Social Symphony is instrumental to growing up

It’s a bittersweet symphony, that’s life.
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Social Symphony. // Photo by Travis Young

There are so many experiences that we took for granted in our youth. I used to translate Latin poetry every day, do chemistry experiments in a lab, and play music alongside scores of other students in band.

It’s totally normal as a kid to spend hours and hours each week on such varied pursuits. You don’t realize how cool that is until it’s too late, when you’re grown up and expected to devote all your time and energy to some singular focus in a career.

I played flute in school band from fourth grade until I graduated from Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.

After graduation I didn’t pick up a flute for 12 years, until I found one at a flea market for $17. It’s not a good flute; it has one broken key and doesn’t like to stay in tune. But I looked up music for Christmas carols and other simple tunes and marveled at making music again.

Reveled, really, in how my fingers still remembered where to go. My muscle memory and the music-making part of my brain got a good scratch for the first time in over a decade.

While it was fine fiddling around on the flute by myself, it was nothing compared to playing in a band.

I looked back at my days in band wistfully, amazed at what a miracle it was that I got to play in a symphonic band every single school day for years. What a privilege that was—a privilege that I wholly took for granted.

I also took for granted that my music-playing stopped when school did. You can play while you’re in school, but then it’s either pursue professional musicianship, whether playing or teaching, or…stop. That’s it. That’s all you get.

What if we treated music as worthy of lifelong pursuit, regardless of proficiency? Why should music education stop? Why should your experience of playing music end just because you’re not doing it as your job—just because you’re not the cream of the crop?

The Social Symphony of Kansas City fills the void in opportunity for musicians. Founded in 2018, they set out to make a home for people like me, who loved playing music in school but never set out to pursue it professionally and haven’t had an opportunity to play since.

Also known, off-paper, as the Drunk Orchestra, we gather every Monday evening in a rented rehearsal space to drink and play together. For the love of the game.

Alina Sigitova, Randalin Ward-McDill, and Daniel McDill have been best friends since freshman year of high school, continuing on when they attended Pittsburg State together. The McDills were top of their class with degrees in music education, while Sigitova was a more casual player.

“[After graduation] I moved up here—Randalin and Daniel were in the process of moving up here—and I was thinking about something I could start or do in Kansas City because I was essentially up here with no friends,” Sigitova says, laughing. “I liked drinking, and I thought about my hobbies back in college. I thought, ‘Well, what if we started a community orchestra, played at the high school level so that nobody is overwhelmed, and were led by these two amazing true musicians.”

Sigitova shared the idea with Randalin and McDill, who decided to pursue it. Daniel McDill also holds a master’s degree in orchestral conducting and now puts it to work as the Director of Social Symphony.

“When Alina came up with this weird idea, I told her I’d try to do it, and here we are, four years later,” McDill reminisces.

It turned out what Sigitova was looking for in community resonated with a lot of people.

“We started it all off a Reddit post just to see if people would be interested,” says McDill. “We said, ‘Show up at the Rino,’ and we didn’t know if anybody would show up or not. I walk in and see like 50 people, and I just start laughing because I don’t believe it. Completely from Reddit.”

Alex Nagle, treasurer for the group, remembers: “At the first or second rehearsal, we started off playing Christmas music. Towards the end of rehearsal, everything sounded really good, and you could feel it in the room that everyone was like ‘Oh my god, this is a thing, this could really work.’ I remember Daniel even saying something, like, ‘Wow guys, we’re actually sounding really good.’ Almost in disbelief.”

McDill confirms he was, in fact, a bit disbelieving at first.

“I remember we went into that first rehearsal, we had no idea who was showing up, what kind of level of playing they had,” he says. “So we’re just going in completely blind, [thinking that] hopefully we can play a major scale or two and see where we can go. We got through a couple songs and it was like, ‘Okay, we can do this.’”

Erika Goering, self-described “mediocre first violinist,” is a graphic designer by day. She’s been pleased to be able to put those skills to work in designing merch and promotion materials for the group.

“The cool thing about playing high school level music is that a lot of us haven’t played since high school,” says Goering. “So for me, I played from fifth to 12th grade, and then I stopped for, like, 13 years.”

Music is now an essential outlet for her.

“One of the things we emphasize is that it’s for fun,” says Goering. “It’s not really like a job, we don’t have to be good, we just have to be there and do the thing. I’ve realized over the last few years that music is a huge part of who I am. I don’t have to be good at it, I just have to make noise. Having a safe place to do that that’s low stress, low stakes—it means a lot to me. I just don’t know what I would do without it.”

Nagle echoed similar sentiments: “For me, music was grade school, high school, college, then all of a sudden you stop, you graduate, and it’s done. But it’s something that was so core to my identity. So, to find something like that again was a huge boost. Reconnecting with your instrument [makes you feel like], ‘Oh my god, I need to keep doing this.’”

Once you graduate from high school or college, there just aren’t many options for non-professional musicians to play in large ensembles.

“Even community orchestras play such high level music that you essentially have to be retired or be a good professional musician to be able to play those pieces,” Sigitova says.

“The vast majority of adults don’t have the time to invest in practicing even an hour every week in addition to rehearsals.”

Social Symphony does not require auditions, and accepts everyone so long as they don’t have an excess of your instrument represented.

“As much as I love trumpets, I can’t have 12 trumpets,” says McDill.

The group will place potential players on waitlist in the cases of overabundance. String players, rejoice.

“We always need more violins and strings, I will never turn away a string player,” McDill continues.

It turns out that people who are playing for enjoyment actually put on a show that is enjoyable, too. Their last concert, during the Christmas season, packed the house at Rochester Brewing & Roasting Co.

McDill says, “We always end up putting on a great concert. People love it.”

Social Symphony offers a place for music to continue outside of more formal institutions.

“I do definitely think that it’s important to continue music education into adulthood,” says McDill. “It’s good for mental health and for friendships with people. Especially with these last couple years of COVID, people spend a lot of time alone. Now that you’re finally getting back to doing something normal, and having those relationships with people, I think it’s more important than ever.”

There is just as much emphasis on the “social” as on the “symphony.”

“Everything [for the group] revolves around the social aspect of music,” continues McDill. “The social aspect of music isn’t talked about enough. Looking back to high school, everything you did, if you were a band geek, revolved around the band room. Or the orchestra room. The choir room.

School started at 8 a.m.—for some reason kids were in there hanging out at 7 in the morning. Sometimes it was a safe haven for kids, too. We want to continue that social aspect of music that adults don’t usually get.”

As a result, not only new friendships, but new relationships and even marriages have blossomed within the group. McDill is soon to be a groomsman in a wedding for a couple that met in the Social Symphony.

In our hustle-obsessed society, it is refreshing to gather with 60 or so like-minded individuals to, literally, play. There is no profit motive. There is no demand for excellence. As it turns out, music doesn’t have to be performed at the height of proficiency for it to be worthy of playing (and hearing). This group is a balm for perfectionism and overactive work ethics.

“Part of having a good life is being multifaceted,” says Sigitova. “[Social Symphony] allows people to be multifaceted in a way that you don’t have to have a hobby that makes you money. In fact, you don’t even have to have a hobby that you’re good at. You can just come and play.”

McDill adds, “You don’t have to worry about going to rehearsal and getting yelled at by the director because you didn’t practice your part.”

“It’s a no-pressure environment,” McDill continues. “There’s so many people I’ve talked to in the group who were like, ‘Man I just didn’t know if I could do it, but you know, I started playing a couple weeks ago, and it’s starting to come back, I remember this, ooh I might need to practice that a little bit, but I remember this.’ You see these a-ha moments, and you see people’s faces light up, and it’s worth everything.”

In my first rehearsal with the group this January, I was one of those faces lighting up. After years of thinking what a shame it was that I would never again play flute in a large ensemble, there I was, doing just that. Making noise in collaboration with so many other humans, with my breath contributing to the whole magnificent sound of it, was a unique kind of magic.

“Music really is for everyone,” says McDill. “And when we say music is for everyone, we don’t just mean kids and teenagers and college kids. We’re here in Kansas City—for anyone who is 21 and over—for anyone that would like to continue on that path.”

Categories: Music