The Value of Community Ensembles

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I interact with scores of musicians on a daily basis. Even before my career at Long & McQuade, I encountered musicians from all lifestyles.

Musicians are more common than many people think, and this discrepancy is in part due to trouble defining the word. What is a musician? Does a musician make a living playing shows at a local venue? Is a musician one who is currently enrolled in a music-related degree or diploma program?

Yes, and more! A musician is anyone who engages with music and chooses to identify as one. From the eight year old piano student to the middle-aged mortgage broker who jams in his spare time, musicians are everywhere. Perhaps the most prevalent of them is the volunteer performer. As a musician, performance has always been the pinnacle of musical engagement for me, and I do this primarily in unpaid community-based ensembles.

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The benefits of performing in these types of groups are plentiful. Making music requires cooperation and connection – new ideas and projects come from the collaboration of two or more minds. Community ensembles usually have around 40 members, providing many opportunities for networking and planning new projects. They’re also ideal for people who work full time, as they don’t usually rehearse more than once or twice a week. Combine that with a generally laid-back atmosphere, and they’re a great way to unwind after a day at work.

Ainsley Lawson, President of the Rouge River Winds (formerly known as the UTSC Alumni and Community Concert Band), is a great example. Her musical journey began with a University of Toronto ensemble which eventually branched out to include alumni and local residents. In the seven years since the group’s beginnings, over 250 people have passed through, and several smaller performing groups have emerged as a direct result. By bringing together people who perform and practice for the love of it, she has helped to strengthen a community of musicians in the city. She’s also forged new friendships spanning generations via a love of music. Sound a bit corny? Perhaps, but the value of such an interaction has left a profoundly positive effect on the musicians involved.

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Community ensembles are fantastic because they benefit almost any type of musician. Haven’t played or sung since high school? A community band or choir is the perfect way to regain those chops. Similarly, gigging and professional musicians often find that community groups are a great way to maintain chops between heavier periods of playing. Even students who are considering graduate work in completely unrelated fields benefit from having ensemble experience on their applications.

If that isn’t enough to convince you, consider that many volunteer groups play at a semi-professional level and tour around the world. All of my international travel in the past seven years has been with an orchestra I belong to. Spending over a week in Shanghai and living as a musician was one the most memorable experiences of my life. Money didn’t seem to matter during a week full of performances with some of my favourite people, over 10,000 km away.

I like to encourage people to engage with music for as long as possible, and a community band or choir provides a reasonable, versatile solution for those on the fence. Regardless of skill, instrument choice or musical preferences, there are likely ensembles nearby that would love to have you as a new member. If there isn’t an ensemble nearby that suits your specific needs, consider creating a new group! All you need is a space to rehearse and people with a love of music (as well as someone brave enough to lead!)

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I’ve been lucky to have a wealth of different musical experiences in my life. I have rehearsed, performed in festivals, given a solo recital, gigged in jazz combos, played in big bands, and conducted larger ensembles. This diversity has shaped my musical tastes and style, and it’s the bands I grew up playing in that allowed me to go on to these opportunities.

I encourage anyone who has been separated from music for a long time to dust off his or her old saxophone or trumpet. For me it will never be about money or fame, but about the music and the musicians who make it.

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