Play on regardless: Music is therapy

WHY should real musicians – the ones who can actually play their instruments – have all the fun?


Some years ago, a group of frustrated people in Scotland decided that the pleasure of playing in an orchestra should not be limited to those who are good enough to do so, but should be available to the rankest of amateurs.  So we founded the Really Terrible Orchestra, an inclusive orchestra for those who really want to play, but who cannot do so very well.  Or cannot do so at all, in some cases. 

My own playing set the standard.  I play the bassoon, even if not quite the whole bassoon.  I have never quite mastered C-sharp, and I am weak on the notes above the high D.  In general, I leave these out if they crop up, and I find that the effect is not unpleasant.  I am not entirely untutored, of course, having had a course of lessons in the instrument from a music student who looked quietly appalled while I played.  Most of the players in the orchestra are rather like this;  they have learned their instruments at some point in their lives, but have not learned them very well.  Now such people have their second chance with the Really Terrible Orchestra.  The announcement of the orchestra’s founding led to a great wave of applications to join.  Our suspicion that there were many people yearning to play in an orchestra but who were too frightened or too ashamed to do anything about it, proved correct.  There was no audition, of course, although we had toyed with the idea of a negative audition in which those who were too good would be excluded.  This proved to be unnecessary.  Nobody like that applied to join.  Some of the members were very marginal musicians, indeed.  One of the clarinet players, now retired from the orchestra for a period of re-evaluation, stopped at the middle B-flat, before the instrument’s natural break.  He could go no higher, which was awkward, as that left him very few notes down below.  Another, a cellist, was unfortunately very hard of hearing and was also hazy on the tuning of the strings.  As an aide-mémoire, he had very sensibly written the names of the notes in pencil on the bridge.  This did not appear to help.  

At the outset, we employed a professional conductor, which is a must for anybody who is reading this and who is already planning to start a similar orchestra.  Find somebody who is tolerant and has a sense of humor.  The conductor also has to be sufficiently confident to be associated with something called the Really Terrible Orchestra;  after all, it does go on the résumé.

Our initial efforts were dire, but we were not discouraged.  Once we had mastered a few pieces – if mastered is the word – we staged a public concert.  We debated whether to charge for admission, but wisely decided against this.  That would be going too far.  So should we go to the other extreme and pay people to come?  There was some support for this, but we decided against it.  Instead, we would give the audience several free glasses of wine before the concert. That, it transpired, helped a great deal.

We need not have worried.  Our first concert was packed, and not just with friends and relations.  People were intrigued by the sheer honesty of the orchestra’s name and came to see who we were.  They were delighted.  Emboldened by the rapturous applause, we held more concerts, and our loyal audience grew.  Nowadays, when we give our annual concert at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the hall is full to capacity with hundreds of music-lovers.  Standing ovations are two-a-penny.

“How these people presume to play in public is quite beyond me,” wrote one critic in The Scotsman newspaper.  And another one simply said “dire.”  Well, that may be so, but we never claimed to be anything other than what we are.  And we know that we are dire;  there’s no need to state the obvious.  How jejune these critics can be!

Even greater heights were scaled. We made a CD and to our astonishment people bought it.  An established composer was commissioned to write a piece for us.  We performed this and recorded it at a world premiere, conducted by the astonished composer himself.  He closed his eyes. Perhaps he heard the music in his head, as it should have been.  This would have made it easier for him.

There is now no stopping us.  We have become no better, but we plow on regardlessThis is music as therapy, and many of us feel the better for trying.  We remain really terrible, but what fun it is.  It does not matter, in our view, that we sound irretrievably out of tune.  It does not matter that on more than one occasion members of the orchestra have actually been discovered to be playing different pieces of music, by different composers, at the same time.  I, for one, am not ashamed of those difficulties with C-sharp.  We persist.  After all, we are the Really Terrible Orchestra, and we shall go on and on.

Amateurs arise – make a noise.

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Miracle at Speedy Motors.”

One thought on “Play on regardless: Music is therapy

  1. Hee Hee! What a great article! Amazing how “Permission to suck and love it” takes the pressure off!

    My trad jazz quintet got caught on the “different pieces of music” in a gig once. Our book is in set order, but we skipped a chart and the tuba player didn’t know we’d done that! It actually worked remarkably well until he had 4 bars left over at the end – that’s one way for a tuba to get a solo, even though he WASN’T thrilled with the experience.


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