Friday in St Albans Village
I peered out from under the covers to discover that the sun was shining. It had been raining off and on, all week, and the three organisers had been holding our collective breath, hoping that the weather would improve in time for the first workshop session to be held that evening. Most of the players were arriving in the afternoon. The St Albans Strings workshop, the first in what we hoped would become an annual event, was finally about to launch. I am writing this blog partly to record the lessons learned from that initial experience.
First, I should introduce the protagonists. We are three amateur string players who had been burning the midnight oil for months to get this event on the way. We are all in our late ‘60’s or early 70’s and we are all working, if not full time, nearly full time, so taking on an event like this in our spare moments was a challenge. Dianne, the initiator and driver of the project, is still practising as a GP. Michael, an artist, graphic artist and web expert, had calmly volunteered for the enormous task of creating the web site and blog site and generally provided excellent advice on communications and marketing. Me, a sometime architect and university lecturer, took up the rear guard. Our passion in common is music. We play in one of the community strings orchestras in Sydney, organised by the indomitable Beverley Fox, and aptly named Innominato Strings, however Dianne and I knew each other before joining Innominato Strings.
Lesson One: Recruit some more helpers! We tried to do it all by ourselves.
Dianne and I are both lucky enough to live part of the week near an idyllic little village north of Sydney, called St Albans. St Albans village comprises an historic sandstone pub, a fire shed, a tiny sandstone church and, across the river, a nineteenth century sandstone courthouse with cells and that is all. The closest shop is located in the village of Wiseman’s Ferry, about twenty minutes’ drive or thirty minutes if the ferry arrives on time. Wiseman’s Ferry is about one and a quarter hour by car from North Sydney. However, the relative isolation of our village has attracted a diverse but tightly knit community, where eccentrics are not only tolerated but whose various acts of eccentricity rapidly become absorbed into local legend. Locals call the area ‘The Forgotten Valley’ – so close to Sydney and yet so isolated. When my late husband and I moved to the area my son offered this quip: “The Forgotten Valley! It sounds as if you are going to live in a soap opera.” How accurate a description of our wonderful valley!
Back to the main story. We had decided to hold the first strings workshop at the historic St Albans Courthouse, mainly because the Courthouse had several breakout rooms, ideal for practice sessions:
- The first violins had the elegant Victorian parlour and dining room as a practice room.
- The second violins ended up practising in the gaol. What more can I say, but we did have the fabulous Cheryl Pfeiffer as a tutor.
- The cellos and double base were in the studio. They, of course, needed much more space.
- As usual the poor violas got the left-over space, as they were few. They were relegated to a bedroom, and a verandah, but they coped magnificently. Viola players are made of stoic stuff!
What we hadn’t banked upon was that the Courthouse comes with a resident goat, who goes by the name of Fred. Fred obviously had his sights either on becoming a musician, or sabotaging the event, because he continuously tried to sneak in through any slightly open door and consume anything in his path, including sheets of music!
Lesson Two: Lock up the goat!
The final concert on Sunday was held in our historic School of Arts Hall, a quaint corrugated iron shed, built by local farmers in the 1930’s. Our main concern was the hall’s very bright acoustics, but Paul Taylor, our conductor worked hard to help us to modify the orchestral sound to take advantage of the acoustics. We had agreed that concert should be in aid of local schools’ music programs and the performance on Sunday began with the local primary school music group performing several percussion pieces. It was a delightful addition to the concert. Not only was their performance excellent, their behaviour was exemplary. So, all that advice about never using children or animals in a performance is just not true, goats being an exception.
Lesson Three: Leave it to the children! They are much cuter than us.
Choosing the repertoire was a challenge. We wanted to find pieces that stretched everyone but could still be learnt in ensemble over a rehearsal period of just under two days. We had to send out the music and MP3 files several weeks before the workshop to allow people time to practice. We sent them out just before Christmas, which was a mistake as most people ignore non-essential emails at the busiest time of the year. On top of that we had to choose a repertoire that would keep the audience entertained. Eight pieces to find, from different genres, so there was something for everyone, so that together they created a balanced repertoire and so that they were within the capability of a group of amateur strings players. Our players ranged in ability. Some were very good, teachers and people who had reached eight grade and above. Thank goodness they were there! Then, there were people like me. I took up the violin in my ‘60’s and I fully understand that the most useful contribution I will ever be able to make to any orchestral performance is as a member of the audience.
Lesson Four: Send the music out earlier so that the organisers also have time to practice before the St Albans Strings workshop, but do not send it out just before Christmas.
Choosing the conductor was not difficult, but managing him before the workshop was! Paul Taylor is the very popular conductor of Innominato Strings. Paul has the ability to keep a group of amateur players motivated, he has a deep knowledge of musicology and he is funny. However, the photo he sent of himself, and his little son, for the website, did not exactly give the right kind of message. The photo looks as if he is about to punch the photographer and his son looks equally cross. It was getting very close to the deadline so I asked Paul if he would mind if I took some photos of him when he was conducting Innominato Strings. He was fine with that, but have you ever tried to take photos of a conductor during a rehearsal without a decent camera? This is a man who laughs frequently and is naturally funny. I was sitting in the violin section and out of about 70 shots I managed to get just one of him with a smile on his face. Then, of course, there was a delay in getting permission from other orchestra members who were in shot. I ended up cropping the photo considerably. Kaye Remington interviewed Paul Taylor about what it’s like being a conductor amongst other things.
Lesson Five: Employ a professional photographer!
How to cater for about thirty people over two days was also a challenge, especially when the only food outlet in the Village is the pub, and the nearest shop is a fifty-minute round trip. We decided to have the dinner on Friday night at the historic sandstone pub. It was fun. For the Saturday night we organised a couple of local and very talented cooks to put on a dinner at the Courthouse. For lunches on Saturday and Sunday Dianne and I decided that each of us would make a huge pot of soup to serve with bread and fruit. We were mad! Making soup on top of organising everything else was an insane decision. However, money was tight, and we were trying desperately to break even with the first workshop. Not many people had booked for the Saturday night dinner. We wanted to enhance a sense of camaraderie, so, at the last minute we threw fiscal caution to the wind. We decided to provide drinks and substantial nibbles at the end of the practice sessions on Saturday afternoon. Our two cooks, Jan and Claire, rose magnificently to the occasion. It was the best decision. Nearly everyone stayed around to chat and have a glass or two of wine. It was so pleasant chatting to fellow music lovers, in the sunset, on the terrace of the Courthouse, overlooking the Macdonald River.
Lesson Six: An orchestra plays on its stomach and camaraderie is part of what we were all there for! Organisers of this kind of event should not also make the soup!
St Albans Village is a tiny village but along the winding Macdonald River there are many places to stay, ranging from camping to accommodation in very comfortable guest houses, restored historic cottages and the St Albans Courthouse itself offers accommodation. We decided that part of our task was to help people find accommodation. We also even managed to find some free accommodation with friends who live in the Valley and Dianne and I put people up in our homes. However, there were some interesting aspects to this part of the service, like trying to guide someone wonderful historic farmhouse in the dark, after Friday night at the pub, and rescuing another person, whose car was unable to negotiate the gravel roads. The car got stuck on a steep bend of my driveway, trapping me in my property, and just before the event was about to start when I was desperate to get back to the venue to organise things. We were saved by a local hero who responded immediately to my phone call and winched the car to safety. However, the ‘free’ accommodation took a great deal of organising and tipped our budget into the negative, because we felt that we should invite the hosts (and heroes) to the dinner to thank them for their hospitality. These people are our neighbours. They were very generous with their support and we want to make sure that they continue to support us.
Lesson Seven: In future “free” accommodation for players might come with a small $ tag to cover costs of inviting hosts and local helpers to the Saturday night dinner, or in lieu of some help.
In order to broaden local interest in the event we decided to include a ‘Hands on Harp’ workshop on the Saturday with a harp piece in the concert. Hayden, the son of one of our tutors, Justin White, agreed to play violin back up for the harp ensemble, and with almost no rehearsal. All was sort of going to plan until I received a call from Jan Couchman, the harp tutor, to say that she had to go into hospital for ‘minor’ surgery on the day before the workshop and that she might be a bit weak after the surgery. At this news my concern for Jan went out the door as my mind raced ahead planning what to do if we had to cancel at the last minute. Thankfully we only had a couple of people registered for this workshop. Jan must have heard my sharp intake of breath because she immediately assured me that she would be absolutely fine by Saturday, and would I mind if she drove up on the Saturday morning rather than arrive on the Friday evening as originally planned. I was not convinced but underestimated Jan for the trouper she is. At about 9.30 on the Saturday morning she arrived on time, her small car bursting with three very large leaver harps. How she got them into the car I have no idea.
Lesson Eight: Never underestimate musicians, especially Innominato Strings players. The show nearly always goes on!
At this stage I should mention that there is no mobile phone in or around St Albans village. We are in one of those non-existent mobile black spots and contacting people means driving to somewhere that has a land line or driving to the person’s home. This is great when you want to get away from everything and just play music, but it creates a bit of a challenge when trying to organise an event of this kind. Neither the old Courthouse building, nor the School of Arts hall has a landline so if you forget something or need to get a message to someone it is a case of walk or hop in the car. On top of that we had arranged to borrow chairs from the church. Coincidently, because of the recent rain, there had been a minor accident the day before, putting several trucks out of action. It was very late on the Friday afternoon and raining when Dianne’s husband, James, who had the only truck that had not been damaged, and Peter Inman, our local Minister, arrived with the chairs. We unloaded in the rain, just in time for the first arrivals. Happily, the rain cleared up over night and we had perfect weather for the weekend – as well as something to sit on.
Lesson Nine: Insist that all the trucks in St Albans village are never again rendered out of action just prior to the event! Borrow some ‘walkie-talkies’ from the Fire Brigade.
The concert on the Sunday afternoon was terrific. The audience was enthusiastic, the players enjoyed themselves and the local school children were exemplary. Grapevines are very efficient in the small St Albans village and we suspect that next year it will be standing room only, for the audience, that is. However, we promise that all the players who need them will have seats! The hall is not huge, and the orchestra took up about two-fifths of the space. It is traditional in our village to invite the audience for afternoon tea. This posed a bit of a problem regarding the location of the urn and the tea things in relation to the players and their instruments. It is amazing what people will try and step over in order to get to a Lamington. Luckily no one and no instrument suffered.
Lesson Ten: Relocate the afternoon tea table so that everyone can get a Lamington!
Players and audience departed very happy, but we forgot to organise one important thing. There were no helpers to pack up and clean. Dianne and I were left to do it all. I remember staggering around the hall afterwards with a broom, hardly able to stand up. Finally, we sat down on the terrace of the Courthouse, in the late afternoon sun, hardly able to raise a glass of wine, accompanied by Fred, the goat, who is probably also an alcoholic. Dianne and I looked at each other and smiled but, unusual for us, we couldn’t speak, we were so exhausted. James and Peter kindly picked up the chairs the next day. You never know next year we might be able to afford to hire a cleaner. In fact I will put that cost in the budget immediately!
Lesson Eleven: Back to lesson one!
Reflections on organising the first St Albans Strings Workshop, (in the beautiful St Albans Village) from the three protagonists from Innominato Strings who learnt a number of lessons about what to do and not do next time.