortable inviting their friends.

    Basically there are four main points to consider if you’re trying to attract and retain an ensemble of dedicated volunteer musicians:

    1. Make sure you're providing a musically enriching experience. (This is basically the whole ballgame).

    Is the quality of the music making at the highest level of which you're capable?
    Is the programming interesting? Is it the kind of thing they could find elsewhere?
    Are players, especially the players you really want to stick around, being given a chance to make a meaningful individual contribution and have their voices heard?
     

    2. Make it easy/enjoyable to be a member of the group and come to rehearsals.

    Do you provide music stands, pencils, rehearsal refreshments?
    Are your rehearsals easy to get to?
    Are you providing clean, well-marked (bowed) parts at (or, even better, well before) the first rehearsal?
    Are you professional and courteous with the musicians? Do you come prepared? Do you make sure to start and end on time and provide a full break?
    Do you use time efficiently in rehearsals?
    Are you effectively dealing with problems (disruptive members, absenteeism, unpreparedness, etc) in such a way as to demonstrate to the other members your respect for their time, hard work, and musicianship?
    Are you providing other perks of membership (say, workshops on Alexander technique, injury prevention, etc)
     

    3. Have a vision

    Does your group exist for a reason? Does it have a mission/vision statement/raison d'etre? Do your players know what it is and believe in it?

    4. Always be recruiting

    However well or poorly you run the ensemble, a certain percentage of people won’t stick around for a variety of reasons, some of which are within your control and some outside of it. Plan for attrition.

    One issue that you will most likely face is a diversity of expectations and needs between players who are more on the “amateur” end of the spectrum and those who make a living from their instrument. The pro players will generally want fewer rehearsals and a more condensed schedule. The amateurs tend to favor a few more rehearsals, and more spread out (usually weekly). For them, it's a social club as well as a gig. The only thing you can do is strike a balance depending on the kind of ensemble you want and the kind of players you want to attract.

    In any volunteer activity, attendance will be an issue, but you are allowed to be firm about your expectations. If someone regularly says "sorry this is a volunteer group I couldn't show up last night," you actually don't have to be ok with that. (On the other hand, you also have to be empathetic in your response.) Remember, everyone who does show up is looking to you to make sure everyone else does also. You have to somehow make it clear to everyone, in as nice a way as possible, that each person is making an enormous investment of time and energy and passion and musicianship and they show respect for their fellow volunteers by doing the things they've promised to do: show up, practice, be engaged at rehearsals, be courteous, etc.

    Putting all of this into practice is harder than it sounds, and I’ve failed at it as often as I’ve succeeded, but this is a good direction to aim your energies.  

    Please leave a comment with your thoughts about what’s here or what’s missing!

    Eli