A Terrible Orchestra

Bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith explains
why he started a band for useless musicians
[source unknown]


There are two emotions a parent can feel when watching the school orchestra perform. One is pride and the other is envy. Wouldn't it have been great fun to be in a school orchestra and now… it's too late. Or is it?

Eight years ago my wife and I decided that we would do something about never having played in the school orchestra. We are both very challenged musicians: at the time she played the flute – hesitantly – and I played the bassoon – extremely incompetently.

These musical islands (U.K.) are full of amateur orchestras, but most of these are really rather good. We wanted something that would cater to those who really were very weak players, those who might have got as far as Grade 4 on their instruments and hovered around that level for years.

So we formed the Really Terrible Orchestra in Edinburgh, a city known for having a number of fine amateur orchestras. The name was carefully chosen: what it said was what you would get.

The response was overwhelming, particularly from clarinettists. I suspect that a very high proportion of the population is exposed to the clarinet at some stage and that British attics are crammed full of forgotten clarinet cases. Many of these were dusted off for the first meeting of the Really Terrible Orchestra, as were various other instruments.

We appointed a professional conductor, Richard Neville Towle, a well-known Edinburgh musician.

The result was cacophony.

Those who joined generally lived up to the name. Some, though, stood out for their musical weakness.

One cello player some years ago even had the notes played by the open strings written in pencil on the bridge of the instrument.

Another – a clarinettist – had had only three or four lessons and could not go above the middle B flat. He played only the bottom notes, and not very well.

An orchestra needs to perform, and we decided to hold a concert. Wisely, we took the view that the audience should be given a glass of wine, or even more than a glass, before the concert. This assisted their enjoyment and understanding of our idiosyncratic performance. Virtually every piece we played was greeted with shouts of applause and a standing ovation.

Our heads turned, we decided to hold a concert on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The important thing about the Fringe is that anybody can perform, with the result that there are always appalling performances which attract tiny audiences.

The Really Terrible Orchestra, however, was an immediate hit. Each year our Fringe concert is sold out well in advance, attracting an audience of more than 500 people, some not actually related to the players.

The fortunes of the orchestra continued to improve, even if its playing did not. We presumed to make two CDs, which somehow got into the hands of radio stations abroad.

The orchestra's fame spread.

Now what has become the world's most famous amateur orchestra is about to perform in London. The Cadogan Hall is the site of this imminent musical disaster, and all 800 tickets vanished in a trice.

Which makes one wonder: what is it that makes people want to listen to a group of extremely bad musicians torturing a piece that most of them cannot play? Is there something about failure and its cheerful acceptance?

Whatever it is, there's certainly something quintessentially British about it. And the orchestra does a very fine Land of Hope and Glory – a semi-tone flat.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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