An Emerging Late Starters Orchestra Global Network

A network of Late Starter Orchestras formed in February 2020, when St Agnes’ Parents String Orchestra, a large ensemble activity of St Agnes’ Community Centre for Music & the Arts, Crumlin, Dublin, invited players from similar orchestras in several other countries and in Ireland to join them for a concert on Sunday, 23 February 2020 to mark its 10th Anniversary. The invitation included hospitality for guest players for the weekend, rehearsals together and a round table forum hosted jointly with the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras, “A Music Right of Way”, held on Saturday, 22 February 2020. A website, www.lsonet.com, was set up prior to the event to facilitate the emergence of an ongoing network. (St Agnes’ Parents’ String Orchestra changed its name to St Agnes’ Community LSO in October 2020.)

Musicians joined St Agnes’ LSO in February 2020 from Dublin (Offbeat Ensemble, Sounds Ensemble), England (CoMA Contemporary Music for All, East London LSO, Cobweb Orchestra, Hackney Community Orchestra, Yorkshire LS Strings) Germany (Happy Strings, Berlin), the Netherlands (Het Betuws Dagorkest), Scotland (Glasgow Senior Citizens Orchestra), Spain (Orquesta Crescendo, Tres Cantos, Madrid), and the United States (New York LSO). Three players from Da Kapo LSO, Singapore were ready to travel when the Covid-19 pandemic stopped them from leaving Singapore. They gave a greeting using Facetime to a rehearsal in Dublin and were badly missed. Within three weeks of the Celebration Concert, the pandemic engulfed most of the world and normal life came to a stop.

The Forum and Concert in Dublin were attended by Daniel Kellerhals, outgoing President of the European Orchestra Federation (EOFed) and by Nelleke Geusebroek, EOFed Vice-President. Session One at the forum, “Rights 1 – 3 of the International Music Council” was chaired by Allin Gray, Director of IAYO and former board member of EOFed.

President Michael D. Higgins with Cormac Ó hAodáin at the Forum. Photo by Marc O’Sullivan.
President Michael D. Higgins with Cormac Ó hAodáin at the Forum. Photo by Marc O’Sullivan.

The LSOs who met and have remained in contact are extremely diverse in form. A few, such as ELLSO in London and GSCO in Glasgow are long established. ELLSO runs a residential summer camp with wide international participation. They all have common features. Their members include adults of any age who never learned an instrument and are 100% late starters. They all include, and in addition to, players who learned in childhood, typically gave up and decades later want to take up their instrument again, so-called returners. Returners may well include players who played in youth orchestras, perhaps in their early- or mid-teens, and want to play again. The standard amateur symphony orchestra may not be the right place for them, at least initially. Another group include players who have learned another instrument, typically piano, and now want to enjoy the experience of playing in an ensemble, along with its social benefits, the switchers. Often these players progress quickly and become strong and valuable players in their LSO.

The orchestras who took part in the February event in Dublin in 2020 are very diverse, in size and in organisation. Some belong to a music school or an arts centre, some are independent arts organisations, some have as few as five members, and some count their membership in 100s. Every orchestra suffered a colossal shock as Covid-19 closed down activity but gradually virtual playing became established. Informal meetings were held on Zoom with representatives from many of the LSOs in May, July and September 2020 where orchestras discussed their problems and solutions. During the year, in most countries, the pattern was similar with restrictions easing and then closing up again.

In spite of the lockdown, some exchanges took place. One New York player joined Orquesta Crescendo, Madrid directly after the Dublin event just before lockdown began. New York LSO organised a virtual recording during the summer months and invited international participants from the network and this recording is available on www.lsonet.com. ELLSO invited guests to the concert on Zoom at the conclusion of their summer camp in July. Players in Belgium and New York joined the orchestra in Dublin virtually on several occasions, while players from Dublin joined rehearsals in New York. Cobweb Orchestra in North England invited guests to events marking its 25th anniversary in September.

In November 2020, St Agnes LSO invited orchestras to participate in an event on Zoom to be called Strings Across the Ocean at 3pm London/Dublin time. Planning and preparation was shared between Dublin, New York and ELLSO in London. St Agnes CCMA was the anchor host for the event and shared tracks. Parts were sent to participating string players who registered using Google forms and a set of tracks had been recorded by St Agnes Studio Ensemble in August 2020. These were used to enable players at home, and players in orchestras literally around the world to connect and play together. The recording of the event is available on www.lsonet.com. The website continues to be maintained by Denise Ni Dhuibhir, who is both a member of St Agnes’ LSO and the Administrator of St Agnes’ Community Centre for Music and the Arts. At the most recent meeting on Zoom, participating orchestras were asked to notify Denise if they wished their contacts to be taken off the website. A new orchestra from France has joined in.

The Late Starters network was honoured that the new President of EOFed, Jüri-Ruut Kangur, attended and spoke at Strings Across the Ocean where more than 400 devices joined the Zoom room for that event, with countries as far apart as Mexico and Singapore, United States, Canada and a cluster of European countries joining in.

The orchestras met again informally in January and March 2021. The European Orchestra Federation remains interested and supportive of the emerging network, and encourages the formation of a network which will be sustained into the future and which might become an international associate member of EOFed. In May 2021, St Agnes LSO formally joined EOFed as an individual member.

Where next? Meeting every two months on Zoom maintains links between the late starter orchestras, despite challenging time differences. The idea first proposed in February 2020 was that orchestras might exchange players in a simple format and this continues to be a goal and something that has ongoing wide appeal.

In its simplest format, a host orchestra issues an invitation to join in a concert, with the details of the invitation specified by the host orchestra. The concept is that one or two guest players may arrive at an agreed destination and remain for a brief visit while taking part in rehearsals and a concert or project with the host orchestra. The sending orchestra could then decide in its own way how to fund travel for its own players head off to play with another orchestra. It seems to be agreed that cultural exchange of this kind with small numbers of players has a great deal of impact, and is a very different experience to the experience of touring with full orchestras or exchanging with full orchestras, should that ever be possible. The participating orchestras seem to be united in an aspiration to resume this kind of small-scale exchange in real-time and place as soon as possible, while not ignoring other possibilities.

At the heart of the Late Starter Orchestras movement is the idea of learning at any stage of life after school, participating actively in music and connecting people through music, locally, nationally, internationally.

It seems likely that one annual international virtual event on Zoom may be a good strategic step to maintain the strong feeling of connection that emerged because of the ongoing communication and mutual support that orchestras gave to each other throughout the pandemic year.

You can learn more about the Late Starter Orchestras network at www.lsonet.com.