New York Times
March 9, 2008
And the Band Played Badly
By ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH
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
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
There is now no stopping us. We have become no better, but we plow on
regardless. This 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.”