Working in an ensemble

 13 March 2012

Playing or singing in an ensemble is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable musical experiences and can be more artistically rewarding than playing as a soloist.

The Sacconi Quartet celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2011-2012. Photography by Clive Barda
The Sacconi Quartet celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2011-2012. Photography by Clive Barda

An ensemble provides the opportunity to develop communication skills, discuss interpretative opinions, and perhaps the greatest reward of all – the chance to enjoy making music with friends and like-minded musicians.

Getting the band together

Establishing a successful ensemble is no easy task in the highly competitive and not-so lucrative arts world.

A good starting point is to get together with your fellow ensemble members to discuss and establish a clear set of objectives for your group:

  • are you determined to make it as a full-time, serious ensemble?
  • do you want to set up a part-time group to supplement your income?

Discuss and establish a clear set of objectives for your group.

Whatever your particular aim, in order to be successful and overcome the many challenges you will inevitably face, you will all need to be very dedicated, committed and prepared to put in a lot of hard work.

Musically, the challenge is to get your opinion across and accepted by the others. On a personal level, the difficulty is how to handle spending prolonged periods of time – particularly in the case of full-time ensembles – with the same few people.

“It’s a very unique working relationship because you are seeing the same people day in, day out,” says Robin Ashwell, violinist with the Sacconi Quartet.

“There’s a personal challenge to be patient, to enjoy their company and to remember that when you’re getting frustrated with them, they’re probably getting frustrated with you – just like in a marriage.”

Organising group rehearsals

It is essential to get a lot of practice with your ensemble. This might seem obvious to point out, but it can be tricky to devote sufficient time to rehearsing, especially for members of part-time ensembles who have other commitments.

Playing together regularly will enable you to build efficient working relationships and a ‘tighter’ ensemble. Also, be wary of neglecting to devote sufficient time to individual practice

Be patient, enjoy their company and to remember when you’re getting frustrated with them, they’re probably getting frustrated with you.

If a member of the group is not fully confident with their parts, time in group rehearsals can be wasted. It is worth remembering, time is money. Make sure rehearsals are as efficient and focused as possible.

Although rehearsal is vitally important, it is also essential to take every single opportunity to perform. “You only learn half your craft in rehearsal. The other half you learn on the concert platform.” says Ashwell.

How to raise your group's profile

You could be the greatest ensemble in the world, but if no one knows you, you will struggle to get any concert bookings.

Networking is one of the most effective ways to get your group known. The Sacconi Quartet, who met in 2001 during their studies at the Royal College of Music, are a great example of a young ensemble who have done remarkably well to build a successful career in an impressively short period of time.

“It’s so important to have a network around you – supporters and various people who will put on concerts for you, book you, attend your concerts, sponsor you to go on a course, pay for you to produce a CD or brochure,” says Ashwell.

“Network in the best possible sense. Talk to as many people as you can, be nice and keep in touch.”

Getting bookings for your ensemble

It is important to be proactive and to keep the momentum and focus in the group. Don’t wait for the bookings to come to you, especially in the beginning – you may be waiting some time.

Networking is one of the most effective ways to get your group known

It’s advisable to try to get yourselves as many concerts as you can through music colleges, your old school, through contacts. Slowly notch up your fee so that it gradually covers more rehearsal time.

Masterclasses, courses and summer schools also hold great networking opportunities, as well as enabling focused learning and development, and the chance to benefit from specialist tuition.

“You have the chance to meet teachers, other groups, audience members as well as promoters, who often come to end-of-course concerts to spot talent,” says Ashwell.

“It’s important to play well in those concerts, go out afterwards and talk to people. That’s how it all starts – people will make bookings and talk about you.”

With any type of booking it is always important to consider what you will gain from taking them on. Some gigs will be less lucrative, but may be very valuable career-wise, especially when you are starting out.

“You have to be prepared to do a lot for very little money or just for expenses,” says Ashwell. “We did very low-paid gigs and the odd thing for free.

"We will still occasionally do something as a favour for somebody who’s helped us. We don’t expect financial gain, but it’s part of the overall package.”

Although it is essential to take every opportunity that comes along, it is equally important to look at it the other way round. “Stick up for yourselves and don’t allow people to take advantage of you.”

Using music competitions

The whole purpose of competitions is to give publicity to good young musicians. Success in competitions can bring recognition and, in the case of the bigger international ones, can effectively launch a group’s career.

Keep the momentum and focus in the group. Don’t wait for the bookings to come to you.

Bob Boas, chairman of the London String Quartet Foundation, says: “Competitions can be a huge boost to a group’s career.

A young unknown ensemble from Budapest, the Takács Quartet, entered and won the International String Quartet Foundation Competition and the publicity given to them set them out on their career. They’re now one of the top quartets in the world.”

Aside from the big international competitions, there are also smaller, more local ones and each of the music colleges also has its own competitions.

The Sacconi Quartet won the Heller Prize, the intercollegiate string quartet competition, in 2001 at the end of their first year of playing together.

“It was a real milestone and a boost because it really made us feel at the end of that year that we were onto something and it was worth all the work that we were putting in,” says Ashwell.

Dealing with the paperwork

Don’t underestimate the importance of keeping on top of the administrative work that comes along with the bookings. It can be a constant challenge – not to mention time consuming – if you are playing regularly.

“If you don’t get this bit right, you won’t get the concerts,” says Ashwell.

“You need at least one member of the group who is ultra-efficient, both on the phone and by email. It’s a big commitment, but the trouble is, if you don’t do it, you don’t get the concerts organised and you can’t make the music.”

Building an online presence

A strong online presence is invaluable and a decent website is a first step towards achieving this.

“There’s nothing to replace having a really good website,” says Ashwell. “We do a lot of stuff through our website. A good looking one makes your group appear so much more professional.

A really good website makes your group appear so much more professional.

"If you’re starting out as a group, people will often see your material before they hear you play. So it’s important to make sure that you really create the best possible first impression.”

Increasing numbers of ensembles are realising the value of social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and MySpace, which encourage interaction and can appeal to a different audience.

Getting a music agent

This comes much later on when you are a really well established group, and it is not easy.

“It’s very difficult to get an agent and even more difficult to get a good one,” says Ashwell.

“It’s a catch-22 situation: an agent won’t take you on until you’ve got a good series of well-paid concerts and it’s very difficult to get a good group of well-paid concerts if you haven’t got an agent.”

However, if you are at the stage where you feel an agent will be beneficial, one of the best routes to go about acquiring one is through the Young Concert Artists Trust (YCAT), which holds auditions each year.

“They really look after you,” says Ashwell. “They’ll build up your diary to a really good level and part of their remit is also to pass you on to a professional agent.”

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