How to really play WITH your orchestra

Da Capo Alba guitar and mandolin orchestra met up with both their adopted composer, Nicholas Olsen and his mentor David Horne on 28 November for a workshop, or rather, a 'playshop', as it transpired.

With our two Armistice commemoration concerts behind us, we were keen to see what Nick would come up with to lead us into the process of creating his composition. We met David for the first time – the two of them arrived in almost identical (floral) shirts. As we’ve recently been discussing a possible change in our concert 'uniform', this may have given us some inspiration, well, or not. Anyway, I felt this indicated that, whatever we were about to do, we should be prepared to lighten up a bit.  

We played through three pieces that we felt showed some of the range of sound colours and instrumental mixes that we could produce and then it was over to Nick. So, suddenly, we were toying with a Schoenberg-inspired series of notes – but not at the same time, nor in the same rhythm and perhaps not even the 'correct' notes, as it happens. Well, we string players prefer sharps to flats!

This created harmonies, dissonance, counter-rhythms and challenges that were new to us – an interesting and exciting process. 

The rehearsal continued with a selection of games and activities that had us moving around the room, greeting and interacting with our fellows (those 'strangers' in the guitar section, for example) and using areas of the room we didn’t know were there. We laughed a lot – but, more importantly, we were still using music, and rhythm, in a strange bonding process. 

Nick had us explore the different sounds we could make from our instruments – our Birthday-Boy, Eddie, was exposed to many versions of Happy Birthday before we were asked to simply improvise on a small selection of notes, making the sound on our instruments with any technique we wished.

Nothing we did was 'wrong' - everything was 'right'.

Finally, having given us a potted history of own background Nick explained 'his' composition process to us and gave us some contact details to feed into this. We will meet next to try out some of his ideas, gradually working towards our premier performance in October 2019.

The evening was superb fun, but also very creative in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. The success was largely due to Nick’s ebullience and his ability to get us to 'explore' in many different ways – the range of musicality, our relationship with the other members of our orchestra, experimenting with rhythm and tones and having enormous fun in the process.

However, vital to this process was the willingness and open-mindedness of everyone there to really get involved - to play not only IN the orchestra but WITH the orchestra. 

It became apparent that we can be very much part of the composition process – our ideas and thoughts can be fed back to Nick and moulded into the final piece. A true collaboration. We are all excited to see how this develops over the next few months. 

Audrey Todd, Da Capo Alba.