Cobweb Orchestra founder wins Lady Hilary Groves Prize

Making Music is delighted to announce that Andrew Jackson, founder and creative director of the Cobweb Orchestra, has been awarded the 2019 Lady Hilary Groves Prize.

The prestigious prize, presented annually, is given to an individual of a Making Music member group who has had a significant impact on the success of their music group or made an outstanding contribution to music in the community.

Andrew was due to be presented with his Lady Hilary Groves Prize at the Cobweb Orchestra’s annual residential weekend in April, but due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the orchestra has suspended activities, and he will be presented with the prize later this year.

Under Andrew’s leadership, the Cobweb Orchestra has grown from an evening course inviting instrumentalists to 'blow the cobwebs off your music stand’, to a network of nine regular groups across the North of England, and an extensive programme of study days, concerts and weekend residentials. The orchestra is completely open access and unauditioned. It offers instruments on loan, as well as bursaries to those who would not otherwise be able to afford to participate.

Andrew Jackson conducting

Making Music Vice-Chair Clare Birks, who judged the prize with Making Music Chair Dorothy Wilson, said: “Dorothy and I agree that this year the prize should go to Andrew Jackson of Cobweb Orchestra for such a long record of providing opportunities for leisure-time musicians to make music. We particularly applaud the variety of formats he offers, which enable the widest possible participation; his versatility in composing, arranging and publishing music for mixed ability music groups; and the sustainability of his approach which helps participants to grow and take responsibility for their own local music-making.”

The Cobweb Orchestra began life in 1995, when Andrew, then outreach worker for the Royal Northern Sinfonia, came across many adults who used to play instruments and wanted an opportunity to try again, but who were not always able to commit to regular attendance, or not confident enough to approach a regular amateur orchestra. After running the first ten-week Cobweb evening course, aided by Royal Northern Sinfonia Principal Horn Chris Griffiths, Andrew found that many of the players wanted to continue, and more ambitious concerts and events followed.

From the outset, the Cobweb Orchestra has always emphasised flexibility – there is no requirement to attend rehearsals every week and players of all standards are welcome, whether they've just taken up an instrument, are returning to playing after a long break, or have been playing for many years.

“I don't know whether I added anything to the performance, but the performance added something to my life.”- Novice Cobweb player

In a recent Making Music member blog, Cobweb flautist Christine MacGregror said: “Andy and the other group leaders are exceptionally welcoming to new players; they appreciate that it is a really big thing to play in front of others when you are out of practice, and that some returners might have had a bad experience in the past that made them give up their instrument. The relaxed and friendly nature of a Cobweb rehearsal means that most people feel able to come back after having made that first big step. Then the approach is to help them take down any self-imposed barriers, gently changing attitudes from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I'll give it a go.’”

A team of group leaders assist Andrew with running nine regular groups and also help to run weekend events and study days. Cobweb also has a number of offshoot groups for different abilities and musical tastes, including the Cobweb Chamber Orchestra, Cabaret Ensemble, Baroque Group, and Guinea Pig Orchestra — a group for players who volunteer for ‘controlled musical experiments’ including accompanying soloists, conducting sessions, and workshops for composers and arrangers to try out new pieces.

In 2010, Andrew and the Cobwebs gained national attention and recognition for their ‘Undercover Orchestra’ project — a flashmob performance of Ravel’s Bolero at the NEXUS Bus Station in Newcastle. The orchestra was subsequently shortlisted for the Music in the Community Award at the 2011 Gramophone Awards, and won the 2011 Voluntary Arts England Epic Award for Innovation. A Youtube video of their performance has been viewed over 750,000 times to date.

Cobweb's 'Undercover Orchestra' project in 2010

On receiving news of winning the Lady Hilary Groves Prize, Andrew commented:

“There are thousands of skilled professional musicians who dedicate themselves to encouraging participation in all types of music, and to be recognised as someone who has made a significant contribution to this part of our national life is, indeed, a real honour.

“This is a particularly poignant time to accept the Lady Hilary Groves Prize. At this moment, members of choirs, bands, orchestras and music clubs throughout the country are unable to meet and practise the thing that gives them such deep satisfaction and connects them to the lives of others. 

“There is no way of knowing how long the situation with COVID-19 will continue, but music can come from unusual places and survive in extraordinary times. I think that when we are eventually able to get together and share our passion for communal music making, we will be even more aware of how precious it is.”

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The Cobweb Orchestra: A Wonderful Obsession, a book charting the first 18 years of the Cobweb Orchestra, is available to purchase online.