Fair winds from the South

The challenge of establishing a Wind Ensemble by Dr Geoffrey Richardson
Clarinet & Saxophone Soc Jnl Dec 1st 2001 Vol 4 (26)

When Richard Edwards agreed to include some future concert details by Horsham Wind Ensemble in "Dates for your diary" he ended the conversation with "you might like to write a piece for CAS". Maybe I told him what a struggle it had been to set up and maintain this double wind quintet and perhaps Richard thought the experience could be shared with others. Maybe such a piece would persuade those better qualified than me to share their experience. All contributions would be welcome.

I retired early and decided the only way I could play the sort of music I wanted to play was to set up my own chamber ensemble. I had the time, the management experience and the commitment. The first requirement is to have such an enthusiast with plenty of time prepared to do all the donkey work, invest some of his/her own money and commit hours and hours with no financial return.

Finding the players

Photograph by Stuart Wright

I wanted the group to be the best it could be involving wherever possible players who had received formal musical training but for one reason or another didn’t earn their living by playing. I became the fixer for Horsham Symphony Orchestra and that gave me access to their data base. I formed Horsham Wind Quintet and to raise our profile we gave essentially free concerts throughout West Sussex. We had some good audiences but learned that you may not be valued if you play for nothing. Players came and went. Finding replacements was very difficult and the reaction from the better players was often negative when I suggested that we met regularly for rehearsals. They had never heard of us, they were too busy and they didn’t want the regular commitment. I am not comfortable with the philosophy of turn up on the day of the gig for a rehearsal and then play. I also think the name we had chosen had a rather unexciting, provincial ring which may have put certain players off. But when you have spent so much time establishing an identity with that name it is doubtful whether changing it to “The Foehn Winds” or something else would make much difference.

In September 1998, the quintet met for the first time as a double wind quintet. At that time we didn’t have a Music Adviser and I recorded the rehearsal sessions and the concerts in order to help us improve. I encouraged players to listen to the tapes which clearly showed our strengths and weaknesses. Listening today, they demonstrate how far we have come in the few years since we were formed. Players continued to come and go. For a period, in order to find the quality of players I wanted, we brought in students from the Conservatoires who were willing to come for the experience and their train fares. They have made a great contribution over the years especially in the oboe and horn sections where we experienced problems finding the right players locally. All former players made a valued contribution in the process of getting to where we are today. In the last twelve months, the group has stabilised and players want to retain their places. We have a five rehearsal cycle before each major concert and I have asked players for a total commitment to that. The players at rehearsals must be those in concert rather than deps. Only three players now come from Horsham, the rest travel for considerable distances to play. It is assumed that at rehearsals we can all play the notes and playing together is about interpreting the music and creating the appropriate ensemble sound.

Finding the right players isn’t just about their technical expertise but also includes their personal qualities and willingness to be part of a team. Inevitably, there have been players who were rather dominant, who had a rather grandiose view of their talents or who talked too much about minutiae holding things up. “Liking each other” is a key criterion.

It was also decided that we would perform without a conductor like the original “harmonie” groups. For much of the traditional repertoire, it has worked very well and different players lead at different points in a piece. With new commissions and numerous tempi changes, the debate opened up again recently “…should we …or shouldn’t we.” But the majority view is that without a conductor we rely much more upon each other, we have to know each other’s parts and the team is strengthened.

We now employ a “Music Adviser” a professional conductor who attends some rehearsals to advise on interpretation, balance, intonation etc. Chris Childs has made a major contribution to the development of the group. We also have a professional pianist Ricardo Peňalver because while wind players love playing wind music, audiences need a break and we have traditionally included a quintet or sextet with piano.

Establishing a purpose and status.

From the beginning, I determined that there had to be a clear purpose not least to perform in public that would provide a strong imperative for all of us. So I drew up a set of aims that can be seen in full on our web site www.sussexcoast.co.uk/horsham/wind-ensemble.htm
They cover musicians developing their chamber repertoire, commissioning new works, encouraging young players (there is a junior wind quintet), raising the standard of wind music in the region and developing an audience through concerts and school visits.

Applications to funding bodies, trusts or companies are strengthened by being able to state such aims. Each year I write an annual report based around these aims showing how our activities have moved us closer to achieving the aims. The annual report is sent to all our supporting bodies and I also write after each concert with the press review and a programme if they didn’t attend. Status is also enhanced if you have a good logo, a web site and good quality posters and programmes – all of which are shown to the funders.

Because I needed money, I set the Ensemble up as a company so that organisations which might give us money can see that we are a legal entity. The cheapest off the shelf company was limited by shares and we opted for that as I was subbing most things at that time. It was a mistake because even those Trusts and Foundations that will do business with non charities require you to be non profit making. So last year we changed to a non profit making company limited by guarantee. There are three of us on the Board and two are players. We rejected becoming a charity though that would make us eligible to apply to many more Trusts and Foundations that only deal with registered charities. But it was decided that this would impose all kinds of administrative burdens on us as well as making decisions more cumbersome. The management is tight, very flat, things get done and the costs to the players are simply their time before and at rehearsals and travel expenses (though we do help young players).

Finding the money

In the early days, I simply funded the group myself. Music, post, telephone, concert losses – it adds up quickly and all came out of my pocket. Our honorary Accountant was horrified. I knew that to do the things I wanted, I had to raise funds. The decisions for players not to be asked for membership subscriptions was deliberate because I wanted the Board to retain control over who plays in the Ensemble. I didn’t want members who had paid their subs involved in management decisions having experienced this in other charitable groups. The kind of music we play is not going to attract huge audiences so for some time ahead I projected concerts would run at a loss. But I did hope to raise money through grants that would include payment to players, thus lifting expectations about everyone’s performance. We are not professionals but there is no reason why we should not be the very best amateurs.

I attended a course sponsored by Arts and Business on Fund raising, spent hours in the Library going through the texts listing all the Charities and Company funding schemes, spent hours and hours writing to about 150 organisations seeking help. Comparing the early letters I sent out with more recent versions, I am struck by how long my early letters were with lots of attachments. Later epistles were one page, precise with fewer attachments and didn’t hesitate to say how much I wanted.

The problem is that until you can list a number of donors nobody is interested in you. You receive rejections as fast as you mail out requests. But a rejection has to be responded to either by letter or phone especially if there is a named contact. Companies are not offended if you approach them again and again over the years. I keep a detailed log of every approach made, the response if any and subsequent action. Eventually someone sends you a cheque – I can remember the first one – from then on everything begins to change

The big funding bodies are generally more interested in helping you do new things – things you would do over and above what you do anyway. The trouble with this philosophy is that you need regular income to keep the core activities going. We needed to buy music, a decent set of music stands, pay for a professional Music Advisor, find money to stand the losses on concerts and provide some payment of travel expenses to young players.

We currently have six companies that support us with funds to which no strings are attached. Their invaluable donations go into our “General Fund” – which support the core activities. We have had no success finding a main sponsor who for a considerably greater contribution would develop a more commercial relationship with the Ensemble. Scope is more limited with a chamber group than say a football team but we live in hope!

Success tends to breed success and a major boost was a grant from South East Arts (the fifth attempt) in 2000 for four new commissions. These are “Ring Fenced” funds for specific projects. We were able to appoint Dominic Sewell as our composer in residence at the Hawth where we perform and he has completed two of three commissions for ten winds one with piano. Benjamin Pope was commissioned to set Browning’s poem “The Pied Piper” to music for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and narrator. This became the main stay of our outreach programme going into rural schools to hold workshops and performances.

A Pied Piper Workshop at Bolney Primary School. Photograph by SEEBOARD.

Finding the Audience

Another chicken and egg situation. “Wind chamber music – what is that?” We advertise as much as we can afford, a company prints all our posters and programmes free of charge, players help sell tickets and I spend a lot of time trying to persuade people to leave their TV sets and give live music a chance. Our music library includes all the available music for ten winds and we have a large quintet collection used for both concerts and gigs which are gradually increasing. There are nonets, octets quartets and trios but as yet we have not played the well known pieces for 13 winds. A full list of the pieces for decet we have played in concert is available on the web site. Purchasing such a library requires considerable funds. Persuading audiences to come and listen to composers with unfamiliar names is a real challenge. Many of those who have tried us come back and we have built up a loyal following over time. We offer free tickets to under 17s accompanied by an adult paying full price. We offer concessions to students, OAPs etc. We always have a music critic in the audience writing for the local paper. We sample our audience reactions at each performance with questionnaires and the general impression is very good. They like our junior wind quintet who have a spot in the programme and that brings in mums and dads. Our outreach programme has attracted funds from the Lottery (Awards for All), The Paul Hamilyn Foundation, Barclays, Waitrose, Seeboard and Southern Water. We are now taking our music to audiences who for one reason or another cannot come to us. Players receive fees for these engagements. We hope this work raises our profile and attracts audiences to our main venues either in Horsham, Crawley and now Teddington. Most of our major concerts attract audiences of between 100-150. I dream of the day when tickets are all sold out before a concert and the word gets out that you can’t just turn up at the door.
Geoff Richardson 01403 242429