Case study: How creative thinking led a new group to success

Members of Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra (APO) explain how a group created to cater for people unable to commit to weekly rehearsals has grown into a flourishing hub of innovation.

Background

The Aldworth Philharmonic is a project-based orchestra in Reading, Berkshire. By that, we mean that we only rehearse shortly before each event we put on, rather than holding regular weekly rehearsals. A typical rehearsal schedule for us is made up of 4 of 5 rehearsal days mainly over the weekends immediately leading before a performance.  

The challenge

When we set up the orchestra in 2002, we saw a niche in the Reading area for an orchestra that would rehearse on a project basis. This suits young non-music professionals (though of course we welcome musicians of all ages) whose busy lives mean they often find committing to a weekly orchestra difficult, but can set aside a few weekends a year.

As APO has grown, we've developed some core values, including promoting music by young composers (we commission a new work each year and premiere it in our biggest concert) and trying to encourage people who've never heard a live orchestra by offering free tickets via our 'Concert Virgin' scheme.

What we did

In the early days, we performed 'smaller' repertoire as we started with players drawn from a very small network of personal contacts. We built the organisation up with the usual tools like a constitution, officers and a committee, so that we could obtain charitable status.

Then, a lottery grant for our Young Composers Award gave us the opportunity to expand and develop, meaning we could fix larger orchestras to play more ambitious works in bigger venues. As well as the usual rehearsals and concerts, we've tried to be innovative and develop online resources to help players learn music and share rehearsal notes, as well as putting on educational events for children to encourage an appreciation of orchestral music (and perhaps encourage them to learn an instrument, as a happy byproduct).

The results

APO has been going for 15 years. During that time, we've commissioned nearly 4 hours of new music - 29 pieces in total, from 17 young composers. Performing new music is always daunting and challenging for both orchestra and audience.

The key is that it's 'business as usual' for us - everyone accepts that stepping out of our musical comfort zone is uncomfortable and sometimes, it has to be said, some people don't like the new music. But that's not the point - who likes everything they play anyway? Very often, players and audience specifically comment on how much they enjoyed a world premiere and would like to hear the piece again.

Perhaps because of our scarily-intensive rehearsal model, we're a close-knit group - some players even refer to the 'APO family'. The humanity of our music-making is as important as the 'quality' of the performance, though the former usually improves the latter!

What we've learned

We've been very lucky to have the support of a local school, Reading Blue Coat School, whose founder is Richard Aldworth - hence the name! Using personal contacts to get support in kind from local organisations is a really good way of getting on your feet. 

As time has gone on, we've mainly been very successful at building an organisation that can support itself, but we've definitely had some tough lessons on the way. The key is to not get too down when things don't go to plan, musically or otherwise. As the conductor Benjamin Zander says, throw your hands up in the air and exclaim, 'How fascinating!', then learn from the experience. 

Whilst there's no need to reinvent the wheel, it's important to have a growth mindset where you constantly try new things. Some will fail, and you learn from them. That's fine - much better than adopting a fixed mindset. 

Our final advice, especially in relation to new music, is not to compromise on musical values and just programme the 'popular classics'. As with everything in life, a balance is required, but this doesn't mean you have to 'dumb down' your programming, which just insults your players and audience, anyway. Stay true to what you believe in - the results are often surprising, satisfying and memorable!


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