BLOG – Duncan Sutherland, Tour Manager

Working in music has always made me a bit nervous, and I’m not a particularly nervous person.  As a Tour Manager the devil is truly in the detail, and this devil is good at playing with your insecurities as you sweat over each little decision, even when you know the tried and tested formula for putting on a concert in a concert hall.

So, in early 2018, when I was offered the role of Tour Manager for Nevis Ensemble, Scotland’s new and only street orchestra, a totally unknown entity, doing 70 performances in two weeks in unknown and untested venues for live music, indoors and out with an orchestra of volunteers, I found the whole prospect both very exciting and rather daunting.  The role of a Tour Manager can be nebulous term at the best of times and I wasn’t sure what to expect though I anticipated a challenging experience. Before embarking on our epic first tour I learned as much as I could about the fixed aspects of the project; I got to grips with our schedule (which would likely cause a full on mutiny in many orchestras), I hired a van and turned up on Day One of the existence of Nevis Ensemble to find out what I’d let myself in for.   

We found ourselves in Garelochhead for rehearsals, and after many introductions the first rehearsal started up and once that was underway Jamie and I set about cooking dinner for 40 people.  The first indication that we had found a group of special people was when upon finishing rehearsal, everyone was so eager to help in the most genuine way, and soon the kitchen was buzzing with people stirring, chopping, distributing and the meal accelerated onto people’s plates in no time! 

For me, without playing a note, this is a great example of what makes Nevis an amazing enterprise, a genuine care for other people you’ve only just met. The next major indication that this was going to be special was on the first sunny day of rehearsals: the sun being a rarity in Garelochhead. We trialled some pieces outside and there I could see that this was also going to be something special in the performances of this band.  Even in this tiny village a crowd soon formed, a pattern that was to be repeated wherever we played. Nevis performances pull people in and engage them, whatever their musical background. They have people from all walks of life listening to Bartók and Weir with the same intentness as ABBA and Toto, all in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.

The tour soon got rolling and at five gigs (or more) a day there’s wasn’t much time to reflect. How were my anxieties about my role at this point?  Well, I felt very much more calm and in fact very fulfilled… I was figuring out where I fit in the apparatus, being a bridge between the players, our amazing co-Artistic Directors, our leader YeYe, and our tireless (if occasionally sassy) Chief Exec! It was very much more pastoral role than I’ve ever had in my career or indeed my life before. I won’t pretend for a moment that there weren’t any issues with a 40 piece orchestra living on a bus together for two weeks playing up to seven full gigs a day, relying on a good dose of adrenaline to get by.

There were tears, frustration, exhaustion, illness, along with six million other emotions to deal with. But I felt that I was genuinely important bit of making this thing happen and was comfortable in the group and there was a growing mutual respect between all the people involved.  Since finding a feeling such as this is also quite special, I also want to try to place my finger down on what made me feel this way with Nevis despite all the same issues as you’d have in any orchestra and a few more thrown in.

Reflecting back on that first five tours as I am now, it’s hard to say I have had a favourite gig… and I think this points at the heart of Nevis and places my finger on why for me it was so special. Their consistency of level is incredible!  Whether it’s to one man (with or without dog) or to a crowd of hundreds, the level of intensity, of passion, of genuine desire to help and to have an impact is apparent, white hot and burning and you can’t help but be swept up in it. I really believe that it comes back to the idea that this is a group who want to offer kindness, a kindness that can be hard in our society to speak with words, but that the language of music has so much power to say if it’s said from the heart! 

As for putting my finger on why this made me feel so good about this role and working with these people.  I think that when everyone is focused on the same goal with a sense of purpose like this, you can’t help but notice all the little things around you that help you achieve that and thus everyone felt valued in a way that is very rare in any organisation.  Although I didn’t have a favourite gig, I did have a favourite piece in Judith Weir’s Still Glowing. A (probably unintentional) exercise in Musical Mindfulness that was the perfect counterpoint to the mostly high-octane repertoire. Each time the band played it, I took stock of my exhausted mind and body, and was thankful for the opportunity to be part of this special thing with these special people giving the gift of music to everyone everywhere.