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In tune: Find your tribe at one of Brussels’ amateur music communities

21:26 08/06/2019

It’s an age-old cliché, but if there’s one thing that can melt away differences, bring people together and forge connections, it’s music. “It’s a universal language. Music breaks down boundaries and stereotypes,” says Mary Wiklander-Williams, president of the Bruocsella Symphony Orchestra (BSO), one of the leading amateur music groups in the Belgian capital.

The BSO is one of many non-professional music initiatives in Brussels: the city has a vibrant amateur music scene, giving a home to myriad projects in all shapes and forms, from American-style big bands and musical theatre groups to symphony orchestras and classical choirs.

On evenings when many of us are dozing on the couch in front of the TV, hundreds of amateur musicians are showing up for rehearsals, week after week. Why? For the love of music, of course, but it’s not only that. “As an American living in a foreign country, it helped give me a community,” explains Wiklander-Williams, a harp hobbyist from the US. 

Austrian Alexander Just, Eurocrat by day and producer, singer and treasurer at the Brussels Light Opera Company (Bloc) by night, agrees: “Having this common passion and objective really does build friendships. We’re one big family of all kinds of nationalities and ages.”

While this large cultural and cross-generational diversity rings true to all the music initiatives mentioned here, types and skill levels vary. More advanced musicians looking for a bit of a challenge will feel at home at BSO, whose members include a former professional tuba player and conservatory graduates. If you pass the mandatory audition, you’ll be able to take a crack at masterpieces by Ravel or Mussorgsky, and perform in venues such as Paris’s La Madeleine church or the Nato headquarters. In 2011, the BSO even went on a one-week tour through China. “Creating music in a large group can be exhilarating,” Wiklander-Williams says. “It’s such a rewarding experience.”

The BSO is not the only group requiring new members to audition, to ensure a certain level of excellence. Levke King is the president of the Brussels Choral Society, an ambitious amateur choir that brings together more than 100 music lovers from 21 countries and has sung at high-profile events such as a Belgian royal wedding and at London’s Royal Albert Hall. “If you’ve never sung before, this is probably not right for you,” she says. “But if you know how to read sheet music and have sung in a college or church choir, don’t be afraid to audition.”

If this still sounds slightly too daunting, or classical music is not really up your alley, the Brussels Concert Band might be a good option. Originally a fanfare band founded by local farmers in Haren back in 1877, it has evolved into an international, high-quality American-style big band performing classics by Glenn Miller and Count Basie, as well as pop hits by everyone from Stevie Wonder to Bruno Mars, in venues such as Brussels’ Grand’Place, Ancienne Belgique and Bozar.

“I’d describe the level as ‘competent amateur’. There are no formal auditions but you need to be able to read sheet music,” Nicky Sowell, a long-time member who also sits on the band’s committee, explains. As a Brit in Brussels who knows local expat life all too well, she encourages people to step out of their comfort zone. “Too many of us just retreat to the expat bubble. Joining a local music group is a great way to integrate into Belgian life and meet people outside of work.” Mirroring Brussels’ multicultural make-up, the band’s members are half foreign, half Belgian, both Flemish and French-speaking. But language is never an issue: “It’s music – you don’t need to speak much,” says Sowell.

Another local music group with a long history, dating back to 1897, is the Philharmonic Orchestra of Uccle, which has become a meeting point for Belgians and expats alike. Violinist Valériane Lambotte, the group’s secretary, praises the relaxed atmosphere, as well as the rehearsal weekends in the Belgian countryside, which provide both intense practice sessions and a chance for members to get to know each other better. “Just send us a message, join a rehearsal and see how it goes,” she says, adding: “Everyone can find a place here.”

Bloc’s Just echoes her encouraging words. “We always have a professional music director who will teach and train us,” he says. “If you can sing in the shower, and if you’re not afraid to go to the casting, you’re also able to perform on stage.” As Brussels’ largest English-language musical theatre, Bloc also offers a multitude of opportunities for the unmusical to get involved. While the cast includes about 80 people, almost the same number are needed behind the scenes, as a Broadway-style musical production requires much more than singers – everything from props builders and poster designers to lighting experts, make-up artists and costume makers. “We will always find something for you to do. Maybe you’ll even discover a talent you didn’t know you had. You can even bring your family along.” He is the perfect example, having joined with his daughter four years ago.

And if you’ve come to Brussels on your own without a family in tow, dusting off your old clarinet or warming up your vocal cords might be a first step towards enlarging your social circle and finding new friends. “I think it’s safe to say that music has changed the life of many expats here,” Sowell says. Wiklander-Williams adds: “The BSO has created quite a few couples, and two members recently even got married.”

For those who don’t have the time for a regular commitment, there’s always the chance of catching one of the performances as a spectator, something that’s not only great entertainment but also necessary to keep the city’s amateur ensembles afloat.

This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

Written by Sarah Schug



Yes, Brussels is so rich in choirs, theatre groups and other cultural activities! Quite a few of these were set up by anglophone expats in the 70s: the Brussels Choral Society (formerly The Suppressed Songsters), BLOC (formerly the Gilbert and Sullivan Society), the American Theatre Company and the Irish Theatre Company. The Colonial Brits had a history of setting up groups wherever they go. I've seen old sepia cartes de visites of costumed Brits putting on G&S in India... But the best thing about such "tribes" is that Belgians and increasingly diverse national groups join and mix. Indeed, just as music is an international language, English is still (for how long?) a sort of Esperanto in Brussels, enabling both main Belgian language groups to participate on an equal footing. In the recent BLOC production of G&S's "The Sorcerer" several male singers (worth their weight in gold!) told me they had joined with the express
aim of brushing up their English!

My only gripe is that many groups rehearse outside central Brussels (Wezembeek-Oppem, Tervueren, Overijse), taking advantage of the superior and cheaper Flemish cultural centres, thus making wheels a distinct advantage. However, some car-pooling goes on and adds to the social side of things. I am retired but am staying here because I feel as if I were still at university, surrounded by culture and leisure activities (not to mention the good food, reasonable housing, excellent health facilities and hospitable locals). And they say Brussels is boring and a hellhole!!

The Belgian State music academies (in every commune) are open to all and provide very cheap lessons in playing instruments, singing, "déclamation", etc. The so-called Dutch-language classes are often conducted in (rather fractured) English in order to include everyone. I just wish they'd let me get in some Dutch practice for once!

Jun 28, 2019 15:01