Nothing to fret about

Lindsay Stoner, musical director of the Fretful Federation Mandolin Orchestra, talks about first experiences with their 'adopted' composer, Esmeralda Conde Ruiz

Since meeting our composer Esmeralda at the Adopt a Composer launch in September, I've found it to be a complete joy getting to know her. We are so lucky to be paired with such an exciting and creative person! She also happens to be funny, fun and vivacious. 

Esmeralda has been to Brighton twice already, both times with our wonderful mentor Fraser Trainer. The first visit was in October, when they came along to hear the orchestra and meet the gang. We were having our final rehearsal before a concert and so they were keen not to interfere – they just patiently listened and took in what was going on.

Before the first Adopt a Composer rehearsal I was lucky to meet up with Esmeralda and I loved talking with her and sharing stories about conducting community groups – she runs choirs and I run the mandolin orchestra. We have a lot of the same challenges! And also a lot of the same joys. 

It was also fascinating to hear about her work with various artists, how she works with them in new ways to help them find expression and make abstract ideas real. She and Fraser returned to Brighton in December for the workshop. They managed to get all of us to do things we would not usually do, for example, stand in a circle without instruments and pass a beat to each other by clapping. I'm sure each of us felt a bit out of our comfort zone! 

We also had a chance to work on some of her preliminary compositional ideas, and she asked a lot of questions about the various techniques possible on our instruments and allowed time and space for people to make suggestions and perhaps even think differently about what they do and how. 

At the end of the rehearsal we had time for socialising with food and drinks. At the end of the evening Esmeralda said she felt a little overwhelmed with so much new information about instruments she had largely not known anything about. But she took it all home with her and since then we have spoken on the phone and clarified a couple of things that weren't quite clear. I will be taking a mandolin to her in London this month for her to use and explore ideas with.

Immediately on meeting Esmeralda it was clear that she thinks big and the more we get to know her the more we see that she can achieve what she puts her mind to. As a small community orchestra, I was a little worried about just how we might be able to fit into any kind of 'big plan'. We are 20-odd players of a mixed bag of mandolins, mandolas, guitars, bass and bass viol. We are generally acoustically modest and contained and we offer variety but not necessarily 'electricity'. 

By comparison, Esmeralda has conducted choirs of 500 people in the Tate Modern! And her vision is dramatic, big and bold. Unmissable. Unmistakeable. I wondered, “How can we ever satisfy her creative drive?....”

I needn't have worried. She has already come up with a brilliant and doable plan. It's clear that she wants everyone to grow in some way with this project and also, extraordinarily, that she wants to give something to the orchestra that will endure and quite possibly have a very positive long-term impact. More on this as things unfold.

For me personally, in the short time of knowing her I already feel stretched, positively challenged and also supported by being able to share experiences and ideas, to think outside of the box and also bigger and bolder than usual. I’m also encouraged by her various suggestions on things such as how to get the orchestra to watch me more (how many community groups don't watch their conductor? I suspect very many!)

Overall, while I realise we are supposed to be adopting Esmeralda, it is looking increasingly to me like she is adopting us. I hope we can do at least as much for her as she is doing for us.