I would define “community music ensemble” generally as a group that combines willing volunteer musicians of various ability levels for the sake of free or low-cost community performances. These groups typically rehearse in the evenings, in school or church facilities, approximately weekly. On occasion there may be explicitly charitable purposes; more often, the goal is simply to contribute to community life. Community music ensembles will periodically ask members to help advertise or raise funds; dues-paying and/or charitable grants might also be a part of the support scheme. Rarely, CMEs involve small stipends for some or all performers.
Like some of my readers, I have through the years given countless hours to community music ensembles (hereafter CMEs). My CME involvement started when I was a high school junior looking for additional experience before majoring in music in college. I had a spot in the First State Symphonic Band in Delaware then, and after returning from college and a sojourn in the South, it was almost a given that I would re-involve myself: I rejoined the horn section and also served as assistant conductor. I can count very few years of my life¹ that I haven’t had weekly rehearsals with at least one CME, and the schedules can be problematic. Lately it has been very difficult to find three or four days in a row to be gone, because I feel committed to the ensembles. The bumper sticker that resignedly yet proudly proclaims “I Can’t. I Have Rehearsal” rings true for me!
I’ll have a go at listing the ensembles I have served in one or more of these capacities:
brass instrumentalist (ß)
conductor or assistant/associate conductor (*)
|First State Symphonic Band ß
||Newark Community Band ß
||Cecil County Choral Society *
|First State Symphonic Band ß * (2nd x)
||Newark Symphony Orchestra ß
||Kansas City Brass Project ß *
|Benedictine College/Atchison Community Orchestra ß *
||Sedalia Symphony Orchestra ß
||Southern Tier Symphony ß *
|Kansas City Wind Symphony ß *
||Northern Colorado Concert Band *
||Hornell Area Wind Ensemble ß
|Rushford Town Band *
||Little Rock Wind Symphony ß
||Benedictine College Brass Band ß *
|Powder River Symphony ß
||Kansas City Wind Symphony (2nd x) ß
||Atchison Jazz Express ß
The line between CME and college ensemble can sometimes be hazy, and the above list does not include the mixed collegiate-community (a/k/a “town-gown”) ensembles I’ve conducted as part of a full-time faculty role. In only three cases above were musicians other than the conductor paid, and I think all would agree that in no case did the remuneration make anyone rich. I consider the bolded ensembles as holding to higher performances standards than the others.
I could also add CMEs in which I’ve subbed, accompanied, or performed by invitation in one or more sets of rehearsals and performances:
- Liberty Symphony (horn)
- Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City (horn)
- Kansas City Civic Orchestra (horn)
- Heart of America Wind Symphony (horn)
- Kream of the Krop (piano in jazz big band)
- Greeley Children’s Chorale (accompanist)
- Alfred University Orchestra (horn)
- Alfred University Symphonic Band (horn)
- Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band (alto horn)
- Medical Arts Symphony (trumpet)
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I’ve had broad, extended experience with these organizations. I’ve been on the board of two or three CMEs, and I could easily add to the above another dozen or more short-term/ad hoc gigs in Delaware, Maryland, Kansas, and Missouri. That supplementary list would include special church programs, musical theater spots, and “summer bands” that involved only a couple rehearsals and one concert per season.²
The categories start to overlap, and one group might lead to another, such as when my work with the KCWS and BC/ACO led to the formation of a woodwind quintet. Below are the non-curricular quintets and ensembles I directed or co-founded as a player. I would say that fully half of these were capable of performing artistically. They were formed to satisfy playing appetites and artistic goals more than to serve community needs, but they might still be classed as small CMEs:
|a Harding University brass quintet
||a University of Delaware brass quintet
||North Winds quintet in Delaware
|River Winds quintet in KS/MO
||Foundation Brass at the University of Northern Colorado
||Grad Brass Quintet at the University of Northern Colorado
|Alle-Catt Brass Quintet in New York’s Southern Tier
I have dreams of a starting a high-level chamber wind ensemble (using a dectet as a foundation, supplementing with another handful of wind and percussion players when necessary), but the requisite complement of capable musicians isn’t available in my area. Unfortunately, while performance venues might be available, audiences would be scant to nonexistent unless we could piggyback on an existing orchestra or wind band. Late last week, I was asked about possibly performing in a community musical theater pit orchestra, and that is usually fun if the rehearsal schedule is reasonable and geared toward people who can read music and adapt quickly.
The chamber choral group I presently serve as a tenor (not listed above) is really the first choral community ensemble to which I’ve ever belonged as a regular. An interesting group in which I was deeply entrenched for almost a decade is LIGHTS. I would not class LIGHTS as a CME, but I gave that Christian vocal (not really choral) ensemble some very good years, investing a lot of time with arranging, programming, co-administering, singing, and leading rehearsals—not always very well.³
Probings Perceived issues with community groups have never been so noticeable as in the last 3 years. I suppose there have been many evenings through the years that I didn’t feel like going to rehearsals, but the concentration of those evenings has been greater recently. Note that I said “perceived” issues above; I think a good deal of this has to do with my state of mind and situation, but there are some objectively ascertained reasons, as well:
- administrative and musical leadership issues 4
- lack of rehearsal productivity
- concerns with literature choice and programming
- snafus with instrumentation, personnel and scheduling
- interpersonal concerns (involving precisely two ensembles and three people, for the first time in my life)
- my own attendance—for reasons beyond my control, I have missed two CME performances and several rehearsals . . . and not being at rehearsal every time is just plain weird for me, perhaps contributing to a sense of distance
Other details would probably be unhelpful, but suffice it to say that my introspective, discouraged musing about CME involvement seems unusual—even aberrant, given my longtime history with these groups—and it gives me pause. There is a sense in which any reasonable person will want to serve and give, and I do continue to believe that CMEs play an important role in community service. Still, in my present state of mind (not as healthy as I’d like), and at my present age (not as young as I’d like, yet not as old as I feel), I have begun to probe my involvement and contributions to CMEs. One particularly hospitable director has provided some nice opportunities, but I find myself feeling generally wistful about CMEs. I have to ask myself whether I’m being used well enough to warrant the energy expended and the frustrations felt. Dropping down to one or two groups instead of three would make some sense, but each group offers its bright spots, and I would probably end up dropping the best one, due to lack of insight or foresight on my part, and I’m always on the lookout for new opportunities.
Can I continue to contribute positively to these ensembles, without taking away too much from my family? Should winter ever end, outdoor gigs might serve to sunny-up the mood and enhance my outlook. Time will tell.
¹ I don’t recall having or making the time for professional ensembles or CMEs in Chattanooga, TN or in Kingsville, TX. In Beaumont, TX, it was only a summer community band one year. I probably should have joined the barbershop chorus there, too, at the invitation of an older friend, but I didn’t. I did direct a congregational special choir for a short time, but that wasn’t a CME as I’ve defined it.
² This “summer band” format with only one performance has been disappointing to me, but I know it serves a purpose in some communities.
³ For a couple of posts about this group, see here and here. Some arrangements I made for LIGHTS are captioned on this page, and some originals sung by LIGHTS, such as “You Who Seek God,” “Come To Me,” “In the Heavenlies,” and “You Are Inescapable” and are offered here. While LIGHTS involved my longest “tenure” with a single group of volunteer musicians, its nature and mission seem to place it in a separate category.
4 I admit that these are probably no more regular or serious than in my more distant past, but they affect me differently these days.