Open to all ages and all instruments, the People’s Orchestra is truly unique – and Birmingham is very lucky to have it
Sarah Marshall is the first to admit that the People’s Orchestra seemed like a “very mad idea” back in 2012. Basically it all started as a result of Sarah’s daughter Amy wanting to carry on playing the French horn after she left Earls High School in Halesowen. What Amy didn’t want was the strict confines of a ‘traditional’ orchestra. Rather it had to be free and easy and fun, and play modern, accessible music from showbiz and the movies – the kind of stuff everyone knows and can hum along to. “There were no orchestras like that which Amy could go to,” said Sarah. “So, we said ‘well, why don’t we try and start one of our own?” The People’s Orchestra was born. And today, four years on, it comprises of nearly 80 like-minded playing members who perform upwards of 10 concerts a year.
The People’s Orchestra does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s an orchestra by the people for the people. It’s a diverse mix of talented musicians of all ages who come together as a full orchestra or in smaller groups to create and perform across the Midlands. As an independent charity it has also developed a very successful volunteer programme which helps local unemployed people back into work. So as well as playing wonderful music, the orchestra also achieves much more for the good of the community at large. Unlike any other orchestra there are no limits on the number or types of instruments people play. “We have held auditions at the Custard Factory,” said Sarah. “We’d advertised in the local press and on social media and by word of mouth and we expected to find people to fill a normal style of orchestra. Instead, we found we had a lot of flutes. So to let as many people as possible take part, we changed the format of the orchestra to cater for all the flutes. The format is constantly changing, depending on what instruments people who join us are playing.” The orchestra rehearses every Sunday at Trefoil House behind The Mailbox, but even those are fairly unconventional. “It’s very much a drop-in, drop-out orchestra,” explained Sarah. In fact the only requirement to become part of the orchestra is that you have to have played towards Grade 7, plus sight-reading of music is key too.
Just about everything is different and wonderful about this amazing orchestra. Unlike most amateur groups, the People’s Orchestra has a permanent office manned by three volunteers in West Bromwich Town Hall. Unsurprisingly one of those volunteers is Sarah herself who seems to spend every waking moment planning, scheduling and managing the orchestra and its needs. “I have a very good husband who lets me do all of this for nothing,” she jokes. The orchestra regularly performs and records world and UK premieres of new music from composers working in the film and TV industry today, including BAFTA and Emmy award-winning John Altman, John Koutselinis and Chris Nicolaides. In 2014, the orchestra was recognised by the Arts Council who provide a grant to help the project. And this year, Sarah is hoping the musicians will get further national recognition after applying to be part of an exciting new BBC TV reality competition series featuring five very different and varied orchestras from across the UK. Like most arts organisations, the orchestra’s biggest challenge is funding. While Arts Council help is a vital contribution, it is just that – a contribution. The orchestra has to find ways to raise its own resources to service what is a big group of people. This involves a lot of creative thinking – including outdoor concerts in Dudley’s Priory Park, ‘flashmob’ performances by smaller groups to the likes of commuters on Virgin Trains and playing at corporate events and awards and weddings. They have also collaborated with a local game designer to produce Shenanigans: The Musical, a speedy game of intrigue in an orchestra setting.
“The concerts help raise some money,” said Sarah. “But the costs we have to meet are challenging. All our music, whether from films or TV, costs money to buy. You can’t just take it and perform it for free. The cost of music for just one concert can be anything up to £7,000. Multiply that by the number of concerts we do and you can see the size of the challenge.” While most orchestra members supply their own instruments, larger items such as percussion are provided – and maintained – by the orchestra. “And they wear out eventually,” Sarah sighed. The dream is to find a corporate sponsor who wants to get involved in what is one of Birmingham’s brightest cultural and community projects. “The orchestra is continuing to grow,” said Sarah. “We don’t place any limits, we want people of all ages to take part.” So, what happens when the numbers top 100? “We’ll have to see then,” said Sarah. “Maybe we have two orchestras instead of one… we will never turn people away.”