The Really Terrible Orchestra
from an article titled
"All the right notes, but..."
by Susan Nickalls
[source unknown]

Complete disbelief is usually the first reaction to flash across someone's face when you confess, usually in whispered tones, to being a member of the Really Terrible Orchestra. This is swiftly followed by a loud chortle when you assure them that yes, that really is the name and yes, we really are quite terrible.

Indeed the RTO website proudly states that the main ethos of the orchestra is a commitment to lowering standards wherever possible.

The involvement of one of Scotland's best-loved authors, McCall Smith, - who generously plugs the RTO on his globe-trotting book tours - has raised the profile of the orchestra considerably, making it arguably one of the best known amateur orchestras in the world.

At the last rehearsal, Canadians Beryl and Michael Corber turned up to see if the RTO really did exist. Beryl had just read one of McCall Smith's books, checked the website and decided to call in while on holiday in Edinburgh.

After bravely hiding their disappointment that the Professor, as McCall Smith is referred to, was absent from the bassoon section - he rarely turns up to rehearsals, just to keep his standards down - they were delighted to be included in the mandatory RTO audience participation experience.

Sir Richard Neville-Towle, the conductor, and his witty sense of humour, are two of the main reasons people turn up for rehearsals and concerts. He has the knack of letting you know you were complete rubbish in such a politely humorous way, no offence could possibly be taken. With his usual joy in playing to the crowd, whether they be two or 20, he immediately enlisted the assistance of the Corbers to help identify who was playing out of tune in the woodwind section.

This is the natural habitat of the chairman, RTO co-founder and clarinetist, Peter Stevenson. The slightly barbed banter that sizzles between him and the conductor is a constant source of mirth.

In the violin section, leader Mike Salveson and I spend the rehearsal struggling to find the right music - one of the continual problems in the orchestra, often solved by playing an alternative.

Half-way through the second part of the Scottish Suite, Dorothy Leeming (double bass) pipes up to ask if we're at the four/four bar yet. As the whole piece is in three, we're puzzled until Neville-Towle realises she's raced ahead to the third movement.

He quips that people often ask why he bothers to announce the pieces, and explains that this is totally for the benefit of the players rather than the audience, in the hope they might find the right music.

Dorothy is an RTO success story, having only taken up the double bass when she joined the orchestra after retiring. Zandra Macpherson of Glentruim likewise only started playing the violin in 2001 after she found a copy of a Stradivarius around the house, as one does, and joined the RTO not long after.

The most common story, though, is the abandonment of any musical activity on entering the world of work, only for interest to be revived years later on joining the RTO.

The main focus of this rehearsal is the forthcoming concert at Edinburgh Castle - quite an honour for a really terrible orchestra.

Having struggled through the Scottish Suite without horns - someone left the music at home - and Neville-Towle humming to compensate, we turn to Gilbert and Sullivan's I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.

During the announcements Stevenson jokes that owing to a misunderstanding between the army and Historic Scotland the number of people the castle's great hall can hold has been revised downwards, which means there is no room for the orchestra. With space for 70 guests, he encourages everyone to leave wives, husbands, children and pets at home if at all possible.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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