Profile: The Con Artists

The Con Artistsby This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 18 Issue 3 (May 2012)


Watch the Con Artists performing for the Illawarra Folk Festival in January 2012.

Several years ago, Wollongong–based conductor and educator David Rooney took on the role of directing a community concert band, the Concord Concert Band (previously Concord 80). Over the course of three years Rooney developed and expanded the group into a lively folk/gypsy/klezmer band, a move away from its concert/wind band roots but very much reinforcing its role as a community music group.

With a vast line-up of wind, brass, percussion and string instruments, the Con Artists’ high energy repertoire is influenced by the musical traditions of New Orleans brass bands, Klezmer, Balkans, French-Canadian fiddle music, Italian Folk, and others.

The group has been busy performing at folk and community events including the Jamberoo Folk in the Foothills, The Illawarra Folk Festival, Perisher Snowy Mountains of Music, The Turning Wave Festival Gundagai, Kangaroo Valley Folk Festival, and the Illawarra Folk Club. Recently the group became officially known as ‘The Con Artists’, and the partnership between Wollongong Conservatorium of Music and Berry Public School, which included members of the Con Artists, was a finalist in the MCA’s 2011 Music in Communities Awards.

I asked David Rooney about the change of direction and how he approaches running the group.

Alex Masso: The Concord Band/Con Artists group has taken various forms, and names, over the years. Can you tell me about the group when you started leading it?

David Rooney: Firstly thank you for asking me about The Con Artists. This has really been one of the most interesting and rewarding projects I have been involved with as a music director.

In 2009 Concord Community Band was an established community concert band with a long history in Wollongong. The playlist was conventional concert band repertoire from the big publishers; swing medleys, film soundtracks and other popular classics formed the core repertoire.

For various reasons this was a transitional time for Concord. The regular weekly turnout was often down to 8-12 players and we were reliant on ex-members and guests to fill out the band in performances.

AM: And the group looks quite different now – you have accordion and strings as well as conventional band instruments. How did that change come about?

DR: It all started with a relatively unambitious idea. A conversation with David de Santi in 2009 led to a folk music workshop with community musicians and orchestra students at the Con. The feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive. In many ways this was an ideal model for a community music event; it was cross generational, collaborative, educational, it had scope for high level music making without being exclusive, and it was fun!

I think what really intrigued me was the potential in applying this experience to a regularly rehearsing community ensemble.

The workshop became the catalyst for further conversations, collaborations and eventually performances. Concord Community Band provided the management structure to organise the various events and gradually found themselves’ playing Klezmer and Gypsy tunes, Italian Tarantellas and French-Canadian Reels.

AM: What have you and the band’s committee done to recruit members?

DR: We haven't really developed a specific recruiting strategy. The band enjoys getting out in the community, working with school bands, and attending festivals. I think the musicians' enthusiasm is quite evident at performances, and we always have enquiries about the group after each event.

Perhaps our most successful recruiting strategy has been starting with our own families. A few adult members have recruited their own kids.

AM: What a great way to learn the saxophone - sit next to your Dad in rehearsal!

DR: It works the other way too. Parents starting out as observers, dropping off and picking up their child from rehearsal and doing their duty by attending a few gigs, but then they can't help themselves - the music is so infectious. If they have had some experience on an instrument in their past, we usually get them.

AM: The group has been quite busy playing gigs recently. Tell me about the experience of taking a community band to Thredbo, Illawarra, Jamberoo and other folk festivals.

DR: The folk festivals have provided some unique performing opportunities for the band. Greg Knight, our band manager (and percussionist) is extraordinary in the way he manages the logistics of each event. Travelling to a festival, the band and its entourage can number up to 65. These are great social occasions as well. The Perisher festival was a memorable experience - staying together in a ski lodge, performing gigs, enjoying the snow, sharing meals, and taking in some great music. Have you ever seen a 30-piece community ensemble travelling to a gig (with equipment) on a chair lift over the snow fields?

Performing locally at the Con Open Day, onstage in the recently refurbished Town Hall was definitely a highlight. Playing an hour of non-stop dance music on the main stage at this year's Illawarra Folk Festival was quite exhilarating.

AM: And how do you find and arrange repertoire for the group? Are they arrangements you’ve bought, thing you’ve adapted, or do you arrange pieces yourself?

DR: We are fortunate to have a few highly skilled, knowledgeable folk musicians in the group and they have been the starting point for our repertoire. Also we have been in contact with other ensembles around the world that are playing material we aspire to. We have purchased a few arrangements and original compositions directly from the composers, and some of our arrangements have evolved from with the band itself - just starting out with a melody/chords lead sheet of a traditional Klezmer or Romany tune. It is definitely a challenge, and a real learning experience.

The current line-up includes violin, cello, clarinet, saxophones, trumpet, trombone, tuba, bass, guitar, bouzouki, accordion, and percussion.

AM: What excites you about the group in 2012?

DR: The thing that excites me most this year is that we go into 2012 as The Con Artists. We are learning new repertoire, finding gigs and just really enjoying playing together. One particular thing is rather special. Last month we were accepted to perform in the main marquee at the National Folk festival in Canberra. The director, Dave O'Neill saw us play at the Turning Wave Festival in Gundagai. 
AM: Finally, do you have any advice for people trying to breathe new life into a well-established community music ensemble, or make big changes?

DR: Follow the aspects of the ensemble that excite you most. Involve experts. Make use of the skills available to the band. Focus on the music!

Having said that, it is still early days for The Con Artists, but we are in the fortunate position of being well supported by the Conservatorium and having a skilled, energetic group of people moving things along from within the band.